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My Faith: A reluctant churchgoer 'gets the Holy Ghost'
The author (foreground, age 7), his late aunt, Sylvia Blake (left) and other family members outside their Baltimore church.
April 24th, 2011
12:01 AM ET

My Faith: A reluctant churchgoer 'gets the Holy Ghost'

By John Blake, CNN

(CNN) - I had my first brush with the “Holy Ghost” when I was 9 years old.  I’m still trying to digest what it meant more than 30 years later.

The day began as a typical Sunday. Aunt Sylvia herded me and my brother into her 1972 baby blue Chevy Impala and drove us to church for a service that would often last five hours.

Sunday worship at a black Baptist church wasn’t just long. It was scary. Elderly women who “got the Holy Ghost” during worship would thrash so violently in the pews that their wigs flew off. People shouted, wept and fainted.

This Sunday service started off no differently. But as the frenzy of the worship intensified, an invisible switch seemed to click on. A wave of heat rippled through the congregation as people beside me threw up their arms and shouted.

Suddenly, something seemed to slip inside of me. A tingling raced up my spine. I stood up to clap, scream - I didn’t know what I was about to do.

Is this, I wondered, the Holy Ghost that Aunt Sylvia sang about?

Singing gospel to keep muggers away

Easter Sunday is supposed to be about resurrection. For me, it’s also about remembering. When I see women herding boys in crisp new suits into the pews during Easter service, I sometimes think about the woman and the church that gave me my first lessons about faith.

I also think about an eerie encounter that I kept to myself for years because I knew it would sound so bizarre.

I didn’t join the church. I was drafted. My aunt forced me and my younger brother, Patrick, to go to worship service every Sunday.

We grew up in Baltimore, in an impoverished neighborhood so dangerous that my aunt would sing gospel hymns aloud as she walked us home from the mall at night. She thought church music warded off muggers.

My aunt wasn’t just my protector; she was my anchor. My mother was gone. My father, a rough merchant seaman, spent most of his time carousing overseas. I spent much of my childhood in foster homes with my brother.

Aunt Sylvia gave us a sense of family. She was a short, round woman who wore black wigs and wide, colorful hats with feathers to church. She would watch us on the weekends and buy presents for us when Christmas and our birthdays rolled around.

She never married; never had children. I told my elementary school teachers that she was my mother.

She was my biggest fan. She would collect my report cards, take me to museums and shower me with books that she nabbed from her job as a high school secretary.

I craved her approval even more than her scrumptious coconut cake. Whenever I made her particularly proud, she would give me the same peculiar look. She’d tilt her head to the left, stare at me in silence, and then her dark face would light up with a warm smile.

She was the only adult I knew wouldn’t abandon me.

Shunning church

My aunt’s smile, though, would turn into an icy glare whenever she saw me nodding off in Union Temple Baptist Church.

I thought my church was full of buffoons. I didn’t like the screaming and shouting, and I couldn’t stand the pulpit theatrics.

My childhood pastor, Rev. Churn, would sweat and yell during his sermons while taunting the congregation with lines like, “You don’t know what I’m talking about?”

He was right. I didn’t know what he was talking about; he shouted too much. When I was a kid, I thought that Rev. Churn was literally angry at the congregation because he yelled at them so much.

Once, during a fiery sermon, I thought about standing up and pleading with the congregation: “Just do what he says, and he won’t shout anymore.”

Despite my disdain for church, there was one part of service that I liked: “Testimony time.”

Testimony came at late-night services, as dusk approached and street traffic quieted outside. The services were less heated and more intimate, and during testimony, church members stood up at random to share a struggle and ask for prayer.

People often revealed the most personal details of their lives. But no one seemed to judge. Instead, people in the pews nodded and smiled, or chanted “weeeeell,” to encourage them.

Even as a fidgety kid, I was entranced. I can still remember how people visibly gathered strength when testifying, as if invisible arms from the congregation were encircling them.

Getting the ‘Holy Ghost’

Still, I wasn’t ready for any personal displays of vulnerability when my Holy Ghost moment came at 9.

When I felt that tingling race up my spine, I became afraid. I didn’t want to lose control. So when I involuntarily stood up in the pew during the service, I caught myself. Then I quickly left the church and took a walk in the cold night air until I calmed down.

As time went on, I resisted church even more. After entering high school, I mustered the courage to tell Aunt Sylvia I didn’t want to go anymore.

She was furious. She prayed aloud to Jesus. She tried to spank me. Then she retreated into silence as she drove me to church one last time with tears in her eyes. I never saw her so sad.

