Thursday, May 31, 2012

West Virginian Pastor Dies Snake Handling Service

May 30, 2012

Details emerge in pastor's death

BLUEFIELD — A Mercer County pastor who died after being bitten by a timber rattle- snake during a religious service in McDowell County was taken to a Brushfork-area residence before emergency service personnel were called.

Details into the death of Mack Randall Wolford, 44, of Green Valley, emerged Tuesday after it was learned Wolford, pastor of Full Gospel Apostolic House of the Lord Jesus in Matoaka – a church that practices serpent handling – died Monday as a result of a snake bite incurred during a homecoming service.

Lauren Pond, a freelance photojournalist from Washington D.C., was at the weekend service during which Wolford was bitten.

Pond said about 25 people were in attendance at the homecoming service at Panther State Forest. "Randy (Wolford) had invited me down," Pond said, explaining that she had been working with Wolford for about a year on a documentary project. "I went to it (the homecoming service) last year. This gathering was the second one."

Pond said Wolford was bitten in the thigh by a timber rattlesnake during the Sunday service.

She said she was shocked when she saw Wolford had been bitten, but those in the congregation did not seem as surprised. "I didn’t expect it to happen," she said. "I don’t think anyone necessarily expected it, but they’ve dealt with it before so it’s not such a huge shock maybe."

The area’s most widely known serpent-handling church is Church of Lord Jesus in Jolo, whose minister is Harvey Payne. A family member of Payne’s who answered telephone questions Tuesday noted Wolford was pastor of the Matoaka church, not the Jolo church.

Pond said she did not know Wolford’s medical state after the snake bite. "I don’t know how lucid he was ... people were talking to him."

"Not too long after the bite – maybe 40 minutes," Pond said parishioners transported Wolford to a residence in Mercer County.

The Daily Telegraph learned Tuesday Wolford was taken to Plainview Mobile Home Park off Airport Road in Brushfork. It is not known how long Wolford was there before emergency personnel were called.

"We did transport someone from a trailer park with a reported snake bite," Bluefield Rescue Squad Administrator Sam Pennington said. "I’m not sure what park, but they did transport somebody to Bluefield Regional with a reported snake bite."

Reports indicate Wolford died Monday as a result of the injuries sustained at the Sunday service.

McDowell County Prosecuting Attorney Sid Bell said his office has never prosecuted anyone for serpent handling, describing it as a "constitutionally protected religious service."

"I can’t find anything in state code or the state Constitution that would make using snakes in a religious service illegal, regardless of where the service was held," Bell said.

State park officials said they had no knowledge of a religious service including serpent handling taking place at Panther Wildlife Management Area.

"We are not aware of such an occurrence," Ken Caplinger, chief of state parks in West Virginia, said. "If we were asked for permission for such a thing to occur, we would not provide permission for that to take place ... if somebody were to do something like that, if would have been done without our knowledge or permission."

Pond noted she was not covering Sunday’s homecoming service for a news story, but a "longer-form, photo-documentary project."

She said she had been working with Wolford for about a year on the project.

Pond said she first met Wolford on her third visit to Jolo. "He was one of the most open pastors I’ve ever met about the faith. I visited him last November, and hung out with him ... Randy (Wolford) really helped me understand it. I don’t necessarily agree with it, but I understand it. I respect it."

Although initially declining to be interviewed for a news story, Pond did agree to speak to the Daily Telegraph to clarify and confirm reports, and ensure accurate facts were reported to the public.

