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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. Becky

    Great article! Thanks so much for sharing! And thank you, Jesus, for the price you paid so that we can live these amazing moments throughout our life!

    April 24, 2011 at 9:57 am |
    • ludicrust

      CNN needs to put the real news on the front page, not some cults fairy tale. Most ppl dont believe this crap anymore...

      April 24, 2011 at 10:12 am |
    • Jack Handy

      The trinity is a strange thing. You have the Father and the Son, which are easy to understand. But then you have the Holy Ghost. The Holy Ghost gets less publicity and never gets top billing. Even Jesus' mother gets more respect. Think of the Holy Ghost as more like a mascot. Except it would never be a good mascot at a college football game, because it's invisible and would never get the crowd pumped up. I wonder which is nicer and more fun to be around Casper the Friendly Ghost or the Holy Ghost. We may never know.

      April 24, 2011 at 10:22 am |
  2. tee

    "I took it all back cuz god dont like ugly...." Kanye West (2003)

    April 24, 2011 at 9:56 am |
  3. Reality

    Testimony Time:

    Jesus was an illiterate Jewish peasant/carpenter/simple preacher man who suffered from hallucinations (or “mythicizing” from P, M, M, L and J) and who has been characterized anywhere from the Messiah from Nazareth to a mythical character from mythical Nazareth to a ma-mzer from Nazareth (Professor Bruce Chilton, in his book Rabbi Jesus). An-alyses of Jesus’ life by many contemporary NT scholars (e.g. Professors Crossan, Borg and Fredriksen, ) via the NT and related doc-uments have concluded that only about 30% of Jesus' sayings and ways noted in the NT were authentic. The rest being embellishments (e.g. miracles)/hallucinations made/had by the NT authors to impress various Christian, Jewish and Pagan sects.

    The 30% of the NT that is "authentic Jesus" like everything in life was borrowed/plagiarized and/or improved from those who came before. In Jesus' case, it was the ways and sayings of the Babylonians, Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, Hitt-ites, Canaanites, OT, John the Baptizer and possibly the ways and sayings of traveling Greek Cynics.
    earlychristianwritings.com/theories.html

    For added "pizzazz", Catholic theologians divided god the singularity into three persons and invented atonement as an added guilt trip for the "pew people" to go along with this trinity of overseers. By doing so, they made god the padre into god the "filicider".

    Current RCC problems:

    Pedophiliac priests, an all-male, mostly white hierarchy, atonement theology and original sin!!!!

    Luther, Calvin, Joe Smith, Henry VIII, Wesley, Roger Williams, the Great “Babs” et al, founders of Christian-based religions or combination religions also suffered from the belief in/hallucinations of "pretty wingie thingie" visits and "prophecies" for profits analogous to the myths of Catholicism (resurrections, apparitions, ascensions and immacu-late co-nceptions).

    Current problems: --–

    Adulterous preachers, pedophiliac preachers, "propheteering/ profiteering" evangelicals and atonement theology,

    April 24, 2011 at 9:56 am |
    • guy

      the Gays are out in full force We know, we know – Christians are evil baby-eating monsters for believing nature made the anus an exit not an entrance. that's what the hostility is all about, really. Just ignore people who judge you since you don't Believe anyway. Don't project your hatred for someone having faith. yes, faith has no scientific reasoning. You can't disprove it and i can't prove it.

      April 24, 2011 at 10:01 am |
  4. guy

    Lily

    Einstein was in fact referring to the living Creator, His Son (who came in the human flesh to forgive our sins show us e knows our suffering, and the Spirit of God. He just may not have known it. Lighten up and be humble.

    April 24, 2011 at 9:55 am |
  5. Chris Long

    Wow?? Atheist are some of the most hateful people on the planet.... Then again Joseph Stalin hated religion too. If fact he hated it so much he starved 10 million stubborn christian Ukrainese. Why atheist bother themselves with things people believe in faith, they believe it in faith. They are believers simply because they aren't scientist. I use to be a believer but now I am a scientist, yet I understand the mind of a believer. Why an atheist would read this is surprising.

    April 24, 2011 at 9:54 am |
  6. john b

    That was a nice story

    April 24, 2011 at 9:54 am |
  7. Joanne C

    So, if I post my very real, to me, encountered with two spiritual (not real) humans while my husband was pulled out to sea by one rip current, I would get some decent replies, but also a lot of foul mouth abusive nonbelievers or just plain meanies.
    No wonder our country is splitting at the seams. All opinions and experiences should be respected by others unless they are abusive.

    April 24, 2011 at 9:54 am |
  8. shel341

    In response to those who complain about the fact that such pieces are on this site....

    More than half the world's population believes in a higher power and a significant portion of that group believe in Jesus and thus celebrate his resurrection on this day each year. This shouldn't be a surprise, happens every year, just like the Cadbury Eggs show up in the stores in late March. So even though you don't believe, this is considered relevant to a large majority of the population.

    Now if you're a non-believer and are going to get all worked up, why would you feel compelled to read the piece? No one forced you to click the link, just pass it by.

    I absolutely hate professional basketball. Full of nothing but a bunch of overpaid thugs. Know what I do when I see an article about basketball....I pass right on by. Basketball fans don't want to hear my thoughts on these so called "professional" players. They want to discuss the sport that they commonly enjoy.

    If you don't believe then fine. You don't want to read about religion??? DON'T CLICK ON THE LINK FOR THE RELIGIOUS STORIES!!!!! Leave those of us who do believe in peace.

    Oh but you can't do that can you? You are compelled to belittle, ridicule and call names. How mature. I don't want to talk you into believing what I believe and I certainly don't want to listen to your rhetoric about why I shouldn't.

