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Why I watched a snake-handling pastor die for his faith

This is what I saw through my camera lens: Pastor Randy “Mack” Wolford, tossing and turning on the couch in his mother-in-law’s West Virginia trailer, suffering from the pain of a rattlesnake bite he had received earlier in the day. Parishioners surrounding him in prayer in the stifling heat. His mother stroking his feet, her expression a mixture of concern, sorrow and, eventually, acceptance: This is how her eldest son — a legend in the local Pentecostal serpent-handling community — would die.

Camera in hand, I watched as the man I’d photographed and gotten to know over the past year writhed, turned pale and slipped away, a victim of his unwavering faith, but also a testament to it. A family member called paramedics when Mack finally allowed it, but it was too late. Mack Wolford drew his final, labored breaths late Sunday night. He was 44.

The scene has been playing over and over in my head since then, and the questions are weighing on me: As a photojournalist, what role did I have in this tragedy, and what is it now, in the aftermath? Was it right for me to remain in the background taking pictures, as I did, and not seek medical attention for the dying pastor, whose beliefs forbade it? Or should I have intervened and called paramedics earlier, which would have undermined Mack’s wishes? Finally, what was I supposed to do with the images I shot?

My thoughts have been especially muddied because of the context in which I knew Mack. He wasn’t just a source and a subject in my year-long documentary project about Pentecostal serpent-handling; he was also a friend: We shared a meal at the cafe where members of his family work; he screened videos about himself for me at his house; I once stayed the night on his couch.

The practices of the Signs Following faith remain an enigma to many. How can people be foolish enough to interpret Mark 16: 17-18 so literally: to ingest poison, such as strychnine, which Mack also allegedly did at Sunday’s ceremony; to handle venomous snakes; and, most incomprehensible of all, not to seek medical treatment if bitten? Because of this reaction, many members of this religious community are hesitant to speak to the media, let alone be photographed.

But Mack was different. He allowed me to see what life was like for a serpent-handler outside church, which helped me better understand the controversial religious practice, and, I think, helped me add nuance to my photographs. His passing, my first vivid encounter with death, was both a personal and professional loss for me.

I decided to attend the worship service Mack was holding at Panther Wildlife Management Area, in the southwestern part of the state, on a whim, thinking that it would be good to see him again, and that I’d make the seven-hour drive back to Washington the following morning. But I haven’t returned. I have been staying at a friend’s house close to Bluefield, speaking with Mack’s family members, and gradually allowing myself to feel some of the raw emotion that has been percolating for days.

Mack’s family has accepted his death as something that he knew was coming and something that was ultimately God’s will. The pastor believed every word of the Bible and laid down his life for his conviction, they said. For them, his death is an affirmation of the Signs Following tradition: “His faith is what took him home,” said his sister Robin Vanover, 38.

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