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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. wendy555555

    i was in church one time and sitting alone in the middle of the church and the middle of the pew and someone tapped me on the shoulder i turned around and there was no one there i turned back around and it happened again i turned around again and there was no one there; i dont no what it was but it has always stuck with me; i made some big mistakes in my live i had 2 beutiful boys but something happened to me i had a mega high stress job for 15 years and that and i think high anxiety disorder and drinking to make it go away and i guess i kept it all bottled up and i ruined everything; my boys never spoke to me again and a priest said i can never be forgiven so i dont go to church anymore but i still pray about everyother breath everyday and tell him how sorry i am for being the stupidest person on the face of the earth; i pray for the people i love and for all the rest inbetween:) but mainly i pray for my boys and their awesome i hear; so i am very thankful and i feel very stongly that jesus is the force behind us all and when he is not behind us he is carrying us;happy easter and please god forgive us

    April 24, 2011 at 10:31 am |
    • Lorraine

      Wendy, that priest was a LIAR. If you don't have a Bible, you go to the nearest Christian church and ask for one, and ask for someone to explain the way to salvation to you. You are loved by God, so much so that today we're celebrating that He gave up His son for your sins, so that you can, by faith, be reconciled to him. I know that many in the world don't believe this, and will probably write here that I'm living in a dream world, fooling myself, but the Bible itself says that being saved comes by faith. Those who don't believe have done a fine job of screwing up the world; give God a chance in your life, and see what He does for you. I will pray for you, Wendy!

      April 24, 2011 at 10:38 am |
    • Patty

      I am sorry you were told you could not be forgiven. You can be forgiven.

      April 24, 2011 at 10:44 am |
    • Dconsjm

      The priest with whom you spoke was sadly mistaken. He has no business being a priest. No one is ever beyond the reach of the infinite love and forgiveness that is God. No one. Ever.

      April 24, 2011 at 10:44 am |
    • Teri

      A priest may have said you are not forgiven, but Jesus says YOU ARE FORGIVEN. He takes our sin from us as far away as the east is from the west. Forgive yourself, forgive others, forgive the priest, and move out in the glory God has destined for you. Be blessed this holy day. He is risen!!!

      April 24, 2011 at 10:45 am |
    • GZ

      You should spend more time concerning yourself with real things (like grammar) and not a five year old who is tapping your shoulder at church and ducking behind the bench.

      April 24, 2011 at 10:48 am |
  2. The Man

    I dont know why blacks goto church it says clearly in the bible they're going to hell anyways.

    April 24, 2011 at 10:30 am |
  3. Brian Rembrandt

    The energy shooting up your spine, love and light can also be described as a Kundalini awakening. It happened to me 25 years ago and has happened to many people. I am still trying to understand it. There is a book called Kundalini and Christianity by Philip St. Roman that will give you more information on this. I highly recommend anyone who wants to read more about this get the great book. G-d bless you and wishes of peace and love on this day.

    April 24, 2011 at 10:29 am |
    • Charles

      You are right – it is Kundalini. And it is holy ghost. And it is experienced in all religions and by people with no religion. I believe it comes upon someone by grace and isn't necessarily earned or "deserved" (based on my own experience)... people we would call holy and people that some would call evil both likely experience it. The eastern religions have done a good job of identifying the phenomenon, discussing it more (at least recently) and describing energy movement. But K seems to defy labeling or human understanding. Except perhaps through a true divine transformative experience that relatively few humans have shared thus far. But the holy ghost in the black church is no less valid than K (not to imply that you were saying this). I think this spirit moves across humanity and makes its mark in the way it chooses, always for the better of the universe.

      April 24, 2011 at 11:00 am |
  4. Tyler

    all of you just shut up why do you care why don't you try reading up on some real news, there's more important things happening in our world today that you can freak out about. and you definitely won't find it on the "belief blog"

    April 24, 2011 at 10:28 am |
  5. Faith no more

    I hope CNN publishes some pro-Mohammadian gibberish on on Ramadan so they will be fair and balanced.

    April 24, 2011 at 10:28 am |
    • Jesus

      ...and Buddhism too. Let's expose all of this.

