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W.Va. snake handling church shies away from outsiders

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Members of Mack Wolford's church still practice the snake-handling faith that took their pastor's life one year ago.

But a filmmaker who chronicled Wolford's life and ministry said the congregation is increasingly wary of outsiders, having been bitten by the national attention they received following the preacher's death.

Richmond, Va.-based filmmaker Kate Fowler began shooting "With Signs Following," her documentary about Wolford and his obscure religious practices, months before his death from a timber rattlesnake bite on Memorial Day weekend last year.

Fowler actually ended filming in April of last year but shifted back into production after learning Wolford had been fatally injured during an outdoor service at the Panther Wildlife Management Area in McDowell County.

She finished filming in January and recently began the editing process. The film is expected to debut this August at a screening in Richmond.

Fowler said Wolford, his family and his congregation were extremely generous to her, speaking openly on camera about their lives and beliefs.

"I would like to say they're open to me because I'm an amazing journalist, but I think in general they're very open, trusting people. They've been very generous to me," she said.

The church's impressions of journalists have changed in the year following Wolford's death, however.

"They've been pretty burned by the media," Fowler said. "After the Washington Post article, they felt pretty betrayed. They've been really reticent to communicate with the media."

Wolford's widow, Fran, did not respond to the Daily Mail's request for an interview.

The Washington Post Magazine profiled Wolford in November 2011 and then followed up on the story after his death. Fowler said members of the church believed the Post did not portray their faith accurately.

"I think the media often has a tendency to sensationalize different aspects of traditions and cultures," she said.

But Fowler said it was a similar "unfair" portrayal of snake handling that piqued her interest in the first place: a History Channel documentary about snake handlers in Jolo, McDowell County.  

Fowler grew up in Virginia.

"I always had an interest in mountain culture and identity, but I'd never had any experience with (snake handling)," she said.

Snake-handling churches are an Appalachian-born offshoot of the Pentecostal movement, one that takes a literal view of Jesus' words in Mark 16: "They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them."

Fowler sought out members of the Jolo church, who directed her to Wolford. Snake handling was dwindling in Jolo, but Wolford was trying to preserve the practice by bringing the remaining practitioners into one, organized group.

"He really made an effort to pull people from Tennessee and North Carolina and West Virginia together into one larger congregation," Fowler said.

While snake handling has not stopped in the year since Wolford's death, Fowler said no one has stepped in to fill his absence as a "connecting link" between the churches.

Fowler said "With Signs Following" would provide a more balanced, "humanized" look at snake handling, which she says is mostly a private matter of faith and "a pretty sincere practice."

The film spends most of its time focused on Wolford, his family and the history of their beliefs rather than actual snake handling.

"For me, in this film I think it takes a more patient and gentle view on the practice," she said.

She plans to host a private screening for Wolford's family before the Aug. 1 debut in Richmond. There are no current plans for a West Virginia showing.

Wolford's congregation continues to practice snake handling in their homes and sometimes in his former church, but the services are not open to the public, Fowler said.

A preacher named Andrew Hamblin is continuing the practice in Tennessee while Harvey Payne is revitalizing the Jolo church, she said.

"There very well may be people who practice underground and don't have (public) churches."

For more information on "With Signs Following," visit www.kateelizabethfowler.com.

Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-7939 or zack.harold@dailymail.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ZackHarold.

 


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