January 15, 2000: Our First Visit
“I want you to make yourself at home, just as if this was your home,” Brother Bob, the Reverend of the Church of the Lord Jesus, tells us as Chuck and I rise to take his outstretched hand in greeting. As more people file in, again and again hands reach out to greet us, and voices repeatedly tell us that we are to make ourselves “at home.” Our fears of invading their space and interrupting their lives are dissuaded by the welcome these individuals bestow upon us.
The “Church of the Lord Jesus” is a small building with eight or nine rows of pews in the back and a wooden stage at the opposite end with a dance floor in front of it. At the front of the church are two posters stuck to the wall, which read “Jolo Church Doctrine” and include a list of rules with Bible passage references written beside them. At the bottom of the posters in bold letters it states, “FOR MEMBERS ONLY.” The posters read:
(1st poster) Women are not allowed to wear: Short sleeves, jewelry, or make-up (I Peter 3:3, Timothy 2:9)
No gossiping (James 1:26)
No talebearing (Proverbs 18:8)
No lying (Colossians 3:9, Revelation 21:8)
No backbiting (Romans 1:30)
No bad language or by-words (Colossians 3:8)
No tobacco users (II Corinthians 7:1; I Corinthians 3:17)
Men not allowed to have long hair, mustache, or beard (I Corinthians 11:14)
Men not allowed to wear short sleeves Women not allowed to cut hair (I Corinthians 11:15) or Wear dresses above knees (Timothy 2:9)
Quite an impressive set-up of musical instruments is laid out before us; three organs, a drum set, two guitars, five or six tambourines, and a pair of symbols are all played by members of the congregation. As 7:30 approaches, some members assemble on the dance floor and on the stage, musical instruments in hand. The wooden box of serpents is lying on a bench in front of the stage, off to the right. The organs play a couple chords and the guitar players begin to tune their instruments.
Brother Bob says a few words before the service gets started, telling the congregation that they have to try to “please God” because “man is never satisfied,” and that “every man has to do for his self.” He calls everyone to “gather ‘round in prayer,” and a murmur of voices rises as members of the congregation each offer up their own individual prayers. The instruments begin to pick up and a tune can be heard rising above the voices. Brother Bob starts singing, and others join into the chorus, repeating “we’re gonna have a time,” words that seem to be in anticipation of the outpouring of intense emotion and experience that will follow. People join the dance floor, some with tambourines, others simply stamping their feet or clapping their hands. People are dancing around, eyes closed, letting the music and the Spirit enter into their bodies.
“Now what you put in there is what you get out, so if you want a blessing, you’ve got to ask for it,” Brother Bob tells us. “He said, ‘ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you.’ God’s not going on no journey, He’s not taking no vacation,” and with that, the instruments are tuned and the next song begins. “Oh, we’re gonna have a good time, come on in the house…come on in the house…come on in the house of the Lord!” These songs seem to be calling people into the service, attempting to draw people into the Spirit of the Lord. People are dancing more, the tune pouring forth from the instruments is becoming more and more intricate, and the energy level is rising. One of the women seated in front of us rises, takes a tambourine from someone and joins in on the dancing and celebration. There are many interjected shouts of joy and exclamations of God’s greatness. The music becomes louder and more energized, and I can see three or four men dancing close to the box of snakes, but no one reaches in. It is hard to sit still in a service like this, and I find myself wishing I could rise out of my seat to join their dancing.
The next song starts up, with Brother Bob singing, “You Gotta Move,” and it is obvious that he is trying to pull the congregation even deeper into the spirit of the service. As the song ends, Brother Bob says,
I’ll tell you right now, you gotta move. He’s not gonna jerk you up by the heart or the head and call upon you if you don’t want...we got to press in, we got to get over or we’re already had. If we just offer up by the devil, he’ll take us over, and you won’t have no freedom or survival (ah), you won’t want to get in the service (ah), you’ve got to get in (ah), because if you don’t get in we’ve not praised God!
Brother Bob pauses, and a variety of responses can be heard affirming what he has said. He continues,
You feel it. You got the Holy Ghost, you feel it – all you gotta do is let him out! He’ll just keep bubblin’ over and over. He make my cup to runneth over, he’ll make your cup run over if you just try, if you want. We got to get all our eyes off what somebody said about us…cause they don’t know what they’re talkin’ ‘bout anyhow. I’m not concerned about the other fella; I’m concerned about me! I can’t go for you (ah), I’ve got to go for me (ah)! Get your eyes on the Lord!
And the song goes into full force. Guitars, organs, tambourines, singing…the energy is reaching new levels.
