Related topics

Believers Show Faith in Snakes

December 5, 1998

JOLO, W.Va. (AP) _ It is revival at the Church of the Lord Jesus, and the crowd of 60 people have come to the simple white-sided trailer aching to receive the spirit. A sign at the front of the unadorned church cautions against ``back-biting″ and ``by-words,″ and reminds women to keep their hair, sleeves and dresses long.

As they file in, old men hug and kiss each other on the lips. Women grab tambourines from hooks on the wall.

Everett and Melia Blankenship arrive with their 3-month-old boy, Jordan, towing his oxygen tank. The boy was born 3 months early, and his parents are hoping for a blessing.

At the front of the church, on a low stage, sit seven wooden boxes with hinged lids that are half Plexiglas or screen. One lid is ventilated with air holes that form the words ``Lord Jesus.″ Another bears the message, ``A Believer is a Doer.″ Every so often, a low, sizzling sound rises from within.

It is 7:30 p.m. The mountains outside are cold as a crypt, but the church is warm with fellowship. Pastor Bob Elkins, a squat man with a face like actor Jason Robards’ and a nose like a prizefighter’s, takes the microphone.

``You that don’t know the Lord,″ he says, ``well, this’d be a good place to find Him.″

The service begins with a song, a rocking version of ``I’ll Fly Away.″ An older couple are on their feet, dancing before the pulpit with their eyes clamped shut. Tim McCoy _ flamboyant in an azure silk shirt, matching vest and white pants _ beats on a red tambourine.

Soon, people are weeping and staggering around as if in a trance. Elkins picks a line on his electric bass that shakes the floor and pounds right into the chest.

Ten minutes into the service, the first snakes come out.

Jeffrey Hagerman, a lanky man with a huge belt buckle bearing a cameo of Jesus in a crown of thorns, dances in place as two purple-brown copperheads coil around his fingers like living rings. Lydia Hollins, whose mother died of a snakebite in 1962, takes up a rattler as thick as a wrestler’s forearm.

In the second row of pews, 3-year-old Tyler Evans dances around in circles, his arms raised above his head, his hands cupped as if holding something long and fat. He is imitating his father, Richard, who is stomping rhythmically, a copperhead in his hands.

McCoy shakes his tambourine so hard it breaks, scattering tinkling metal cymbals across the floor. People are speaking in tongues. The stomping is so furious it makes the lights flicker.

Dewey Chafin, soft-spoken by Holiness preaching standards, takes the microphone to testify. He has been bitten 125 times, and his gnarled fingers and scarred face bear witness to the fact.

``I’ve been pronounced dead, but God brought me back,″ says Chafin, who stuffed the snake that killed his sister Columbia, Mrs. Hollins’ mother. ``If you play with God, you don’t play with them serpents there. ... We’re justified in it.″

Each speaker reaffirms the faith.

``There’s something or other that can move on you,″ Pastor Carl Porter says as he waves his drumsticks in the air, his face and bald spot turning purple.

``I looked that book over. I looked and I looked, thank God, from Genesis to Revelations and Revelations back to Genesis _ upside down, crossways and every way I could think of to try to get out of this, and there ain’t no way out of it. Thank God, it’s so high you can’t get over it.″

An hour and 45 minutes into the service, Evans’ wife, Missy, joins him at the front. While Tyler sits doodling with a yellow highlighter in the front pew, his mother pulls out a greenish-yellow timber rattler, 4 or 5 feet long.

She dances with the snake, then after a few minutes hands it to Hagerman, who lays it on the stage and walks over it in his stocking feet.

Mrs. Evans wanders the dance floor weeping, her eyes closed, her hand to her mouth. She looks like someone feeling her way through a room filled with tear gas.

No one is bitten this night. (Dewey Chafin received two bites a week later and is recovering.)

Tyler and his brother Nathan, 8, who has kept busy making paper airplanes, could have been instantly orphaned. But while the Evanses love their children, they love God more and obey what they see as His command.

``I don’t worry about it when I’m up there,″ Mrs. Evans says as she holds Tyler in her lap after the service. ``I feel the Lord takes care of me. The Lord takes care of everything.″

Update hourly