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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. James Hall IV

    There will allways be the pescimistic doubters who haven't been honest with themselves, feeling they have to justify their dissbelief by putting down the beliefs of others. Only a truly humbled person will see and know God. For those that have had a supernatural experience the truth of His existence is pivitol and transforming.

    April 24, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
    • the truth

      Spoken like a true egotistical believer that cannot spell.

      April 24, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
    • NW1000

      Well, that is better than a condescending, rude smart a$$.

      April 24, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
    • pat carr

      I'm an exchristian and i can tell you that i am so glad that i out out of your cult. The "pessimistic doubters" are those that refuse to believe something that is invisible and without proof except for some "testimony". it's a sickening belief system

      April 24, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
    • Nathan

      Wow... seems a little one sided don't cha think? Did god speak through you?

      It seems you really don't get the bigger picture.

      April 24, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
    • NL

      You cannot understand why some openly express doubt, but the real question for believers is if they themselves can abide with someone expressing doubt without feeling compelled to put their two cents in? It works both ways, you know?

      April 24, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
    • doris

      I was a non-believer until I met God face to face. Then all my "intelligent arguments" about the existence of God kind of crumbled.

      April 24, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
    • Brian

      to Pat Car: Did you even read the article? It's like it went over your head entirely. The reason you do not "see" anything is because you are so closed. Or you lack the merit because of your intense prejudice.

      April 24, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
    • NL

      doris-
      And I'm sure there are plenty of former UFO skeptics whose "intelligent arguments" crumbled once they saw something in the sky they couldn't identify as well.

      April 24, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • MKS

      I too had such an experience many years ago. I am not sure what took place and have in years learned not to question. Many people have responded and that is good. The person that said that stop trying to cram this down our throats, you must have been intrigued or you would not have read the story. We are not here to judge. I am a Christian and there are alot things I do not understand. One thing that I do wish is that all races, religions, and faiths could accept each people for who they are and not what they believe. We do not all believe the same in many different areas.

      Yes the Bible does tell us to be fishers of men. But, if I am talking to someone about God I respect their comments, beliefs and feelings. We each have our own relationship with God and mine is not expressed the same as yours. You will win someone with kindness before judgement.

      April 24, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
    • doris

      NL
      I am sure if you were to see an alien face to face, you would believe in extra terrestrial life.

      April 24, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
    • In Reason I Trust

      "haven't been honest with themselves"? Grown adults talking about magical invisible spirits and we're the ones not being honest? Religion is for cowards who run away from the hard truth-we're all going to die and there's nothing you can do about it. So keep on spreading these ridiculous stories of invisible spirits to your children so that they too can grow up to become cowards.

      April 24, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
    • NL

      doris-
      "I am sure if you were to see an alien face to face, you would believe in extra terrestrial life."

      Exodus 33:20 "But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”

      Obviously you've never actually met God face to face unless somebody has made a ouija board app.

      You think you've experienced God just as much as other people think they've seen aliens. Thinking something happened, even if you experienced it personally, doesn't necessarily make it a fact. That's why they call it delusion, after all.

      April 24, 2011 at 11:22 pm |
  2. humanbean

    You people crack me up. Today would be the best day for an all knowing, omnipotent god to come forth with miracles (like rising from the dead) and show us that he's real and that we're all in trouble if we don't follow him. Over 6 billion people on the earth and all the technology and media to spread the word. But no, this self centered, supposedly perfect being chose 2000 years ago in the most god forsaken place on earth. He chose imperfect man from the backwards azzed iron age to convey his message with an eternity of heaven and hell hanging in the balance. This being created a human with a huge brain who thinks with reason and logic (well many do), and expects this ridiculous story to be accepted without question. There are many fairy tales that could be construed the same way if given the chance. Mob mentality always rules doesn't it?

    April 24, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
  3. God on a stick

    Atheist scare the hell out of Christians. Questioning their core beliefs will inevitably bring out their trump card – Hell and eternal damnation.

    April 24, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
    • Aaron Marefka

      Try me.

      April 24, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
  4. Guest

    Let me make sure I got this straight.

    One guy insists his imaginary friend is real, he ends up in the psych ward. Another guy joins a group of people who all agree on the same imaginary friend, that guy's perfectly normal.

    Sure, makes sense to me.

    April 24, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
  5. Jimbo

    I think the walls of Hell are made of all the religious statements found on this earth. I also believe the thoughts of human DNA fuel the fire of this dark region of the mind. No one can escape unless they find a way to stop reacting to this virus program somehow planted into the human experience. If there is a God then we are as pure as he is, just by the fact that he made us. If I build a toy and it chocks a child they do not blame that child. They blame it's maker. So either except your maker as pure or corrupt. We are what he is. He (God) is responsible for his Universe.

