Before I got into the second half of the snake handling saga, just want to say that I’ve started yet a second blog for my social media class. This one is called Single Christians Adopting and it’s still very much a work in progress. (I was going to create a separate blog about serpent handlers, but I just couldn’t find the right combo of colors and formats, so I switched to another pet cause: the nasty way that so many singles are treated when they want to adopt. And some of the worst treatment comes from one’s fellow church-goers.)
And I have also been reading about the way social media influences events in our class text by Clay Shirky. He used the example of the Boston Globe’s 2002 series on abusive Catholic priests and why that caused so much buzz whereas previous articles on some of the same topics didn’t get near the reaction. The reasons? Because by 2002, people were able to email copies of the Globe’s work to other Catholics instead of having to cut and paste and send copies via snail mail. The former took a few seconds. The latter took 10-15 minutes not including a visit to the post office. By 2002, nearly everyone had email and some had blogs, which they could use to call others’ attention to the abuse. That was not the case with the Globe’s similar stories back in 1992. Starting in 1993 when I took over the religion beat, I covered the abuse phenomenon so a lot of what Shirky wrote was quite familiar. And yes, blogs, email and instant transmission of one’s articles made all the difference in the world.
Back to this week, which got unexpectedly busier when I heard that Andrew Hamblin, the other half of the serpent handling team on the reality show Snake Salvation, wanted to give a press conference. He wouldn’t do it by phone; we had to drive to east Tennessee for it. So I woke Veeka at the crack of dawn for a 347-mile trek across the state. Seems that I’ve worn ruts in I-40 from driving back there so much: Four times in the past three months.
When we arrived at the church, Andrew was dressed all in black.
“How are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m here,” he said flatly.
“Who’s your mentor now?” I asked.
“I have me,” he said. I asked him what God was telling him. “Keep on going. Don’t stop,” he replied. He seemed so bereft.
He went outside to make a call and I went outside to absorb some sun rays. Two or three other reporters eventually sauntered in, all from local media. Andrew sits forlornly on a bench in front of the pulpit. It’s chilly inside and someone turns on the heat.
“When I was depressed and lonely, I’d call him,” he said of Jamie. “No one will ever know the pain. He called my children his grand kids. No one will ever know how much I miss him.” His little church has elders, he says, but “I have no elder now.”
I pitched the first question. Considering what has happened to Jamie, what’s Andrew’s position on seeking medical help if snake bit?
His answer was round about. What did it say to the world, he asked, when someone dies an agonizing death? “There is your appointed time to die,” he said. “So what does it mean to get bit and go home and swell and suffer and lose limbs when you were inside a service where God has moved on you?” Obviously he’d been doing some thinking about some of the unsolvables in his movement: If God is controlling the service, why such messy deaths?
“Would you seek help?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. Jamie had made a vow to God he’d never seek medical help, he said, “but I never made a vow that I’d never go to a doctor.” He went into some detail about the first time he was bit in July 2010; his twins had just been born; he had major reasons to keep on living and he had been airlifted twice to two hospitals in Kentucky. His lungs kept filling up with blood and doctors told him that unless the meds they were giving him kicked in, he wouldn’t make it.
“I lay there and thought of my options,” he said. “I prayed, ‘Lord, if you want me to live, let me hear Jamie speak in tongues.’ Two-three minutes later at the hospital, the curtain flung open and there was Jamie speaking in tongues.”
I kind of wondered if the reporters were understanding all this but that was their problem. Andrew went on about how he and Liz have worked out funeral arrangements if he gets bit; how he’s already chosen the funeral home, planned his wake (12 noon to 7 pm) and an all-night vigil and a church service the next day.
“So if you’re bit and die, does that mean you’re not anointed?” someone asked. Andrew mulled that one over.
“Jamie had three snakes in his hand,” he said. “The one that bit him had been handled by us all.” Two of the snakes had been handled to the point they were just limp, he said. And then suddenly the third one turned and bit Jamie.
“As long as I’m under the anointing of God, I won’t be hurt like I was in July 2010,” he said. “I know people who’ve been bit and walked away from it. These are puff adders, vipers; some of the most deadly snakes in the world we’re handling.” Adding that he had been bit four times, “I’ve seen Jamie go elbow deep in snakes or laid them around his neck. And then what killed him was a 2 ½-foot snake. Why that little bitty serpent, I’ll never be able to answer. But there is God’s appointed time to die.”
Yes, I thought, but usually not when you’re 42. It was clear Andrew was still working through why this and why now. We asked him to run down what happened that dreadful night one week ago. Andrew said he wasn’t usually at Jamie’s Saturday services but he felt moved by God to get off from work at the grocery store he was running a cash register for. Jamie had been handling three snakes in front of the pulpit and then he flexed his hand. The snakes fell to the floor. Jamie scooped them back up.
“Dad’s been bit,” Cody told him. Andrew, who himself was handling a snake, put it down and accompanied Jamie as he headed to the bathroom along with Cody. Jamie was rubbing his face. “I feel like my face is on fire,” he was telling them.
“He was real red,” Andrew told us, “because we’d been singing and shouting.” Cody offered to end the service. Jamie lifted his arms up as Andrew loosened his clothes.
“Lord, come by,” Jamie said. Then, “Oh, God, no.”
“He turned around and looked at me,” Andrew continued, “and said, ‘Sweet Jesus’ calm and peaceful. Then his eyes set and he started to slump. I yelled ‘Dad!’ and then he fell.” Andrew felt something wet and realized Jamie’s bowels had loosened as those of dead people do.
“He died right there,” Andrew said. “I was smacking him but he never opened his eyes again.” I knew exactly what he meant about the eyes. The moment my favorite cat died in my arms, I saw the eyes glaze over and harden.
“I believe in the last 30 seconds of his life, Jamie knew he was dying,” he said. “He was not looking at me, but past me. And then his eyes set. I believe he died standing straight up. There is no anti-venin that could have saved a man that night. A serpent’s fang is like a hypodermic needle. It goes in that quick.”
No one knew who called the medics, but, “You could tell he was gone by the expression on their faces,” he said. Jamie’s pulse was down to about one every 30 seconds. His body was nearly shut down. They took him to the house, changed him out of his urine-soaked clothes and laid him in his chair. Finally it was clear he was completely gone.
I asked if they had raised enough money to pay expenses. Andrew didn’t know the answer but the funeral home demanded a $1,000 downpayment, which the Coots didn’t have, he said. He got his own church of about 50 people to come up with that amount during one offering that Sunday morning.
“Do you sleep much now?” I asked.
“No,” said Andrew. “We’re all just up and down. You don’t sleep at night and you wait for his phone call.” My heart went out to him. We drove back towards Nashville that night, then met some friends the next day who were at the National Religious Broadcasters convention in Nashville. They let us use their hotel pool, I got a press pass and Veeka and I wandered about the exhibits and filled our bags with all sorts of freebies. And Veeka was beyond delighted at the venue, which was at the Gaylord convention center at Opry Mills. Overarching the hotel rooms and an island of restaurants was a huge glass dome, which delighted her to no end. It’d been hard for her to sit through the press conference and put up with all the driving, so I was glad that she found something to be merry about.