Soon, though, my time for tears would come.

In my sophomore year of college, I found my way back to church. A series of remarkable coincidences took place in my life. I made new friends and joined an interracial church full of people my age. And I shared it all with my brother, who quickly followed my example.

I also gained more respect for the black church. I attended college when there was a national debate about making the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday. The debate prompted me to start reading about King and the civil rights movement.

The more I learned about the movement, the more I realized how crucial the black church was to its success. It gave the movement its spiritual fuel and many of its most courageous activists.

But my intellectual awakening didn’t quell my emotional insecurities. I had inoculated myself so much against organized religion as a kid that I began to think it just wasn’t for me. I didn’t think I was good enough.

One night, it all came to a head. I decided I was going to quit. How, I thought, would I tell people? What would my aunt say? I went to bed in despair.

Then, something strange happened.

I bolted awake, tears streaming down my face. I was on my back, right arm over my closed eyes, but I squinted anyway because I felt as if I were looking directly into the sun.

I felt a presence within that light. I was crying because I had never felt so exposed. This light seemed to bore through me, revealing my most sordid deeds, my inadequacies and my fears. I felt like an insect.

Despite that feeling of shame, I felt something even more powerful: love. It seemed as though this presence, something as immense as the universe, was telling me that I was accepted.

What do you do with such an experience? Was it a dream, a breakdown, youthful foolishness? I don’t know. But that moment changed me. I couldn’t quit. I had encountered something else besides my aunt that wouldn’t abandon me.

One last smile

As I think about that nighttime experience now, it takes on another meaning as well.

If my aunt was my childhood anchor, the black church was her source of strength. How could I reject the institution that nurtured her?

I thought all of the shouting in my childhood church was for show. I didn’t know the history behind the shout: slavery, segregation, people who “got happy” because life was so grim.

Faith, without emotion, is dead - that’s the lesson I absorbed from the black church, and from my aunt.

I never saw my aunt “get happy.”  But I can’t imagine she would have sacrificed so much for me and my brother if she wasn’t driven by a powerful emotion - love.

And I would have given up on my faith if I had not been overwhelmed by the emotion I experienced during my night of tears.

I never shared my nighttime experience with my aunt. It was too embarrassing to share with anyone. Yet she saw me and my brother return to church.

Three years after I graduated from college, though, I had to say goodbye to her.

She was 60, and dying from liver failure. I took a week off to visit her in Baltimore, but I didn’t go to the hospital to see her for several days because I kept making excuses. I didn’t want to accept that I was losing her.

I finally went to the hospital with my brother to see her one sunny afternoon. She was in a hospital bed, her once stout body shrunken, her dark complexion yellowed. She was unconscious.

I didn’t know what to do. I felt guilty for taking so long to see her. So I started to babble. I don’t know if I told her I loved her, or if I even thanked her.  But I do remember this: Though I went there to comfort her, she ended up comforting me, much like she did when I was a boy.

As I looked down at her, trying not cry, she opened her eyes.

She was too weak to talk. But she gave me that peculiar look - the tilt of her head to the left and the long stare - and then she smiled.

- CNN Writer

Filed under: Belief • Black issues • Christianity • Easter • Faith • Houses of worship • Lost faith • Opinion

soundoff (1,716 Responses)
  1. Ricky

    God does not need anyone to defend him. Be the best person you can be, treat others as you wish to be treated. Do these things thru out your life, and there will always be a place for you in the Kingdom of Heaven

    April 24, 2011 at 8:30 am |
    • MITConserv

      So true, draw pictures of him, burn "copies" of his word, cherish women.....he will always love you. He does not need man to kill in his name.

      April 24, 2011 at 8:52 am |
    • Casey Collins

      We are no those without any hope! Rejoice believers and know that you know. Remember that not all will believe even after seeing him in all his glory. We need to thank GOD today that he has chosen us out of darkness into his marvelous light! Pray for those who persecute. That's all we need to do.

      April 24, 2011 at 9:00 am |
  2. Cgreen

    Do any of these naysayers celebrate Christmas,? if you do... please don't celebrate it this year, because it's the day Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. If you celebrate it,then you acknowledge him, so he can't be a fairytale.

    April 24, 2011 at 8:29 am |
    • TruthOarConsequences

      Cgreen, we celebrate xmas by exchanging gifts. We love to give and receive presents, xmas is about retail, if you don't believe in this don't celebrate xmas.

