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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. Canaduhhh

    Jesus-he died for your sins, then came back for your brains! Lol

    April 24, 2011 at 11:13 am |
  2. JS

    To God be the glory for the freedom to post both the story and the opinions, whether positive or negative!
    To my brothers/sisters in Christ, remember that God would rather us be hot or cold.
    Many comments here are obviously spurned from false teachings and we have opportunity to witness.
    Wishing everyone a blessed Easter/Resurrection Sunday.

    April 24, 2011 at 11:12 am |
  3. Agnostic

    Edwado, your logic is flawed....Remember this is suppose to be a loving God...So even if I ask him to kill me with a lighting bolt, he will not. I think my expriment proposal is better. If you are an aeitheist, then step up and prove there is not a devil...By the way i am in the middle of this debate. but i would love to believe that god is real...

    April 24, 2011 at 11:12 am |
  4. She

    This is a beautiful story of love and redemption.

    April 24, 2011 at 11:12 am |
  5. Matt

    This story is why I no longer come to CNN anymore. Publishing this story signifies 1) CNN no longer reports news, but unimportant and insignificant events to be more popular with the general public. 2) CNN has now associated itself with being affiliated with religion to draw in the religious crowd.

    An unbiased news source no longer I guess.

    Time to go use an actual news source.

    April 24, 2011 at 11:11 am |
  6. geez

    I just seen this story. WOW!!! amazing story and amazing reactions. Here is what I find soooo funny. People voice a lot of opinion that there is no God and that they do not beleive in him. Well for people who don't believe, they sure talk a lot. It is obvious that you do believe in something or you would not be on here saying "I don't belive" so much. Stop lying to yourself and realize that you are defintely questioning that there is a God. Or shut up.. and I seen a comment on here about how people are not happy that a religions article made the new on cnn....why?????? I have just as much freedom as you do to believe that there is a God and why should I not get to enjoy some articles about experiences like this?? What makes your freedom any different from my???? oh your offended...thats right...well so am I...offended that you are trying to take MY freedom of religion from me. A perfect example....my childrend are believers...they can't pray in school (and yes my 16 and 14 year old are old enough to make up there own mind). BUT...our muslium friends can shut down traffic in NY for a couple of hours to have there prayer time in public. really??? are you kidding me????? SO...bring it on ...This is a free country and I will pray when I want and where I want. GET OVER IT!!!!!

    April 24, 2011 at 11:11 am |
  7. Reconnected

    GOD is the source...the ultimate source of love. If you listen to music...you hear the voice of GOD. You don't have to believe it...take gravity...you don't have to believe in gravity but i bet if you jump of a building you feel it's effects. We need to change our collective consciousness. Whether you believe in a god, GOD, energy source, whatever...how you would you deny LOVE? The language we use to communicate often times gets in the way of what we are saying. Peace and love to all!

    April 24, 2011 at 11:11 am |
  8. Contemplater

    Man shares the majority his dna with the chimpanzee. Did god run out of fresh dna?

    April 24, 2011 at 11:10 am |
  9. Grateful Soul

    I loved this piece, especially today on Easter Sunday morning. I started to read the comments and literally got sick at my stomach. I feel such a deep sadness for those who do not understand the love and mercy of this testimony. I, for one, am eternally gratefully for Christ's sacrifice on the cross and for the Church he left behind to show us the way.

    April 24, 2011 at 11:10 am |
    • NavyMom

      I agree with you and it is dissappointing that someone feels he or she must inject their negativity into such an inspiring message. This story brought tears to my eyes. This man was abandoned by everyone in his family but his aunt. The author was simply sharing his story about his journey in faith and I am grateful for it, especially today.

      April 24, 2011 at 11:30 am |
  10. Giovanni

    Is a filicidal vicarious redemption even moral?

    Even the basic premise of it is absolutely barbaric.

    Yet christian think it is the greatest thing ever, worthy of the bronze age mentality that comes with archaic religions.

    April 24, 2011 at 11:10 am |
  11. Agnostic

    Chris, sounds like an interesting set of books...I will def read them....Christians and Aetheist, please read this:

    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 11:08 am |
    • Excuse me??

      This is perhaps the worst experiment that I have ever heard of. First off, there is no logical argument that states that because there is a Devil - in this case Satan - there is a god. Even worse logic if you switch them. Read some literature and you would know that Augustine - which with Aquinas, are the two most important Christian Philosophers– did not believe in a literal Satan. And in terms of literal, I do not know if the Bible said that and where exactly it said it. However, I do know that if it is in the Old testament, it no longer holds any validation. Secondly, even if it is in the New Testament, there is no reason to believe in a literal translation of the Bible. Look at the 2nd vatican council. They basically state a literal adam and eve probably did not exist, the earth was not created in 6 days and so on. Yes, I understand most of what I am saying is Catholic doctrine, and you might perhaps be a Protestant. However, I still think this experiment is dumb and would prove nothing because you are justifying it on a baseless and illogical point.

      April 24, 2011 at 11:28 am |
    • Aaron Marefka

      There are too many accounts of the demonic realm poisoning us further!!! You will find everything you expect in this realm and more than you could ever handle. These evil beings in our universe are undeniable. It is only going to get worse. The world will not have time to debate the immense evil that is approaching. It will be most important that you know who to believe in, who to trust, and who to cling to!!!

