Category Archives: serpent handlers

Another month, another contest won

In this photo taken by my brother, I’m speaking at Chaparral Books in downtown Portland. Interested onlookers included one dog.

Lots has happened recently with the best being my winning another contest; this one being the annual Wilbur awards given out by the Religion Communicators Council. I was amazed to learn in late February that my piece on Paula White for The Washington Post Magazine won first place in the Wilbur’s national magazine/top 15 markets category. I’d won the same award back in 2015 for my story on Nadia Bolz-Weber for More magazine plus I won another Wilbur (in the large newspaper category) back in 2002 for a series I co-wrote in The Washington Times. But I never thought I’d circle back for a third time.
The Post magazine folks were nice enough to pay the rather expensive entry fee for my story and sent in this description with the story:

When we learned that controversial, stiletto-wearing, thrice-married, Trump-campaign supporting televangelist Paula White was jetting to Washington frequently to continue to serve as spiritual adviser to the president and to play a key role in connecting him with other conservative faith leaders, we knew we wanted to find out more. The notoriously press-shy White granted religion reporter Julia Duin unusual access during a trip to Washington, and Duin not only followed her through meetings at the Old Executive Office Building, a pop concert and a religious gathering, she got White and her family members and supporters to open up. The result was a story that was newsworthy is many ways. It illuminated what White is doing at the White House, why she supports Trump despite his flaws, what evangelicals are hoping to accomplish through the “unprecedented opportunity to have our voice and say heard” in the Oval Office, and what her relationship with Trump is like — including the fact that he doesn’t challenge her claim that she led him to Christ. But, like any good profile, it revealed intriguing personal details about White that few were aware of: her son is a registered Democrat and studied feminist theory, her rock-star husband influenced her style, she turned to the prosperity gospel as a way to make money, her relationship with Trump has caused parishioners to leave her church, she goes on tour with her husband, she pays her own way with the White House. The story was one of our most read for the year, garnered more than 1,100 comments and was named one of the Top 10 Religion Stories of 2017 by The Media Project.

Veeka in a skiing lesson at Mt. Baker on March 3. The snow was fabulous.

With that kind of buildup, how can one not win? Anyway, am very grateful to all who helped me get there. So that’s the good news. The bad news is that the awards ceremony is in Atlanta on April 7, the same night I’m flying to Iceland for the writer’s retreat.
Otherwise … I’ve been appearing here and there for book signings, including a trip to Portland in mid-February to see old friends and sign some copies at Chaparral Books, a store that my brother Steve works at part time in downtown Portland.
I’ve been skiing twice: Once at Crystal Mountain Resort on a day when Veeka was off at a youth retreat across the mountains in Leavenworth. The other time was at Mt. Baker up in Bellingham, a place I hadn’t skied at since I was a teen. It didn’t look like it had changed much since then! Bellingham, which is close to the Canadian border, is a two-hour schlep from Seattle, so I don’t get up there a lot but this time we got together with some newer friends and wandered about Lummi island, home of the famed Willows Inn. Not that we could ever afford to be there plus it was closed when we dropped by.  We then headed to the Kitsap peninsula to spend the night with my brother Rob and his wife, Jan, then drove to Port Ludlow for another booksigning. The weather was sketchy but better than last winter’s record rains.

Veeka driving a car at DisneyLand. She wanted to do it by herself.

Meanwhile, my book has gotten more write-ups, including this and this mention by Religion News Service and this review in Publisher’s Weekly, which got the King County library system to decide to buy some of my books. I was overjoyed at that, as I can now do booksignings (and sell more books) at local libraries. I am grateful to Kimberly Winston who helped get my book mentioned in all those publications. And the Knoxville News-Sentinel ran this in late February. Not only that, but I’ll be in Spokane in late April speaking at a media ethics event at Whitworth College, then back there in May to appear at a SpokaneFAVS event regarding the book. So, things have picked up.

Veeka at the Shake Shack near Crystal Cove State Park near Newport Beach, Calif., on a sunny January afternoon.