    Now do us a favor and move on to the entertainment section where you can comment on the latest Lindsey Lohan debacle.

    April 24, 2011 at 9:54 am |
  9. Livelystone

    To the OP

    That was a nice story....... thanks for sharing.

    I think you have experienced the realization that you did not choose Him, He chose you!

    Blessings

    Doug

    April 24, 2011 at 9:53 am |
  10. Shawn Irwin

    CNN publishes trash instead of news . . . . I'll find some other news organization, this is just plain idiotic. . "Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful." Lucius Annaeus Seneca Roman Philosopher

    April 24, 2011 at 9:51 am |
  11. ifeelsorry4u

    I never believed in things like chakras and out of body experiences, never knew anything about science, no math whiz at all. Yet, when I was a teenager I had a dream that showed me that absolutely everything in our universe is based upon math. Later I discovered that this was a belief Pythagoras held. As an adult I experienced the 'grace' described in the story, the awesome love and acceptance from the All in my darkest hour. Another time I began feeling sensations where the gurus in India teach that energetic chakras are located, and I had what could only be described as miraculous experiences – precognition, intense synchronicity. Then I had an out of body experience where I was taken to the furthest reaches of our universe and shown that before I became 'me', I simply existed, then the 'word' came and attached its self to me, and it began to 'speak' to me of who I was and how I would behave, and each 'word' created a little white string in a gelatinous container in a hierarchy much like a computer folder system, this is outside of space/time as I know it. Later I heard about string theory and I was stunned how similar my dream was the physicists theories. We live in an amazing universe, on a wonderful planet, full of incredible beings who, every one, are miracles. Happy Easter to all of you.

    April 24, 2011 at 9:51 am |
  12. Holden Green

    YES. ARGUE, MY PUPPETS. FIGHT. WA HA HA. THIS PLEASES ME.

    April 24, 2011 at 9:50 am |
  13. IsitI

    Sorry, but not everyone is forgiven. You don't just walk into Heaven. You must crawl and beg forgiivness. It is as difficult to get into Heaven as it is for a camel to get through the eye of a needle.

    If you are a Christian and live that type of life, you May get into Heaven. What have you wasted during your time on earth?

    If you are a athiest and lived that type of life while alive on earth, what if YOU are WRONG?

    April 24, 2011 at 9:50 am |
  14. michael f. fort wayne indiana

    What a great testament. god is good Thank you for such a wonderful storey on such a blessed day! lord bless the ones with no understanding and hatred posting on this post- forgive them .

    April 24, 2011 at 9:48 am |
  15. SadieSadie

    This brought tears to my eyes. God is great! Thank you Jesus and I love you my Lord and Savior.

    April 24, 2011 at 9:48 am |
  16. atheitarian

    It's amazing how we celebrate psychosis and delusion on religious holidays. This is not news. The headlines should read – millions of people duped into believing fiction is fact.

    April 24, 2011 at 9:47 am |
    • J. W.

      Atheitarian, Nobody will try to make you believe anything you can't comprehend. Those who have "involuntary" experiences mostly keep them to themselves because it is people like you who try to make them believe it never really happened. To those like myself who understand, we have a belief for a reason. For those who don't, I only hope that your not too set in your ways to notice a miracle if your lucky enough to have it happen. I was never a believer like yourself. Now, nobody can convince me any differently.

      April 24, 2011 at 10:15 am |
  17. Carol

    What a powerful, beautiful piece of writing. Thanks to the author for sharing a personal story that impacted my day. What a treat on CNN.

    April 24, 2011 at 9:47 am |
  18. Dudley041518

    I have no doubt that what a person has faith in will be their lot. I will leave non-believers to their fates. I will be left to mine, but I warn those who are nonbelievers screaming at their screens; about 95% of everyone on earth believe in a higher being. Do you honestly believe that of all the people on Earth you are part of the 5% that "gets it?"

    This is very self-centered of you and could damage your ability to actually be conscious for a loooot longer.

    April 24, 2011 at 9:47 am |
    • Louise

      I felt this was a wonderful story of a strong, kind woman and a rock for those two boys at that time. Someone who had done their best for them, and had impacted their lives in such a positive way. And then there are buffoons like you, full of hot air, full of threats and evil mindedness that spout their venom to the so called damned for not believing. Why were you reading such a story, you have nothing in common with the brave, good people depicted here. Shame on you.

      April 24, 2011 at 9:59 am |
  19. beth

    I have had a similar experience but not tied to any religion. I am not Christian. One does not have to be Christian to experience this.

    April 24, 2011 at 9:47 am |
    • Chris Long

      LSD?? haha

      April 24, 2011 at 9:57 am |
    • ifeelsorry4u

      Hear, hear, or shall we say Shema? Does not matter your religion, or lack thereof. I think the real beauty of our universe is that everyone is free to have whatever idea of god, or no idea of god, that they wish to have. They are beliefs, and yes, beliefs play a big role in creation. Science has proven this, the observer effects the observed, and cannot help but do so. Now I think the time has come for us to "know" rather than just believe, we will be given empirical evidence of basic truths that we cannot deny. What forms these truths will take, I can only speculate, and that doesn't help "knowing".

      April 24, 2011 at 9:58 am |
    • Chris Long

      This part of the story below happened to me when I was 18, I know it was God. It never identified itself with a particular religion, and I am so glad it didn't because christian theology and christian philosophy is so screwed up it's sad. Thank God for science and the realization of reality it comes with, without it I would have died of depression in the church..... That's my testimony.

      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.

      April 24, 2011 at 10:01 am |
  20. Grace

    Beautiful story....leave it at that!

    April 24, 2011 at 9:46 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.