It was only after he put the snake back in the box and closed the lid that I realized I had been holding my breath and tensing every muscle in my body. I was sitting in the back pew of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name. It’s one of the handful of Holiness churches scattered across Appalachia that all have in common serpent handling, a tiny congregation size, and incredibly long church names. The Saturday night service had been underway for about thirty minutes already, and most of us were already drenched in sweat—most congregants from dancing and singing, me from nervousness. I unclenched my sweaty palms and sucked in a deep breath. Inside the one-room sanctuary, the lights had already gone out twice during the service—each time quickly flickering back on and clearly not having a detrimental effect on the totally different kind of power surging around the room.
Pastor Jamie Coots had started leading the service from the wooden pulpit at the front of the church. Wood-stained dark with a tattered red bumper sticker stuck on the front proclaiming “Jesus Made the World,” it was the centerpiece of the subsequent action. On the wall behind and to the right of the pulpit was haphazardly hung a stained-glass church-shaped sun-catcher, a list of the Ten Commandments was tacked just behind Jamie’s head, and to his left was a wood-burned sign that said “Unless ye repent ye shall all likewise perish.”
Perishing is familiar here in Middlesboro, KY. Tucked in the Appalachian mountain range with a population hovering near 15,000, it has the distinction of being one of the only cities in the world that is built inside an ancient meteorite crater. It’s fundamentally a one-industry town. Jamie says coal mining is the only option for most people coming out of high school here, and it is the one real source of jobs. But it comes with a catch. You have to be clean. No drugs. And thus the town is split in two: clean and unclean, working and welfare. Of Jamie’s high school graduating class in 1990, he tells me quietly, fourteen of his peers have already died of drug overdoses. Policies that run across the page as words and statistics in Washington are vivid realities here. Jamie said that at nineteen, newly married and recently graduated from high school, he was out of work. The government swooped in to cover him — $500 a month for food stamps, full free health benefits, free rent in government housing. He finally landed a job hauling refuse for the mine, but he only lasted a few seventy-hour work weeks before he realized that he couldn’t even make enough to cover half of what he was getting for free by not working. Now he has a better job, still working for the mine, but he understands why so many people here don’t even try to work. “It’s a system that punishes people for working,” he says.
Although getting a job is difficult, Jamie tells me that getting drugs is not. Meth labs are common, but more so are prescription meds. Percocet and Oxycontin are easy to come by and profitable to sell. It hits close to home in almost every family here; even Jamie’s grandmother has been prescribed the high-dose pain pills for the last few years straight. He’s tried to encourage her to get off of them, but it’s a hard sell when they’re so easy to come by, such a quick solution. And in the midst of all this, Bell has held out as a dry county. Jamie laughs at the irony. “I haven’t known many alcoholics, and I’m sure it can be awful. But it can’t be worse than drugs. I know guys who drink all weekend, but they still show up on Monday. These guys on drugs can’t even show up to work. With the pills, you can’t do anything without that fix.”
It’s a culture that’s taking its toll. Driving to the service took us through an almost abandoned Main Street of shuttered storefronts and lovely architecture gone dark that speaks of older, better days. It shows now on the faces and bodies of the people here in church next to me tonight. The strung-out-skinny next to the unhealthily overweight. Sallow eyes, dull hair. But we’ve all dressed up for service. Women in long dresses and skirts, the men in jeans and button-downs. Ready and waiting. And into that space steps Pastor Jamie Coots, short and thick-built, with a shiny bald head and dark hooded eyes that have an incredible intensity when they focus on someone or something.
I had been talking with him all day, but now his voice is different, the rhythmic cadence of a preacher that catches you up in its pacing and brings you along for the ride. We are here, God is here, the service has begun. We plunge into the first song with a bang. Rollicking piano, thumping bass and drums, and Jamie himself grabbing his plugged-in Les Paul, and then we’re all standing and clapping and people are breaking out the tambourines. Nobody has hymnbooks, and everybody is hollering. I found myself thinking that this all sounded pretty awful, and then I was suddenly reminded of the Bible story where King David lets loose and dances on the street in worship and how his haughty wife condemns his lack of decorum. It struck me that it was probably something like this. With that in mind, it strikes me that it’s all sort of immensely freeing—to be able to completely let loose without any self-consciousness of the people around you. I mean, in church, it’s really only God’s opinion that should matter, right?
The second song is where things pick up. It’s an intense one, “So Sweet at the Feet of Jesus.” And that’s when the bass player sets down his instrument and heads to the row of boxes on the floor to the right of the pulpit. We’re all riveted now, everybody still singing, but everybody staring as he opens the box and pulls out a big, five-foot long cottonmouth. I confess I hadn’t really been praying up until this point, but I was praying now, over and over under my breath, “Don’t let him get bit, God, don’t let him get bit.” He was holding it up, dancing around, wrapping it around his neck, singing at the top of his lungs, not even looking at that triangular head and forked tongue hovering near his hand, his neck, his arm.
Now it was back in the box, but not for long, because Jamie was putting down his Les Paul and going for one too. I was terrified, but it was also suddenly making sense to me, what we had talked about earlier that day, sitting in the truck. “Why do you do it?” I asked. “Is it to prove you have faith?” Jamie had thought for a while. “No, it’s to prove that God has power. That He’s real. That He means what He says He does.” I had nodded in agreement then, not exactly sure what he meant. But now, suddenly, it made sense. Not much in the lives of these people makes sense. Not much speaks to the hope that God is real. Not much of what I’ve seen here speaks to the reality of a God who is powerful. But what I was seeing here, that did. The joy in the room at the snake handling was palpable. These people were so moved to see these deadly serpents being held back — nature being defied, God’s existence being confirmed, a hopeful shred of evidence in the otherwise crushing realities of day-to-day life. I can’t help but think that there are plenty of skeptics out there who are quick to say religion is just a crutch to escape from the harsh realities of life. Maybe they’re right, but tonight, I’ll take any escape I can get.