And near the end of January, I did get southern California for a Religion Newswriters Association conference at USC that only lasted a day. But it was fun to be in contact with folks in my field. Then there was a meeting of writers for some days later in Irvine. It was such fun to be in warm weather and taken Veeka to Disneyland, which I don’t ever have to see again in this life. But now she’s been. We also drove through Hollywood, visited a friend who lives just south of Malibu and stayed with a family of 9 during our first few days there. It was a lovely break.
The rest of March is very quiet for us as April is non-stop busy. We do keep moving, even if it’s a hike in the lowlands like what we did last Sunday. The weather was so gorgeous, half of Seattle was outside doing something. Oh, and on Feb. 6, Veeka finally got her braces. That’s been more than a year in the planning, so finally we’re on our way.

About the Paula piece and the Iceland incident

A White House photo of Paula White with Melania and Donald Trump taken mid-2017.

The closing months of 2017 have been unexpectedly pleasant for me in that I finally sold my house, published my book, got a huge article in the Washington Post Sunday magazine about Paula White (President Trump’s spiritual advisor) and won a contest for a trip to Iceland. I was long overdue for some good things to come my way.
About the Iceland trip: I’d seen this ad about a swishy retreat for writers in downtown Reykjavik and I was dying to go. I’d visited Iceland twice: In 1997 and 2001, but other trips and adopting Veeka made it tough to go back in recent years. Plus, the country itself has undergone a huge tourism boom in that the island’s population triples each summer with all the visitors.
But this retreat, situated at a nice hotel near the municipal airport, seemed so lovely with interesting speakers and an international clientele. Only a handful of people were going to get scholarships to go and I wanted to be one of those people. And the timing is during Veeka’s spring break, making it easy for someone to take care of her while I’m gone. So, I applied, sketching out my writing experience; why I – as a single parent – was more than ready for some time to myself; my financial needs; all about my interest in Iceland; why I wanted to hear the speakers who were showing up for the retreat and my personal writing history plus how I have a manuscript for young adult readers that I’ve been trying to get out the door for years but haven’t had the time to do that final push. I also got a good friend from my getreligion blog and a Washington Post editor to write the recommendations.
I also knew the odds were against me. I was much older and I was sure any help would go to younger applicants, so I asked for a partial scholarship, figuring I had a better chance than asking for everything to be paid. It turned out that more than 700 people from multiple countries applied. They chose four.

Veeka displaying the lovely cover of my new book.

Thus, on Dec. 2, I saw an email that looked innocuous but was an announcement that I was one of two people given a partial scholarship. The announcement, which ran Dec. 4, showed photos of the four of us. I am beyond delighted. I’d gotten a hunch that 2018 was the year I might begin traveling again and this will be a great start. And arrangements for Veeka’s care during that week are coming together as well.
Veeka, for her part, was promoted up to middle school level in late November, which made for much rejoicing on her part, as she was more than ready to move out of her present class. In her new class, she is learning some German along with everything else, so we are practicing simple sentences at home.
Then on Nov. 14, my long-awaited, nearly 6,000-word piece on Paula White came out in the Post’s online editions with the print edition out on the 19th. I got some very nice reaction from lots of folks, as no one else had published anything like it elsewhere. I’d worked so hard on it over the months and gone through so many drafts. My fellow getreligion bloggers nicely wrote it up here and I did a follow-up piece with more information on Paula here. I won’t go into a full recital of all the behind-the-scenes drama that accompanied it, but let’s say it was a piece that got passed around lots of people at the Post before it ran. I wish I could have gotten some quotes out of Trump himself for the piece, but that was not to be, even though I contacted the White House to ask if that was possible.

Veeka practicing her preaching skills.

One of the people most affected by that article was Veeka, who was entranced by the thought of women preaching and pastoring. She decided God had called her to preach or lead worship, so she set up a music stand in our living room, grabbed a toy mic that we had and loaded a bunch of Bibles and other notes on the stand to help her preach. I put on some Paula videos to inspire her. We’re attending a new Bible study just south of us on Monday nights where she likes to watch, then copy the adults as they pray for people. Although it’s been hard to get to know people at our church, I made some progress to that end this fall, when we attended Thanksgiving at the home of one of the families we’ve gotten to know. They live way out in the foothills of the Cascades beyond a town called Carnation. I signed up to be part of a welcoming crew on Sunday mornings. Seattle is a little less strange and lonely.

