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. Johan

    Can somebody from CNN contact me to discuss my "getting the invisible pink unicorn", I assure you it'll be more intriguing than this dose of wishthinking.

    April 24, 2011 at 11:35 am |
    • crazyvermont

      Someday, every knee will bow and every tongue confess...better to do willing-lee in this life. God Bless

      April 24, 2011 at 11:49 am |
    • Igor

      Only if your unicorn died and came back as pink unicorn's ghost.

      April 24, 2011 at 11:49 am |
    • macj123

      Why read in a section you don't care about? My guess ... you do care and the answers you seek are in Jesus Christ, my friend.

      April 24, 2011 at 11:51 am |
    • Igor

      "My guess ... you do care and the answers you seek are in Jesus Christ, my friend."

      This guessing game of yours seems to be how you arrive to many conclusions and isn't very different from what is required to have a literal belief in mythology.

      April 24, 2011 at 11:54 am |
  2. Df2

    This is such a useless discussion! You cannot persuade believers with rational arguments, scientific facts, etc. They are so thouroughly brainwashed by child-molesting adult males (priests) that any attempt to destroy their illusion will be fiercely negated with no logic involved whatsoever. Let them live in their oblivious and coward beliefs. But for life's sake, do not kill each other and us (non believers) becuse of your fairy tales.

    April 24, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • itrollibslol

      sounds like someone has daddy issues.......science is all theory based, every few years whats accepted as fact changes. The truth is believing that life was spontaneously created out of a giant explosion is just as far fetched and ridiculous as believing in a all powerful mastermind. You believe in science because its SAFE, its a line of logic you are able to follow. How that makes you intellectually superior to someone with faith, i have no idea.
      To say "i dont know how that rainbow works and that proves god exists" is ignorant......to say "i know how that rainbow works there for god does NOT exist" is even more ignorant.
      woooo double rainbow

      April 24, 2011 at 11:52 am |
    • js

      It's really sad, to say the least, that such things have occurred. May God comfort those who've suffered such abuse.

      April 24, 2011 at 11:59 am |
  3. Brian

    I'm a middle-class WASP who can relate to this writing and appreciate the experience. I'm as pragmatic as the next atheist, but I'm not an atheist. In a similar-type of experience, I also felt the Holy Ghost as a child sitting in a small, Midwestern church pew in the '70's. What a gift to have such a spiritual experience. I've questioned this encounter and God's existence for many decades and went on to explore other philosophies in life. In the end, the experience I had as a child helped me truly know that there is a God who wants to have a personal relationship and care for each of us. But, we have to believe without question, like a child, first.

    Happy Easter everyone!

    April 24, 2011 at 11:32 am |
    • Charles

      Me too. Happy Easter!

      April 24, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
  4. xaviercou

    the human nature is frail and diseases always existed but only when man started sinning did it creep into the life stream and started killing us.

    iif there were no afterlife, the diseases would be of much concern, but because there is an afterlife, God weights the spirit more than the physical body. Let's say a disease helped a person have faith in God. That disease would be used to edify the person. If the disease on the contrary weakened the person's faith...actually that is not possible. You either have faith or not, it all comes down to that.

    April 24, 2011 at 11:30 am |
    • js

      Amen. God is no respector of persons. Plus, we're exhorted to give thanks in all things.

      April 24, 2011 at 11:51 am |
  5. Smith

    Let's take a step back from the 'is there' or 'isn't there' a God conversation as well as politics and current world events.

    The U.S. was founded so people could express there religious beliefs and live in peace with respect without fear of violence or discrimination.

    April 24, 2011 at 11:30 am |
    • ZeebleZub

      If ever there was an unrealistic expectation it was that religious people could live in peace with anybody who believed different.
      What a pathetic waste of time to allow freedom of religion when they seek to enslave everyone around them. We need freedom FROM religion. We need a strong enforcement of the wall between church and state.
      There is no religion of peace. Coexistence is impossible with religions.
      Every single one has a different interpretation. Most of them decree death and other violent punishments for silly things.
      No coexistence with crazy people please. They need a separate area to live.
      One with lots of rounded corners and no sharp objects.