      You are on your way to the truth agnostic, don't give up!

      research: revelation, new world order, antichrist, lucifer, fallen angels

      April 24, 2011 at 11:36 am |
  12. joe rizzo

    The ones who truly believe are the luckiest people in the world as they will enter the Kingdom of God and for those like myself that are not sure envy those who are sure.

    April 24, 2011 at 11:08 am |
  13. tony

    The only difference between religion and believing in magic, is that the religious believe there is only one, invisible, magician.

    April 24, 2011 at 11:08 am |
  14. Edwardo

    Dear Atiest experimenter – I have a better experiment for you. Go out in the middle of the next Thunderstorm, and ask God to strike you dead with a bolt of lightning. If he'll do it, I'll become more convinced your God exists. If you don't get struck, then will you become a non-believer?

    April 24, 2011 at 11:08 am |
    • Aaron Marefka

      If God is who the bible says he is...

      Then you are sin. God is perfect.

      He can't get anywhere near you because of your transgressions. (That is why He offered His only Son as a bridge to you)

      So what makes you think you have any authority over testing Him?

      If you deserved a lightning bolt you would get one and that is a promise.

      April 24, 2011 at 11:23 am |
  15. Serameteis

    This is the best story I've read in a long time. Very touching. Thank you.

    April 24, 2011 at 11:07 am |
  16. b7bingo

    If John is a journalist, he is not a very objective one, nor does he strive to be if he believes his emotional experience was caused by a god. There is only one line in his long sermon that is objective (truly honest): "What do you do with such an experience? Was it a dream, a breakdown, youthful foolishness? I don’t know." He ought to have stopped at "i don't know." Instead, like all "believers" he decides to take the easy way out and explain it away as magic.

    April 24, 2011 at 11:07 am |
  17. Aaron Marefka

    You must ask yourself how impossible it is to exist at all, why exist at all? I know that in my personal life there is much meaning. I could never pretend that I am meaningless nor do I feel a lack of importance. I was not created in an explosion. I do not depend on scientific explanations and I am happy to put my faith in something much smarter than all humanity. You must do your own research and only then can you make a "rational" decision about what is truly real. Jesus Christ most certainly visited this earth and defied human capabilities for the sake of removing ignorance. Defining a belief in GOD as illogical (based on what humans tell you) is simply an easy way out of a very important struggle.

    April 24, 2011 at 11:06 am |
    • JustaKindSoul

      Do your research, make your own decision. Good Lessons, Not believing in god is illogical, ignorance. Clearly you have done your religious research but have you read a journal? its smaller than the bible, smarter, and has a very useful basis in reality, rather than a basis in a time where all historical writings were falsified by leaders, and therefore, fiction. Thats why GOD hates gays, and in the next breath demands that you KILL CHILDREN that disobey their parents. Many jesus' existed, i'm sure, and i would bet that even a few were crucified, and one learned how to walk on stilts in water. It's far more likely jesus was the worlds first illusionist.

      April 24, 2011 at 11:18 am |
  18. Meg

    Thank you for sharing your story. What a wonderful, wonderful woman your aunt was!

    April 24, 2011 at 11:06 am |
    • Ben

      How is it wonderful to brainwash children?

      April 24, 2011 at 11:08 am |
  19. tony

    If prayer actually worked, most religious leaders would live to be at least 200, and finally ascend into heaven, remaining healthy, ather than die of illnesses. Think about it!

    April 24, 2011 at 11:06 am |
    • Anit-theist

      If prayer worked those who it worked for would CHARGE $200 per!

      April 24, 2011 at 11:23 am |
  20. JustaKindSoul

    I like to pretend to have a seizure in order to convince others around me that there is no god. Would a perfect being allow me to look so stupid while effectively tricking others into believing me, these lunatics are basically the same as the cultists that offered salvation through taking drugs, except at least their reactions were real and not individual deceptions and lies. Oh yeah and there seems to be little difference between hypnotist and baptist preacher at times. Not all, in fact I have met one baptist preacher that I like. But pretending to get the holy ghost sounds like little more than hypnosis, which is also a very very large and very very fake international interest.

    April 24, 2011 at 11:05 am |
    • Chronic

      After I read what everyone said I thought I should add this. Faith comes by knowing
      and knowing comes by seeking. Seek God and love yourselves and truely love others.
      I dont know what you guys are praying for , but it should be forgiveness, knowledge
      discernment, and to tell God how thankfull you are for whatever you have. Read for yourselves
      wherever you find the truth, it will light up your pea brains and you in turn can help change the world.
      I was an athiest, when God came to me it was the most embarrassing thing I've ever gone through. I also
      hate the fact that I have to say and do certain things because I know for a fact there is Elohim. I dont have
      the carfefree ability to wander around with my head up my ass anymore. I have some glass belly button rings
      for some of you, it might help u to see.

      Your Friend,
      Jarrod

      April 24, 2011 at 11:40 am |
    • Charles

      Chronic... such a loving message to us "pea brains". Ha.

      April 24, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
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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.