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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. Ian

    Whatever gets you through the night ...
    I'd prefer an ugly truth to a beautiful lie, though.

    April 24, 2011 at 9:10 am |
    • guy

      Einstein replied, " Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible laws and connections, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything we can comprehend is my religion. to that extent i am, in fact, religious"

      Generally considered the world's smartest man...hummm

      April 24, 2011 at 9:27 am |
    • Macy

      That makes no sense.

      April 24, 2011 at 9:32 am |
    • Lily

      Einstein's 'religious' is definitely not your understanding of religious. When he said what you quoted he was not referring to jesus christ, the ghost, or the holy spirit, rather he was referring to science and knowledge, that was his religion. But the hallucinations and delusions of organized religion were far away from him.

      April 24, 2011 at 9:38 am |
  2. David

    Linda, have a wonderful Easter and don't let these discussions ruin your day!

    Z-man, proof that Jesus walked the earth and the miracles performed are in the bible. That is your proof.. These miracles are accounted for and written by various witnesses. The writings are written by these authors at different times and in different places.. Yet they all have the same story to tell. There are many books discussing the validity of the bible through historical studies (not only religious claims)

    Also, someone wrote earlier that saying I will pray for you is like a f-you.. Nothing could be further from the truth and it shows a lack of understanding about the Christian community and faith.

    I hope you all have a blessed Easter Sunday regardless of faith and belief.

    April 24, 2011 at 9:07 am |
  3. LJ

    Thanks so much for sharing your experience. One of the more moving posts I've read from someone in a long time.

    April 24, 2011 at 9:07 am |
  4. AtheistSteve

    This is just another example of how anecdotal evidence is used to bolster a belief. Those of faith read this story and hear exactly what they want to hear. They listen to someones tes.timony of a personal experience and immediately accept it as true without questioning the details behind the events depicted.

    So in this case we have three separate events spanning decades of time in which the person involved believes the things happening are the result of a personal communion with the Holy Spirit. The background setting is clearly one where religious indoctrination played a large role in setting up the frame of mind of the teller. The net effect is such that any occurance of an unusual or unfamiliar tone become infused with spiritual meaning. Lets examine the individual events and see if the conclusions arrived at are valid examples of the supernatural.

    Event #1-At the age of 9 the feeling of the Holy Spirit washes over them during a fevered sermon.
    First this is barely credible simply due to the vast amount of time that has elapsed. Memory is extremely fickle and the further back in time the memory is the more unreliable it becomes. Details become less distinct, some are forgotton and others are created. The content of the memory becomes shaped and altered to align with future experiences and mindset. I have memories of my childhood that while vivid are not accurate representations of the actual events as they occured.
    Also this was happening in a setting that is known to create biochemical changes in the brain. A raucous sermon working the parishioners into a frenzy by a screaming pastor. Funny things happen to people in mobs. Feelings of euphoria are common to participants in such things. People are swept up in the moment and experience elation at rock concerts, sporting events and political rallys too.

    Event #2-During their soph.omore (say 19yrs of age) college year an unusual experience upon waking up. Any time I hear about people refering to dreams or waking sensations as valid experience I have to laugh. The brain is still processing elements of its subconscious when we come out of sleep and I have many personal examples of truly strange events and thoughts that accompany this time. It well known that most UFO abductions are detailed as waking experiences. In a process called sleep paralysis where the person feels unable to move yet seemingly able to perceive the presence of enti.ties around them become amplified later into recollections of being experimented on by aliens. The subconsious again a.sserting its influence colored later by attempts to provide meaning to the perceived images.

    Event #3-At the death bed of the aunt a simple look without verbal confirmation is imbued with a deeper meaning. Approx. five years after event #2. Significance given to the aunts glance is evidence of nothing. The story teller is trying to cope with heavy emotions while a loved one is dying and coloring the events to coincide with their belief. At my fathers deathbed a similar feeling of a deeper significance was given to his last words and looks. Looking back I understood it was my own grief and unwillingness to let go that clung to his final moments as being more important.

