#1: Dennis Covington 2016
Mercy on the Edge, December 23, 2016
Dennis Covington finds himself drawn to hellish places, where he looks for the presence of God amidst devastation and resilience. Covington reads excerpts about his experiences on the Turkey-Syria border from his book Revelation and recounts the ecstasy and terror of snake-handling, as described in Salvation on Sand Mountain. Opening conversation with host Lisa Ann Cockreal and gang pastor and chaplain Chris Hoke.
- Dennis Covington, Revelation: A Search for Faith in a Violent Religious World
- Dennis Covington, Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia
- Image journal
Lisa Ann Cockrel (host): [00:00:00] Welcome to Rewrite Radio, the podcast from the Festival of Faith & Writing. I am Lisa Ann Cockrel, the director of the Festival, and I'll be your host. This is the place you can listen back to conversations we've had with writers and readers as we've celebrated the written word together for over two decades. In each episode you'll hear a session that took place at the Festival. It might be a reading, an interview, a lecture, a panel conversation, or something else entirely.
Our sponsor this week is Brazos Press. They have a new title coming January 31st from Festival regulars and Redbud Writers Guild members Sarah Arthur and Erin Wasinger called The Year of Small Things: Radical Faith for the Rest of Us. It is available for preorder now wherever you buy your books. For more information, visit www.yearofsmallthings.com.
Today we'll listen to Dennis Covington's presentation at the 2016 Festival of Faith & Writing in which he told stories about his time writing from the borders of Syria's civil war. The stories behind his book Revelation: A Search for Faith in a Violent Religious World. He also reads a selection from his memoir, Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia, a finalist for the National Book Award.
Dennis Covington is the author of six books, and his work has appeared in publications including the New York Times, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Vogue, Esquire, Redbook, Georgia Review, and the Oxford American. His awards include, the Delacorte Press prize for a First Young Adult Novel, the Boston Book Review's Anne Rea Jewell prize for Non-Fiction, and creative writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Alabama State Council on the Arts. He is currently a professor of creative writing at Texas Tech University.
To help introduce Dennis Covington's reading is his fellow 2016 Festival speaker, Chris Hoke, author of Wanted: A Spiritual Pursuit through Jail Among Outlaws and Across Borders. Chris is a writer, gang pastor, and jail chaplain in the Pacific Northwest.
[music, phone ringing]
Chris Hoke: [00:02:04] Hey, hey.
Lisa: So where did we catch you today? Where are you at today?
Chris: You caught me on my own writing day in what was formerly a mud room and now is an insulated book-lined office attached to my house.
Lisa: Oh, very fancy. What are you writing these days? What are you working on?
Chris: That's a damn fine question.
Chris: Yeah, I've frittered away my year doing two reviews and one long article and journaling out ad nauseum a memoir and a novel, and neither of them are, do I have the courage or the time to really lean into, so.
Lisa: I wasn't gonna say, that doesn't sound like frittering, that sounds like pretty productive, but I'm, you know, if you want to use the word frittering, then, [laughs].
Chris: Well, I'm working on getting it into a death grip under my arm, totally controlling that question.
Lisa: Good, good, I like it. How did you first discover Dennis Covington, how did his work come into your life?
Chris: He was a guest author in our SPU MFA program, that I did. You know, which is part of Image journal. Image journal is kind of a bastion for art and faith and good literary content and so Greg Wolf built a low residency MFA program on that kind of flock of writers and readers, and so when I was in it, I was in the creative nonfiction track. And then we got an email that Dennis Covington, author of Salvation on Sand Mountain, would be the nonfiction presenting author. And I'd never heard of him and I read the book, and it just lit my brain on fire, and I was like this is it. This is…
Lisa: Yeah, both you and Dennis have done work as people from one place who've gone into another place or who've written about their time as kind of outsiders in a community. What have you learned from that process as writing about another group of people that you are not a part of?
Chris: I think a lot of it is afterwards. A lot of my writing when I first began, before I did my MFA degree, was just full of a lot of, I mean just away from, just having a helper role with guys, or just being a pastor. Writing these stories helped me realize how much I loved them, beyond what my role required, how much these guys were like my best friends. And how much the light and humor, how much, I never thought I would be a writer of dialogue, as like a craft element, I just remembered the music and the details of everything said the way you would with your best friend.
And I've tried to do dialogue in other settings, and I'm no good at it. I've discovered how much I've loved these guys. But your question is that when I started kind of workshopping some of these stories with a creative nonfiction group, I was under fire just about every time about who are you to tell their story. Those kind of questions.
