Cook: The life and death of Jamie Coots

Cook: The life and death of Jamie Coots

February 20th, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

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.