    April 24, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
  6. L.Russel Brown

    The most compelling scene ever printed that actually happened that makes one wonder about the other side, happened in a mid west operating room.
    The patient's heart stopped beating during an operation and as the frantic
    operating crew, doctors and nurses attempted to revive this person, after the ordeal, the patient described "IN DETAIL" everything that happened.
    A nurses ring falling on the floor, the color of the clothes worn by all the
    medical staff, and just about every detail of what happened.
    The patient saw this as they floated above their body. After the patient was revived and their heartbeat was restored, The near death experience was recanted to the doctors and nurses by the patient.
    This in itself would not be amazing except for the fact that the patient we,
    "BORN BLIND". This is experience put several nurses in shock and doctors left the profession so astonished at what they were apart of.
    This fact based operation can readily be found on the internet as it is only one of countless situations of this sort.
    Now of course those of you out there who scoff at the possibility of something like what I have just described actually happening, are the precise types of individuals who would deny God even if he or she
    came into your room and took you by the hand to the heavens one night.
    The ability to accept what is unbelievable to the human mind, is merely ones way of protecting ones self from breaking down mentally.
    There is more to this life than we know. There is something that happens after we die, something beyond our ken. But that thing we call our soul, the essence of our being, goes does not die. What happens to it is a mystery. I do not profess to know the answer to that mystery however,
    there is no question that there is something beyond this life that awaits our
    spirit. At least that is what the sum of all I have ever learned tells me.

    April 24, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
    • PeteH

      TOO LONG TO READ!!! This is the internet, stupid. 140 or less please.

      April 24, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
  7. Love this story!

    Thanks for sharing! God is at work! God is real! Jesus loves you!

    April 24, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
  8. Steve

    This is front page CNN? Pathetic.

    April 24, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
    • Capitalism

      I know you were looking for a dig on Palin or a bogus poll showing how great Obama is doing. You were expecting the regular Koolaid "news" stories. I guess Easter Sunday brings out the best of CNN one day of the year.

      April 24, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
  9. Ferit

    Bulls..t. This article belongs in a church sermon, not CNN. what a shame.

    April 24, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
  10. Veronica13

    God bless this brave man for sharing.

    I am also really struck by the numbers of atheists who read the Belief blog. Looking for something?

    April 24, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
    • Ferit

      it's the headline on CNN as if you don't know.

      April 24, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
    • ZeebleZub

      Still waiting for proof of your "god". Thousands of years and not one single bit of evidence. Not one tiny piece of evidence.
      In the meantime, I enjoy dumping scorn upon your lies. Prove they aren't lies and I'll shut up and sit next to you in church. But you can't.
      Your god is nothing but crap, just like all the other ones.
      Looking for proof of your god, which would be real news, is one of the reasons I drop by and put in my two cents.
      You have no right to my respect when you lie and support lies and spread lies, ignorant or not.
      You can't even prove who is a believer amongst yourselves!
      Anyone can pretend and you just suck it up. What a pathetic religion.

      April 24, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
    • PeteH

      The boards at atheists.org are CRAWLING with christians. It's human nature to confront that with which you disagree.

      April 24, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
  11. Capitalism

    I believe in God but I have a question for the author. Why do black church going people vote democrat which is the party of abortion? Do black, church going people believe abortion is a sin? If so then what other issue in the democrat party trumps abortion? Do you think once you enter the pearly gates that God will ask why you voted to tax the rich or will he ask why you voted for a candidate who supports abortion?

    April 24, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
    • BB

      Stupid inquiry really.... Blacks aren't the only democrats. People do actually separate church and state. And I'm certain Republicans do have abortions, cheat on their wives, abuse children, and all that other anti family value stuff. So...ask another question.

      April 24, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
  12. Agnostic

    $2000 FOR ANYONE INTERESTED IN BEING PART OF THIS EXPERIMENT:

    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 12:02 pm |
    • HI

      but why $2000?

      April 24, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
    • Agnostic

      what do u mean why $2000. The price is negotiable. I just threw a number out there, I feel will actually get me aetheist to do the experiment...

      April 24, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
    • twiddly

      You are truly ignorant, and not deserving of the agnostic moniker.

      As anyone with half a brain knows, the burden of proof is on the theist.
      It is just ridiculous to ask someone to prove a negative (e.g., that there is no god).
      The absence of proof that there _is_ a god (and there is none), leaves only one explanation – there most likely isn't one.

      April 24, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
    • Agnostic

      Twiddly ur reading comprehension obviously sucks...But its ok, i am a lot smarter than most...

      I am not trying to prove a negative dummy....I am in the middle and just came up with a way of settling the dispute between christians and aetheist....If u try out lets say santeria and it works...Then the christians are right...It proves there is a devil...Now if nothing happens then it proves there is no devil, meaning there is no God...