Chris: [00:05:17] And I think those are important, but they were so far from my mind when I was writing. I didn't feel like I was an outsider coming in and grabbing a story. These were kind of after the fact with people I had shared a lot of time with. And so I think, I mean, when Dennis and I, and then Danielle, D.L. Mayfield, we started talking about pitching that idea for a panel at the Festival, I realized how different Danielle and I thought about it. And definitely how differently Dennis thought about it, because he talked about being a journalist, and at the end of the day his allegiance is to the written work, and needed to be very careful with, you know, "People aren't going to like this, I'm not going to show them what I write, I'm not trying to get their approval, I realize they might not like it."
And I felt, I felt a little bit more torn with these people seeing me as their pastor. And Danielle maybe a little bit more similar to me. So, I don't know Lauren Winner used to say these are publishing questions, not writing questions. Like, in the writing of it I would just get swept up in the memory and the emotion and the meaning of my experiences. And then to then step back from it and say, “Oh gosh is this for me to publish, what is my voice, what is my platform, what is my role in sharing this publicly?”
Lisa: Yeah, I am really intrigued with something you just said about that in writing stories, something like that made me realize, “I love these guys.”
Chris: I mean we have different, like, little tiers of consciousness, right, that like, when I'm with guys in jail, when I'm fishing with them and I'm driving with them or sitting in my car and relaxing, I can tell my like, the part that's like in the front of my mind or brain is, I'm being a chaplain, I'm being a pastor. This normal, this is my job.
And, but then, when I'm on my free time and when I get to drink beer and smoke cigarettes and read literature and try my hand at it at 2:00am that far from the job part of my brain, when I got closer and closer to my heart, I was obsessed with these memories and conversations. And they delighted me and they fascinated me more than the people I told myself were my friends — other kind of white twenty-something millennial post-church college-educated peers. That these folks in jail, that maybe my brain that thought, "I'm just being a minister and I happen to enjoy them," but these people were far more important to me than I had admitted to myself.
And I was writing not out of; I started writing long before I thought I could publish, or even get a story in a magazine. I was just writing because the way you hum songs when you walk, like it, it was just in me. And so I wasn't thinking I'm going to create a platform and write a creative nonfiction series about my role as a jail chaplain. It was just beautiful, like Monet was obsessed with his water lilies, and I was just obsessed with these guys and the things they said that just hammered my heart wide open faster than the most expensive poetry book I'd buy.
Lisa: I was just going to ask if there was anything, I know you've been a longtime admirer of Dennis Covington, and so if anything jumped out to you of this new project of his that you were particularly interested in.
Chris: You know, so much. Yeah I mean, it was writing the review was one of the hardest things I had written because I had 1500 words and I'd realized I had so much I wanted to say.
Lisa: And for those listening, this is the review that you wrote of his most recent book, Revelation, that was in I think the November/December 2016 issue of Books & Culture.
Chris: Yes, sadly the final issue of Books & Culture.
Lisa: Lamentably, yes.
Chris: [00:09:17] Yeah, well one of the things I guess just to summarize what I tried to get at in the article is Dennis crosses lines, he crosses boundaries. And that's what he does in the Salvation on Sand Mountain. His you know, his really famous book about studying snake handlers in the Appalachian hills. In then as he covers as a journalist, he really crosses a professional line and becomes a handler himself and enters into the mystery and the faith and the community and a sense of belonging. And it’s that crossing over, more than just his studies of; I think it's that crossing over that he does and documents internally, that makes his writing so electric.
And then he crosses lines in writing a memoir about mutual infidelities in his marriage. And I mean, not a lot of people do that and especially some; they were connected to a faith community during those years and the courage to write about that and so. And I was thinking about in Revelation he goes even further; he goes to the two the most hellish places on Earth I can think of: to Juárez, Mexico and to Syria and its civil war where there is a lot of presence of ISIS. What's driving this guy?
And because he's not just a journalist he has such a spiritual quest that's so palpable and vulnerable. He is in the middle of, like, bombs going off and in Syria and in Turkey and he has this completely tender series of memories of him visiting these this little child and what he calls “a river of burn scars on her body.” So he's seeking out these communities of such mercy and tenderness amidst such hellish places, and that for me really, it embodies what I've been preaching about a lot when I go to churches and when I talk about prisons.