      April 24, 2011 at 10:40 am |
  3. Ernie

    I feel sorry for those who's "faith" ends at the grave. We christians "believe" in a Living Jesus; How can that be so offensive? It does come down to "faith" & to be honest, I don't have faith enough to believe that our existance "just happened". Basic laws of science are broken when we deny "cause & effect". Why the bitter comments against God? What are you afraid of, that makes you so bitter? God so loved the world that he gave His Only Son...

    April 24, 2011 at 8:29 am |
  4. BornAgain

    Jesus (what a wonderful name!): "I am the truth" is explained; read the rest of the Bible, not just one line, to find out the meaning. Isn't claiming the name of an athesiet identifying yourself against something that doesn't exist? Seems to be a waste of time if it's not real.....

    April 24, 2011 at 8:27 am |
  5. Chaos

    You didn't have an "intellectual awakening". Any emotive response was psychological. Same with everyone else in the story.

    April 24, 2011 at 8:27 am |
  6. Buddha Dude...

    “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” -Ghandi

    April 24, 2011 at 8:26 am |
    • stubbycat

      This, unfortunately, is true. The Master wouldn't like them, either. Dogmatic, loveless.They are too much like the religious establishment who hung him.

      April 24, 2011 at 9:53 am |
  7. Paul

    Terrific story, thanks for sharing!!!

    April 24, 2011 at 8:25 am |
  8. nancy

    Thanks CNN for allowing someone to share their story...We are ALL on a journey of faith and the Holy Spirit guides us on that journey...for some of us it is just a quiet nudge to do something kind. For the posts that were less than supportive, please know you(cnn) have many readers that appreciate all sides of an issue to be written about! Some of us are open minded!

    April 24, 2011 at 8:25 am |
  9. Cgreen

    Christ is Risen- Indeed he has. I'm a believer, I'm born again and I'm a happy person because I have what is called, Faith. Describe Love? It's not a thing you can touch, you feel it in your heart. Knowing Christ is that same feeling.

    April 24, 2011 at 8:24 am |
    • give your head a shake

      Dead people don't rise up.

      April 24, 2011 at 8:33 am |
  10. BornAgain

    runner305: Exactly, you are not saved if you do not believe – don't take this time for granted.

    April 24, 2011 at 8:24 am |
  11. BornAgain

    ryanevans: Big Bang is not a fact, it's a Theory – there is a difference.

    April 24, 2011 at 8:23 am |
    • give your head a shake

      There is considerable evidence in support of the big bang theory. There is absolutely no evidence in support of the big bad goblin in the sky theory. Where "facts" are still not confirmed by direct observation, I would suggest you lead your life in terms which theory is most consistent with the evidence, and disregard convolutions.

      April 24, 2011 at 8:31 am |
  12. craig

    A good story, but not placed in the right forum.

    I hope that writing it gave you some kind of cathartic moment. Perhaps you should think about competing with Catcher in the Rye.

    Some day you will find peace in your life.

    April 24, 2011 at 8:22 am |
  13. BornAgain

    CafeenMan: If you keep believing that way, you may get your wish. I'm praying that you don't.

    April 24, 2011 at 8:21 am |
  14. tee

    I poop jellybeans! Happy Easter.

    April 24, 2011 at 8:21 am |
  15. Ricky

    God don't like ugly!!!!!

    April 24, 2011 at 8:20 am |
  16. betsy

    No matter you like the spirit or not, the story about his aunt is touching.
    It would be hard to imagine a woman never married brought up two
    children without a spiritual support.

    What caused the physical feel of a holy ghost ? Lack of oxygen ?
    Exhaustion ?

    April 24, 2011 at 8:20 am |
  17. krg

    Really beautiful story. Thank you for sharing.

    April 24, 2011 at 8:19 am |
  18. Ricky

    People worry about others relationship with God, because they are not sure about there own

    April 24, 2011 at 8:18 am |
  19. Bobo

    Please, your magical ghosts and goblins are just as real as the POWER OF GREYSKULL that currently resides in us all. Thank You He-Man.

    April 24, 2011 at 8:17 am |
    • Brian

      like button

      April 24, 2011 at 8:25 am |
    • guy

      we all know why you hate jesus and Christians. Because they actually judge people and say it's unnatural and wrong for a man to put his penis in another man's anus. You are gay and can't stand judgement Deal with it and be fruity and multiply ( in a test tube )

      April 24, 2011 at 8:32 am |
  20. David B

    I pray that there is a God but I don’t believe in Santa clause the Easter Bunny or the tooth fairy or any other man made crap. It’s all politics and money driven. A true God would not allow us to destroy ourselves.