I spoke Dec. 7 at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park near Seattle.

So, November was a good month. Other stuff that got published included my piece in ParentMap about skiing at Vancouver’s Mount Washington ski area last February. We traveled very little this fall, instead staying home to do things like make brandied fruit for Christmas and viewing a jag of sand-and-sandal movies like “Ben Hur,” “The Robe,” and a bunch of life-of-Christ epics and Christian movies like “I am Not Ashamed” (the story of Columbine martyr Rachel Scott; “To Save a Life” which we really liked; “God’s Not Dead” #1+2 and “The Hiding Place,” which introduced Veeka to the concept of the Holocaust for the first time.
And we’ve been branching out in the Japanese anime world, having already watched every Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli film in existence. We’ve been making our way through works by Makato Skinkai, which are almost as good. The other day I won a Fandango movie gift card for $40, which means we’ll be going to see “The Last Jedi” pretty soon as well.
And I’ve started doing booksignings. The one at Third Place Books went OK – the Seattle traffic that night made the roads horrific and even I was almost late in getting there. About 10-12 folks listened in and fortunately my Powerpoint worked well. More signings are scheduled in the coming months (will be posting those on my blog under a new ‘book signings’ tab) and I’m hoping for some good reviews. Have had no luck in getting on radio, but someone did contact me to ask for movie rights. That will be the day!

The book is OUT

It took 2 months but a couple bought it and I couldn’t be happier. I was told they both attended Union University at one point (where I taught for a year), which was kind of nice. Hated to let it go, but it was time.

Once again, I’ve realized that I’ve let months go by without blogging, so I’ll try to make up for it with a l-o-n-g entry. The big news in my life is I finally SOLD my house in Tennessee; my serpent handlers book release date is coming up this month as review copies are being sent out this week and pre-orders will be filled the following week. And my epic Washington Post piece on Paula White comes out Nov. 19. It should go online the evening of the 16th and I’ll send out a more detailed blog in a few days telling about what it was like to research it.

The serpents book was actually due out Nov. 6, but some delays on the publishing end pushed things back a bit. But I am already lining up book signings, especially in the Pacific Northwest although I am open to traveling elsewhere. If anyone wants to help me promote this through Tweets, etc., let me know!

To go back a bit and review, Veeka had the last week of August off, so I decided to stay local. We borrowed a tent from the local Girl Scouts office (as a member, Veeka gets this for nothing) and packed that plus some inflatable mattresses we’d gotten from her previous troop into the car and headed for Lake Chelan State Park in central Washington. Once there, I was racing to get the 4-person tent up before dark, but finally had to beg for help from a passerby. We were right on the lake, which was pleasant but camping on the sand made us constantly dirty.
So the following day we repaired to Slidewaters, a local waterpark which was quite charming and not near as crowded as its Seattle-area counterparts. Before jumping into the water, we

Veeka chilling in front of the old Stehekin school house about 3 miles from the lodge. I was amazed how nothing in that village seems to have locks.

had an immense breakfast at Blueberry Hills Farms across the lake in nearby Manson, an area I’d never seen before. We also got to drop by two wineries. Fortunately the local wine places “only” charge $5 tasting fees, unlike outlets east of Seattle that charge a whopping $20. I found a nice Gewurztraminer at Mellisoni Vineyards and had a nice visit to Karma Vineyards as well, where they had a lovely patio area and didn’t charge us a thing.

On our third day, we caught an early morning ferry to Stehekin, a village some 25 miles up the lake that can only be reached by boat, barge or plane. We settled in at the lodge and enjoyed our next two days of biking and poking about. There were a lot of Europeans there; folks who had dropped in from the Pacific Crest Trail (which was 8 miles to the west) for a good night’s sleep in a bed. I asked several of them why they chose to come here when they had the Swiss Alps over there. Everyone told me that it’s impossible to be alone in the Alps, as there’s homes everywhere you look and no solitude. Whereas the PCT is very much about solitude.