And the point of church is to invade hellish places, and I think he has really got the right ecclesial radar on; that he is going into the hellish places looking for the presence of God. And his framing question of the book is a little different; he wants to explore religion and violence, but I see in him searching out for for church and I think the most Christ-like way possible.
Lisa: Thanks so much Chris for taking your time from your writing day to talk about Dennis's work.
Chris: Thanks so much Lisa. Take care.
Lisa: [00:11:49] And now, here is Dennis Covington on searching for faith in a violent religious world at the 2016 Festival of Faith & Writing. A programming note for listeners: this recording does include content that might not be suitable for children.
Dennis Covington: Okay, what I'm going to do; I don't give lectures, okay. I mean, the only lecture I ever give to my students was written almost 30 years ago and it appeared in Image magazine, if you want to go back and see if you can find it it's called “The Problem of the Azure-Hooded Jay.”
I'm going to read some selections from the books starting with Revelation, the new one. And I'm going to read the prologue if you don't mind.
On a star-filled night in March of 2014, I was driving west from Lubbock, Texas to Prescott, Arizona where I hope to find the whereabouts of Carl and Marsha Mueller the parents of Kayla Mueller, the 25 year-old humanitarian aid worker who had been kidnapped by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, seven months before.
The public did not know that an American woman was among the Western hostages held by ISIS, the most brutal terror organization in the world. But along the Turkish-Syrian border, I had met by chance a man who claimed to be Kayla's husband. He was Syrian; he freely gave me the information that his American wife was in a ISIS prison. He said they had been kidnapped together in Aleppo, Syria, in August, but that he had been able to escape their captors.
When I had dinner with the Syrian a few months later, he said he had been imprisoned again, but had escaped or been released — the circumstances were unclear to me. He also said he was in contact with Kayla's parents in Arizona. I asked if they might be willing to talk to me. I told him I was writing a book about faith and about the strange confluence of faith and violence, or at least religion and violence around the world. I wanted to ask the Muellers how they were managing to hold up under what seemed to me to be the worst possible circumstances for any parent of any child.
When he said that he would be willing to talk, I left the Turkish-Syrian Border, flew to Texas, rented a car, and headed to Arizona. From what I had found on the internet, the Muellers’ address and phone number were out of date. I avoided calling Kayla's husband to get the current contact information, and I ignored the message from him asking for clarification about my intentions. I didn't trust him. I couldn't understand how he had managed to escape ISIS twice while Kayla had remained in prison, and I didn't believe that he was her husband. I wanted to talk to Kayla's parents directly, not through him anymore. He wasn't the father of a daughter.
[00:15:01] I was the father of two. They were close to Kayla's age: 26 and 28, and they were the most precious people on Earth to me. I thought that Kayla's parents would understand that we had a connection through our love for our daughters and that they might open up to me, even if they feared I would violate their trust.
In the car with me that night was a photocopied article that night that I had retrieved from the internet about Kayla's visit back home during the spring before her kidnapping. She had given a talk to her father's Kiwanis Club about her work with refugees along the Turkish-Syrian border. (As you know, the Kiwanis Club is an international service organization dedicated to the children of the world.) Kayla was standing in front of the Kiwanis logo and to her right and to her right in the background was an unfurled American flag.
Looking at Kayla's radiant and self-assured smile on the photo, I knew how proud her parents must have been of her. I can also imagine how concerned they must have been for her safety when she returned to the Middle East. Could imagine. Could imagine. What inadequate words these were, given what the Muellers must have been going through that night, as I wound my way toward them.
The stretch of interstate from Santa Rosa to Clines Corner, New Mexico is sparsely populated, the kind of place I liked. When I first moved to Texas, I'd been bankrupt and living with my younger daughter in an abandoned farmhouse on the edge of a canyon, 50 miles from the university where I taught. It was the flattest place on Earth and one of the happiest times of my life. At night we would go outside at various hours to note how the universe had revolved slowly around our heads.
The Big Dipper turned on its own axis, the Milky Way, that terrifying river of lights stayed intact, but the constellations were always in motion, imperceptible unless one had been rigorous in observation and had kept track. Where we lived then, unlike at any place I'd lived before, it was possible to do just that. The only sources of competing light where from a ranch house a mile and a half away in one direction and another ranch house a mile and a half away in the opposite direction. There were no other artificial lights as far as the Horizon. we were living in a nocturnal paradise, or at least it seemed that way to me.
My spiritual life, on the other hand was a mess. I was in the middle of my fifties with more broken promises to God that I could ever name. I'd been baptized at birth into a Methodist family in Alabama, been saved by grace at the age of sixteen. Then I’d backslid into a fallen state for almost twenty years until I sobered up, started a family, and tried to serve the Lord.
