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. Fiona

    I cant belive people actully wast their time demeaning other religions. as ive heard a lot of you say there are other problems in the world that you could be helping to solve but instead your here demeaning people belife this goes for any god or goddeses you choose to belive in or not to belive in. none of you have any right to say something hatful about anyones belif the best thing we can do as a people is to accept not deny make fun of or critzize. and if anyone thinks to poke at me cause of spelling ill be glad if you do that because it makes me a better person and hopefully ill be able to pass somthing postive to somone even if its as small as how to spell a word

    April 24, 2011 at 8:45 am |
    • Zoot

      We already have enough grammar nazis on the web, thanks anyway...

      April 24, 2011 at 9:11 am |
  2. guy

    so what force created all the seen and unseen ? Still waiting genius

    April 24, 2011 at 8:43 am |
    • Pirate

      So what force created the force that created everything? Your logic is not logic. Saying the universe is too complicated to have not been created by a "god" only moves the problem one more step away. If god created the universe, who created god? Obviously man! lol

      April 24, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
  3. me

    I still don't think that God cares about religion. Haven't changed my mind yet, and I doubt that I ever will.

    April 24, 2011 at 8:43 am |
  4. Mama

    John Blake, thank you for an uplifting story of faith. I'm sorry for all of the hate-filled and blind comments. Apparently everything is acceptable in this society except Christianity.

    April 24, 2011 at 8:43 am |
  5. Melissa

    John- I'm glad you had the courage to write this piece. Thank you for a touching story.

    April 24, 2011 at 8:42 am |
  6. Pirate

    One of the arguments for existence of a god is that this universe is so complicated that there HAS to be a creator.. Well this argument falls flat on its face because that only pushes the complexity up a level, not explain it. Who created the god then?

    April 24, 2011 at 8:40 am |
  7. Margaret

    Three Easter mornings ago I woke in the agonizing grief that had been with me since my young son's death on 7 December 2007. Since then rising every morning had felt like getting up for a daily beating. I opened the back door and stood in the sunshine. It was then I realized that today was the day we celebrated the resurrection of Jesus and though I had believed for decades and my son believed and I had known that I would see him again in that moment I was struck by the soul deep knowledge of the unspeakable joy that the sacrifice of Jesus and his resurrection had brought to me. I still miss him and I long for that moment when I can see and touch him and tell him for an eternity how much I love him.
    I'm not telling this to anger the atheists but for other Christians including John Blake who will know what I'm talking about and celebrate with me.
    Rest in peace and rise in glory, Paul.

    April 24, 2011 at 8:40 am |
    • venusismom


      April 24, 2011 at 9:00 am |
  8. tee

    Just relax you guys. Dont be hateful to each other. I just wanted to bring a little laughter to you all today. Don't argue, it just builds more hate. We all know God does not hate. Have a good one yall!

    April 24, 2011 at 8:39 am |
  9. Pirate

    Expecting your supplicants to believe in you on faith alone is a very sloppy way to run a universe! I simply don't get it – how does one make a choice to believe in one god over another without a shred of proof? For all we know its mombo jombo god of the congo that is the one true god! LMAO! All hail the Great Flying Spaghetti Monster!

    April 24, 2011 at 8:38 am |
    • Karen

      LMAO too!

      April 24, 2011 at 8:41 am |

    Thanks for the story.

    April 24, 2011 at 8:37 am |
  11. Steven K-Brooks

    This is a wonderful story. Thank you John Blake for sharing something so personal. You are lucky: So many people get there too late for that final goodbye. From my own personal experience, being in a coma for three weeks, and unexpectedly opening my eyes at a time when my family was gathered at my bedside because it did not look like I would make it; then opening my eyes, seeing my then 13 year old son (now 20) giving him a broad smile, and then lapsing back into the coma; I feel certain that it meant a lot to your Aunt Sylvia to see you that last time. G-d Bless you!

