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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. Bruce

    this was very powerful and meaningful – thanks for writing this

    April 24, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
    • david

      I agree with you.What a WONDERFUL story ! So sad to see so many misfits and malcontents who believe in nothing and therefore stand for nothing make negative comments about Jesus and Faith.Remember there are no unbelievers on the other side.Happy Easter ! He lives !

      April 24, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
    • UncleM

      This was merely delusion.

      April 24, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
  2. realworld95

    Happy Easter! Jesus is King of Kings and Lord of Lords Blessed be God FOREVER blessed be his Holy Name! I love you Jesus thank you for your sacrifice for the sins of the world. God please reveal yourself to all who commented on this site in Jesus name amen!

    April 24, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
    • CalgarySandy

      Jesus warned people about praying loudly in public places. You are not supposed to do this. Aggrandizing yourself and forcing every one to see you do it is arrogance and it puts people off. If I had the slightest inclination to go find out more about Christians from the story your post and that of the other Bible Thumpers would put me off. It is like you shat on a flower.

      April 24, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
  3. paul

    @ zeebledub the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, ive read all your post, and you are full of hate and fear

    April 24, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
    • ZeebleZub

      The recitation of lies is not anything worth listening to. I hate lies.
      I fear the insanity of religious people. I can only hope that you will all kill each other off someday.
      And you are still stupid. Quoting bullshlt from your bullshlt book doesn't impress me, convince me, or move me one iota from my total opposition to lies and dishonesty.
      You cannot face me with lies behind you. Quit quoting bullshlt.

      April 24, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
  4. Shaneeda Quit

    “weeeeell,” your aunt wore wigs. I feel your shame and embarrassment.

    April 24, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
  5. CalgarySandy

    None of the authors of the Bible ever laid eyes on Jesus. There are many more books written in the same time period as the "apostles" that were deliberately left out of the official book because Constantine, a pagan, did not like them. They gave too much freedom to the individual in how he/she worshiped and lived. Objective research has been done and is done over and over that shows this. Even in the Bible, if you chose to believe it unquestioningly, not all the apostles died for the faith. Most of them were illiterate and so were the rank and file. No one in 33 AD was sitting in a Church and reading the Bible. Neither existed yet. Until Constantine and his pet Bishops there were no churches as we know them. There were small groups of handfuls of people around the Middle East and East and West from there. They met in homes and gave love and support to each other. They had someone read the letters (Epistles) allowed. They held things in common as Jesus told them to; socialists in other words. Jesus, as portrayed in the Bible was a Socialist and had little use for the rich. I do not believe and see almost no relationship between today's nasty little creeps beating others with a Bible and supporting political parties that glorify Big C Capitalism. If you believe in Jesus then you should be giving honor to those who live selflessly in his name and not bad mouthing their stories. These people, if there is a God, will be there with all the other loving and selfless people. Those of you who are trying to buy brownie points in Heaven are likely to be SOL.

    April 24, 2011 at 2:01 pm |
  6. Jean

    I must admit (as each truthful person here must do as well) that I do not KNOW for certain that God exists. I was taught to believe that he does exist and that Jesus is my only hope of eternal life.

    The thing I do know is this:

    IF CHRISTIANS ARE RIGHT, the best that could happen to them is eternal life in the presence of a loving God.
    IF CHRISTIANS ARE WRONG, the worst that could happen is to simply exist no more.

    IF ATHEISTS ARE RIGHT, the best that could happen to them is that they simple exist no more.
    IF ATHIESTS ARE WRONG, the worst that could happen to them is they live in eternal "hell".

    With such high stakes, do you not agree that it's something worth much investigation? And the great part is, according to the Bible, I don't have to give anything. All I have to do is have faith. I know that's not easy for many people, because it doesn't REQUIRE understanding. We want to understand everything. But according to the Bible, God says if you seek Him you will find Him.

    So, before you decide to believe or not believe, consider the eternal consequences of you decision.

    April 24, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
    • In Reason I Trust

      I doubt your scared of going to Muslim hell for not believing in Allah, or Thor, or Zeus. Why would an all loving God send His children to burn for an eternity simply for not worshiping him. That's some ego, kind of evil if you ask me.

      April 24, 2011 at 7:47 pm |
  7. MH

    WOW! The transparency and vulnerability that John Blake shared with us was touching. In many ways this was a beautiful tribute to his Aunt Sylvia. I thought it was wonderfully written and heartfelt. How refreshing especially during a holiday season.

    April 24, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
  8. BibleClown

    One of my wife's neighbor's had a revelation from God once, and it was revealed to her that her dead husband had come back as a cat. It did NOT reveal to her which cat he was, and so she spent several years feeding strays and desperately looking into their eyes until she died. Luckily, she didn't have time to write a new holy book.

    April 24, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
  9. paul

    2 Cor.4:3,4 If our gospel be hid,it is hid to those that are lost,in whom the god of this world(Satan)has blinded the minds of them which believe not,lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God,should shine unto them that do not believe.

