When I was in my early 20s, I was called to serve three small churches in the southeast corner of Virginia. It was a very rural area where tobacco was primarily grown and African Americans were the main field hands working for the farm owners and sharing every ounce of labor they possessed. It was the early 1960s, and segregation was the order of the day. In many cases, both blacks and whites were extremely poor, and health care and education followed suit.
Given my youth and lack of experience, I was utterly surprised when a young black man came to my door and asked me to go with him to his grandfather’s house, where he said the old man was dying. I got in his car and he drove down the paved road to an intersection where he turned onto a dirt track that we stayed on for the rest of the trip. His grandfather’s house was in the middle of a field next to an old tobacco barn that looked like it was about to collapse. As we drove to the front porch of the house, I could see a group of men smoking cigarettes in the front yard. As we got out of the car, the young man told the group gathered in front that he had “picked up” the minister and that everyone had to go inside.
As I entered the house I could see a small table with four chairs covered with an old oilcloth tablecloth and bowls filled with every food imaginable. The young man ushered me into a small bedroom and introduced me to his older sister, Linda-May, who was standing by the bed holding her grandfather’s hand. She thanked me for coming and asked if I would pray for her grandfather. Her brother immediately said, ‘Everybody be quiet now; the preacher will pray!” I was suddenly nervous and didn’t know what to say. The first few words somehow came out of my mouth as I murmured, “Dear God, give me the words of comfort here so that this family may feel your presence and praise your blessings on this dear man’s life.” And then my tongue seemed to stick to stay and I couldn’t say “amen”. There was a long moment of silence, and Linda-May finally said, “Amen!” I felt terrible as if I had let this family down, but the sister and brother turned to me and thanked me profusely for my prayer. Then someone in the crowd began to sing “Amazing Grace” and everyone joined in the singing until the last verse of the anthem was heard and silence fell over the room.
No one said a word until Linda-May softly whispered, “Granddaddy’s gone,” and the crowd wailed silently.
Without warning, her brother ran to the only window in the room and flung it open, and the group groaned in agreement. I was stunned by this event and had no idea what was going on. Something inside me said I should know why he opened the window, but the best I could do was relate it to the warmth of the room and the need for more ventilation; nevertheless, my explanation seemed insufficient to reliably answer my question.
Only on my way home did I dare to ask the young man why he opened the window. His answer made me feel stupid and certainly inappropriate as a preacher who is expected to know these things. The young man replied, “Gosh, preachers, I guess you white people don’t know that when a person dies, their soul comes out of their body and immediately goes to heaven to be with God.”
I felt ashamed and wondered what he must have thought of me. He paid me the compliment that he had the privilege of invoking God’s presence with his grandfather, and yet I was ignorant of his action to free his grandfather’s soul to be with God. I apologized to him for my lack of understanding and he responded by saying, “Hey preacher, you’re new here, too new to understand our ways. It won’t be long before you get to know us and I’m so happy this was our first meeting.”
Our dialogue ended around the time he pulled into my driveway. As I went to bed that night, I felt a deep sense of gratitude. I knew I had made a new friend and perhaps gained the trust of many in the black community.
The previous story happened in real time about 60 years ago, but my memory of it is as fresh to me now as it was then. It was the kind of experience that “sticks in your memory,” and I’ve thought about it time and time again over the years. The main thing I kept questioning was why, after five years of undergraduate theology and two advanced degrees, I had rarely ever heard the word “soul” or any formal concept related to its purpose or reality.
This strikes me as odd that for hundreds of years the Christian community had maintained the idea that humans possessed a body that contained a fundamental part of themselves called “soul,” which was defined as an integral part of their spiritual nature. I’ve heard so little about it in all my professional training.
This experience caused me to think more intensely about the term “soul” and finally to formulate my own belief in “soul”. I will share these ideas with you in my next article.
If you have any questions or comments, I welcome them at Bob.email@example.com.
Robert Olson is a spiritual counselor and family therapist specializing in geriatric issues.