In my forties, after covering the trial of a snake-handling preacher, convicted of attempting to murder his wife with rattlesnakes, I wrote a book about my journey with the handlers. I briefly became one myself. I even considered being baptized by a snake handling preacher in the Tennessee River, before opting instead for baptism in our sedate, urban, Baptist church back in Birmingham.
But, I ultimately defied the Baptist doctrine of “once saved always saved” by falling from grace yet again, while writing another book. This time, a joint memoir with my wife. That book was to be about our search for what Jesus had called "living water” — the kind He had offered to the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well, the kind that could wash away her since forever and slake her thirst. We thought we could find this spiritual water by leading a team from our church to hand-drill a well to literal water in a desperately poor village in El Salvador.
We did drill the well, but the problem by then was that my wife and I had fallen in love with other people. So our book about spiritual renewal became instead a confession of sin, without the requisite plea for forgiveness at the end. So much for my claim to godliness. Our memoir was honest, yes, but that honesty I had come at the expense of the people we loved the most.
So when I was asked to step aside for my leadership role in the church, I didn't think my church had failed me: I knew I had failed my church. But I didn't feel as though God had turned his back on me, not at all. He seemed to have been expecting that I was going to mess things up. [laughter] So I figured my inability to rest assured in church must have been man-made, the result of doctrine, dogma, a regimen of oft-repeated beliefs as though the various recitation of them could somehow feel the dark hole at the center of my heart.
[00:20:19] Instead, I found solace in the definition of faith in Hebrews 11:1 as a substance that could be sought out and found. And James 2:26 became my mantra, "for as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also." I began to reimagine faith as an action, rather than as a set of beliefs. As something that anyone, believer or not, could initiate if only given the time and the means. I was no longer physically able to hand drill a water well, but I could still write.
So in my sixties I decided to do what Jesus expected his disciples to do when he asked them to go as witnesses to his suffering on the cross. I decided to go to places where people were subjected to extremity, as his followers like St. Peter and St. Paul had been, and as the generations who came after them would be. The ones who would be mocked, imprisoned, stoned, sawn asunder, tempted, and slain with the sword. In this quest, I might find pilgrims who taken a similar path, people like Kayla Mueller who had said, “Some people find God in church, some people find God in nature, some people find God in love, I find God in suffering.”
After I gassed up that night, at a service station in Moriarty, New Mexico, I drove due north until I had left the artificial lights behind. On the shoulder of the two-lane blacktop I stopped, got out of the car, waited for my eyes to adjust, and then took in the whole night sky. Each constellation in that sky in New Mexico was chiseled as if from ice, and there was one bright light in the Western sky that I could not name for the life of me. I had looked for it before in my stargazers book, and I knew I would have to look again when I got back to Texas. That night though, I just took the bright light in the Western sky as a sign that Kayla Mueller surely would be coming home. [Sniffs] Excuse me. As you know she didn't.
I'm going to read a part of a chapter in the middle of the book. It's my younger daughter's favorite chapter.
New York Times correspondent C. J. Chivers sent me a link to a video, the likes of which I had never seen before. The video purported to show the aftermath of a regime bombing of a town in northern Syria, and it opened with the bloodied face of an adult corpse. Beside that corpse were the bodies of three small boys lying in their own blood. "A massacre," said of voice off-camera. When the camera panned back past the adult corpse to a nearby green blanket with an intricate design, a man's hand had barely begun to reveal what was under it before other voices said, "Cover the woman, show him the little girl." The man moved on to a black blanket piled in the corner of the room. His hand hesitated, as though the suggestion of the others might have been improper. But once he made his decision, he pulled back the blanket and carefully lifted up a tiny girl who was wearing a blue pinafore with ruffled white sleeves and hem.
The man's grief-stricken face was more visible now as he brought the girl toward the camera. It was clear she had been recently killed, because her arms and legs still dangled in a natural way. Rigor mortis had not yet set in. It was as though she were still asleep, still alive rather, sleeping perhaps, and might wake up at any moment. But there was one problem. The girl had no head.
The man had decided that no matter the moral or privacy issues involved, the world needed to see this. "We bring our case before God," he said, "before God alone, for mankind has failed us."