Christina and her grandmother (my mom) at her Oct. 28 wedding in Portland.

We wandered about a beautiful historic apple orchard, hiked to a waterfall, visited a huge vegetable garden and an amazing bakery, swam in some very chilly water and explored the local school house. The bulletin board by the post office is fun to read if for no other reason that it gives you a glimpse of the folks who live in the area. And the post office was piled high with care packages for all the hikers.
And the hiking register, also in the post office, is filled with signatures of hikers from all over the world. People sign with their trail names, like “Locomotive” or “Bronco.” One wrote:

Roses are red
My body is dirty
That 15 miles
Sure felt like 30.

The Stehekin Lodge, where we stayed 2 nights, is the most relaxing place to spend a sunny afternoon.

After that, Veeka started school again and then I had a long-planned business trip to Nashville as I was part of the organizing committee for the annual conference of the Religion News Association, a gathering of journalists whose primary beat is religion. We flew there Sept. 6. It was simply haunting to be back in Tennessee.

The landscape was so green-and-rolling-hills when we landed and the temps were in the 70s, breezy and delightful. We stayed at the Gaylord Opry Hotel, which has a vast indoor garden with bridges, moats, varied-color lights, giant palm trees and the sound of water falls everywhere. It took awhile to find our room and way around, as the place was a gigantic maze plus we had to park far away to escape the $29/day lot fee.

Then we met an old friend from Union University days downtown at The Southern, a downtown lovely restaurant that served up raw oysters, fish w/grits, Thai tacos and sweet tea. Hearing the southern accents, driving I-40 through town, dropping by the Opryland Mall all brought back 3-year-old memories of our sojourn there from 2012-2014. All of which were made sweeter by texts from my real estate guy in Jackson informing me he’d found a buyer for my home and that documents awaited me to sign. Evicting my former tenant and sinking $6,000+ into cleaning the place has been SUCH a long haul in recent months so I was grateful there was light at the end of my tunnel.

Biking on the road from Stehekin nine miles to the Pacific Crest Trail trailhead, one found cute roadside objects like this.

On Sept. 7, I drove back to Jackson where Veeka was going to stay with her old friend Ava while I attended the conference. It was such a day of reliving memories. The 2-hour drive to Jackson, with the stop at Loretta Lynn’s restaurant (exit 143); the places for cheap gas (exists 126 and 108); the arrival into Jackson off exits 80 and 82; visiting Union University with the huge domed library that dominates the entire campus. I found it odd the president and provost have their offices on the third floor, which must make it inconvenient for other staff to get to them.

Then there was the new coffee bar in the campus library that was charming and driving about the campus itself, which was pretty much the same as when I worked there. Driving up the 45 bypass, I visited Alan Castleman, my real estate agent who had found me some good buyers. I left him a candy box of applets and cotlets in gratitude. For those of you not from the Pacific Northwest, that’s kind of like the official candy of Washington state.

Driving down Old Humboldt Road to our old house, we drove past cotton fields that I hadn’t seen in years. Our development, Shepherd’s Field has been dramatically expanded to the north with all new homes. When I got to my house and got inside, it didn’t look as fresh as I had left it three years ago. It took months to get the tenant out and I invested a lot in getting the place cleaned, re-painted and new carpet installed to attract buyers. Fortunately, Celeste, a friend from my old church, came by and planted some new flowers to spruce up the place, so I am very grateful to her and to Randall Cox, the yard care man who helped me get some improvements done long distance. I also retained a good agent and it paid off. The closing date was Oct. 31. Yes!

I drove back to Nashville in a fog but had a lovely time at Cochon Butcher, a mostly outdoors restaurant in the Germantown section of town that had cunningly assembled pork dishes and some real creative treatments of vegetables, ie the sweet pickles I tried. The person I met there was Langley Granbery, an old friend from Trinity days. So much water had gone under the bridge since our families had last met 2013, so we had a lot of catching up to do. He and Lois have 5 successful and smart children. They live in a lovely house south of town.

