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. DanE

    I may be an atheist, but I know great literature when I read it. This is a very powerful and uplifting story that is beautifully written.

    April 24, 2011 at 11:04 am |
  2. amanda

    one day all knees will bow and all shall proclaim Jesus as Lord of all, so all you haters keep on hatin cause God loves you anyway and ill pray that you realize who Jesus is before time runs out for you, bc my God tells me to love my enemies as i love my friends, so i love you too. And as for those who are up in arms about an editorial making a headline on cnn, would you be as upset about one about raising gas prices? If you asd offended, dont read it- not like there isnt a headline telling you what its about. Its just a timely piece for Christians on our holiest day. God bless you all.

    April 24, 2011 at 11:04 am |
  3. Jesus saves. He wants a new car!

    None of you self-proclaimed Christians actually believe what you're spouting.

    You obey enough of the laws in your book to avoid social retribution. If you actually believed in and obeyed it, word-for-word, you would be wildly unpopular in your community, but you would be following your god's commandments. You would spend your days learning Greek and Hebrew so that you could read the original texts, rather than reading one of the hundreds of wildly different versions and interpretations that your particular church arbitrarily picked out of a hat. You would ignore both your country's laws and moral law and keep slaves and kill non-believers until the day that the people you so desperately seek approval from turned you into a martyr.

    But instead here you are – on Easter Sunday, no less – using a tool that science provided you to clumsily attempt to discredit science. I have no respect for hypocrites.

    April 24, 2011 at 11:04 am |
    • Ruderalis

      You are right on with your comment. Also, they never consider how much blood has been shed so that they can drive their new car to the cult. Gasoline comes with a high price... Oh well, just confess and everything is going to be A-OK. Its like having your cake and eating it too. Jesus was proud when you decided to upgrade to the premium model with the larger engine!

      April 24, 2011 at 11:27 am |
  4. Rainer Braendlein

    Dear Mr. Blake,

    you story attracted my attention, but I have a question:

    A lot of ordinary people (Jesus loves particularly ordinary people) don't make experiences like you. Will they never be saved?

    I agree with you, it is extremly important to get the Holy Spirit. A Christian life is not possible without the Holy Spirit. However, I am convinced, the triune God has prescriped an easier way to get the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is given near-tearms to Holy Baptism (this statement is according to the doctrine of the famous theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and of course according to the Holy Scripture). Reading "Epistle to the Romans" Chapter 6 you could see, what happens during Baptism.
    When someone approaches Jesus Christ (recognizing Him as Son of God) and expects to be set free by Him, he or she can be baptized. The Baptism is not a magic-mechanic act, but nevertheless God acts during Baptism and creates a new man. Do you know "The Chronicles of Narnia; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader"? The basic idea of Narnia is that children enter the beloved land of King Aslan and get converted to Aslan (in our world Aslan in Jesus) over there. One of the children was called Eustace and he was somewhat a bad boy, allways trying to spite other people. Nobody in our world could help him to become a good guy. Once upon a time Aslan called him to Narnia, where he was bewitched into a dragon, in order to show him the state of his soul. For a certain time he had to suffer, but thank God Aslan had a plan with him and the bewitching was just the first step on a good way, Eustace had to go. Aslan led the dragon to a most beautiful fountain. When he entered the water, layer by layer of his ugly skin droped down and after a while Eustac had reconverted to a nice boy. When he met the other children, having entered Narnia together with him, they realized that Eustace had experienced a big change, not solely outside, but even inside. That was it. Aslan had cured Eustac by Holy Baptism. Before Baptism the only thing, Eustac could do, was it, to believe the words of Aslan that the fountain will provide health by His (Aslan's) power.

    If you feel pain about your sins, dear reader, come to Aslan's fountain and get delivered. He loves you so much.

    Kind regards,
    Rainer Braendlein

    April 24, 2011 at 11:03 am |
  5. joy

    I experienced same bright lovin light bout 20yrs ago, i war layn on my bed upset talkn to god about repentance for things i felt bad about. then i had this real feel vision i was lead into a box with a window by a lady i believe to a b an gaurdian angel, then she disappeard with a blink of an eye .. then this slot opened and bright light filld the box, let me repent, i felt so much love and forgiveness, all he wants is for us to accept jesus and love one another, jesus is the key to love, i have had, seen. too much to believe other wise, i heard holy ghost call me by name standin in a christian church confused an lost , told me to pray through jesus, coz i already blievd in him but didnt know much how to pray, jesus does live, and i have seen his face

    April 24, 2011 at 11:00 am |
  6. 2much2say

    Time for church, yall stop arguing and get ready!