      April 24, 2011 at 10:54 am |
  6. Giovanni

    I wonder if they post this on CNN Arabic?

    April 24, 2011 at 10:24 am |
  7. The Dude

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qiCyOZL0hbo

    April 24, 2011 at 10:24 am |
  8. Holy snot, Batman!

    Thank ya, Jesus! Here's $500 for your effort.

    April 24, 2011 at 10:23 am |
  9. Charles

    I am a white man in his mid-forties who grew up in the South. My family wasn't particularly religious but in my twenties I became involved with a "spirit filled church" for several years because my wife dragged me there. I began to reluctantly embrace this little church and during that time I had some similar, inexplicable life changing encounters with the holy ghost. Eventually, I divorced and came out as gay. I no longer identify myself as a Christian but have begun to let go of most of the resentment I had toward the Christian church for the judgement and rejection that I experienced as a gay man. But I was never able to forget those amazing experiences and they have propelled me throughout my life to continue seeking the truth about who we really are and what my own purpose is in this life. My spiritual beliefs over the years have evolved to be more open and inclusive and I have become less dismissive of others' religion or beliefs. Now, I experience more intense "holy ghost" sensations on a daily, even hourly basis. I can not pretend to have come to understand this phenomenon fully or why it is happening to me. But I believe that the "holy spirit" or Jesus or my inner being or God (or whatever you want to call it) is moving me and us toward greater understanding. When I read others' postings rejecting the possibility that someone else may have experienced something that they have not, I remember a time when I felt the same way. And I am reminded to listen more and judge less.

    April 24, 2011 at 10:21 am |
  10. norton

    Interesting to come from such a different background as myself, yet have such a similar awakening. Happy Easter.

    April 24, 2011 at 10:20 am |
  11. William

    How could CNN publish this? It's a ridiculous story. It's time to stop indulging this nonsense. Glad jesus' magical mystery week ends today so I don't have to try to explain to my son anymoe how some people base their whole lives on a story as realistic as Harry potter. If god is omniscient, why did Jesus need to come? Is that an admission that an omniscient god didn't get it right?

    April 24, 2011 at 10:20 am |
  12. Jan

    I'm a Christian and was touched by this article. There is nothing easy about believing.

    April 24, 2011 at 10:19 am |
    • JC

      No, believing is the easy part. That way you are safe. The hard part is going against the threats of eternal damnation and suffering, instead using your own logic and reasoning.

      April 24, 2011 at 10:42 am |
    • Joe Schmuck

      Nothing easy about believing?? Why is that?

      I have no problem at all, and find it very easy to believe in science.

      I need no book on celestial mechanics to reassure me that the sun will be there for several billion more years.

      I need no weekly re-infusion of faith to assure me that the earth will continue to revolve on its axis.

      Yet without the sun, everything on this planet will come to a screeching, fatal halt in a matter of a few days or so.

      Yet nobody give it a second thought. Everyone has complete faith that it will be there. Why? Because it is true. It is irrefutable fact. Nobody has to read and re-read and interpret a book on celestial mechanics to believe in this fact.

      Why do people read and re-read and interpret the bible? Because it's false. It's a fairy tale with no basis on fact. If it were true, there would be no controversy, just like there is no controversy about the existence of the sun.

      But, the believers in the biblical stories have to get together and refresh and re-infuse their faith because it's so bizarre that they know deep deep down that it is false, but they are afraid to admit it because they fear that they will suffer eternal damnation.

      Such nonsense, and so sad that people waste the precious time they have in life with foolish pursuits of imaginary beings. That time could be spent doing so many other truly meaningful and useful things.

      April 24, 2011 at 10:48 am |
    • Jesus

      The more sane and logical you are, the more difficult it is to toss out rational thinking and believe the adult equivalent of a fairy tale.

      April 24, 2011 at 10:52 am |
  13. Joe

    Amusing how the self proclaimed atheists on these boards invoke "science" and not one of them is able to express the least comprehension of cosmological theory, genetic mutation, or gene flow.
    Well, I do understand them – very well. If you wish to indulge in debate, sally forth. There's a reason the word "theory" prefixes these references in scientific circles.
    Judging by the broken misspelled grammar ubiquitous here, I'd be more apt to apply a description like "bitter high school drop out" to you "atheists". You're an embarrassment.