    In conclusion the story is unconvincing upon examination. It spans too long a time period and is tainted by a preconceived notion in the supernatural. Of cource none of what I said will sway believers to dismiss what they fervently cling to hold true. It is enough for them that these anecdotes confirm what they already believe and no amount of critical a.nalysis will dispell their preconceptions. Is this a credible story of the presence of the Holy Spirit?? Not by a long shot in my opinion.

    April 24, 2011 at 9:06 am |
    • Parag from Sugar Land

      Excellent analysis. Christians are free to believe whatever if it works for them. I just wish they would not deny other faiths their spirituality.

      The evidence, however, shows that we are highly intelligent animals and nothing more. Death is the end-point of all life. There is no personal god or holy spirit.

      April 24, 2011 at 9:24 am |
  5. FrikkenFrak

    Wow. Thank you, Mr. Blake, for sharing that. Beautiful.
    Happy Easter!

    April 24, 2011 at 9:06 am |
  6. guy

    the beautiful sun is shining the beautiful Son died for my sins. I've got my health, family, friends, job, food, shelter all to be thankful for. thanks Jesus

    April 24, 2011 at 9:03 am |
    • Lily

      And you think jesus christ is the one who provided you with all this, very interesting.

      April 24, 2011 at 9:16 am |
  7. Jack

    Thank You,,,,,,,,Lord..........for all that you have done for us, Amen

    April 24, 2011 at 9:02 am |
  8. Messenger

    Amazing, John. Thank you for sharing.

    To those of you who came to the comments section of this blog expecting to see love and encouragement on this day, only to be met with hollowness and hate from many of the commenters, I ask you – "why do you seek the living amongst the dead?"

    April 24, 2011 at 8:59 am |
  9. kssss

    Thank you John for sharing your story. What a perfect day to share it.

    April 24, 2011 at 8:58 am |
  10. Doug M

    Jesus was a delusional narcissist. "I am the truth"? Yet he doesn't explain what that means? He also committed suicide. He could have left the area but instead chose to allow the police to arrest him and put him to death – today that's called suicide by cop. Isn't that "against the Bible"? Wackiness is all it is.

    It's ridiculous that we keep electing leaders in this country that belong to this cult.

    April 24, 2011 at 8:57 am |
    • Danny

      It seems that you've read or know of the Bible, but it's frustrating to me that you would so vehemently deny it with such a poor understanding of it. Jesus did call himself the "truth and the way" and He does explain what He means. And whereas I can see why you would think it's suicide that He died on the cross, it was more of a sacrifice. If you didn't know, Jesus prays to God before He is taken away. He asks God to prevent His death, IF it is according to His will. I'm impressed that many of you who are against the Bible are starting to actually read or try to understand it before lashing out against Christianity, but please you must read it thoroughly.

      April 24, 2011 at 9:09 am |
    • John Haley

      Suicide by cop? I like the sound of that

      May 4, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
  11. In Reason I Trust

    If John had been raised in any other religion he would have also "felt" that spirit and not the Holy Ghost. Let's grow people, this is CNN not Fox, tales of self delusion are not news.

    April 24, 2011 at 8:55 am |
    • Content2B

      So why did you read it? Can't you find another article to "troll" on?

      April 24, 2011 at 8:57 am |
  12. Alex

    This was an awesome story, thanks for sharing it on such a special day like today. It's sad to read some of the comments that people make. You can tell that they have never experienced the love of God. I was once empty just like that, but I thank God for changing me and showing me true love.

    April 24, 2011 at 8:55 am |
  13. Christopher Brooks

    Patience, just a few more centuries.

