Saturday, June 30, 2012

The woman in pink

I gathered my nerves and stepped inside the little church, closing the heavy door behind me. As my eyes adjusted to the lighting, dim compared to the blinding sunlight outside, I took in the small sanctuary, rows of pews, a simple wooden altar, and the stage-like area behind it where a handful of men sat playing around with guitars and a keyboard. The pastor stepped up and warmly introduced himself before giving me the rundown on what to expect and what was expected of me. Given that this church has seen loads of reporters, he kindly explained that a seam in the carpet served as the boundary no journalist could cross while taking photos. I nodded in agreement but had left my camera in the car just to be safe. I was early and almost no one had arrived yet. I nervously sat down in the front row next to two girls who looked to be about my age and began to chat. While we talked, a toddler ran up and down the aisle stopping every few minutes to stare at me. I smiled. He fled. Each time he ran a little closer towards me. I smiled again. He fled again. Then in a bold move, he reached out and poked me. I laughed but must have passed the test as before I knew it he had crawled into my lap and was sitting peacefully. Right then, majority of the church members walked through the door. A few threw curious glances my way but most seemed reassured by the little boy’s trusting presence. And with that, I had been welcomed into the church by a two year old.

About twenty five people of all ages took their places in pews and on the stage and the music began. It was loud and lively, the kind of music you can’t help but stomp along with. A woman in pink made her way to the front, picked up a microphone and began to belt out a beautiful old timey gospel song. The room came alive and I swear that tiny church seemed about to burst from the joy of the congregation. People began to dance and spin, stomp and jump. A few began to shake. This is what I’d come for.

A young man picked up a glass coke bottle and lit the cloth wick inside it, holding the flame to his hand as he danced. The pastor leaned down behind the speaker and lifted two great big rattlers from their boxes. Immediately the toddler in my lap turned to me, pointing at the snakes making sure I was watching. In truth, I was amazed at the size of the rattlers but was almost more interested in the overall atmosphere of the service, serpents or not. There was a sense of excitement and passion that filled the church. I felt strangely still by comparison but like the heat radiating in from outside, I could feel the warmth of the service. The pastor held the serpents with one hand while stomping in time. He passed them to another young man who gently placed his hand under the rattlesnake's head supporting it, then drop the snake to his side as he danced. He passed it back. As the music wound down and the snakes were placed back in their boxes, members settled back into the pews. The pastor stepped behind the podium and began read from Psalms. He spoke of trusting God in our darkest days. Encouraged by the shouts and affirmation of the congregation, he spoke of his own darkest days and the trials he had faced. Church members chimed a chorus of “bless him,” “preach it brother,” and “go on” when he seemed hesitant. When he himself shouted confidently, he was met with applause and shouts of “Amen.” His sermon was organic and dynamic, like a creek sometimes surging from flood waters and at other times quiet and calm. Though I’ve heard plenty of Pentecostal sermons throughout my undergrad, this one differed in one key aspect: it felt honest. Time and again I’ve heard pastors shout from their podiums, then whisper for dramatic effect and I’ve always been sceptical of the theatrics of it all. This sermon, however, surprised me with how genuine it felt.

At the end of the sermon, the pastor called for testimonies beginning with visitors. All faces turned towards me. I was so surprised and suddenly shy that all I could do was nod my head no a little too fiercely when he attempted to hand me the microphone. I heard a faint “bless her” from somewhere beside me, not the kind that is meant to encourage, but the kind that is said with the same tone as "awwww, poor thing". Then thankfully the focus passed away from me as other members began to testify. While thanking the Lord for her blessings and asking for prayers for her concerns, the woman in pink paused. “I have a song that I need to sing right now,” was all she said. Then, standing in the back of church, she lifted her hands and began to sing. Her voice filled the momentarily silent room. I expected someone to grab the electric guitar and anticipated her song being drowned out by the loud music that I had grown used to. But no one did. She sang her hymn, a cappella, verse after verse. 

Everyone has those moments that somehow make it into your heart, so deeply that it seems as if time has stopped but your blood pumps on through your veins. Whatever else might be around you fades and only the things that you hold in your heart remain. This was one of those moments for me. My research was forgotten, my awkwardness at being a stranger in the church, my temporariness in the States, my lack of a plan for the next few months after graduation all seemed to vanish. It was simply me and that voice. The song ended. The service came to a close and I made my way to my car. Driving home that night looking at the mountains, I realized just how much I had underestimated the realities of studying belief. 