    April 24, 2011 at 11:00 am |
  7. Agnostic

    what do u mean the proposal doesnt make any sense? William explain yourself please..thanks

    April 24, 2011 at 10:59 am |
  8. BBA MBA

    Thanks for that story. It made me think about things in my life that I haven't for a long time.

    April 24, 2011 at 10:56 am |
  9. Agnostic


    April 24, 2011 at 10:53 am |
  10. Canuck1979

    Have any of you christians actually studied the real history of Christianity? How it came about? Who started it? I highly doubt it. And no, the bible is not a history lesson.

    April 24, 2011 at 10:52 am |
  11. Rainer Braendlein


    Some readers may have watched the movie: "The Voyage of The Dawn Treader". Unfortunately the most important scene of the movie (Eustac's baptism) is not (!) according to C. S. Lewis' story. In the movie Eustac is just cured directly by Aslan, but doesn't enter a fountain. In Lewis' book or story Eustac really enters a fountain.

    April 24, 2011 at 10:51 am |
  12. Dana

    Something about this story bothers me. Most kids who go to church with their parents or adults seeking God on their own never have any kind of physical revelation or confrontation with an immense "presence". Isn't that supposed to be where faith comes in? What is the point of faith if you can have an experience so powerful that basically God has been demonstrated? Or, what is that supposed to imply about the people who never have that experience – that God did not want to bother showing up for them - that they are somehow less deserving? After this article, are people hoping that they have similar encounters with the Holy Spirit (i.e., wishing they could see a "sign")? If people think that is possible but never experience it, isn't it likely they'll give up and conclude this author and the whole business of Jesus is bull?

    April 24, 2011 at 10:51 am |
  13. Stephen

    Why is this story on CNN.com? Journalists shouldn't write about their religious hallucinations on a NEWS site. No other legitimate news outlet (BBC, New York Times, Washington Post) would have an article so ridiculous as the MAIN HEADLINE on their website.

    April 24, 2011 at 10:51 am |
    • Matt

      Agreed. This shows once again how CNN does not report on news but on stupid things to attract readers.

      April 24, 2011 at 11:02 am |
    • tensor

      100% agree w/ you. CNN long ago cut journalists off at the knees with cheap 'n' easy editorial pandering, blurring the lines, and outright op-ed pieces by non-op-ed so-called reporters and anchors. It's become just an entertainment synergy octopus w/ lots of expensive bureaus around the world in efforts to counter what happens in the newsroom and boardroom. However, it does still cover fires, floods and storms well, albeit with amateur iReport video and weather folk. Too bad. It used to have some of the smartest newsroom people in the biz. Cable channel is an ad-opinion packed news lite scan through, and web site is a quick read = 2011 version of the old throwaway Thrifty Nickel.

      April 24, 2011 at 11:11 am |
    • LL

      maybe because it's easter and easter began because of Christ's death and resurrection? (even if you don't believe in it, it's still true as to why easter began)

      April 24, 2011 at 11:18 am |
  14. Agnostic


    Hi everyone, I use to believe in God when I was a child. I want to believe in him, but my whole life so far, 29 years, has led me to become agnostic. There is no proof there is a god and there is not proof that there not one. So I am in the middle of this battle between aetheist and believers. But I think I got the solution here, we can do a little experiment:

    Aetheists, if you truly believe there is no God then you won't have a problem helping me disprove God correct? Your asking how do we disprove it? Well I got a simple solution...The bible says there is a devil and demons and they are here on Earth. Well I need a couple of Aetheists to step up and help me disprove that there is a devil...Simple logic will tell you that if there is no devil, there is no God. Well aetheists, I need you all to be true to yourselves and want to know the truth. How do we disprove the devil you ask? Simple, you aetheists need to become satanic worshippers, santeria, voodoo, etc...Anything that the believers say are works of the devils. Aetheists, if u try it and it works then obviously there is a god. For if there is a devil, then that is proof in a God. Now keep in mind that according to the believers, in the bible it says that anyone who seeks the devil or messes with demons, will not be forgiven of there sins. It is like the ultimate fear tactic you aetheist would say...Well aetheists, will you still up and take on this experiment?

    April 24, 2011 at 10:50 am |
    • William

      1. It requires a false assumption that if there is a god, there is a devil. 2. It requires a false assumption that if there is a devil, there is a god. 3. If believing in voodoo or other so called devil religions is the only way to prove your religion, then your religious belief is just the product of a false converse, meaning, if x is effective, then must be y, even though there is zero causal relTionship. Finally, your test ignores that there is no objective way to verify results, replicate the study, or know what the right answer is based on the test. This is just the tip of the iceberg for reasons why your test is senseless.