Me and James Goll on my revivalists panel. Photo by Joe Schiska courtesy of the RNA.

Then it was back to the Gaylord, where I was on the organizing committee for this conference. It’d been awhile since I’d been at an RNA event, chiefly because I was attending college journalism prof (AEJMC) conferences in recent years until my life as a professor came to an end when we moved to Seattle. One thing that made this conference touching was the presence of Jeff Weiss, a Dallas Morning News reporter who was dying of brain cancer. He got an award at the conference and I was told he would last until at least January, but he died three months early on Oct. 25. Did he have some help doing so? I don’t know, but I wrote this memorial post in his memory.

One of the most popular panels of the weekend was the one I put together on “the new revivalists,” about a movement among charismatic and Pentecostal Christians that some hate and others love. I wrote about it – in part – here last year and Christianity Today profiled one of its main leaders here but it’s a many-faceted tough movement to pin down. I felt that other journalists needed to know about this trend, so I put together this panel, which included James Goll, one of the masterminds behind the movement; Holly Pivec, who operates a blog that opposes this revivalist movement and

From left: me, James Goll, Holly Pivec and Paula White. Photo by Bobby Ross.

Paula White, President Trump’s spiritual advisor who has nothing to do with the movement but who I persuaded to come speak at the conference and this was the only panel she really fit into. James spoke at the Seattle-area church I currently attend and I had to do some wheedling among some folks to get access to him, but once I did, he agreed to come. It helped that he lives in Nashville. Holly attends my former church in Fairbanks, which I didn’t find out until after I’d moved to Seattle! So wish I’d known she was there, as I was so lonely that year we were in Alaska – I only had one friend there – but somehow we never crossed paths.

Anyway, another member of the panel had cancelled, so I contacted her on the off chance she’d want to fly to Nashville on her own dime, since the RNA doesn’t pay for speakers’ airfare. She agreed to do so and it was a good choice for her, because she got introduced to a lot of reporters in a very short time, as she had a very good presentation. I believe the panel (which I moderated) was the most-attended in the entire conference and reporters sure swarmed around Paula later to get quotes, so I considered it a success. You can listen to a video of the panel here. The rest of the conference went well enough, and afterwards I met with Allison Biggers at Loveless Cafe, a part-restaurant, part-tourist attraction west of Nashville. Lots of fun. Then I drove back to Jackson to pick up Veeka, say one last good-bye to the house, then head to Alabama to stay with Rebecca and Craig Hodge in Huntsville and zip down to Birmingham to see John Morgan, who provided many of the photos for the serpents book. Then over to east Tennessee to see Terry and Debra and Frye Mattingly and visit

It really is worth a visit.

the publisher of my book at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Also went out to lunch with John David Hatch, the photographer who provided the cover shot for the book. One place we dropped by in Scottsboro, Ala., on our way to Tennessee, is the Unclaimed Baggage warehouse, the one place in the nation where you can buy stuff from peoples’ lost luggage. I’d heard of the place but had never found the time to get there. It’s very much off the beaten track – about an hour east of Huntsville – but we had fun there and Veeka got some new black patent leather heels.

It did feel strange driving I-40 again, as I spent the better part of my two years in Tennessee criss-crossing the state on that road. Right after we got back, my niece Lindsay had her second child, a daughter, Madelyn Marie, on the 18th, keeping up with a family tradition of September birthdays. (She is Rob’s youngest daughter) And then another niece, Christina, (Steve’s oldest daughter) got married Oct. 28, which meant a trip to Portland for all of us. Fortunately, the weather that weekend was beyond fabulous, as it was awful the weekend before and the weekend after. Which puts 2017 in a much nicer light than 2016, when my dad and Lindsay’s maternal grandfather died. At least we added to the family this year instead of losing folks.

Lindsay and a sleepy Madelyn and Veeka at Christina’s wedding reception.

