MACEDONIA, Ala. — Punkin Brown stalked around the altar of the Old Rockhouse Holiness Church, his head bobbing, his voice a stream of guttural barks. He was "in the Word," and the congregation clapped and shouted.
Then, nonchalantly, he bent over and plucked a 3-foot yellow timber rattlesnake from a wooden box on the altar.
The rattler stiffened in a "V" shape in Brown's right hand as he hopped across the stage on one leg, like rocker Chuck Berry. He set the snake on the altar and stroked its head. Members of the congregation cooled themselves with funeral-home paper fans as a guitar player picked out a blues riff.
"They say it won't bite," the beefy 34-year-old evangelist shouted. "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 knew they could bite. The preacher from Parrottsville, Tenn., had been bitten 22 times since he began handling serpents 18 years ago.
And he knew how serious the bites could 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 too.
And last October on Sand Mountain in northeast Alabama, the family's sad history repeated itself.
Brown didn't even flinch when the rattler sank one fang into the base of his left middle finger. If he was scared, it didn't show.
"God don't ever change," he said, his voice ever so slightly less forceful. "God don't ever fail, and He never will."
Brown handed the snake to another man and walked behind the altar. A man in a striped shirt followed, stroking Brown's head and neck, his own head jerking violently up and down.
"Na-na-na-na-na-na-na," the man said, his voice like a car engine trying to turn over.
Brown was calm.
"God's still God, no matter what comes," Brown said, his voice relaxed, the fire and brimstone completely gone from it. "No matter what else, God's still God."
Those were his last words of preaching.
Brown started to fail. He walked in front of the altar, then back up and paced a little. He braced himself, his left hand on the pulpit, his right on Pastor Billy Summerford's shoulder. His head down, he swallowed hard.
Brown raised both hands in the air. His friends held him up for a few seconds, then lowered him to the floor.
A video camera rolled on, taking in the alarming scene and the incongruous, sweetly smiling face of an oblivious little girl. Someone asked Brown if he wanted a doctor. He shook his head and pointed to the sky.
"JEEEEEsus, have your way, JEEEEEsus," the congregation shouted in warbling voices.
A woman in black started screaming hysterically and convulsing, wagging the blond ponytail that reached her waist. Another woman ran back and forth with wet cloths for Brown's head.
"Right now, God! Right now, Jesus," the man in the striped shirt screamed toward the ceiling. "Help my brother right now. I'll glorify you. I'll praise you for it."
After about 10 minutes, the simple green and white church went silent, except for some muffled sobs. The little girl in the video still smiled, uncomprehending.
Brown was 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 after 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.
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 rear 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.
The custody case has forced believers to explain their faith once again to a world they wish would just leave them alone.
Cynthia Porter, a serpent handler from Kingston, Ga., and a friend of the Browns, says the practice is misunderstood. "I have a college education. I work in the medical field. I'm not stupid. I'm not occult. I'm not uneducated," she says. "I know exactly what I'm doing."