published Thursday, February 20th, 2014

Cook: The life and death of Jamie Coots

You hear me? God won't fail.

— Jamie Coots

Had you walked inside the white, one-room Kentucky church on Tuesday night, as the storm clouds began forming above the nearby hills and the serpent-handling preachers began gathering near the altar, you would have seen things that would stay with you all the days of your life.

Snakes. Fire. Music and stomping and shouting. Faith mighty enough to shove a mountain into the sea.

It was near midnight, the last hour in the day of Jamie Coots' funeral.

Coots, the nationally known serpent-handling pastor, died Saturday -- "went to his rest," the obituary read -- after a rattlesnake bite and refusing medical treatment. Friends, family and serpent handlers from Indiana to West Virginia to Tennessee had come to pay their respects, and as the public service at the funeral home gave way to a private service at Coots' nine-pew church, one thing was made clear:

The outside world was to stay out. No notepads, no cameras, no documentation.

"No pictures," said Cody Coots, Jamie's son.

So we entered as witnesses, not journalists, which was as it should be.

When Coots died, headlines swept across the land as, once again, serpent handling was yanked out of tiny pockets of the South and into international news. Folks in Middlesboro half-expected Big Media to descend, vulture-like, on their coal-mining town.

"The London Times," said Creech Funeral Home manager Bill Bisceglia, pulling a wad of unreturned messages from his suit pocket. "CNN. I've got one or two calls from Australia."

TMZ was supposed to come. Westboro Baptist Church, too.

In the media, we commit the same sin over and over: Our cameras and reporters spotlight the single thread of serpent handling, unable or unwilling to see the larger story around it. Doing so is like defining an elephant only by its trunk or, in this case, a rattlesnake only by its rattle.

Ask the hundreds of folks lined up on the Middlesboro sidewalks outside the funeral home before the service, and you soon realize that the life of Jamie Coots is far more important than his death, the way he treated people more telling than the snakes he handled.

"I've never heard nobody say a bad word about Jamie Coots," said one man.

"He never knowed a stranger," said the woman with him.

In Middlesboro, one of the poorest areas in Appalachia, Coots held the door open for folks at the post office. He visited widows and the sick. No one could ever recall a time he spoke badly about another. He cut up with the kids on bus 45, which he drove for extra pay.

"I'm a fan of metal and what not," said Devon Williams, a high school senior. "He said music doesn't matter. He said all that matters is if you love God and repent for what you've done wrong."

At his public funeral service, preachers and friends sang, wept, danced, prayed, handled fire and proclaimed -- shouting, up and down the aisle -- the gospel they believe.

"I'd like to tell the devil something," one preacher said. "We ain't going away."

Maybe that's why we came from Chattanooga to Middlesboro -- to peer, rather humbly, over the fence at a group of believers so adamant about obeying God that they're willing to die for it.

To see a man take death in his hands as a way to remain obedient to his God is to witness a profound expression of faith. When you see it once, you want to see it again.

And then to witness his friends and family handle snakes on the night of this man's funeral -- this man who died by a serpent bite -- is to witness, well, something not often seen in this world.

"Remember this brother," said the Rev. Jimmy Morrow, smiling. "You gonna die. I'm gonna die."

But we also came to honor how Coots lived: a good man in a world so hungry for one.

"Jamie loved the people," one preacher said.

Tuesday night, as they took Coots' body from the funeral home back to his church, and unlocked the locks on the boxes of snakes, I thought about the last time we were there, when he was alive.

It was winter. The service, after three hours, was nearly over. In these last minutes, which felt like a large exhale, Coots leaned forward on the pulpit and warmly asked anyone in the audience if they'd like to say something. Folks made prayer requests, gave reasons for praise.

He then gave me a good, straight look. So from the back pew, I spoke up: We appreciate you letting us in tonight. Hope we can come back soon. Pray for us on our drive back home.

I wish I had said one thing more: Thank you for showing the world a good life.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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una61 said...

Hopefully, the rattlesnake is o.k.

February 20, 2014 at 7:57 a.m.
Rickaroo said...

I'm sure that Jamie Coots was a kind-hearted, loving person and deserves all the accolades that people have spoken and written about him, and that if you got to know him as an individual he probably did not come across as some sort of wild-eyed freak with an obsession for handling venomous snakes and drinking poison for show. But the fact of the matter is that he belonged to and led a lunatic fringe of religious zealots who, for reasons that defy logic, latched on to one verse in their Bible out of thousands of other verses and gave it an undeserved significance that sane and reasonable people know not to take out of context.

R.I.P., Mr. Coots. But your death was in no way a victory; rather it was senseless and vain. God did not call you home, sir. Your death was your own doing, as you CHOSE to cling to a blind and irrational faith in something that in the end was of little merit other than making a show for others to witness.