[00:24:59] The girl I would have liked for the world to see was the first patient I met at a hospital in Reyhanlı, Turkey, a stone's throw from the Syrian border. I'll call this girl Aini, the Arabic word for spring. She was 12 years old. Her room was painted a bright pink and was small, particularly since there were five people crowded into it. Her nurse, her physical therapist, her mother and I, and Aini herself lay in the bed in a white knit top and oversized diapers. Her eyes were large and deep brown, her hair cut short, perhaps to make it easier to attend to. The physical therapist dabbed her forehead with a damp cloth and whispered, smiling into her ear, but Aini never smiled at all.
The story of Aini's injury was told by her mother, elaborated on by the physical therapist, and translated by the nurse. Occasionally they all smiled when the details didn't match, all but Aini — she didn't move a muscle during the telling, not even her eyes. The gist though was straightforward. Aini and her father had been walking along the street in their small town in Idlib province when they were both shot by a sniper. Her father died instantly. Aini was taken to a nearby hospital, but the doctors there couldn't remove the bullet. And the hospital they took her to next was bombed by Bashar al-Assad's air force. The family was able to escape with the help of the Free Syrian Army, but Aini's brothers, of whom there were seven, had disappeared along the way. Nobody knew where they were or even whether they were still alive.
The physical therapist said that the bullet was out now, but that it had severed Aini's spinal cord at the T6/T7 level, an area of the spine at which paraplegia would likely be the result. He said that Aini's prognosis was grim. In addition to the physical injury, there was the psychological one. Aini's mother told me her daughter hadn't spoken for four months after the death of her father. She had only recently begun to say a few words.
I asked them to ask her, if she had a message for the people of America. Aini's expression did not change as she spoke, and her answer was no less grave for being predictable: "I just want them to help me walk again."
For the first time I felt that what I was doing along the border might be useful, if only to transmit a message from a young girl whose life had been forever changed on a day when she was doing nothing more unusual than walking with her father down a quiet street in their hometown.
When I left Aini's room, her doctor, whom I'll call Miran, walked close beside me past rooms with other seriously injured children then down a flight of stairs. The landing opened onto an outer courtyard that had been swept clean and was filled with bright sunlight. There I asked him if he thought Aini would ever walk again. The look in his eyes said no. Miran seemed too young to be a doctor, and I told him so. He smiled and said he had been in his residency at the University of Aleppo, when he decided to join the peaceful anti-regime protests in the spring of 2011.
When I asked him to tell me about the most difficult procedure he had to perform in Syria, he said it wasn't in a hospital of any kind; it was at night in a house without electricity in Aleppo. “He was a fifteen-year-old boy with gunshot wounds to his head and thigh,” Miran said. “I had to sterilize a pair of scissors over a fire. Someone held a flashlight. I used the scissors to remove the bullets. There was no anesthesia, nothing.” When I asked whether the patient had survived, he said he didn't know, but he doubted it. “Sometimes we cry,” he said, “because we don't know what to do for these people. And even if we did, we wouldn't have the suitable equipment. Most of the doctors,” he said, “in Northern Syria had already either been killed or arrested. So there's no choice,” he said, “you have to do it, even if you don't have enough experience.”
I was thinking about Aini, and he must have known that. “Frankly,” he said, “sometimes I just want to go to a far-off place and live a long time and not think about Syria. But we have to stay. You understand what I mean, don't you? We have to stay.” I nodded and thanked him for talking to me. He touched his forehead and its heart, the Islamic blessing that accompanies both hello and goodbye. And then he turned and went about his work.
[00:30:12] I made a quick trip into Syria, into Aleppo, Syria, that March, and then I went back to Texas to finish teaching the spring semester at my university. I had made a plane reservation to return to Turkey on May 13th, I hoped to visit Aini again in Reyhanlı. But on May 12th my brother was rushed into the emergency room. He had pneumonia, and the doctors warned me he might not survive it, so I cancelled my flight.
That was the morning that I saw the news that twin car bombs had exploded in Reyhanlı, killing 52 people, including five children and injuring more than 140 of all ages. The Turkish newspaper later called it the deadliest single act of terrorism that had ever occurred on Turkish soil. Articles online carried photos of the bombs’ horrendous aftermath. Both devices had gone off in the center of town; one near the main post office and the other next to the city hall. The hospital where Aini was a patient was not that far from it either.