    April 24, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
    • ZeebleZub

      paul, why aren't you with your family eating chocolate bunnies and hard-boiled eggs? Why are you on here showing your ignorance for all to see?
      Did you think your god wanted you to do this? To look stupid? Why?

      April 24, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
  10. frank

    Crom laughs at your desert wizard. He laughs from his mountain!

    April 24, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
    • Dave

      That's funny. I've just never heard that before... "Crow laughs at your desert wizard." It's like something from a public access tv show.

      April 24, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
  11. Marquise

    To some people they only believe what they see, hear and touch. You know the saying "Seeing is believing". I can count many times my eyes lied to me. The Holy Ghost is a spirit you can not see, just like our souls. For those of us who have experienced death we have seen the bodies of our loved one but we know that they, their souls are gone. We would never say they didn't exsist. The Holy Ghost does exsist and if you get the pleasure to experience it you'll never forget it. Every experience is uniquely design for you.

    April 24, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
  12. Reconnected

    Language seems to get in the way of so many things. My connection with GOD was lost at an early age. I spent many years questioning...sometimes angrily...sometimes educated..but often times ignorantly disbeliving in just about everything. Science at one time said the atom was the smallest thing in existence. We have since split the atom disproving that "fact." Does that mean i stop believing in science...no. I recently reconnected with GOD. It is an experience one must go through for themselves. There are universal truths...and there are man-made truths. LOVE exists!!! Peace and love to all!!!

    April 24, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
  13. paul

    The preaching of the cross is to those that are perishing,foolishness.

    April 24, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
    • ZeebleZub

      How convenient. "if anyone uncovers our lies, we will say he is damned".
      Yeah, that's real convincing stuff. Wooo.

      April 24, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
  14. jg

    why do so called christians use the word easter with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ?
    do you know anything about pagan gods?

    April 24, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
    • Dave

      jg, no they don't. Why would you ask a question you already know the answer to?

      April 24, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
    • CalgarySandy

      Why bother to ask a question like this and then not tell people what paganism has to do with it? You just want to be nasty, right? No possible other explanation for your post. It is unlikely most people know the pagan origins of much of Christianity as it is not taught in schools. You have to know it exists and then go look at it yourself. So the thing to do, if you chose to go this route is to tell them what you know. The fact that the Roman Church planted itself into local pagan rites and locations is a bit esoteric and has no relevance at all to Christian Beliefs. Whether Jesus existed or not, the Roman Church co-opted these things. That they did this does not disprove anything. Now, the Gnostic Gospels! There you might find some grist for your mill.

      April 24, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
  15. Aaron Marefka

    The false teachers were undermining the inspiration to which the prophets of the Old Testament were subject; as if they were not, in fact, God’s megaphone to the kings and the peoples of God and the nations of the earth, led by the Holy Spirit.

    April 24, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
  16. Eli

    I very much enjoyed hearing of a similar experience. This experience led me on my path to get ordained. Blessed are those who believe who have not seen. God bless you:

    http://uniteunderonegod.typepad.com/unite_under_one_god/this-is-how-it-all-started/

    April 24, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
  17. paul

    you have no proof that God does not exist

    April 24, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
    • ZeebleZub

      paul, the total lack of proof of your "god's" existence IS proof that he does not exist. Get a clue.

      April 24, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • Dave

      Paul, that is an argument that was never meant to be won. ZeebleZub got you there. That guy is a genius. 🙂

      April 24, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
    • ZeebleZub

      Dave, why don't you feck off? Because you're a dck.

      April 24, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
  18. WakeUpSheeple

    Sad what people will force themselves to believe. Learn to self soothe and stop believing in the last childhood fable that you cling to.

    April 24, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • In Reason I Trust

      Amen!

      April 24, 2011 at 7:38 pm |
  19. Dread

    Beautiful story and powerful testimony. Let all the congregation say "Amen"

    April 24, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
  20. macj123

    Interesting how two thousand years can pass and conversation has not changed much.

    Jesus proclaimed to be God and humanity's savior – some believed, some didn't and they attempted to kill/silence him.

    April 24, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • ZeebleZub

      They succeeded. He is both dead and silent. More proof that he was just another bullshlt con-artist. And he never wanted to include non-Jews in his "heaven", so don't go thinking you've got it made.
      Dead men tell nothing. You have nothing from him in two thousand years.
      And no proof throughout human history that any god exists.
      Just think of all the damage lies have done to the human race throughout history.....and you could care less. Yeah.

      April 24, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
    • macj123

      Zee

      I believe you to be a very confused person. Reach out to Jesus the Christ ... he cares for you and can save you from the darkness that clouds your mind. He overcame the powers of darkness two thousand years ago and can overcome yours today.

      April 24, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
    • Dave

      @ZeebleZub... dude, we get it... the whole Beelzebub thing... but dude... it's boring. Get a life.

      April 24, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
    • ZeebleZub

      Dave, you don't get it, you're still retarded. Get a clue.

      April 24, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
    • macj123

      Zee

      Jesus, throughout history, has helped many demonically plagued ... he can help you too, if you ask him ... I am praying for you!

      April 24, 2011 at 1:59 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.