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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. Ryan

    Your Aunt was truly a saint. You honor her with this story. The world would be a better place with more people like her.

    April 24, 2011 at 9:46 am |
  2. John

    Incredible and inspirational story from a blessed family and a testimony to the living, all mighty, all powerful, all loving Jesus Christ. I love this story! As far as the "educated" monkey-boys on this site who enjoy mocking the creator, I have this to say:

    From a scientific perspective, it now requires more faith to believe in evolution(pseudo science) than creation, therefore, you are preaching "religion" over science, and have no clue as to what you are talking about.
    I am very well educated, and due to my gift of logic and intelligence, I question and investigate before opening my mouth. the monkey-boys? their ability to eat junk food and operate a joystick is beyond question, but logic and rationale is beyond their grasp..
    and finally ... income. I am learning that the reason my "cup overfloweth", is because I have been blessed, and this is the Lord's money..... not mine. this is the tough part, but it is 100% true. I mention this only because all of my hard work, dedication and sacrifice, is again, really just a gift from above, and I'm only along for an incredible and beautiful ride. the more you give, the more you get.....

    April 24, 2011 at 9:45 am |
  3. MJ from VA

    You must write a book of this experience and your life. I was captivated in teh story and then it just ended! Gd Bless and Happy Ressurrection! We are still trying to find out what a rabbit has to do with an egg! There is no birthing of an egg as we portray today that a rabbit does!!!

    April 24, 2011 at 9:45 am |
  4. tee

    "Stop snitchin, all this yip yappin and jaw jackin, if you're scared go to church"-Snoop Dogg(2008)

    April 24, 2011 at 9:44 am |
  5. TROY

    To the Author:

    Your story ,on this day touched me greatly. Twice you tried to give up on religion ,but God never gave up on you.
    He surrounded you with Love so that you wouldnt have the feeling of not being "good enough" . So many people feel at times that they dont want Jesus,God,Church or religion because they are not "Good Enough" and they cant follow "rules" and commandments of Religion. But God created us all and his Love is for all people ,No matter what you have done ,he is STILL There for you – because God is LOVE .
    there to welcome you and Love you

    April 24, 2011 at 9:43 am |
  6. Therese

    I thoroughly enjoyed the article. This is an intensely personal story and I very much appreciate the author for sharing. I am one of those who experienced things in my childhood church that I could not understand or properly absorb. I left church too, just like the author, rejecting what I didn't understand and embracing a more secular world that I did. But ultimately, I felt propelled to come back and I'm glad that I did. My faith sustains me and gives me peace that cannot be explained.

    April 24, 2011 at 9:41 am |
  7. battergrl

    What a beautiful and heartful story. I really need to go to church and stop being lazy.

    April 24, 2011 at 9:40 am |
    • Larry Tate

      Going to church doesn't require a Hurculean effort. In fact, it is precisely for the lazy, if you don't follow it up with Christian acts. If you have two coats, one belongs to the poor. If you have heat in your house in winter, you're obligated to shelter the homeless. If you have leftovers in your fridge then you didn't make sure that the hungry were fed. This is what being a Christian REALLY is. Like Maximillian Kolbe who surrendered his life in a death camp so a family could live. If you're not living it, you're just a phony, feel good on Sunday Christian.

      April 24, 2011 at 10:00 am |
  8. Kirk in Largo FL

    And to think that in spite of these wondrous evidences, people STILL persist in believing that THERE IS NO GODDESS. Stiff necked heathens, all of them...

    Somehow, when you say god has McGuffies instead of a beard, All the rhetoric suddenly seems to lose much of the wind in it's sails.

    There is no rational reason to believe in a supreme source of creation which is personal in nature, ranter than the impersonal mechanistic source of creation science currently uses as a working theory. Anyone CAN believe in a personal source if they want to, but there is no rational argument that holds water when it is examined rationally.

    So let the Jewish celibate Passover, and the Christians celibate Easter. I will celibate spring, and life.

    And may Goddess bless you all.

