Snedden Chair recalls world travel experience

by Heather Penn

Sun Star Reporter


Snedden Chair Julia Duin gives her lecture “Bringing meaning into journalism.”

Winner of the coveted Snedden Chair position this year, as well as soon to be UAF faculty, Julia Duin spoke to an audience of approximately 50 people about a wide range of topics including serpent handling in West Virginia and female feticide in India during her  Oct. 1 lecture.

In 2011, the call to cover serpent handling sent Duin on a backwoods tour of Western Virginia. Her trip began in the distant community of Jolo, at the Church of the Lord Jesus.

The community of Jolo was not a prosperous one with a population of just 824, and life expectancies of it’s occupants were bleak. Poverty, black lung disease and drug abuse were rampant, but somewhere amongst all this lived a religious group who handled serpents in the name of the lord.

Taking their claim from the Bible in Mark 16:17-18 that states “They shall take up serpents.”  The members of this group did  just that, but with specifically venomous snakes; copperheads, water moccasins and rattlesnakes rest in glass lid boxes at their altar.

This custom just came into it’s 100th year and didn’t show any signs of slowing. One pastor, a 20 year old man named Andrew Hamblin, had just started his own church in eastern Tennessee.

The snakes are extremely venomous, and one bite can cause either a quick or a long death as your internal organs begin shutting down one by one. Despite the risks, members of this group, “take their lives into their hands every time they attend church,” Duin said.

Though their interaction with snakes is highly dangerous, some may even say crazy, there have been relatively few bite related deaths. The release of Duin’s article in the Washington Post was unbelievably popular, resulting in Hamblin and comrade Jamie Coots being featured in a reality show called “Snake Salvation.”

Unfortunately, Coots was bitten last February, resulting in his untimely death.

“They were the only American Christians I knew who were willing to die for their faith,” Duin said. Her article entitled “In W.Va., snake handling is still considered a sign of faith” was published by the Washington Post.

Duin’s journalistic style has taken her all over the world. While in India in 2005, Duin met a reporter who was covering gender disparities. There are far fewer females than males in India due in large part to female feticide, the murdering of a fetus after their gender is determined to be female.

This is done to avoid paying a hefty dowry, usually around $20,000 when the girl is married. The practice is now illegal. Even though ultrasound technicians are forbidden from naming the sex, they will still utilize sneakier methods to tell a parent. For example, if the technician saw a girl they may say, “better save your money,” or if it was a boy, “celebration time.”

The gender disparities in India have also resulted in an increase in sex trafficking; with not enough women for the men, women are bought or taken from eastern India and Nepal.

Reporting on instances like this, though tragic, can have a positive outcome.

“There was at least one Pakistani activist whose name I mentioned in a piece who I later learned was freed because of the bad PR he was causing in his country,” said Duin, “Writing for Washington has 100 times more impact than things printed or broadcast elsewhere.”

Clearly well versed in many facets of journalism, Duin is not only an expert in religious reporting, but an accomplished author as well.

Duin, along with teaching this year at UAF, is a freelance journalist. She has written for many papers nationwide, including the Houston Chronicle and the Washington Times. Duin has also attended seminary school and covered many forms of religion from, Southern Baptists to Satanism, though none intrigued her more than serpent handling.

The Snedden Chair is made available by Helen Snedden, who generously endowed this position in honor of her late husband Bill Snedden. Former owner of the News-Miner, his legacy lives on in the old and new writers.

When asked after the lecture if she thought journalism was dying, Julia responded with saying, “It’s the popularity of these stories that shows me that journalism isn’t dead at all.”


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