In all the fuss over getting a new Mac, I forgot to say I got another blog published on CNN’s Schools of Thought blog on June 21. It was on the trend toward classical schools. I’m already working on another piece for More and putting together a book proposal on youthful serpent handlers. I’m really fascinated by these 20-something pentecostals who do this and publicize their exploits on social media. Which is why I made two visits to famous serpent-handling churches last month. The first was in Del Rio, Tenn., a six-hour slog across the state. There was a homecoming at the Edwina Church of God in Jesus Christ’s Name (homecomings are when folks in these circles gather once a year at a particular church for worship and a banquet) where there’d be lots of people from outside of town attending. Meanwhile, I’d gotten an email from a man named Jonathan Campbell who admired my “Quitting Church” book. He said that if I was ever in the east Knoxville area, we could stay with him. WELL, he got an email right back asking if Veeka and I could come the next day!
It turns out we had a great stay at his lovely home, met the wife and son and then I snagged Jonathan to come with us to church that morning. When I walked in, I saw the place was filled with the most gorgeous primitive art painted by Jimmy Morrow, the pastor. A painting of a mass baptism was right over me during the whole service which, yes, featured lots of singing, dancing, preaching and snakes. Afterwards, the pastor showed us a huge collection of his art, which was the equal of the legendary Christian primitive artist Howard Finster, IMHO. He even has a snake-handler doll. He makes everything. There were several people well-known in the serpent-handling world who were at this service and I was fortunate to get interviews with most of them while shoving down a delightful and fattening Southern-style lunch. Jonathan, who works in the area as a school counselor, seemed amazed to encounter a culture close by that most people never see. Because you have to know where to look.
The next weekend, on the advice of Ralph Hood, the preeminent scholar on this topic and a professor at University of Tennessee/Chattanooga, I drove to Sand Mountain in northeast Alabama for a service at the Rock House Holiness Church. Fortunately, it was an hour east of Huntsville, where I happened to have longtime friends. And Rebecca, the female half, took care of Veeka while I schlepped over to Sand Mountain Saturday and Sunday. Saturday afternoon, Craig Hodge, the male half of the couple with whom I stayed, kindly took Veeka and I to the space center, which is the town’s main attraction. It was similar to the Air and Space Museum in DC but there were things there I’d not seen. It was a blistering hot day, but we still walked among the Saturn 5 rockets while trying to explain to Veeka what interplanetary travel is. Later that afternoon, another friend from south of Birmingham, dropped by. John Morgan and I had corresponded for years, but we’d never met and he wanted to attend a holiness church with snakes, so off we went. The drive down the Tennessee River was quite lovely in the early evening and we stopped at a gorgeous viewpoint on the way where we ran into some folks having a wedding ceremony just before sunset. It was no problem to find the church, which was made famous in the 1993 book “Salvation on Sand Mountain.” When we left that evening, however, I got disoriented and forgot which turn to make on those back country roads. Were it not for John’s GPS, we’d still be driving about there, as there are no street lights down those roads.
The next morning, John and I were back. He being from a rural Alabama church culture, he knew several of the songs these folks were singing whereas I was clueless. He was fascinated by the fact that one of the most famous of the handlers, ‘Punkin’ Brown, had died about five feet (yes, of snake bite) from where we were sitting plus we were listening to one of his sons preach that morning. And the son was handling snakes despite his father having died from the practice in 1998 and his mother, Melinda Brown, having died of the same thing in 1995. Quite a few of the well-known names in the movement were there that morning and later on John and I had a good talk with the pastor, Billy Summerford, a kind and hospitable man. We also talked with some of the foster kids he had taken in, a true sign of saintliness. And so I am busily typing away at this proposal before we depart next week for Seattle and much cooler weather.