      April 24, 2011 at 11:39 am |
  6. Pete Forester

    I was ready to "lose God." I couldn't see how God could let so many bad things happen to so many. I was at a prayer group meeting. We were laying hands on a lady with cancer and praying. I remember thinking "here we are, laying hands on someone as if lightning bolts are going to come out of our fingers." At that point I weakly prayed that God would use me as a conduit to give the lady what she needed. That very moment, God's Holy Spirit filled me and hasn't left me since. It changed me from within. For those that refuse to believe, there is nothing I can say to change your mind. For those that do, or want to believe and want the Holy Spirit to dwell in them, Simply ask God for it. He wants so badly for you to have it. Easter blessings to all, and I do mean all!

    April 24, 2011 at 11:26 am |
    • ZeebleZub

      Yet she died of cancer, didn't she? I think you left that part out on purpose.

      April 24, 2011 at 11:32 am |
    • js

      A beautiful testimony!

      April 24, 2011 at 11:47 am |
  7. KS

    Christians: Matt. 5:43-46 You have heard the law that says "Love you neighbor" and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in Heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that?

    The arguement between religion will never end, until he returns...pray for them

    For those who don't believe, Jesus taught love, why are you so angry with that? What evil has he ever taught...none.

    It is silly to continue arguing these concepts and get no where....Penn (from Penn and Teller) who is a well known atheiest once blogged about religious missionaries and had said that he likes missionaries. The cliffnotes version of the story was that missionaries and people who believe in God, believe that those who do not believe will spend an eternity in Hell. How can you be mad at someone who honestly believes that and is trying to share their story with you to save your soul?

    April 24, 2011 at 11:26 am |
    • js


      April 24, 2011 at 11:45 am |
    • Spiritual - Not religious

      Agreed. I do not subscribe to any religious belief system personally, but completely agree with your question as to how one can be angry about those trying to spread a message of love and peace? Most of the major religions have been twisted by some fundamentalist factions to justify nasty hateful intolerance. But there are many devout people who truly try live by religious teachings of kindness and good will towards humanity. They should be commended for their efforts, whether you believe in the religion that motivates them or not. We should all try to live that way, whether it is grounded in religion or just a duty to be decent to our fellow human beings.

      April 24, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
  8. Dee

    Amen "God is love"! Beautiful article, the writer inspires me to be a better person...I love my nieces & nephew haven't spent as much time with them like I used to. Thanks for this article!

    April 24, 2011 at 11:25 am |
  9. Bob

    It is interesting how religious haters read all the religious articles and then post their hate. I thought those so "enlightened" as to reject God would have something better to do with their time.

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

      Well, we aren't wasting our time going to church on Sunday, now are we?

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

    I too had a very similar experience as a young woman. I too did not tell anyone for years because it went against my "rational mind." I thought it sounded rediculous. It really does not matter to me what others say. I know what I experienced, and no one can take that away. I don't preach to others. I don't try to force my beliefs onto others. I am not even sure what my experience means in terms of God and spirituality – but I know it means there is more than this fragile life. Thank you for your story.

    April 24, 2011 at 11:23 am |
    • Charles

      Beautiful. I second that.

      April 24, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
  11. Giovanni

    Ultimately people can believe what they want.
    As long as their religious beliefs don't interfere with our secular society, and they stop mentally abusing children with non scientific nonsense.

    April 24, 2011 at 11:22 am |
  12. Joe Mahma


    What an absolute load of BS. When will it stop?


    April 24, 2011 at 11:21 am |
  13. tee

    Poot!**jellybean** oops!

    April 24, 2011 at 11:21 am |
  14. Von

    Touching story, but why all this doubt about a power like God? How crazy the idea that out of an inorganic universe somehow organic material can be created and to top that off assembled into forms that can reason and reflect upon themselves. I find our existence harder to believe than the fact that there is a force out there called God....

