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

May 31, 2012

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.

She and Mack’s mother, daughter, wife and niece crowded into the living room of Mack’s mother Wednesday evening to watch home movies of past church services. Mack’s white Ford pickup sat on the edge of the gravel road outside, its vehicle inspection sticker stolen by a local who callously remarked that Mack wouldn’t need it anymore. The yellow timber rattlesnake that bit Mack, which he had owned for years, has been taken back to his home.

Mack’s mother, Vicie Haywood, nicknamed “Snook,” talked about losing her pastor husband to a rattlesnake bite when her son was 15. “I couldn’t give up when his dad died, and now that [Mack]’s given his life, I just can’t give up,” she said. “It’s still the Word, and I want to go on doing what the Word says.”

After her son was pronounced dead at Bluefield Regional Medical Center, she added, “I kissed him and I promised him that I would see him again.” Her voice broke.

Mack’s family wanted me to know that he was more concerned with helping people attain salvation than getting them to handle snakes. “The Lord used him in so many ways, with so many people, and all ages,” his sister Robin said.

Some of the people who attended last Sunday’s service have struggled with Mack’s death, as I have. “Sometimes, I feel like we’re all guilty of negligent homicide,” one man wrote to me in a Facebook message following Mack’s death. “I went down there a ‘believer.’ That faith has seriously been called into question. I was face-to-face with him and watched him die a gruesome death. . . . Is this really what God wants?”

That’s a good question.

I know many photojournalists have been in situations similar to mine. Pulitzer Prize winner Kevin Carter photographed an emaciated Sudanese child struggling to reach a food center during a famine — as a vulture waited nearby. He was roundly criticized for not helping the child, which, along with the disturbing memories of the events he had covered and other factors, may have contributed to his suicide. As photojournalists, we have a unique responsibility to record history and share stories in as unbiased and unobtrusive a way as possible. But when someone is hurt and suffering, we have to balance our instincts as professionals with basic human decency and care.

In my mind, Mack’s situation was different from that of a starving child or a civilian wounded in war. He was a competent adult who decided to stand by what he understood to be the word of God, no matter the consequences. And so I’ve started to come to peace with the fact that everyone in the crowded trailer, including myself, let Mack die as a man true to his faith.

The more challenging issue for me has been what to do with my images of Mack’s death. Once the media learned that I was a witness to this tragedy, I was inundated with phone calls and e-mails asking for details of that day, and some seeking permission to use my images. I faced an internal tug of war. What was most important: revealing what had happened, or protecting the privacy of the family and the integrity of my photographic project?

Ultimately, in the face of the criticism and degrading commentary that has followed Mack’s death, I’ve decided that I owe it to his loved ones to communicate what they knew about him and his faith — as well as what I’ve learned and observed — and to publish select images with this essay.

Though I was asked to use discretion in Mack’s final hours, not once did anyone force me away or prevent me from photographing the events that unfolded before me on May 27. Perhaps Mack wanted me to be at that oppressively hot and humid park site to document the bite and its lethal aftermath. Perhaps he wanted me to witness his incredible display of conviction, so that I could share with the world a side of his faith that few have gotten to see.

Photojournalist Lauren Pond’s pictures of Mack Wolford appeared in The Washington Post Magazine in November 2011.

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