February 20, 2014 at 9:17 a.m.
LibDem said...

Tomorrow I'm taking a guy to the doctor, a trip he can't manage. Next week several dozen people are expecting my help. Some of us can be performers in front of worshipful crowds and some of us have to actually help people. Mr. Coots enjoyed being the spectacle, I would say a rather large ego.

February 20, 2014 at 12:22 p.m.
LibDem said...

It just occurred to me. Mr. Coots was the Evel Knievel of Christians. I've nothing against Mr. Knievel but the idea that he's a really good man doesn't pop into my head.

February 20, 2014 at 12:34 p.m.
conservative said...

Liberals know very little about Christianity or what constitutes a Christian. Most people who believe they are a Christian are not.

The vast majority of professing (not possessing) Christians don't read the Bible or even know the doctrines of Christianity.

These include:

The snake handlers, the charlatans on TV preaching wealth, health, and prosperity, speaking in tongues, raising the dead ( not one has been raised from the dead), miraculous healings on TV (not one), Homosexual "priests", "churches" which practice a false worship of lighting candles, chants, burning incense, worshipping angels, Mary, etc.. "Churches" that allow adulterers, Homosexuals, fornicators, drug addicts, non believers as members, cults who deny (all of them) the deity of Jesus Christ and other Christian doctrines such as the sinlessness of Jesus Christ, the virgin birth and the resurrection.

As many as these are, even more live by the false, damnable belief that they will go to heaven, inherit eternal life by being a good person such as this from Mr. Cook:

"But we also came to honor how Coots lived: a good man in a world so hungry for one."

"I wish I had said one thing more: Thank you for showing the world a good life."

""I've never heard nobody say a bad word about Jamie Coots," said one man"

And then there is the great multitude of false believers who think they can just throw the word "love" around having no idea what Biblical love is. This is especially true of those false believers and false churches who throw the word love around as they try to justify Homosexuality.

February 20, 2014 at 7:13 p.m.
Ki said...

A personal friend who has studied theology and the bible extensively said just like much of the bible, people take that "taking up serpents" out of context. It doesn't mean to actually pick up a snake to prove your faith.

Personally, my belief on the bible is this: The reason the book comes across as inspired by some psychotic, ranting lunatic sometimes who couldn't make up his mind or written by someone suffering multiple personality disorder is because the words weren't taken from one source, person, one inspiration. I believe the book is a composite of different rulers throughout thousands of years of history and how they ruled while in power. Some were peaceful living giveg. They had a desire to help and uplift the poor. While others were barbaric, blood thirty and always looking for the next war. And some were perverted and sadistic.

And that's what Mitt Romney meant when he said if he's elected president that's how either "the U.S. (or the world I can't remember which) would be ruled for the 100 or 1000 years." Based upon Mormon belief.

There was actually discussion of adding the Book of Mormons as a chapter in the bible. Just think, one hundred, or 1000 thousands years from now none of us would be around to question, challenge or dispute anything being fed to any generations that exist then. That is if humans are still around by then and haven't blowned one another to smitterings with their multiple and powerful weapons that can blow the entire planet earth up. Future generations, if they were still in exitense, would believe as some in present and prior generations believe. That is the bible is the word of some invisible god.

February 20, 2014 at 7:33 p.m.
mhbraganza said...

The Bible clearly says:

"This sign shall follow them that believe: They shall take up serpents and it shall not hurt them"

So, as Coots was killed by a serpent, he was not a believer.

February 20, 2014 at 8:53 p.m.
Hunter_Bluff said...

I'll give the man credit, he walked the walk, lived by his beliefs and died as a result. There are worse outcomes and certainly there are worse people. While I hope no one chooses to emulate him, his choices killed only himself and in America that was his right. When your choices kill another then you are in the wrong.

February 20, 2014 at 10:11 p.m.
jesse said...

david seem to be fascinated by this stuff!

wonder how long before he snatches up a big old rattler!!

February 21, 2014 at 1:38 p.m.
Rickaroo said...

HB, his choice did indeed affect other people. He was not living in a vacuum. He had a family and friends and relatives who depended on him. He was apparently a kindhearted and loving person who contributed a lot to his community in some very tangible, down-to-earth ways - other than handling snakes, that is! But he decided to heed an imaginary voice inside his head and place more importance on his love for an invisible sky daddy than on the love he had for his friends and family here on earth. He was young and full of life and the good he could have continued contributing would have meant so much more than going "home" to do nothing but sit at the right hand of God or whatever in his make-believe paradise.

He didn't have to die. Even after being bitten he could have at least agreed to get medical treatment that would have surely saved him, but he chose to leave it up to "God." I'm sorry but there is nothing noble or heroic or even acceptable about that. That needs to be called what it is - stupid.

February 21, 2014 at 1:59 p.m.
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