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

    The only proof that was ever offered, the one that Jesus promised, was his resurrection. The tomb was empty. No one could ever produce his body. All the disciples were tortured and killed for refusing to renounce their belief that Jesus rose from the dead except John, and he lived out the end of his years in exile. If the tomb wasn't empty, all the authorities had to do was show the body. If the disciples stole it and lied to perpetuate Jesus' legacy, wouldn't one of them have recanted after being tortured and threatened with execution? They were stabbed, dragged to death, burned, crucified, crushed and flayed but not one of them changed their story. He said that his resurrection would be the proof that what he said was true and no one has been able to definitely disprove that it happened. Research it yourself. Christianity can be a thinking faith. Check out the writings of CS Lewis. Logic and faith can walk hand in hand.

    April 24, 2011 at 11:20 am |
  16. gossjean

    What a bunch of 'hoopla' about something written that is not EVEN indicative of what REALLY happens and what is EVIDENT when you receive that Holy Ghost! Spend more time in your bible in the the book of Acts, with evidence and foreshadowing from the entire bible that will give witness to the evidence of speaking in tongues when you are filled with the Holy Ghost! At least THEN you have something to comment on...TRUTH! =)

    April 24, 2011 at 11:20 am |
  17. Agnostic

    COMMENTS ON THIS PLEASE: 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 their 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 11:20 am |
    • ZeebleZub

      Plss off you overweight piece of shlte. Nobody thinks your experiment is anything but obvious bullshlt. Why don't you go get teabagged or something?

      April 24, 2011 at 11:29 am |
  18. Joe


    April 24, 2011 at 11:19 am |
  19. joy

    and might i add , how nice for the negative commentors to show up, we can all pray that god opens your eyes as to how u are blinded by a dark hate, seek the light of truth, this is a special day and well deserves the truth of thir article to b written in the news , applauds the news for posting.. jesus is smiling,.. as a been there done that , i can tell u follow the commandments and jesus, talk to god . he will listen when u have done wrong

    April 24, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • Matt

      You don't have to follow the commandments to have morals brah. And you don't have to believe in a God to be happy.

      I'm perfectly content as an atheist.

      April 24, 2011 at 11:19 am |
  20. Simmy

    Well – no matter what we may say now – or what we may believe – the day when our lives are over on this plane – we will all come face to face with the truth – and we all will pass away from this life, that's just a reality. Are you comfortable with that realization? Everyone has the right to dismiss the Bible or dismiss God, but in the end there will be no turning back the hands of time. It's my choice to believe in God and read the Holy Bible and I don't choose to ridicule any person who does not agree with my beliefs. Each person will have their own day of reckoning.

    April 24, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • All Religion Is Evil

      @Simmy: " Each person will have their own day of reckoning." Or not. We rationalists (aethists) would say that there is no "reckoning", "judgement", etc., at the end of life, only non-existence. Do you really think you are more than your physical existence, that your mind is founded on something other than your brain, that you have a "soul" that persists somewhere after your brain no longer functions? The proof of the opposite stares you in the face throughout your entire life. Your mind today is not what is was yesterday, nor what it will be tomorrow. Are you the same person mentally today that you were when you were 2? Obviously not, so what's the difference? It is that your brain has changed by encountering all your life experiences since then. If you have a stroke, suffer from any degenerative brain disease, or simply lose brain cells as you age (we all do), do you think you are still the same person you were before? Hardly. These facts are why you will not exist when you die. It's the deep tragedy all of us live with and the fuel for all religions and fantasies. Why do people fight over religious beliefs? Because they can't stand to have the fantasies that console them against the tragedy of their existence brought into question. We are all better off without religion because we have to learn to cope with reality.
      Here's something else to think about: did people that lived before the Abrahamic religions were invented have "souls"? If they did, what happened to them? Were they all sent to "hell" to be tortured endlessly because they didn't believe in a religious fantasy that didn't yet exist? Religion is a human invention in response to the deep tragedy of our existence and it is harmful. I think I'll go outside and enjoy this nice Spring day. It's real.

      April 24, 2011 at 11:50 am |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39
About this blog

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.