serpent-handling Pentecostals

Friday Five: Fading way of life, 'Submarine Churches,' Chick-fil-A flash mob and more

Friday Five: Fading way of life, 'Submarine Churches,' Chick-fil-A flash mob and more

This week in Friday Five, we've got closing churches. We've got "Submarine Churches." We've got serpent-handler churches.

We've even got a church — flash mob style — at a Chick-fil-A.

I bet you just can't wait!

So let's dive right in:

1. Religion story of the week: The Minneapolis Star-Tribune had a fascinating piece this week on how a way of life is fading as churches close.

The "first in an occasional series written by Jean Hopfensperger" explores how "Minnesota’s mainline Christian denominations face unprecedented declines, altering communities and traditions celebrated for generations." 

2. Most popular GetReligion post: Editor Terry Mattingly's post titled "New York Times asks this faith-free question: Why are young Americans having fewer babies?" occupies the No. 1 spot this week.

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When covering Pentecostal serpent handlers, reporters shouldn't settle for a quick hit

When covering Pentecostal serpent handlers, reporters shouldn't settle for a quick hit

I recently come out with a book on 20-something Appalachian Pentecostal serpent handlers who publicize their exploits on social media, so I know a few things about what it’s like to cover this unusual group. I’ve handled a lot of topics on the religion beat, but this was one of the most difficult.

First, most of their churches are tough to find, as they typically wish to stay hidden from the media. Worship, to them, is not a spectator sport and services are four hours or more. Most of these churches are tucked into remote corners of eastern Kentucky and Tennessee; south West Virginia, western North Carolina, the northeastern tip of Alabama, western Virginia and northwestern Georgia.

You need to earn the trust of those handling the snakes. You don’t just walk into a service and expect to be handed the right to interview people or take photographs. It takes several visits to for them to know you. I stuck out because I was bringing a 7-year-old with me.

I was also fortunate that the photographer I worked with for my first article on these folks, which ran in late 2011 in the Washington Post, had done all the prior groundwork for this first encounter. That meant that I simply needed to drive 420 miles from inside the Beltway to a famous church in Jolo, W. Va., and stay there three days.

I learned these handlers are some of the most vilified people in American religion. I explain why in a Wall Street Journal “Houses of Worship” column running today. It says, in part:

In 40 years covering religion, I’ve rarely seen a religious group receive as much vitriol as the serpent-handler community. Yet the handlers have a fascinating ability to withstand torrents of abuse and ridicule. I was afraid of them myself once. But after spending time in their churches, I found kind, likable people who struggle to get through life like everyone else.

Thanks to a reality show, "Snake Salvation," on two serpent-handling families that ran in September 2013 on the National Geographic Channel, coverage of this culture has exploded. All sorts of media flocked to eastern Tennessee when one of the photogenic leaders of the movement ended up in court. The following February, Jamie Coots, one of the stars of the reality show, died at the age of 42 from rattlesnake bite, leading to more coverage.

A lot of handlers have faded into the woodwork since then, but there are still reporters out there seeking to cover this culture.

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Where even God doesn't help: The Washington Post chronicles the despair of rural poor

Where even God doesn't help: The Washington Post chronicles the despair of rural poor

After President Donald Trump’s victory last year, not a few journalists traveled to the hinterland to find out just where were those disenchanted white folks who voted Republican. Who were these people and was it possible to get inside their heads?

The Washington Post has come out with three lengthy pieces about these folks, one of which was set in Grundy, Va., a town I stayed in six years ago when I was researching serpent-handling Pentecostals (which also ran in the Post). This section of Appalachia is where a lot of these believers live. The photo with this story is one I took in a town in Tazewell County, Va., just down the road from Grundy and where one in six working-age residents are on disability.

Would this series, I wondered, mention the faith that sustains many of these residents, who have little else in life to live for? The answer, I found, was yes and no.

The first part of the series, set in Alabama, focused on the stunning percentage of adults who are on disability across the country.

Across large swaths of the country, disability has become a force that has reshaped scores of mostly white, almost exclusively rural communities, where as many as one-third of working-age adults live on monthly disability checks, according to a Washington Post analysis of Social Security Administration statistics…
The decision to apply, in many cases, is a decision to effectively abandon working altogether. For the severely disabled, this choice is, in essence, made for them. But for others, it’s murkier. Aches accumulate. Years pile up. Job prospects diminish.

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