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Let the Ancestors Speak Part 2: To Heaven and Back - Katie Mae's Story - February 2022

Updated: May 31, 2022

Everybody talkin' 'bout heaven ain't goin' there Everybody talkin' 'bout heaven ain't goin' Everybody talkin' 'bout heaven ain't goin' there Oh, my Lord

(Negro Spiritual)

Everybody Talkin' 'Bout Heaven Ain't Going There is a familiar negro spiritual born from enslaved people who turned stories from the Scriptures into truth-telling, syncopated melodic songs. The Negro spiritual is an evocative musical expression of grief, hope, and jubilation. The enslaved often used its chords and melodies as cryptic maps pointing the way to freedom. Since everybody's talking about heaven, let's continue the conversation.

In negro spirituals, heaven is often referred to as a real place people yearn to go after this life. It's a place to lay down your burdens and study war no more. According to Scripture, the streets of heaven are paved with pure gold that is as clear as glass, and there are twelve gates made of a single pearl (Rev. 21:21). Heaven is a place where there is no more death, no more sorrow, and no more pain. In heaven, there is no night. God is the only source of illumination. Negro spirituals allude to the anticipation of going to heaven with lyrics like Swing low, sweet chariot/ Comin’ for to carry me home, and When I get to heaven, gonna put on my robe/ Gonna shout all over God's heaven. Heaven is a place of paradise where those who believe will see God face to face.

People may not believe in heaven for personal reasons. Scholars and theologians continue to debate the existence of heaven to this day. Unfortunately, their knowledge of God is contained within the halls of their intellect as if God needed their permission to exist beyond it. Heaven is one of the many things that are beyond our comprehension. However, just because we don’t understand something does not imply that it does not exist.

My late grandmother, Katie Mae, shared a brief encounter in heaven with her daughters, my mother Sarah, and my aunt Melinda before she passed away in 2004. She shared the story with them, and they shared it with me. I am honored to bring to light my grandmother's experience in heaven. Our ancestors' stories deserve to be told. It's time to let the ancestors speak.

I would be remiss if I didn't at least give you some insight into who my grandmother was or some background information about her life before we get into the details of her near-death experience. My grandmother, Katie Mae, was born in Fayetteville, Georgia, during the 1920s. She later met and married my grandfather, Adolphus Souder, Jr. My grandmother was raised by her step-mom and aunt. Her mother, Mary, died in a terrible car accident when she was young.

I remember my grandmother as someone who loved to travel and loved to give. She had such a generous heart. When I was younger, we visited my grandmother on Sundays after church. The aroma of green beans would greet me at the door, along with my grandmother's Cheshire cat smile and fiery reddish-brown eyes, which I inherited. She would say, "Hey, Punkin. Whatchu been doing?" Punkin is my nickname. My mom and grandmother would sit around just shootin' the breeze and talking about the local town gossip. You know, the normal conversations black families have when they get together, like who got married, who died, who had a baby, etc. When it was time for us to leave, my grandmother would insist on giving us something before we left. She would always make a fuss about it too. Every time my grandmother asked, "Don't you need this?" My mother would always reply, "Noooooo!" No matter our response, we always walked to the car with a bag full of things we didn't need. If anyone in the neighborhood ever needed anything, Katie Mae had it. My grandmother was always giving and always loving.

In order to learn more about my grandmother's near-death experience, I interviewed my mother and my aunt, who were not aware of the incident until a few years before she passed. According to my mother and aunt, this event occurred many years ago. After my mother and grandmother returned from a yard sale one Saturday afternoon, my mother talked for a while with my grandmother. They were watching a television program about near-death experiences. My grandmother then said, "You know what? I did the same thing." My mom asked, "What do you mean you did the same thing?" My grandmother replied, "Remember that time when I died? I had the same experience." Then, my mom asked, "Well, why didn't you ever tell anyone?" My grandmother said she was scared that people would think she was crazy and wouldn't believe her. So, she just kept it to herself.

During the time of her near-death experience, my grandmother worked as a teacher's aide at an elementary school in Georgia. She frequently helped out in the cafeteria and in the classroom. According to my mother, my grandmother left for work that morning feeling fine. While my grandmother worked in the lunchroom, her appendix ruptured, and she collapsed on the floor. She was taken to the hospital immediately, where the doctors worked feverishly to save her life. Unfortunately, the doctors were unable to save her despite all of their efforts, and she was pronounced dead.