My brother recovered from his pneumonia, the semester ended, and when I got back to Turkey exactly a month after the bombings I went straight to Reyhanlı and was overjoyed to see that not only had Aini not been further injured, but she was sitting up in bed. Her hair had grown out, she was wearing a Gangnam t-shirt, and when she saw me at the door, she flashed a beautiful smile and gave me the peace sign. Aini couldn't walk, but she was going to survive. And she was expecting a visitor from down the hall. He wheeled himself in one handed, a bright-eyed 10-year-old boy who had lost his right leg and the use of his left hand. But the worst thing was that he had also lost his brother and mother in the bombing of their house. But he too was wearing a grin. Even though I think he might have been a little peeved that Aini's wheelchair, which was folded up in the corner, was bigger than his.
Suddenly I just didn't want to hear the phrase “lost generation of Syrian children” anymore. The word lost suggested they were irretrievable, could never be found, and so needn't be thought about any longer. But these two had lives ahead of them, they were resilient, full of spunk. All they needed in order to have a fine future, I thought, was to stay as far away as possible from that lousy war and to finish their childhoods in a place that offer decent medical care, educational opportunities, and most of all, safety. America and its allies should long since have provided no fly zones and protected humanitarian quarters, for children like these. But it wasn't too late for the ones in Northern Syria who were left.
Aini's mother by the way had good news: all of her seven sons were alive. They were living in a cave just across the border, and one of them was able to sneak across the border into Turkey every few days to get supplies for them. She was still worried of course, but the news had given her hope — something that had been in short supply after her husband have been killed and her daughter had been left paraplegic. She wanted me to sit down. She offered me her chair; she wished she had some food or tea to give me.
She was scurrying around that little hospital room, her hands clasped in front of her as though there were some treat for me, if only she could find it. I motioned for her to please sit back down, I could stay only a moment. And after the nurse left, this communication was being accomplished with sign language and facial expressions, but hey, these make for rich exchanges when life is made a turn for the better, even if it is just a little better, and even if it might not last. Her sons were still in terrible danger, she had no place to live, except this hospital room, but she had faith.
The third time I went to see Aini she wasn't there. The nurse told me that she and her mother had found a place to live in Reyhanlı. Her mother was doing needlework for clients and somehow getting by. Aini had become a terror with that wheelchair of hers. The sons were still living in the cave on the other side of the border, but they were healthy and so far able to stay clear of the fighting. Maybe, just maybe, the family could be reunited in Turkey someday. Maybe someday the war would end and they could all go back to what was left of Syria, if they wanted to. Start anew. Wouldn't that be the substance of things hoped for?
[00:35:03] Unfortunately, some of the patients I saw on that visit might never be leaving the hospital. One of them was a 71-year-old woman of unearthly beauty who had been injured by one of Bashar's barrel bombs. Her legs had been amputated below her hips. The attendants had somehow managed to prop her up in bed so she could look out the window with her fixed, dignified gaze. Her headscarf was a colorful geometric print. Two other women patients who shared her room had been injured in similar attacks, and they wanted to tell me what had happened to them, so I listened. But the woman looking out the window did not want to talk about any of that, so I left her in peace.
The final time I visited the hospital Aini's old room had been painted blue and was occupied by two boys. One of them was fourteen and had been burned by a barrel bomb in Aleppo two months before as he was walking to get ice cream. The other was a thirteen-year-old; his left hand had been blown off — the cross section of the bones of his forearm visible in the middle of the unbandaged stump. Two fingers on his other hand were missing. It looked as though that hand had suffered a severe burn, and although the boy wasn't smiling his father was there, sitting on the bed and holding his son's remaining hand gingerly, as though it were a precious piece of art.
Suddenly I heard a commotion, from the end of the hall, so I excused myself and headed to a corner room, where an eight-year-old girl named Husna stood at the bedside of her friend Lutfi, who was 7 and had been left paraplegic by the explosion of an artillery shell in Deir al-Zour. Husna had been poking fun at Lutfi and both were laughing hysterically when I entered the room. Husna was lithe, a young athlete perhaps, and her hair was cropped like a boy's. From the back, she looked like Peter Pan, but when she turned to me, still laughing, I saw that her face was a river of burn scars, like tributaries starting at her forehead and branching down each cheek. One eye was displaced a bit by scar tissue, but other than the scars, she seemed a normal eight-year-old. Her ears were pierced, a bright metal stud in the lobe of each one, and when she saw me she giggled and raced down the hall and back, beside herself with what must have been, despite everything, the joy of being young and alive.