Monday, June 25, 2012

Chicken Ridge and the Dismal River

6:45 am. Sunglasses- check. Atlas- check. GPS-check. Two sets of directions printed from Google maps- check. Krispy Kremes and Coke, breakfast of champions- check.

Several weeks ago, my first day as an anthropologist began with the daunting task of driving five hours into the hills of West Virginia to find a man I’d never met who pastored a church I didn’t know the name of that was meeting in park without an address. I was eager to begin my research and attend my first Sunday service with the serpent-handling communities in Appalachia. Having been raised in East Tennessee and having attended a Church of God university for undergrad, I had an idea of what Pentecostal worship looks like but knew little about the few churches that hold fast to Mark 16 which outlines the five signs of believers given days after Pentecost. Sometimes referred to as Signs Following or Holiness churches, these congregations take up venomous serpents, lay hands on the sick, drink poison, speak in tongues, and rebuke demons in the name of the Holy Spirit. I had been invited by a well-known pastor to attend a revival and see for myself the signs of Mark 16. So off I drove into the mountains hoping to make it to the park by 11:30am. The service started at 1pm.

6:50am. GPS fails to recognize the town I need.

7:30am. Ten minutes lost on the wrong exit.

8:30am. Left the interstate to search for a highway.

9:04am. Highway becomes unmarked back road.

9:45am. Find a gas station but lose cell service.

10:30am. Twenty minutes lost to a side road that dead-ends with a trailer where two very unhappy-looking folks sit staring at poor lost strangers.

10:52am. Pass a Holiness church hidden in a back hollow.

11:07am. Accidentally run over a frog.

11:15am. Five minutes lost to helping a turtle cross the road in penance for the frog.

11:30am. Change plan to hoping I can still make it to West Virginia by 1pm.

12:01pm. Lost in a place labelled by a cardboard sign as “Chicken Ridge.”

12:10pm. Pass the Dismal River and chuckle at the name.

12:46pm. Pass an abandoned coal mining town, half covered by kudzu.

12:52pm. Pass the Dismal River again. No chuckling. Check atlas for clues to where I am. No luck.

1:00pm. Change plan to aim for arriving at 2pm.

1:22pm. Back to the Dismal River. Outlook becoming dismal.

2:28pm. Pull over for a moment of hysteria at the fact that I’ve lost the entire state of West Virgina despite being within miles of the border. Change plan to finding West Virginia.

3:16pm. Find original highway.

3:39pm. Cross into West Virgina.

4:21pm. Wrong turn.

4:36pm. Pull over, regroup, take a picture to prove I found West Virginia, accept defeat and head home.

7:00pm. Return crestfallen and slightly batty from an unsuccessful 12 hours alone in the car.

My first attempt at putting into practice everything I’ve learned in the past five years had been thwarted by my own lack of ability to navigate. I had missed the revival. The next day, however, brought news that drastically changed my perspective and my research. Thirty minutes into the service, while I was lost somewhere along Chicken Ridge, the pastor I had set out to meet had been bitten by the rattlesnake he was handling. Late that night, he passed away. Over the next few days, I watched as journalists picked up the story and flung it far and wide around the nation. I heard and read reactions that ranged from sympathy and support to confusion and condemnation. What became apparent was an extreme lack of understanding of this practice, known by most only through the one page articles cropping up in newspapers detailing the most extreme outcome of serpent-handling.

My research took on a new hue in light of the unfortunate turn of events. The reality of what these church members are doing, of everything they are risking each time they picked up a copperhead or rattlesnake hit me like a brick wall. It’s a reality that they know all too well as it was their pastor, their friend who was gone. And yet they continue to practice the signs. For me, the strength of commitment and dedication to this practice serves as a testimony to the power of belief. I feel that a faith that can sustain death and loss deserves respect. After all, aren’t we all seeking ways to face this same reality? As a researcher, my questions remain the same yet as a person entering into a living relationship with these communities, their answers have become invaluable to me.