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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. Jean braithwaite

    Thank you for the article, and thnk you God for your son–Jesus –and the Holy Ghost.
    You know you are truly in a worship service when you feel the tingling up and down the spine.

    April 24, 2011 at 9:31 am |
    • ZeebleZub

      That tingling you feel is probably some ghost. Right.
      It was so obvious. Right.
      .
      And what wonderful truths did this tingling give you? Any answer to poverty, famine, disease? Any help for anyone besides the ever-so-convenient reinforcement of your belief system at that moment?
      No?
      This suggests circular reasoning was going on in your head and not anything "supernatural".
      "Oh, of course everything that happens in a religious building is directly from our deity"
      Right.

      April 24, 2011 at 9:53 am |
  2. Joni

    At last CNN has a story worth reading that does not have the name Obama in it. Very touching.

    April 24, 2011 at 9:30 am |
  3. Thankful Servant

    John,

    Thanks so much for sharing! You are an inspiration to all of us. The GIFT of the Holy Spirit was and is one of the MAJOR gifts God has given us in our time. Most of us don't tap into this real gift. Some of us don't know about it. You did experience the Holy Sprit; God is real and only comes to us when WE allow Him in. If you continue to think of things to block God, you will never find Him and never experience His spirit. God is spirit and we are spirits in our human bodys. You must invite Him into your life and, you must live your life in a way that helps others find God. When we leave this world, we will only take two things with us–the LOVE and FAITH we have experienced and developed by serving others; Serving others means helping them build their Love and Faith for God and others. This is the key to life–Love and Faith. Live in Love and Faith for God and others and you WILL experience the power of the Holy Spriit too! God Bless You All!

    April 24, 2011 at 9:30 am |
  4. D Martin

    Thank you for your beautiful story. I am sure your aunt is proud.

    April 24, 2011 at 9:29 am |
  5. JC

    "Mummy, there's a Lincoln Log in me sock drawer..."

    "That's the story of Jesus!"

    April 24, 2011 at 9:27 am |
  6. Lorelei

    Thank you John for giving your "testimony" which has given me strength today. Your story has caused me to reflect on my own childhood experiences in church, some of which I didn't understand at the time, but now I understand the sermons, praying and the "testimonies".

    April 24, 2011 at 9:25 am |
  7. Esher

    Thank you for this piece. Most will criticize and slam you (it is how they mask their desperation and insecurity) but I applaud you. Nice to read something positive for a change. And, yes all you naysayers, it is refreshing. Happy Easter.

    April 24, 2011 at 9:24 am |
  8. Democracy

    Beware of Communist Propaganda........During a Religious Holiday week end....

    God and Democracy

    April 24, 2011 at 9:21 am |
  9. Casey Collins

    EVEN AFTER SEEING THEY WILL REFUSE TO BELEIVE. Believers rejoice today that he has called us into his marvelous light and that we can have peace, even now on earth, as we await his arrival again. Do I hear an amen?

    April 24, 2011 at 9:20 am |
  10. consuela

    Beautiful Post. We love it. Thanks for sharing.

    April 24, 2011 at 9:19 am |
  11. Carla

    Mr. Blake, thank you for sharing your powerful story. I'm white and live in the south, and I love visiting with my friends at their black churches. You're right....the black church has a community and a power in worship that the white churches don't have. Course...I'd love to see more interracial churches in the south. I was wondering...where are you at now with Jesus and your faith?

    April 24, 2011 at 9:18 am |
  12. Danny

    Every single time a religious column is posted, regardless of belief, we see hundreds of people log in to cnn.com, click on the story and post incredibly hateful messages. Although I have read some very intelligent and well thought out arguments against Christianity as well, the overwhelming majority is just so ridiculously childish. I enjoy a lively debate as I consider myself pretty open-minded but stop the trolling... it gets tiresome people.

    April 24, 2011 at 9:17 am |
    • Ja'el

      Lol@ stop trolling... I couldn't agree more. Some people cannot resist hating for the sake of hating.

      April 24, 2011 at 9:46 am |
    • Jack

      CNN is a leftist publication. Most of its readers fall on the political spectrum's left and fully support Karl Marx's maxim "religion is the opium of the people" – as is evidenced by their unguarded comments.

      April 24, 2011 at 9:48 am |
  13. AT

    What a great story on this Easter Sunday. Everyone should have an Aunt like you ! I know I had. It was such a different world when we grew up. Everyone in our community went to Church. I praise God for the my African American roots, the deep appreciation and dependance on Jesus. Thank you for sharing. Your Aunt would be proud of you today.

    April 24, 2011 at 9:16 am |
  14. 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"

    April 24, 2011 at 9:15 am |
  15. Sh

    A touching story. God bless Aunt Sylvia, a true Angel for the kids!!!

    April 24, 2011 at 9:14 am |
  16. Pady7

    Beieve or don't b
    elieve, but treat your fellow man as you would wish to be treated.

    April 24, 2011 at 9:13 am |
  17. tee

    @seema, lol, have a wonderful Easter/day, however you chose to celebrate! I just ate the ears off my bunny!!!

    April 24, 2011 at 9:13 am |
  18. Martha Bush

    I am so glad to see that John Blake is not ashamed to "testify" about his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Don't worry about what others say; after all, they mocked Jesus, too.

    April 24, 2011 at 9:13 am |
    • Jack

      They did more than that.

      April 24, 2011 at 9:45 am |
  19. Otto

    Powerful, powerful, too powerful for mere words to explain. Look, I am only human but I remember powerful days; services that made me scared. A mother who was filled with the Holy Ghost, so powerful that I am unable to explain. I remember the last time I saw her alive, weak and frail; yet, she told me, be not afraid the Lord goes with you. I have cried so many times just by the thought of not knowing who or what gave her such faith. Who or what caused her be whom she was. Who or what caused her to say simple words to everyone no matter how hard life took her down or when people tried to hurt her. Her simple words were always the same, yes, simple words " May the Lord Bless You" As you can see, no curse words, no words of hate, no words asking God to cast retribution on anyone. Simple words. "God Bless You".
    This article brings back 50 years to knowledge I gained while being forced into church as the writer wrote of his experience, and yet; as he wrote, he came to at least understand a little of what his aunt knew, loved and believed. God bless you all!

    April 24, 2011 at 9:12 am |
  20. awaken21

    Very good piece. Finally something inspirational on CNN.com. Thank you for opening your heart to share this.

    April 24, 2011 at 9:11 am |
    • ZeebleZub

      It wasn't their hearts that opened up, but their sphincters.

      April 24, 2011 at 9:24 am |
    • Scott

      I agree and it is a nice article. In short, I was saved when I was ten years old and my extended family has always been church goers. It is a evolving process but one that I would never sacrifice for anything. It's been good to me in helping me grow and become successful. I'd say one of the best things that the Holy Spirit has done for me is it has helped me keep my sanity and sense of humor. I see others that are down and angry and have become bitter from life and this does not have to happen. At 49 years of age, I am healthy and happy as the day I was hit my 18th birthday. It has NOT been any easier than for a non-believer but the difference is that I can bounce back from the down turns in my life. Many non-believers have a harder time because they're trying to sustain themselves based on their own actions, and this is nearly impossible. I seek higher guidance through Christ and He never fails me.

      April 24, 2011 at 9:26 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.