Serpent-handling pastor profiled earlier in Washington Post dies from rattlesnake bite

By Julia Duin, Published: May 29

Mack Wolford, a flamboyant Pentecostal pastor from West Virginia whose serpent-handling talents were profiled last November in The Washington Post Magazine , hoped the outdoor service he had planned for Sunday at an isolated state park would be a “homecoming like the old days,” full of folks speaking in tongues, handling snakes and having a “great time.” But it was not the sort of homecoming he foresaw.
Instead, Wolford, who turned 44 the previous day, was bitten by a rattlesnake he owned for years. He died late Sunday.
Mark Randall “Mack” Wolford was known all over Appalachia as a daring man of conviction. He believed that the Bible mandates that Christians handle serpents to test their faith in God — and that, if they are bitten, they trust in God alone to heal them.
He and other adherents cited Mark 16:17-18 as the reason for their practice: “And these signs will follow those who believe: in My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
The son of a serpent handler who himself died in 1983 after being bitten, Wolford was trying to keep the practice alive, both in West Virginia, where it is legal, and in neighboring states where it is not. He was the kind of man reporters love: articulate, friendly and appreciative of media attention. Many serpent-handling Pentecostals retreat from journalists, but Wolford didn’t. He’d take them on snake-hunting expeditions.
Last Sunday started as a festive outdoor service on a sunny afternoon at Panther Wildlife Management Area, a state park roughly 80 miles west of Bluefield, W.Va. In the preceding days, Wolford had posted several teasers on his Facebook page asking people to attend.
“I am looking for a great time this Sunday,” he wrote May 22. “It is going to be a homecoming like the old days. Good ’ole raised in the holler or mountain ridge running, Holy Ghost-filled speaking-in-tongues sign believers.”
“Praise the Lord and pass the rattlesnakes, brother” he wrote on May 23. He also invited his extended family, who had largely given up the practice of serpent handling, to come to the park.
“At one time or another, we had handled [snakes], but we had backslid,” his sister, Robin Vanover, said Monday evening. “His birthday was Saturday, and all he wanted to do is get his brothers and sisters in church together.”
And so they were gathered at this evangelistic hootenanny of Christian praise and worship. About 30 minutes into the service, his sister said, Wolford passed a yellow timber rattlesnake to a church member and his mother.
“He laid it on the ground,” she said, “and he sat down next to the snake, and it bit him on the thigh.”
A state forester, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said park officials were unaware of Wolford’s activities. “Had we known he had poisonous animals, we would have never allowed it,” he said.
The festivities came to a halt shortly thereafter, and Wolford was taken back to a relative’s house in Bluefield to recover, as he always had when suffering from previous snake bites. By late afternoon, it was clear that this time was different, and desperate messages began flying about on Facebook, asking for prayer.
Wolford got progressively worse. Paramedics transported him to Bluefield Regional Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead. It could not be determined when the paramedics were called.
Wolford was 15 when he saw his father die at age 39 of a rattlesnake bite in almost exactly the same circumstances.
“He lived 101 / hours,” Wolford told The Washington Post last fall. “When he got bit, he said he wanted to die in the church. Three hours after he was bitten, his kidneys shut down. After a while, your heart stops. I hated to see him go, but he died for what he believed in.”
According to people who witnessed Mack Wolford’s death, history repeated itself. He was bitten roughly at 1:30 p.m.; he died about 11 that night.
One of the people present was Lauren Pond, 26, a freelance photographer from the District. She had been photographing serpent handlers in the area for more than a year, including for The Post, and stayed at Wolford’s home in November.
“He helped me to understand the faith instead of just documenting it,” she said Tuesday. “He was one of the most open pastors I’ve ever met. He was a friend and a teacher.”
The family allowed her to stay near Wolford’s side Sunday night, and she’s still recovering from having witnessed the pastor’s agonizing death. “I didn’t see the bite,” she said. “I saw the aftermath.”
In an interview with The Post for last year’s story, Jim Murphy, curator of the Reptile Discovery Center at the National Zoo, described what happens when a rattlesnake bites.
The pain is “excruciating,” he said. “The venom attacks the nervous system. It’s vicious and gruesome when it hits.”
But Wolford refused to fear the creatures. He slung poisonous snakes around his neck, danced with them, even laid down on or near them. He displayed spots on his right hand where copperheads had sunk their fangs. His home in Bluefield had a spare bedroom filled with at least eight venomous snakes: usually rattlers, water moccasins and copperheads that he fed rats and mice. He was passionate about wanting to help churches in nearby states — including North Carolina and Tennessee, where the practice is illegal — start up their own serpent-handling services.
“I promised the Lord I’d do everything in my power to keep the faith going,” he said in October. “I spend a lot of time going a lot of places that handle serpents to keep them motivated. I’m trying to get anybody I can get involved.”
His funeral will be held Saturday at his church, House of the Lord Jesus, in Matoaka, just north of Bluefield.
Julia Duin, a contributing writer for The Washington Post Magazine, wrote the original article about Mack Wolford.



