In my early twenties, I was called to serve three small churches in the southeast corner of Virginia. It was a very rural area where the main crop was tobacco, and African Americans were the main farm laborers who worked for the farm owners, sharing every ounce of labor they had. It was the early 1960s, and the order of the day was segregation. In many cases, blacks and whites were extremely poor, and health care and education followed.
Given my youth and my lack of experience, I was completely surprised when a young black man came knocking on my door and asked me to accompany him to his grandfather’s where, he says, 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 road which we stayed on for the rest of the trip. His grandfather’s house was located in the middle of a field adjacent to an old tobacco barn, which looked like it was about to collapse. As we drove to the 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 out front that he had “fetched” the preacher and everyone should come in.
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 and holding her grandfather’s hand. She thanked me for coming and asked if I wanted to say a prayer for her grandfather. Her brother immediately said, “Shut up now; the preacher will pray! I suddenly felt nervous and didn’t know what to say. The first words that came out of my mouth sort of stumbled as I mumbled, “Dear God, give me the words of comfort here so this family can feel your presence and praise your blessing for the life of this dear man .” And then it seemed like my tongue got stuck and I couldn’t say “Amen.” There was a long moment of silence, and Linda-May finally said, “Amen! I felt very bad, like I had let this family down, yet the sister and brother turned to me and thanked me profusely for my prayer. Then someone in the crowd started singing “Amazing Grace”, and everyone joined in the singing until the last verse of the anthem, and silence fell over the room.
No one said a word until Linda-May quietly whispered, “Grandpa’s gone,” and the crowd wailed in silence.
Without warning, her brother ran to the only window in the room and opened it, and the group groaned their approval. I was stunned by what was happening and had no idea what was going on. Something inside me told me I had to know why he was opening the window, but the best I could do was relate it to the warmth of the room and the need for more ventilation; yet my explanation seemed insufficient to reliably answer my question.
It wasn’t until I got home that I had the courage to ask the young man why he had opened the window. His response made me feel stupid, and certainly inadequate as a preacher who should know these things. The young man replied, “My God, preacher, I guess you white people don’t know that when a person dies his soul comes out of his body and immediately goes to heaven to be with God.”
I was ashamed and wondered what he must think of me. He paid me the compliment of having the privilege of evoking the presence of God with his grandfather, and yet I was unaware of his action in freeing his grandfather’s soul to be with God. I apologized to him for my misunderstanding and he responded by saying, “Hey preacher, you are new here, too new to understand our ways. You will soon get to know us, and I am so happy that this is our first meeting.
Our dialogue ended around the time he pulled up in my driveway. When I went to bed that night, I felt a deep sense of gratitude. I knew that I had found a new friend and had perhaps earned the trust of many members of the black community.
The previous story happened in real time about 60 years ago, but my memory of what happened is as fresh to me today as it was then. It was the kind of experience that “sticks to you”, and over the years I’ve thought about it time and time again. The main thing I wondered over and over again was why after studying theology academically for a period of five years and earning two higher degrees, I had rarely heard the word “soul” or any formal concept regarding its purpose or reality .
It seems so strange to me that for hundreds of years the Christian community perpetuated the idea that human beings possessed a body that contained a fundamental part of themselves called “soul”, which was defined as a part essential to their spiritual nature. Yet I have heard so little of it in all my professional training.
It was this experience that prompted me to think more deeply about the idea of ’soul’ and ultimately to formulate my own belief about ‘soul’. I will share these ideas with you in my next article.
If you have any questions or comments, I welcome them at [email protected]
Robert Olson is a pastoral counselor and family therapist specializing in geriatric issues.