The nurse told me that Husna and her mother had been in their house, her mother about to take a shower, when a rocket or bomb hit and ignited the barrel of heating oil on their roof. The explosion and flames set Husna on fire and buried shrapnel deep into her body, and her recovery had been incredibly long and painful. She was an only child, and the nurse thought she and her mother had done a remarkable job of enduring the excruciating circumstances of her injury. But there was yet another source of pain for them, Husna's father was missing. He had been working on road construction the day of the attack. He had been detained by the regime and had not been seen or heard from since.
I appreciate you listening to that.
Now for a little snake handling! I'll just start at a homecoming celebration on a church-owned sand mountain and brother Carl Porter, my spiritual mentor, has just arrived to deliver the sermon.
About that time, Brother Carl himself walked in with a serpent box containing the biggest rattlesnake I'd ever seen. Carl smelled of Old Spice and rattlesnake and something else underneath, a pleasant smell like warm bread and apples. I associated it with the Holy Ghost. The handlers had told me that the Holy Ghost had a smell, a sweet savor. And I had begun to think that I could detect it on people and in churches, even in staid, respectable churches, like the one I went to in Birmingham.
Anyway that was what I smelled on brother Carl that day, as he talked about the snake in the box, "I just got him today," he said. "He's never been in church before." Carl looked over his glasses at me and smiled. He held the serpent box up to my face and tapped the screen until the snake started rattling good. "Gotch your name on him," he said to me. A shiver went up my spine, but I just shook my head and grinned. "Come on up to the front," he said. I followed him and sat on the first pew next to J.L. Dyal, but I made a mental note to avoid Carl's eyes during the service and to stay away from that snake of his.
[00:40:12] Billy Summerford's wife, Joyce, led the singing. She was a big woman with a voice that wouldn't quit. [Singing] "Remember how it felt, when you walked out of the wilderness, walked out of the wilderness, walked out of the wilderness. Remember how it felt when you walked out of the wilderness.” It was one of my favorite songs because it had multiple meanings now. There was the actual wilderness in the Old Testament that the Israelites were led out of and the spiritual wilderness that was its referent, the condition of being lost, but there was also the wilderness that the new world became for my father's people. I don't mean the mountains, I mean the America that grew up around them, that tangled thicket of the heart. "Remember how it felt, when you walked out of the wilderness." My throat tightened as I sang.
I remembered how it had felt when I had sobered up in 1983. It's not that often you get a second chance at life like that. And I remember the births of my girls, the children my wife Vicki and I had thought we would never be able to have. And looking around at the familiar faces in the congregation I figured that they were thinking about their own wildernesses and how they had been delivered out of them.
I was still coming out of mine. It was a measure of how far I'd come, that I'd be moved nearly to tears in a run-down Holiness Church on Sand Mountain, but my restless and stubborn intellect was still intact. It didn't like what it saw, the crowd of men dancing up to the serpent boxes, unclasping the lids and taking out the poisonous snakes. Reason told me it was too early in the service. The snakes hadn't even been prayed over yet. There hadn't even been preaching, just Billy Summerford screaming into a microphone while the music swirled around us like a fog. But the boys from Tennessee and Kentucky had been hungry to get into the boxes.
Soon Punkin Brown was shouting at his snake, a big black faced timber rattler that he had draped around his neck. Alan Williams is offering his Copperhead up like a sacrifice, hands outstretched. But Brother Carl had the prize, and everyone seemed to know it. It was a yellow-faced Timber, thick and melancholy, as big as timber rattlers come. Carl glanced at me, but I wouldn't make eye contact with him. I turned away, I walked to the back of the church and took a long drink of water from the bright yellow cooler propped up against a portrait of Jesus with his head on fire.
"Who knows what this snake is thinking," Carl shouted, "God knows! God understands the mind of the snake!" And when I turned back around, Carl had laid the snake down and was treading barefoot on it from tail to head as though he were walking a tightrope. Still the snake didn't bite. I had heard about this, but had never seen it before. It was from a passage in Luke.
Carl picked the snake back up and draped it around his neck. The snake seem to be looking for a way to get out of its predicament. [laughter] Carl let it nuzzle into his shirt, then the snake pulled back and cocked its head, as if in preparation to strike Carl's chest. Its head was as big as a child's hand. "Help him Jesus!" someone yelled above the din. Instead of striking, the snake started to climb Carl's sternum toward his collarbone. It went up the side of his neck and then lost interest and fell back against his chest.