So now I’m in the midst of a PR blitz for my new book. I have an offer for readers of this blog: If you buy my book and can show me a receipt, I’ll send you a copy of my 2009 book: Days of Fire and Glory: The Rise and Fall of a Charismatic Community for only $5 (which covers postage). Email me at with a photo of the receipt. The publisher folks told me in Knoxville they had an unusually high number of pre-orders for the book, so they were upping their press run. Of course I’m hoping for some good reviews, as I don’t come out with books everyday. I am having a signing at 7 p.m. on Dec. 7 at Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way in Lake Forest Park, so if you live in the Seattle area and are reading this, please come. Am still putting together my presentation: Videos of snake handlers, maybe? Must say, every time I lecture on this, people are fascinated, even in a I-wouldn’t-be-caught-dead-at-one-of-these-services kind of way.

Lovely east Tennessee and Catherine Marshall’s Christyfest

So much has happened these past 10 days! I got some very good news today (May 29) that has to do with my future job but I can’t share publicly what it is yet. So stay tuned. But I have already emailed my real estate agent to put my home on the market. May 23 was Veeka’s last day of second grade. I showed up a few days before that for a presentation for the parents and snapped some photos. It was a bittersweet time as Veeka’s sojourn at this elementary school has not been the happiest but all the

Veeka (right) and two classmates put on a play for us visiting parents in her second grade classroom.

Veeka (center right) and classmates put on a play for us visiting parents in her second grade classroom.

same, she has spent two years there. I’d also told her she may not see many of these kids again as it was pretty sure that we’re moving this summer. She gave a gift to Beverly Smith, a retiring teacher with whom she’d worked to learn extra reading and math skills and said good-bye to all her little friends.
We pushed off for Nashville, where we were to meet for lunch a man who is to be the agent for my serpent-handling book. It was a two-hour drive and we were meeting at a section of town close to the airport that is inhabited by a lot of immigrants. They call this area of southeast Nashville “little Kurdistan” for all the Kurds who live there. It’s the country’s largest concentration of Kurds, actually. We arrived just before 1 pm, when the local mosque was letting out. We peeked into some of the stores and ended up buying some delicious Middle Eastern flatbread that cost all of $3 for five large pizza-shaped patties. We ate a great meal at Shish Kabob, a Persian/Kurdish restaurant about a mile down Nolensville Road.

The mosque off Nolensville Road in "little Kurdistan."

The mosque off Nolensville Road in “little Kurdistan.”

By early evening we had ended up at Dogwood Cabins, a community of mountainside chalets overlooking Townsend, Tenn. We got a cabin called “Home Away,” which had pretty views of a mountain ridge. Finally, a part of Tennessee that I liked! The road to that and other cabins was so steep, I had to use the lowest gear possible. Nearly all of the cabins were clinging to the mountainside on huge stilts. Guess this is not an earthquake zone. The route from Marysville, a city 18 miles to the west, along the Senator Lamar Alexander Parkway, was quite pretty. Townsend is a place of 300 souls although surrounding Blount County has many more inhabitants than that.
The next day, Veeka and I drove 80+ miles to Del Rio, Tenn., the site of ChristyFest, a gathering of people who are interested in the part of the country that placed such a large role in Catherine Marshall’s best-selling novel “Christy.” There were about 55 people there that Saturday gathered at Del Rio Elementary listening to people who had done research on Catherine Marshall. One woman named Marilyn Mitchem had put together a 75-page presentation on how Marshall had come to write the novel and why it took her nine years to get it into print, which she finally did in 1967. She and her parents visited the area in 1959 to get her research started. Her mother, Lenore Whittaker, was a missionary to the area around Del Rio from 1909-1912 or

A booth near where we had our Sunday ChristyFest picnic near the Ebenezer mission.

