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.