    April 24, 2011 at 8:34 am |
    • stubbycat

      That wasn't the last time she saw him. When she left the matter-body she continued to see him with her spiritual Mind, her true source of sight. She now sees him in her thoughts from where she now exists just as he sees her in his thoughts from his current sense of finite life. All of our faculties are infinitely established in Life, and and operate ceaselessly and immeasurably, regardless of matter, which is basically nothingness appearing real.

      April 24, 2011 at 10:05 am |
  12. Pirate


    April 24, 2011 at 8:34 am |
    • Danny

      Hail...Hail !

      Modern Christianity is just based on Mithraism. Jesus...we can't see...and we'll never see...the spaghetti monster gives us wonderful spaghetti every single day!

      Hail Hail...

      April 24, 2011 at 8:38 am |
  13. Drury Armistead


    April 24, 2011 at 8:34 am |
  14. LeahB

    Thank you for sharing your beautiful experience John. Happy Easter to you!

    April 24, 2011 at 8:34 am |
  15. Chris

    Wow...who would've thought this article would bring together the Christians and Atheists alike?? Different religious story; same old posts – blah blah blah

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

    ZeebleZub: The proof is all around you. An explosion only destroys – it doesn't create anything. The Lord God Almighty created this universe. You also stated"I do not hate anything that doesn't exist" and later stated "I have lies more then your "god"" and "I do not hate non-existent beings". So he exists now?? And for your 5:09 post: I have everlasting life and this body is left behind. Actual proof of a wonderful universe? Imangine that....well, you did ask for proof of a "god". Now you have proof of the God Almighty. Thanks, John Blake for reminding me what this day is all about. Happy Easter!

    April 24, 2011 at 8:32 am |
  17. tee

    Does anyone remember when chocolate bunnies were solid, not hollow like this one I got in my basket?

    April 24, 2011 at 8:32 am |
    • seema

      Yea I agree, I found no solid bunnies in the stores.

      April 24, 2011 at 9:06 am |
    • stubbycat

      a solid chocolate bunny would cost alot more than a hallow one.they usually don't sell solid bunnies in the cheaper stores.

      April 24, 2011 at 9:59 am |
  18. Julie

    We have got those posting who give religion a bad name and those posting who are so anti-religion and act like religious folks are stupid for believing in "mythology" and not "science." Here is a thought...Treat each other well while you have this life cause it may be the only one you get...and let me lay some science on you...for the record you have not died recently so you really don't know what"s gonna happen. Maybe you're right, maybe your wrong....but I accept I don't know and so while here on my "earthly journey" I'm just gonna try to be a good person because that's just the right thing to do!

    April 24, 2011 at 8:32 am |
  19. God's Man

    Linda, you are demonstrating God's love. I am so glad you responded in love and didn't attack him. I along with you pray that zeeblezub has an encounter with the one and only true and loving God. If Jesus would go to the cross and die a cruel death in our place surely his love for all mankind can withstand these insults hurled at him. Yet he still interceeds for us all from heaven. I know its hard to comp4ehend a love like thay and it causes our minds to question the reality or truth of it. That's why Ephesians 3:14-19 is so powerful. To know that this love surpasses knowledge sums it all up. Inspite of our rejection of him, it doesn't change his love for us. God bless you all, whether u believe it or acknowledge it, he has!

    April 24, 2011 at 8:31 am |
  20. william

    The Holy Spirit enters a believer in Jesus Christ at the time of salvation...it is not a separate in-filling as some would propose. Please look into the original Greek and Hebrew translations. So, the man in the article recieved the Holy Spirit at time of salvation. When does the baptism occur? The clear teaching of the New Testament is that it takes place at conversion. Note our key verse again, 1 Corinthians 12:13. The word "baptized" is in the aorist tense, which refers to a past completed action. It refers to a once-for-all experience that is not repeated. Ephesians 1:13 tells us that we were "sealed with the promised Holy Spirit" when we believed. Every believer has been baptized by the Holy Spirit, but only once. You may be filled with the Holy Spirit many times, but there is no scriptural indication that baptism by the Holy Spirit is ever repeated. Jesus is REAL, He died for the sins of all mankind...only thru a relationship with Him can one gain eternal security in heaven with the Creator God. Have a great Easter!

    April 24, 2011 at 8:30 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.