    April 24, 2011 at 10:19 am |
    • osti

      Those are some lovely words. Maybe you should read your Bible. Does it dictate how non-believers are supposed to be treated by believers? Maybe being a science guy, you've ignores your own rule of engagement. Congrats, 'christian'.

      April 24, 2011 at 10:34 am |
    • Joe

      Yes, I "ignores" them. Exempli gratia.

      April 24, 2011 at 10:46 am |
  14. BENJI

    Outstanding Article. CNN needs to do more like this. I really enjoyed this.

    April 24, 2011 at 10:19 am |
  15. pop

    CNN makes B.S about religion... They turned into star wars fan club.

    April 24, 2011 at 10:19 am |
  16. radsi0j0hn

    Back in 1987 I was reporter covering Pope John Paul II's Mass in San Antonio. I was not Catholic, not much of anything. I had studied eastern religions in college in California, so my beliefs were a mix. I expected nothing, anticipated nothing at that event. But when the pope's "Popemobile" passed, I suddenly felt uplifted, refreshed and just plain good. In India, this is referred to as "darshan," an experience some get when in the presence of a holy person. But one would assume that the crowds expecting darshan would then get it. I had nothing but idle curiosity. Go figure.

    April 24, 2011 at 10:18 am |
  17. TOTUS 4 EVER

    Great article, but why is it that holding religious convictions is only 'tolerated' for minorities (Hispanics, blacks, Muslims, etc.)? Any white person that expresses religious beliefs these days is ignored, scorned or ridiculed by the liberal MSM and their ilk as being stupid, extreme or intolerant. All other groups get a pass, especially the most intolerant group in the world, radical Muslims. I want CNN to explore this dichotomy.

    April 24, 2011 at 10:18 am |
  18. Canuck1979

    Brainwashed. Sad.

    April 24, 2011 at 10:18 am |
    • Anonymous

      You are so right. This entire article is pure Rhetoric. SMH.

      April 24, 2011 at 10:27 am |
  19. Easter Bunny

    Christians believe Shiva and Muhammad etc. are myths/lies, yet they wonder why atheists find their tall tales of Jesus silly.

    Your "faith" really is just as ridiculous as believing in Zeus, Loki or that cue Egytian cat god. Just saying....

    April 24, 2011 at 10:17 am |
    • Jon KIng

      I know, it cracks me up. Totem poles silly, walking on water believable!

      April 24, 2011 at 10:30 am |
    • Jesus

      Polar bears walk on water-when it freezes. I don't worship polar bears. Maybe I should.

      April 24, 2011 at 10:37 am |
    • Jesus

      Christians are atheists when it comes to every other God past or present, other than the Jeebus Gawd tale. I find the Old and New Testament as nonsensical, cruel, and the product of ignorance as the other God tales rejected by Christians.

      April 24, 2011 at 10:50 am |
  20. Spoken

    What difference does it make if these fellow people believe in God? Is it hurting you that they have hope? Does it matter to you if they believe? Think of it people! Would u tell a small child there was no SantaClaus? This is a rediculous argument with harsh factors. Guess it goes to show you that people haven't changed a bit. Next topic plz!

    April 24, 2011 at 10:17 am |
    • William

      So you agree people who believe in this are like small children? The harm is that when society indulges this nonsense, future generations regard this medieval thinking as acceptable. Our country is already falling behind in education, one factor is undoubtedly the religious who refuse to accept science.

      April 24, 2011 at 10:24 am |
    • Jon KIng

      Its harmful because it keeps the masses ignorant and politicians can exploit religion to manipulate them. Leads to a weaker America over time.

      April 24, 2011 at 10:29 am |
    • rh

      Yes, I tell my small children there is no Santa Claus, no Easter Bunny, no God, no Odin, no Zeus, etc. The problem is exactly what you say – people creating their own a la carte belief systems because "majority rules".

      April 24, 2011 at 10:37 am |
    • Matthew

      Jesus did say that in the endtime that Iniquity shall abound, and the love of many shall wax cold.
      There is a reason for everything. Action reaction.

      April 24, 2011 at 10:46 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.