In the meantime, my mother was at school, unaware of what was happening until she was summoned to the office by a school employee. My mother had no idea why she was being called to the office, but eventually, they told her that her mother had been taken to the hospital. As my mother recalls, she asked them, "To the hospital? For what?" They told her that her mother had gotten sick at school and fainted, so they rushed her to the hospital. As my mother waited in the office, still shocked by the news, school employees told her that her dad was coming to pick her up. My mother was about eight or nine years old at the time. This news was difficult to take and hard to process at her age.

My grandfather and my mother arrived at the hospital in downtown Atlanta and waited for word on my grandmother's condition. My mother remembers my grandfather pacing back and forth in the waiting room. It was a long wait, according to my mother. Finally, one of the nurses came and broke the news that they could not save my grandmother. My mom remembers crying when she heard the news. She recalls my grandfather taking the news differently. He was very silent. She could see his pain. It was as if he was having difficulty processing what had just happened. Even though he had a mental resistance to accepting the situation, it was difficult to ignore its finality. The nurse told both of them to wait in the waiting room and that she would be right back.

During this time, the doctors and nurses had worked desperately to save my grandmother's life, but she had already slipped into eternity. As soon as she left one realm, she entered another. In the hospital room, my grandmother remembered floating out of her body. As she floated up to the ceiling, she could see her body lying on the hospital bed. My grandmother had never experienced anything like this before, and she didn't understand what was happening. Then she said she floated on through the top of the ceiling in the hospital room. She remembered going through something that appeared to be a dark tunnel. Towards the end of the tunnel, she saw a beautiful, bright white light. Before she got to the end of the tunnel, she heard a voice telling her that it wasn't her time to come there yet and she had to go back. She knew it was God speaking to her. As she approached the light, she saw many people waiting for her, but she couldn't tell who they were. She knew she couldn't stay because God told her it wasn't her time yet, so she returned to her body. When she came to, she startled the nurses and the doctors because she could describe, in detail, what they were doing to her body as she lay lifeless on the hospital bed. They were utterly and completely shocked.

After a long wait, the doctor finally came and shared the miraculous news to the family that my grandmother was alive. The report, though joyous, confused my grandfather. He asked, “What do you mean? Either she passed or she’s alive.” The doctor replied, "We don't know what happened, but she is alive." My mother recalled not understanding completely what the doctor meant. She was just grateful to have her mother back in her life.

My grandmother kept this miraculous story in her heart until the right time to share it with my mother and aunt, and finally, with me. As a result of my grandmother's story, I have a different perspective on death and dying. My grandmother's brief transition was peaceful. There was no chaos, and she was not afraid. She never mentioned hearing anyone crying in heaven. It was more like a second birth, if you will, into a different realm. According to my grandmother, many people were waiting for her to cross over. These ancestors are not lying in a cold grave. Instead, they are clouds of witnesses patiently waiting for our return home. Even though their bodies are buried in the ground, their spirits are in heaven. The body is simply a house that we live in here on Earth. It is a blessing to be gathered with your departed loved ones when you die. There are many examples in the Bible of people who died and were gathered with their ancestors (Gen. 25:8 NKJV). Death is a homecoming, not a homegoing, depending on how you lived on this Earth. While we all miss our loved ones, mourning is almost insulting compared to heaven's peace and joy. Losing my father was tragic for me. He was supposed to walk me down the aisle, but he didn't live to do that. I went through a wide range of emotions during that time. It felt like time was stolen from me. We all feel like we own time, but we don't. In fact, we are only borrowers of time.

After my grandmother passed away permanently in December of 2004, which sounds so surreal, she left many Christmas gifts for her family and neighbors. My mother and aunt distributed those gifts in the days following her passing. Even at the end of her life, she was still giving to others. She died doing what she loved. On a Saturday afternoon, my grandmother talked with my mother about heaven. Contrary to the words of the negro spiritual, Everybody Talkin’ ‘Bout Heaven Ain't Going There, she talked about heaven, and it is now her home.

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