    April 24, 2011 at 8:55 am |
  14. Rob

    Thank you for sharing your story. I too have felt the utter and complete unconditional love of The Ghost and it is something that shakes you down to your foundation. You feel completely undeserving but yet the love is there for you to drown in. It did not happen to me in church and it has happened to me many times after that first time. It is undeniable and only those of us who have been blessed by the experience know the magnitude and reality of it. Thank you for sharing and may God bless!

    April 24, 2011 at 8:55 am |
  15. Content2B

    Thank you John Blake for sharing your experience. May you be blessed. Happy Easter.

    April 24, 2011 at 8:55 am |
  16. Geesh

    As Twain said, "Faith is believing what you know ain't so."

    April 24, 2011 at 8:54 am |
    • guy

      as the humble genius Einstein replied, " Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible laws and connections, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything we can comprehend is my religion. to that extent i am, in fact, religious"

      April 24, 2011 at 9:12 am |
  17. I thought this was supposed to be News

    While I know CNN throws in fluff pieces in the midst of actual news, this is the worst I've seen. While the story may be nice, etc, etc, a pro-specific religion story has no place in a secular news website. This is more appropriate for Focus on the Family or some other Christian-specific site. I'm highly offended that I woke up to this on a "news" site. I didn't see any Passover stories, or Ramadan anecdotes, etc. If you are really a secular and objective news source, CNN, it will do you good to leave these stories off your website, or at least create an "Opinions" column and put stories like this there, not feature it as "headline news".

    April 24, 2011 at 8:54 am |
    • Content2B

      So why did you bother to read it?

      April 24, 2011 at 8:56 am |
    • Danny

      Then why take the time to click on it and post a comment if you are so infuriated? And if you have been a long-time reader of cnn.com, you would know that they've posted religious columns from every race and creed. They are in no way specific to one.

      April 24, 2011 at 9:03 am |
    • Dudley041518

      Happy Easter. He is Risen!

      It's not really news, I THOUGHT. This is the belief blog. It's for those who believe, and there are a lot of us who are extraordinarily happy because of our faith in Jesus, the Christ. Today is our day, the day we celebrate the very act that guarantees our salvation. It's even bigger than Christmas. I hope that one day God will choose you for an encounter with Him. God bless.

      April 24, 2011 at 9:14 am |
    • Landon

      why don't you just go and find a new website for your news source. sounds like you should try fox.

      April 24, 2011 at 9:24 am |
    • Noreaster 60

      Dear Person,

      Your comments about a pro-specific religion has no place n a secular new website has not true foundation, you're missing the forrest because of the trees. News is about people, places, or things think outside the box! if you dare.

      Sometimes it is good to placate to the soul, heart, and not aways to the intellect there must be a balance.

      After all we are not machines but human beings with emotions, we like to comment about our life experiences! that's how you came to being through your parents emotions two = one surprise you are conceived.

      April 24, 2011 at 9:29 am |
    • Mel

      Well it is clearly marked under "Belief Blog" – what more do you want? It is clearly an opinion piece (belief) and not a news story (blog).

      April 24, 2011 at 9:37 am |
    • Palustris

      You have left a very poor comment indeed.. And you can't read. The top of this segment is "Belief blog" and is about ALL religions and/or beliefs, NOT just Christianity.

      April 24, 2011 at 11:15 am |
  18. tee

    @margret, bless you, you have dealt w enough, dont let this hate on a blog ruin your day. RIP Paul. @fiona, they cant bring you down, they understood no matter how you spell. **please stop bashing each other. Happy Easter!

    April 24, 2011 at 8:52 am |
  19. *Peter camacho

    Incredible story . One of love and lifes lessons, the American dream realized.

    April 24, 2011 at 8:52 am |
  20. Faber McMullen

    Great heartfelt stuff. Whether it was all real or imagined, it helped to change your life in a positive way. As a friend of mine always says, "How odd of God". I think we try to discuss HE/SHE/IT (The creator being) like ants trying to discuss the internet. Happy Resurrection Day to you all.

    April 24, 2011 at 8:51 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.