    April 24, 2011 at 9:39 am |
  9. easterbunny

    John Blake, thanks for your story. It brought tears to my eyes, I loved your Aunt. Of course I didn't know her, but how wonderful she was. I am not religious, I don't believe in God, I don't go to church. I do believe in other peoples beliefs, and emotions of God. I know God and religion are powerful emotions. I don't understand how us nonbelievers can ridicule human emotion. Even though I deny the existence of God or a higher being, I don't deny the emotion of God. John Blake in your life, you have had several very emotional moments. You are still trying to understand them. Religion is a subject that people feel free to bash or get on their soap box. I myself just enjoyed the story for what it was, a very emotional story.

    April 24, 2011 at 9:38 am |
  10. Sinner

    Atheists are funny, God Bless them! Happy Easter!

    April 24, 2011 at 9:38 am |
  11. Dudley041518

    Test.

    April 24, 2011 at 9:37 am |
  12. Timothy

    Very interesting story.

    I couldn't relate to the whole "Holy Ghost" experience at all. I grew up in a pastor's (not the shouting type!) home, and have been a Christian since February 28, 1977 (age 19), but I've never had these types of religious experiences. I don't doubt them, I just can't really relate to them or even understand them.

    But the role your aunt played in your life, and how it impacted you gets my attention. It gets my attention because I know it was motivated by her relationship with Jesus Christ. I know that because I see what He has done in my own life, and how I (and I am naturally a very selfish and self centered person) am doing things right now for others that cost me dearly, and I know that I am doing them for one reason only, because I know this God, because he has given me new life and changed my heart. I'm still a sinner. I'm still growing. I still have a long way to go. I see my sinfulness and my need for grace every day. But I know what Christ did for me on the Cross, and how believing in HIM has changed me. And I love him, and want to please him. And as I read this story, I see clearly that this is exactly what was motivating your Aunt. Where would you be right now without her? And therefore, where would you be right now without what Christ did in her? Jesus Christ Changes lives. I've seen it a million times. The change is real. It isn't put on, it isn't temporary, it isn't superficial. It rescues wayward, sinful, selfish people like me from ourselves, and turns us into servants, givers, and lovers of others. And in doing that, impacts our world for good in so many ways.

    As I read the story of your childhood church experience, I see spiritual dysfunction mixed with spiritual reality and true godliness. And indeed, that is true of every Christian church, because we are all people damaged by sin, in the process of being changed. The resurrection demonstrates to us that some day the change will be complete, and we long for that day. But in the mean time, we will open our Bibles and listen to what the holy spirit would say to us about helping the poor and loving the unlovely and sharing his truth with people who haven't heard it, and we will bow our heads and ask for forgiveness and strength to respond, and we will get up and do as He tells us in our weak and imperfect way (just as your Aunt did). And we will do so knowing that even if it looks like nothing good is coming of it (as it did for your aunt), God sees, God knows, and God cares.

    April 24, 2011 at 9:36 am |
    • Betsy

      What a great, inspiring comment, Timothy. Thank you for it.

      April 24, 2011 at 9:44 am |
    • Michelle

      This is wonderful, God is great! Thank you for sharing, Happy Easter!

      April 24, 2011 at 9:54 am |
  13. doug

    That by the way, was one of the most touching stoires of a young man touched by the faith of a woman of faith. You made your Aunt proud. Happy Easter and God Bless:)

    April 24, 2011 at 9:36 am |
  14. Mike

    Simply more nonsense from the irrationals.

    April 24, 2011 at 9:36 am |
  15. Julie

    God bless you, CNN, for posting this!! I love You, Jesus!!

    April 24, 2011 at 9:36 am |
  16. Joel Baker

    All I know is that we all will call upon the Name Jesus either in Life or Death but you will utter his name out of your mouth!

    April 24, 2011 at 9:34 am |
    • Larry Tate

      Jesus, that's a big assumption!

      April 24, 2011 at 9:56 am |
  17. Barbara Giles

    This was a great story piece. I loved it!!

    April 24, 2011 at 9:34 am |
  18. tee

    MC Hammer circa 1989-"you've got to pray, raaaaayyyy, pray everyday"

    April 24, 2011 at 9:33 am |
  19. nash237

    the truth you need to really get off this blog.why waste your time here when you dont believe.you are very much confused

    April 24, 2011 at 9:33 am |
  20. Greg

    I had a similar experience, but mine lasted for hours. I have never been the same.

    April 24, 2011 at 9:32 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.