      April 24, 2011 at 11:11 am |
    • Ruderalis

      It has been done before. Ever heard of Wiccans? There are modern day witches out there that still practice this stuff. I think there are possible forces out there that can be called upon with your mind. If you ever ask Wiccans, they believe that circle casting and rituals can benefit them. This all coincides with mother nature and Goddesses though...

      April 24, 2011 at 11:15 am |
    • Dale

      Thats a fool proof way for sure! But who would want to mess with the devil?!?!

      April 24, 2011 at 11:19 am |
  15. CJ

    The herd instinct is a powerful thing. If you hang out with a bunch of believers who act out a certain way long enough it is sure to rub off on you if you are a suggestible person. I'm not. I was brought into evangelical congregations as a youth. They tried to slay me in the spirit. When I wouldn't fall over they would try to push me over. It's a bunch of mind games. There's no God. Get over it.

    April 24, 2011 at 10:47 am |
    • Charles

      Except that it happens to non-believers also.

      April 24, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
  16. RebelSix

    This is a top news story WHY? This may be *MAY* be a news story, but a headliner? no way.

    April 24, 2011 at 10:45 am |
  17. Tiger

    This kind of flamewar leads nowhere. There are countless such on the web.

    Here is what I believe.

    Do I personally believe there is a God? Very strongly.

    Do I scientifically believe there is a God? There is no proof, and the answer is no.

    Can I personally prove the existence of God? Absolutely not.

    Can science disprove the existence of God? No. God can always be defined as something that cannot be measured or observed.

    Consequences of belief are reflected in society, politics, and government. Whoever builds a better society will win the argument. That is how it has always been.

    So to everyone, go build a better society and a better place to live. Then people will believe you.

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

      proving it or not proving is not the issue. Some believe – some do not. NEITHER side will accept the others belief. But this story is NOT a head liner and CNN needs to rethink what they post as a top story.

      April 24, 2011 at 10:49 am |
    • RGC

      God is provable, but it is not required for anyone to prove Him to exist as faith does not require proof.
      But we do know that those things subject to the flow of time cannot have existed forever, as it is impossible to arrive at the present from an infinitely distant past. Just as one cannot count to infinity because there is not a last number, with an infinitely distant past there can be no starting point and one cannot have a counted to the present from a past that h ad no starting point.
      God is the eternal being that began all time, prior to the Big Bang, prior to membranes intersecting, from the very beginning.
      Thus His name is 'the Great I Am'. Existence independent of any prior cause is the first principle in understanding who God is.

      April 24, 2011 at 11:03 am |
    • ZeebleZub

      You can't prove the existence of your god because your god doesn't exist.
      If he truly existed there would be thousands of different ways to prove his existence, yet we have nothing from a bunch of delusional whackjobs.
      What a surprise.

      April 24, 2011 at 11:08 am |
  18. Jerome Anthony

    It's all in the brain nothing more nothing less. No ghosts, holy or not, no spirits and no god.

    And a great aunt!

    April 24, 2011 at 10:45 am |
  19. Agnostic

    Hi everyone, read my experiment proposal a couple of comments below. This can prove or disprove a god...

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

      Your proposal makes no sense.

      April 24, 2011 at 10:54 am |
    • Chris

      Interesting proposal, Agnostic. I highly recommend that you read "The Screwtape Letters" by C.S.Lewis. Or "The Great Divorce". I think you'll enjoy it.

      April 24, 2011 at 10:59 am |
    • the truth

      I recommend you read the God.com: A deity for the new Millennium by Dr Henderson.

      April 24, 2011 at 11:13 am |
    • ZeebleZub

      Agnostic, you are retarded. That is a bullsh't experiment.
      There is no reason why anyone would deliberately seek to be insane, and that's where your experiment fails.
      Here ya go on that "fear" bullshlt: The Holy Ghost is a bunch of bullshlt.
      There. How's that grab ya? Still no proof of any god anywhere.
      You aren't much of an agnostic. I've seen better fakes on here.
      Maybe you should try talking about stuff you actually know about.
      You're about as agnostic as my wastebasket and about as intelligent, too.

      April 24, 2011 at 11:15 am |
  20. Connie

    A beautiful memoir from the author. I called myself an ex-Christian, yet I hope one day the Holy Ghost can prove me wrong like how It proved the author otherwise.

    April 24, 2011 at 10:44 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.