Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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May 30, 2012

Community reacts to Wolford’s death

MATOAKA — Approximately 500 feet outside the town of Matoaka is a non-descript gray and white concrete building, home to a church that believes in a religious practice  rooted deep in the culture of Appalachia.

A small sign advertises the building as the Full Gospel Apostolic House of the Lord Jesus and lists the pastor as Mack Randall Wolford as well as worship times. Several videos were posted on YouTube of the church’s worship services and many depict Wolford handling serpents as part of services.

On Sunday, Wolford and other parishioners gathered at Panther State Forest in McDowell County as part of homecoming worship services where he was bitten in his thigh by a timber rattlesnake.

After the services, Wolford was taken to a parishioner’s home in the Plainview Mobile Home Park in Brushfork. Wolford was then transported to Bluefield Regional Medical Center where he died from his injuries on Monday.

Derek Caldwell, a resident of the Plainview Mobile Home Park in Brushfork, said an ambulance and several police officers were called to a home in his neighborhood.

“I was at work at the time, but my wife told me a bunch of people were up a few houses ahead and there were cars everywhere,” Caldwell said. “There were cameras and ambulances and police there too, all over the place. She didn’t know what had happened. We didn’t know them very well. We don’t socialize with too many of our neighbors. I’ve never seen that many cars here before. The police came later after the ambulance and later we heard that was what happened.”

Another neighbor, who wanted to remain anonymous, said he came home right as the ambulance was leaving the area.

“They were having a big get-together there,” he said. “The ambulance was going right as I came up to my house. They said it happened at the church and then they brought him here.”

Wolford’s death was the center of conversation at the S&M Market in Jolo as well. The community has been made famous for snake handling beliefs, mainly through Dennis Covington’s book “Salvation on Sand Mountain.”

More than 15 years after the publication of Covington’s book, many residents of the town know a friend, neighbor or relative who belongs to a church where parishioners believe in handling serpents or subscribe to the practice themselves. Some knew Wolford or other members of his church, though few would say anything beyond giving condolences to his family.

A man who wished to remain anonymous has been to services conducted at the church He said Wolford and other believers know the risks of the practice, but their faith is stronger than their fear.

“I know he (Wolford) was really bad off before he died,” the young man said. “...it was really bad. He’s worshiped at that church all his life. His daddy passed away the same way, from a rattler. He knew the risks. All of us around here are that way.”

The young man said the type of worship he, Wolford and others believe in comes straight from the Bible and he doesn’t understand prejudices against it. He referenced the Book of Mark, Chapter 16; Verse 18: “They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”

“It’s in the Bible,” he said. “It’s in the same exact verse that tells us to pray for people to be healed.  Some people only take some of it and believe in it, but we believe in all of it. People just want to pick out the parts they like or that make them comfortable, but we don’t do that. We believe in everything the Bible tells us.”

Shirley, an employee at the S&M Market who declined to give her last name, said many people in the area know at least one person who practices snake handling as part of their worship services.

“It used to be really common around here,” she said. “A lot more people used to do it, from what I understand. I know two people who worship that way. It’s just what a lot of people around here believe.”

— Contact Kate Coil at

kcoil@bdtonline.com

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