    April 24, 2011 at 8:16 am |
    • Karen

      David keep praying. But while you pray I sincerely hope that you are taking an active role in making this world a better place for all of us. By the way I never understood how the belief in god and prayer go hand in hand. If god is omnipotent, all loving all knowing and has a plan for humankind, and Christians trust in him 100%, isn't it hypocritical to pray? When Christians pray it is a self-centered act. Not knocking Antibes beliefs but clearly I find the belief in a god a ridiculous belief.

      April 24, 2011 at 8:26 am |
    • Nathan

      Who are you to say what a "true God" would do or be like? Did He create you or did you create Him? Would a "true God" let innocence be destroyed? He sent his innocent Son to be destroyed for our sake.

      April 24, 2011 at 8:33 am |
    • JOSEPH

      DAVE, THEIR IS A GOD. LOOK AT ALL THE ANIMALS AND NATURE IN ITS SELF. THE SUN IS 93 MILLION MILES AWAY AND IS OVER 1.3 MILLION THE SIZE OF EARTH, BUT IT LOOKS AS IF ITS JUST NEXT DOOR. SINCE YOUR FLESH CAME FROM THE DUST OF THE EARTH ONLY THE FOOD THAT COMES FROM THE DUST OF THE EARTH WILL NOURISH IT PROPERLY. THE BIBLE IN PROPHECY WHICH DISCRIBES EVENTS THAT WILL HAPPEN IN THE FUTURE HAS BEEN 100% ACCURATE TO THIS DAY. ONLY A GOD CAN TELL YOU WHATS GOING TO HAPPEN BEFORE IT HAPPENS. YOU WILL FIND ALL THE ANSWERS IN THE BIBLE. WHY ARE YOU HERE ON EARTH AND THE PURPOSE OF YOUR LIFE. JUST ASK GOD TO REVEAL HIMSELF TO YOU AND I WILL GUARANTEE YOU HE WILL ANSWER YOU. JUST ONE THING, MAKE SURE WHATEVER IS EXPLAINED TO YOU OR DEMONSTRATED IS IN THE BIBLE. WE ALL HAVE EXPERIANCED GOD IN OUR LIFE. ONE OF THE FUNCTIONS OF THE HOLY SPIRIT IS THAT IT CONVICTS THE WORLD OF SIN. THAT CONSCIECNCE/THOUGHT OR EMOTION THAT YOU FELT THAT TOLD YOU WHAT YOU DID IN DEED OR BY VERBAL RESPONSE WAS WRONG AND YOU FELT SORROWFUL OR REMORSE WAS THE HOLY SPIRIT. IT IS OUR CHOICE HOW WE CHOOSE TO RESPOND TO OTHERS AND TO GOD. GOD REQUIRES US TO REPENT FROM SIN WHICH MEANS CHANGE OR REVERSE OUR WAYS TO HIS OR GOD'S WAY. IF YOU READ THE BIBLE YOU WILL FIND ALL THE ANSWERS INSIDE THE BOOK. IT IS YOUR CHOICE. THEIR IS ONLY ONE GOD. THE DEVIL HAS CREATED OTHER GOD'S TO CONFUSE US AND TO LIE ABOUT THE TRUTH OF GOD'S EXISTANCE. THE DEVIL WORKS THRU YOUR MIND. NOT ALL THOUGHTS ARE YOURS. LET ME GIVE YOU AND EXAMPLE OF THE DEVIL/SATAN OR DEMONS EXISTANCE. PHYSIC READING COMMERCIALS ON TV IS JUST ONE WAY THE DEVIL TRYS TO ENTER INTO OUR LIFE'S. THE PERSON GETTING THE READING FROM THE PHYSIC ALWAYS RESPONDS: SHE KNEW EVERYTHING ABOUT ME. THIS IS A TRICK BY THE DEVIL. A DEMON HAS BEEN ASSIGN TO EVER SINCE YOU WERE BORN TO KEEP YOU IN SIN AND AWAY FROM THE THINGS OF GOD. THIS DEMON KNOWS EVERY THING ABOUT YOU. THIS DEMON TEELS THE DEMON THAT IS WITH THE PHYSIC EVERYTHING IT KNOWS ABOUT YOU. THE WOMEN HEARS WHAT THE DEMON IS TELLING HER AND REPEATS IT BACK TO YOU. THIS IS HOW THEY KNOW EVERYTHING ABOUT YOU. FEEL FREE TO EMAIL ME IF YOU HAVE ANY QUESTIONS CONCERNING GOD.

      April 24, 2011 at 9:19 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.