MACEDONIA, Ala. - Punkin Brown stalks around the altar of the Old Rockhouse Holiness Church, his head bobbing, his voice a stream of guttural barks from the depths of his chest. He is "in the Word," and the congregation is clapping and shouting.
Then, nonchalantly, he plucks a 3-foot yellow timber rattlesnake from a wooden box on the altar.
The rattler stiffens in a "V" shape in Brown's right hand as he hops across the stage on one leg like rocker Chuck Berry. He sets the snake on the altar and strokes its upstretched head.
"They say it won't bite," the beefy 34-year-old evangelist shouts. "If it won't bite, there ain't no sense in being scared. . . . I seen that big copperhead in there bite, but I know one thing: That the Lord told me it was all right. The Lord said it would be all right."
Brown knows they can bite. The preacher from Parrottsville, Tenn., has been bitten 22 times since he began handling serpents 18 years ago.
And he knows how serious the bites can be. His 28-year-old wife, Melinda, mother of their five children, died of a bite three years ago at a revival in Kentucky.
That was a rattlesnake, like this one.
And on this October day on Sand Mountain in northeast Alabama, the family's sad history repeats itself.
Brown doesn't even flinch when the rattler sinks one fang into the base of his left middle finger. If he is scared, it doesn't show.
"God don't ever change," he says, his voice ever so slightly less forceful than before. "God don't ever fail, and He never will."
Brown hands the snake to another man and walks behind the altar. A man in a striped shirt follows behind, stroking Brown's head and neck, his own head jerking violently up and down.
"God's still God, no matter what comes," Brown says, his voice relaxed and reassuring, the fire and brimstone completely gone from it. "No matter what else, God's still God."
These are his last words of preaching.
Brown starts to fail. He walks in front of the altar, then back up and paces a little. He braces himself, his left hand on the pulpit, his right on Pastor Billy Summerford's shoulder. His head is down and he swallows hard.
Brown raises both hands in the air. His friends hold him up for a few seconds, then lower him to the floor.
A video camera rolls, taking in the alarming scene and the incongruous, sweetly smiling face of an oblivious little girl. Someone asks Brown if he wants a doctor. He shakes his head and points to the sky.
After about 10 minutes, the simple green and white church goes silent, except for some muffled sobs. The little girl in the video still smiles, uncomprehending.
Brown is dead.
The New Testament's book of Mark calls serpent handling one of the "signs" that true believers must follow.
And John Wayne "Punkin" Brown Jr., a rising star in the Pentecostal faith, was a true believer.
Brown felt he was following God's law when he defied a judge's order following the death of his wife in August 1995. The order restored to him custody of his children from his in-laws, but with conditions: No poisonous snakes around the house and no more snake-handling services for the children.
Tradition battles law
Now, the orphaned children are the objects of a new custody fight, pitting Appalachian tradition against child welfare law, faith against science, grandparent against grandparent.
Punkin Brown's parents, Peggy and John Brown Sr., who have their own snake-handling church in Marshall, N.C., are seeking custody of Jonathan, 12; Jacob and Jeremiah, 7; Sarah, 5; and Daniel, 4.
But on Oct. 7, as their son's body was laid out for viewing at a funeral home, a juvenile-court judge in Cocke County, Tenn., told the Browns that he needed to determine if the children they had helped raise would be safe with them. They, too, have admitted violating the order.
In a preliminary decision, Judge John Bell gave temporary custody to the children's maternal grandmother, Mary Goswick of Plainville, Ga. She is a former serpent handler herself, though she says that's all in the past.
All about love
During the earlier custody dispute, Brown's in-laws testified that the children woke in cold sweats from nightmares about snakes. Now, nightmare and reality blend.
"All we want to do is get them comfortable in school and to where they won't be raised up in such an atmosphere of wondering whether their granddaddy or their grandmother or their uncle will come home . . . in a box or they'll get snake-bitten," says Melinda Brown's father, Lewis Duvall, who is divorced from Mrs. Goswick.
"The father evidently did not have enough love in his heart to want to live and take care of his children."
But Punkin Brown's friends say it was all about love. He even said so himself in an interview a year after his wife's death.
"I never lost my faith in God. But I felt panic because she was my wife. I loved her," Brown told Scott Schwartz, a Smithsonian Institution archivist and author of a book, "Faith, Serpents and Fire."
"Jonathan is terrified of snakes," Brown acknowledged. But he said he had done what he could to prepare the children.
"The kids knew what to expect if the Lord didn't move," he told Schwartz. "I told the kids Melinda had died, and they ain't said nothing to me that would indicate that they held me responsible for her death."
Courts have ordered Jehovah's Witness children to receive blood transfusions despite their parents' religious objections, said Ron Flowers, professor of religion at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.
Sick children have been removed from the homes of parents who rely on faith healing.
The Brown case would be different if a parent were involved, said Nathaniel Gozansky, a law professor at Emory University in Atlanta.
"The problem here is you can't get to the religious-freedom issue," he says. "The parents don't have the right to control the religious education of their children from the grave."