      Different "devislish" practices can be experimented with and we can find out...Now, learn to have a brain and logic...

      April 24, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • L.Russel Brown

      God is something that is on a higher plain than we mere humans.
      If you choose to believe that our specie's is the highest power in the universe,
      Than I bid you to look up into the heavens on a clear night and gaze upon the trillions of other worldly bodies that are out there.
      Than, if your logic still tells you that the people of earth are the most advanced civilization in the universe, It appears to me that your ego is beyond belief. And that is why you are without belief.

      April 24, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
  13. Our Brothers

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience. It has made this Easter very special for many of us. You are brave and will be mocked, but rest assured your testimony will be a huge blessing to others.

    April 24, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
  14. borland

    It's not funny how many people say that the Bible is discredited. Really? Did you ever read it? You would have found that it describes air and it states that the earth is round. And that was thousands of year before science has proved that! Science proves the Bible true.
    Many talk about big bang as proven fact. Really? Show me who was there to see it? Science is about observable, repeatable experiments. Go and repeat the big bang so that all Christians can see it. I guess that cannot be done. Go talk to a physicist and ask him to explain to you the pitfalls of this big bang theory (yes, it is a theory, not a fact as many of you proclaim): the need to invent "inflation fields" and dark matter to explain scientific observations which don't go along with the theory. And what about time? What is time, do you know? The science does not (cannot) define time. It uses all kinds of work-arounds to address this lack of understanding. Now since we cannot repeat this experiment (big bang) and since there are no records of this, what are we left with, having to believe that there was a big bang? Believe?? No way! That would be like a religion. What makes more sense?

    April 24, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
  15. Thiago

    Thanks for sharing the testimony.

    April 24, 2011 at 11:59 am |
  16. Aaron Marefka

    The forces/magic/miraculous does exist. Who are we to say it does not? A man vanished from a tomb guarded by roman soldiers, this is magical. Over 500 human witnesses saw Him after He died, this is miraculous. If you agree that Jesus Christ is divine it is easy to assume that His historical doctrine is perfect, regardless of the imperfect humans using it to gain power.

    GOD does not make unjust decisions and does not condemn until humans make the wrong move first. He is always perfect and the bible is in no way a "religion" that can be shrugged off. The truth is among us.

    April 24, 2011 at 11:59 am |
    • twiddly

      But you believe all this nonsense because you were brainwashed as a child.
      Like 99% of us, we believe whatever our parents believe and the idiotic cycle continues. But some of us get a clue.

      What if you were born in the mideast? Then, chances are, you'd be just as fervent about islam and the koran.
      Yet, because you were raised as a christian, it is therefore the one, the only, the true religion?

      Think about why you reject all the other religions.
      The only difference between you and I is that I reject one additional religion (i.e., yours).

      April 24, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
  17. JakeAce

    Sounds like a little to much of the wacky tobacky if you ask me.

    April 24, 2011 at 11:58 am |
  18. Agnostic

    Zeeble,

    I am serious here. I want to know the truth. I will pay $2000. We can even sign a contract. If anyone is interested in being part of this experiment please email me@ aquin010@fiu.edu

    April 24, 2011 at 11:57 am |
    • Mal

      I agree with everyone who thinks ur an idiot....u are giving agnostics a bad name...go home and play in a fire pls

      April 24, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
    • Agnostic

      Mal,

      You peasant, I agree with everyone who think u are an idiot...If u dont comprehend, its because u are neither highly educated like myself or are just plain hateful...Loser...

      April 24, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
  19. Agnim

    "holy ghost" my foot!
    John your 'rider' was most likely an Ancestor paying you a visit.
    If the 'holy ghost' of the criminal invaders' religious rubbish was valid, then the europeans would have been having THEIR 'holy ghost' in record numbers.

    John if you want to understand your experience, then go visit Benin on their special day when they celebrate their Ancestors. So-called 'holy ghost' is part of the christian myth; but your experience was REAL & part of the African reality since time immemorial!

    April 24, 2011 at 11:57 am |
  20. u2canC

    If you are not a believer, please respect those who do. This writer has bared his soul and shared something very profound So just say nothing. Mature people know when to keep silent. There's no law that says you must reply.

    April 24, 2011 at 11:56 am |
    • ZeebleZub

      Feck off you little shlte. You deserve no respect for believing lies. Never.

      April 24, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
    • twiddly

      I believe organized religion is dangerous and is a fraud that should be exposed.
      Will you respect my belief?

      Yes, some good things are done by major religions; it's not all black and white. But I believe the bad far outweighs the good.
      Will you respect my belief?

      April 24, 2011 at 12:17 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.