When I was 20, I was called to serve in 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 field workers who worked for the farm owners, sharing every ounce of work they owned. It was the early 1960s, and segregation was on the agenda. In many cases, both blacks and whites were extremely poor, and health and education followed suit.
Given my youth and lack of experience, I was quite surprised when a young black man approached me and asked me to go with him to his grandfather’s house, where he said the old man was dying. I got into his car and he drove down the paved road to the intersection where he turned onto the dirt road on which we stayed until the end of the trip. My grandfather’s house was in the middle of a field adjacent to an old tobacco barn that looked as if it was about to fall apart. As we drove to the porch of the house, I saw a group of men smoking cigarettes in the yard. As we got out of the car, the young man told the group gathered in front that he had “attracted” the preacher and that everyone needed to go inside.
When I entered the house, I saw a small table with four chairs covered with an old oilcloth, and bowls filled with every food imaginable. The young man took me to 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, “Now be silent; the preacher will pray! ” I was suddenly upset and didn’t know what to say. The first words from my mouth seemed to stumble when I muttered, “Dear God, give me words of consolation so that this family may feel Your presence and praise Your blessing on the life of this dear person.” And then it seemed like my tongue was stuck and I couldn’t say “Amen”. There was a long silence, and Linda-May finally said, “Amen!” I felt horrible as if I had let this family down, but my sister and brother turned to me and sincerely thanked me 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 came out, and there was silence in the room.
No one said a word until Linda-May quietly whispered, “Grandpa’s gone,” and the crowd silently cried out.
Without warning, her brother ran to the only window in the room and opened it, and the group groaned in approval. I was stunned by this incident and didn’t know what was going on. Something in me said I needed to know why he opened the window, but the best thing I could do was associate it with the warmth of the room and the need for more ventilation; however, my explanation seemed inadequate to reliably answer my question.
Only after the trip home did I have the courage to ask the young man why he had opened the window. His response made me feel stupid and definitely inadequate as a preacher who was expected to know these things. The young man replied, “God, preacher, I suppose you whites do not know that when a man dies, his soul leaves the body and immediately goes to heaven to be with God.”
I was ashamed and wondered what he must have thought of me. He complimented me on having the privilege of invoking God’s presence with my grandfather, and yet I was unaware of his actions in freeing his grandfather’s soul to be with God. I apologized to him for the misunderstanding, and he replied, “Hey, preacher, you are new here, too new to understand our ways. You will know us, and I am very glad that this was our first meeting. “
Our dialogue ended just as he approached me. That evening, as I went to bed, I felt a deep sense of gratitude. I knew I had found a new friend and perhaps won the trust of many in the Black community.
The previous story happened in real time about 60 years ago, but the memory of it happening is as fresh to me as it was then. It was an experience that “sticks to you,” and over the years I’ve thought about it over and over again. The main thing is that I have repeatedly asked why after five years of academic study of theology and obtaining two degrees, I have 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 has perpetuated the idea that people possess a body that contains a fundamental part of themselves, called the “soul,” which has been defined as an essential part of their spiritual nature. But I’ve heard so little about it in all my training.
It was this experience that made me think more intensely about the idea of the “soul” and finally formulate my own belief in the “soul”. I will share these ideas with you in the next article.
If you have any questions or comments, I welcome them Bob.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Robert Olson is a pastoral counselor and family therapist who specializes in geriatric issues.