WEB EXTRA: 1983 Daily Telegraph story detailing the death of Wolford’s father, also from a snake bite

— — EDITOR’S NOTE: The following story appeared in the Aug. 30, 1983, edition of the Bluefield Daily Telegraph. It details the death of Mack Wolford, who died from a rattlesnake bite during a church service. Mack Wolford was the father of Mack Randall Wolford, who died Monday, May 28, after being bitten by a rattlesnake during a church service the day before.

Headline: Man Dies From Snake-Handling Ritual Near Iaeger

From Staff and Wire Reports

IAEGER — A Kentucky man died from a rattlesnake bite after a religious snake-handling ceremony at a McDowell County church, authorities said Monday.

Mack Wolford, 39, of Phelps, Ky., died at about 9:50 Sunday night, eight hours after being bitten by a yellow rattler during services at the Lord Jesus Temple in Mile Branch, near Iaeger, said Sue Walker, a dispatcher at the Welch state police detachment.

Ms. Walker said Wolford was bitten around 2 p.m. at the church in this rural community about four miles south of Iaeger on Rt. 80. However, an ambulance wasn’t summoned until 10:40 p.m. and Wolford was dead on arrival at Stevens Clinic in Welch, she said.

Snake handling is a ritual employed in some predominantly rural Christian churches as a demonstration of faith. It is based on a Biblical passage in which the faithful are said to “take up serpents” yet not be harmed.

The Rev. Bob Elkins, who operates a similar church in [the] county and says he has been bitten at least seven times, said Monday he did not believe the incident was the result of a lack of faith on Wolford’s part.

“I wasn’t there when it happened, but in my opinion he died fulfilling the faith,” said Elkins. “If they die they’ve got nothing to worry about if they died in the faith.”

Michael Steele of the Little Huff Rescue Squad said that when he arrived at the church Sunday night, Wolford’s family was praying around his body.

“They had him in the bed and his family was around him,” said Steele. “The way they talked, they were handling snakes earlier that evening.”

Steele said Wolford suffered the snake bite hours before rescue crews were summoned.

“It’s the religion,” Steele said. “They don’t believe in going to the hospital when they get bit because they don’t believe they’re going to die.”

The Rev. Brady Dawson, pastor of the Lord Jesus Temple, was conducting regular church services Monday night and could not be reached for comment.

In August, 1982, the Rev. John Holbrook died from a rattlesnake bite he received during a church service in Oceana. Holbrook did not receive medical assistance at the time because his religion did not permit it, officials said.

Wolford was born in Phelps, and was the son of Elizabeth Hurley Wolford of Logan and the late Billy Wolford. He was employed as buggy operator at Chisolm Mine, Phelps.

Survivors in addition to his mother are his wife, Vickie Hicks Wolford; three sons, Randy Wolford, Kevin Wolford and Chris Wolford, all of the home; two daughters, Robin Wolford and Shauna Wolford, both of the home; one stepdaughter, Lesha Hicks, of Morehead, Ky.; five brothers, Nick Wolford, Ervin Wolford, Gene Wolford ad Tracy Wolford, all of Phelps, and Melvin Wolford of Delbarton; four sisters, Reba Lewis of Michigan, Helen Blankenship of Delbarton, and Lassie Wolford and Irene Wolford, addresses unknown.

Wolford’s funeral will be Wednesday at 11 a.m. at the church, with Dawson and the Rev. Bobby Ayers officiating. Burial will be in Hicks Family Cemetery near Phelps.

Members of the church will serve as pallbearers.

Fanning Funeral Home, Iaeger, is in charge of arrangements.

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