A booth near where we had our Sunday ChristyFest picnic near the Ebenezer mission.

thereabouts. She married John Woods, a local minister and the two moved to Johnson City, where Catherine was born two years later. This was a part of the country that used kerosene-burning refrigerators, had no running water (in some parts until 2004); farm chores started at 4 a.m. and breakfast was at 5 a.m. because kids had to walk 3 miles each way to school. Appalachia was truly another world.
For lunch, we went to a local community center, where there was a cake honoring Catherine Marshall (the 100th anniversary of her birth is in September) and where there were two familiar people selling crafts on the front porch. They turned out to be Pam and Jimmy Morrow, both of them serpent-handling friends from a nearby church. It was so good to see them and I bought a walking stick for Veeka from Jimmy (with a snake carved on it, naturally).
Veeka and I returned to Townsend to find John Morgan, a friend, already there. He shared our 3-bedroom cabin with us because he was going to accompany us to a serpent-handling service that night in LaFollette, which was 80 miles to the north of us. John had accompanied me to Sand Mountain, another serpent-handling center in Alabama, a year ago, so he knew the drill. However, the folks at the LaFollette Tabernacle Church of God were much more open to photographers snapping photos and John took about 500 during the three hours we were there. He got some wonderful shots in very low light of people handling all manner of venomous reptiles, holding flames of fire close to their skin and chugging down strychnine. Yes, you read that right. There was a lot of dancing and singing going on too, so it was one very active evening.

Veeka and John with a pleasant woman in the middle who we met at Dollywood.

Veeka and John with a pleasant woman in the middle who we met at Dollywood.

Sunday, we went to a ChristyFest picnic near the Ebenezer mission which is where Lenore ministered a century ago. It was the most out-of-the-way hollow I’d even seen, down the longest road into the country but when we got there, I was amazed at the number of homes that were there. Talk about off the beaten track. But dropping by there meant that we missed the Sunday service in LaFollette but we got to the dinner afterwards where I interviewed a bunch of folks.
Monday, we visited a most charming amusement park in nearby Pigeon Forge. It was Dollywood, named after Dolly Parton, and it’s built on the side of a mountain. The weather was gorgeous and it being Memorial Day, the crowds were thin. John took Veeka on several roller coaster rides, as I refuse to get on the things. The kiddie rides were lots of fun and we also took a train through the park, ate lots of cotton candy and French fries.
Tuesday was the day we drove through the Great Smoky Mountains national park, which begins within five miles of where we’re staying. We went hiking to Laurel Falls and to Veeka’s delight, all of us hikers saw a mother bear and her two cubs in the hollow below us. The fuzzy babies were climbing up and down trees and squeaking so loudly, we could hear them. Then we drove quite a distance up to Clingman’s Dome some 6,600+ feet into the clouds and then climbed an exhausting half mile up a VERY steep trail to a large concrete viewing platform where we could see into several states. We spent WEdnesday back in LaFollette talking with Andrew Hamblin, the best-known of the serpent handling pastors, as I had lots of questions I needed answered for this book manuscript. After we said farewell

Veeka playfully wrestling with John as we were all enjoying the views from the McCloud Mountain resort.

Veeka playfully wrestling with John as we were all enjoying the views from the McCloud Mountain resort.

to him, we drove up to McCloud Mountain, a site overlooking Powell Valley, the place in which LaFollette sits. It was the loveliest view with Kentucky off to our left, Tennessee below us and Virginia in the distance. There was a restaurant, helipad, a small inn, a large cross bolted into a rock (which lights up at night) and even a field of live buffalo atop that ridge. During a week of pretty views and restful vistas, this was one of the nicest sights I got to see. I’d wanted to drive up there for some time but it was always closed when I was in town. And today we spent by a pool owned by the outfit that runs Dogwood Cabins, which was restful for me in that I’ve driven hundreds of miles in recent days. John took us out to dinner to celebrate this new job-in-embryo and a local police officer who was eating there gave Veeka some really nice gifts from a stash he keeps for local kids: sunglasses, a water bottle, stickers, that sort of thing. We will leave Townsend with some nice memories.

One more press conference

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.)

My little Kazakh beauty with the former Kazakh ambassador to the US - now I'm encouraging others to adopt

My little Kazakh beauty with the former Kazakh ambassador to the US – now I’m encouraging others to adopt

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.

Andrew at his church talking with reporters.

Andrew at his church talking with reporters.

“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.

The ultra-cool atrium area at the Gaylord resort at Opry Mills

The ultra-cool atrium area at the Gaylord resort at Opry Mills

“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.

Veeka and I at the NRB convention laden with stuff.

Veeka and I at the NRB convention laden with stuff.

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.