Brother Bob is obviously a central motivator for this congregation. To me, the energy level seems to be extremely high at this moment, but it obviously isn’t high enough for Brother Bob because after the song ends, he scolds them again:
You shouted last week, I don’t know why you can’t shout this week...I thought we said we were a bunch of lively stones – this looks like a bunch of dead stones to me… Get in! Get in! If you’re a lively stone, get in! I’ll tell you what, There’s some big Western Diamondbacks up here that’ll make you wish you got in if you get one that ain’t in, I’ll tell you right now! People, we need to get in the service. He’s not a dead God, and if it’s anyone that’s dead, it’s us. It’s not Him…We need to press in!
Brother Bob continues in his shouting and motivating, getting the congregation more and more excited. The instruments start up full force, and Brother Bob breaks into song. Running back and forth across the stage, yelling, stomping his feet, gesticulating, singing and praising God… I cannot believe I am seeing this elderly man putting on such a display of energy and movement. He is one incredible motivator, and the church reaches new levels of energy. I can feel an electricity in the air, the tension is building, the power of all of their combined attention and movement is reaching new levels. I can hear some people moaning and yelling, they are all stomping their feet, clapping their hands, shaking tambourines, spinning and singing and dancing … and then I see it. A glistening, elongated body protruding from one man’s raised hands. I cannot tell if it is fear or intrigue that has made my eyes unable to be drawn away from the man and the rattlesnake, but there is a power there. The snake is completely docile, the man seems to be in total control as the two move together, swaying to the music. Then there are two more men with snakes, one of which is Brother Bob. They are dancing with the reptiles, completely fixated on nothing else but the movement of the serpents, seeming to be completely oblivious to everything going on around them. It is only a half-hour into the service.
It is at this moment that a younger man comes to the row in front of us and grabs onto a crying woman. He brings her up to the floor, and immediately there are three people surrounding her, laying their hands on her head, shoulders and back. I cannot hear what they are saying, but they are completely focused on her, apparently helping her out of whatever pain she is experiencing. The service is incredibly intense at this moment. The serpent handlers are directly in front of this woman and her healers, and everyone is clustered around that activity. A second woman is brought to Brother Bob to have hands laid on her, and she too begins crying. All singing has stopped by this point, but the musical instruments are playing away, loud and full of rhythm and energy. Yells and moans from all parts of the church can be heard. A man from the audience comes up to the front, and congregation members repeat the healing process on him. He starts shaking, hands in air, and dancing all around.
The power that the members of this church experience is tangible to an observer. One of the first men to handle snakes takes the microphone and erupts into song.
It’s fire, fire
In my bones
It’s fire, fire
In my bones
It’s Holy Ghost fire
In my bones
I feel that power
In my bones
I feel that power
In my bones
I feel that power
In my bones
It’s Holy Ghost power
In my bones…
To see this eighty year old man singing deeply, passionately, and full of energy, dancing his elderly body across the front of the church, microphone in hand, completely mesmerizes me. Yet again, I feel like getting up and going to the front to dance with the rest of the congregation. It is a celebration of the power of the Holy Spirit coming down upon the church and giving them the ability to handle rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cottonmouths, to drink strychnine, to speak in tongues, to cast out demons, and to heal the sick.
The first woman to be healed is taken by the first man who handled serpents, and the two of them run back and forth across the front of the church. Renewed, healed, and full of a new passion, the woman goes to one of the organs and stays there for the rest of the service. She proceeds to sing the next song, and although the snakes have been put away, everyone is still full of energy. Brother Bob finally seems to be satisfied with his people, and I am completely overwhelmed by the intensity I have seen in such a short time.
After the song has ended and the musical instruments have stopped, the room is filled with a cacophony of sounds, yells, moans, shouts of joy, some seeming to be in pain. The volume level has not lowered even though the instruments are no longer playing. After each song, the same happens.
Later in the service, Brother Woods, a visiting preacher, goes to the front and begins to preach. He spends his sermon calling people into the Spirit. “I learned a few scriptures in the Bible when I was a child. I thought I knowed something. I tell you I didn’t know nothin’. I wanna tell you, you gotta have the Spirit to go with the Word. That Spirit’s gotta come alive in you! How do you think the Word was written? The Word was written by men when the Spirit moved upon them.” He continues to tell us that we don’t do anything for ourselves, it is “God who is using [us].” Furthermore, it is important for us to read the Bible for ourselves and not to go by church doctrines or other writings made by man. This is followed by shouts of “Live in the pencil,” alluding to the well-worn and well-studied Bibles that can be seen scattered around the room on the laps of various individuals. Brother Woods raises his hands and yells out, “You gotta get the Word in you because how much Word you got is how much God you got!”
After a few more songs and some testaments from congregation members, Brother Bob calls the service to a close. Immediately the sound of twenty-five people praying simultaneously fills the room, and the service ends.
Chuck and I leave the service with a feeling of elation and amazement, knowing that these people have incredible things to teach us about the power of the Spirit and how that power acts in their lives.
© Shannon Bell, 2000