“They say we've gone crazy," brother Carl shouted above the chaos. He was pacing in front of the pulpit, the enormous rattlesnake balanced now across the shoulder. “Well they are right!" he cried. "I've gone crazy, I've gone Bible crazy! and I've got the papers here to prove it!" And he waved his worn Bible in the air. "Some people say we are bunch of lunatics!” Amen, thank God. “Well we are! Hai-i-salemos-ah-cahn-ne-hi-yee! Woo, that last one nearly took me out of here.”
It's not true that you become used to the noise and confusion of a snake handling Holiness service, on the contrary you become enmeshed in it. It is theater at its most intricate: improvisational spiritual jazz. And the more you experience it, the more attentive you are to the shifts in the surface and the dark shoals underneath. For every outward sign, there is a spiritual equivalent. When somebody falls to his knees, a specific problem presents itself and the others know exactly what to do, whether it's oil for a healing or a prayer cloth thrown over the shoulders or a devil that needs to be cast out. The best of course, the simplest and cleanest, is when someone gets the Holy Ghost for the first time. The younger the worshipper, the easier it seems to be for the Holy Ghost to descend and speak. Lips loosen, tongue flapping, eyes rolling backward in the head. It transcends the erotic when a thirteen-year-old girl gets the Holy Ghost. The older ones often take time.
[00:45:43] I'll skip a little ahead.
You can never exhaust the power when the spirit comes down, not even when you take up a snake, not even when you take up a dozen of them. The more faith you expend, the more power is released. It’s an inexhaustible eternally-renewable resource. It's the only power some of these people have. So the longer you witness, unless you just don't get into the spontaneous and unexpected, the more you become a part of it. I did. And they handlers could tell. They knew before I did what was going to happen, they saw me angling in. They were already making room for me in front of the deacon's bench.
As I said, I always been drawn to danger, alcohol, psychedelics, war. If it made me feel good, I would do it. I was always up for a little trip. I figured if I could trust my guide, I would be all right. I would come back to earth in one piece. I wouldn't really lose my mind. That's what I thought, anyway. I couldn't be an astronaut, but there were other things I could do and be.
So I got up there in the middle of the handlers: J.L. Dyal, dark and wiry, was standing on my right, a clean-cut boy named Steve Frazier with standing on my left. Who was it going to be? Carl's eyes were saying, "You." And yes, it was the big rattler, the one with my name on it; acrid smelling, carnal, alive. The look in Carl's eyes seemed to change as he approached me. He was embarrassed. The snake was all I had, his eyes seemed to say. But as low as it was, as repulsive, if I took it I would be possessing the sacred. Nothing was required except obedience. Nothing had to be given up except my own will. This was the moment. I didn't stop to think about it; I just gave in.
I stepped forward and took the snake with both hands; Carl released it to me. I turned to face the congregation and lifted the rattlesnake up toward the light. It was moving like it wanted to get even higher, like it wanted to climb out of that church and into the air. And it was exactly as the handlers have told me: I felt no fear. The snake seem to be an extension of myself and suddenly there seemed to be nothing in the room but me and the snake. Everything else except me and the snake had seemed to disappear except for me and the snake. Carl, the congregation, my friend Jim, all gone, all faded to white.
And I could not hear the ear-splitting music; the air was silent and still and filled with that strong, even light. And I realized that I too was fading into the white. I was losing myself by degrees. Like the incredible shrinking man, the snake would be the last to go. And all I could see was the way its scales shimmered one last time in the light and the way it's had moved from side to side, searching for a way out.
I knew then why the handlers took up serpents. There's powers in the act of disappearing. There is victory in the loss of self. It must be close to our conception of paradise, what it's like before you're born or after you die. I came back in stages. First with the recognition that the shouting I had begun to hear was coming from my own mouth, then I realized I was holding a rattlesnake. [laughter] And the church rushed back with all its clamour, heat, and smell. I remembered Carl and turned toward where I thought you might be. I lowered the snake to waist level. It was an enormous animal, heavy and firm. The scales on its side we're as rough as calluses, and I could feel its muscles rippling beneath the skin. I was aware of that it was not a part of me now and that I couldn't predict what it might do. I extended it toward Carl, he took it from me, stepped to the side, and gave it in turn to J.L. "Jesus," J.L. said. "Oh, Jesus." His knees bent, his head went back. I knew it was happening to him too.
Lisa: [00:50:28] Special thanks to Dennis Covington, also to Chris Hoke. You can learn more about his writing and him work with gang members in and out jail at chris-hoke.com. You can also follow him on Twitter @ChrisHoker.
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Thanks for listening to Rewrite Radio. I am Lisa Ann Cockrel, back soon with more from the Festival of Faith & Writing.