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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. Name*

    Thanks John for telling us your story.

    April 24, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
    • Aaron

      John, this is one of the best pieces I have ever read-thanks.

      April 24, 2011 at 5:39 pm |
  2. TG

    For starters, there is no "holy ghost", but rather there is the holy spirit, for the Greek words used by the Bible writers are ha´gi·os (holy) pneu´ma (spirit), whereas the word "ghost" is from old English gāst, with the gh- spelling appearing in the 15th century.(Microsoft® Encarta® Reference Library 2005)

    The supplanting of the Greek word "spirit" (pneu´ma) with the English word "ghost" in the King James Bible can be linked to the false religious teaching of the trinity, with the churches promoting it as part of an unscriptural Godhead. The holy spirit (Greek ha´gi·os pneu´ma) is God's applied power that he used in creating the universe and all life in it.

    God's holy spirit is that which is invisible, but gives evidence of force in action. That it is not a person can be seen from expressions in the Bible in that it is spoken of as ‘filling’ people; they can be ‘baptized’ with it; and they can be “anointed” with it. (Luke 1:41; Matt. 3:11; Acts 10:38) None of these expressions would be appropriate if the holy spirit were a person.

    What John Blake saw was not evidence of the "holy ghost", but rather demon possession, for this is no different than the man named "Legend" at Mark 5:1-10 or of the demon-possessed boy at Mark 9:14-24. Jesus said succinctly that God's holy spirit would empower his faithful disciples to do a world-wide Bible educational work, telling them: "You will receive power when the holy spirit arrives upon you, and you will be witnesses of me both in Jerusalem and in all Ju·de´a and Sa·mar´i·a and to the most distant part of the earth.”(Acts 1:8)

    April 24, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
  3. Gadlaw

    It reads like an abuse survivor story. Because that's exactly what this sort of insane stuff is – child abuse.

    April 24, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
  4. spoofle

    It depresses me that everybody gets their view of religion from Christian and Muslim extremists and as a result they react so violently to religion, even when it's not based on a doctrine of hate, judgment, and violence. That's what I like to call "bad religion". Religion can also lead and teach people to be kind, tolerant, and non-judgmental towards others, and to live a life that best brings good to others, the kind of life Jesus actually taught. As for proving God's existence, God, like love, is not something that can be explained or "proved" logically. If you don't believe in him, at the very least *I* believe that it does not make you a bad person or necessarily somebody doomed to hell, as it has no bearing what type of person you might happen to be and it's not in my right to judge you otherwise. Please stop automatically judging all religious people as illogical, dumb and believing that you're an evil heathen for not believing in God – open your mind. Also know that not believing in God does not make you a more "logical" person – all you've done is picked one side of a devil's proof for which the only usable evidence on both sides is from the non-logical/non-scientific realm of human emotions.

    Science and religion ARE compatible, because they encompass two entirely different things, at least to me. I feel no more theist, not even in church, than I do when I'm studying biochemistry and marveling in the great complexity of the tiny systems that make up our bodies. Don't assume everybody has bad religion and blind faith.

    April 24, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
  5. icostner

    Hi guys! Perhaps today of all days would be a nice day to be more kind to each other. The mere fact that decided to read this article indicated an interest in this concept called the Holy Spirit. If you read it to debunk it, it would seem to be an odd position to take as one receives information. Receive it, digest it and review it at a different date if you like; but don't devalue it. If this isn't for you so be it. It would be unfortunate to minimize the intellect of individuals because of their faith. All of a sudden faith based individuals lack intelligence and have no point of reference with history, knowledge or balance that life offers with maturity. No one is trying to convert anyone with this article; however, as an intellect I can confirm for you that there is an amazing God. Free will was one of His amazing gifts. We choose so many things, lets choose to see life through the eyes of another and value their transparency.

    April 24, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
  6. Maya

    Sounds like a neurological episode.

    April 24, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
  7. Wim

    People will get similar feelings at rock concerts or other ecstatic mass gatherings, including the mass rituals of religions that contradict Christianity. It's called human socio-psychology.

    April 24, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
  8. Nurse

    this was a beautiful story, thank you for sharing it. I don't quite understand those who are seeking to put down your experience or Christianity, but at least they read your story.

    April 24, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
  9. Ben

    Here's why I believe in God.

    If you study the universe and how it came to be (especially Earth) it's almost a miracle that Earth ended up where it is in proportion to the Sun. If it's closer to the sun, then our oceans boil away, and there's no humanity. Same thing if it's further away, except our ocean freezes.

    And as for the moon, without it, we have no tides, and less gravity. The moon was obtained because of a huge asteroid happening to hit Earth, and the leftover debris hit the moon.

    To me, it just seems like that that is too many lucky coincidences for there not to be a God.

    Just my take on it.

    April 24, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
    • ZeebleZub

      Ben, you could say the same thing about any life-form and the habitat in which it lives. That doesn't prove that your god exists or that anything was "designed".
      But feel free to pray to Allah. And try on one of those vest-thingies.
      I hear they are the bomb.

      April 24, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
    • framous

      Considering that the Universe contains billions of galaxies, which contains billions of suns with billions of solar systems with billions of planets, it's not all that amazing that the earth finds the orbit that it has around our little sun. Those of faith would say better that God has created all that we know and more of what we do not. Therefore, the probability that there are billions of planets in our galaxy that host intelligent life which god also created. Then of course, as physics is now suggesting, there is the probability of mulitple universes, omniverse. God is certainly busy managing the activities of trillions of planets and their inhabitants. However, I'm glad that God has time for his / her favorite little rock, Earth.

      April 24, 2011 at 4:07 pm |
  10. paul

    MAN, zebeeldub is seriously damaged goods,hes been on this site since early in the morn. which tells me he he has no real life. i have heard enough,God could hit this man in the head w/a brick, and he and the rest of you non-believers still wouldn't get it. Jesus Christ said many are called,and few are chosen.now I know why.Ive wasted enough of my precious time w/you people,
    its beautiful outside,this is the day the LORD has made, i will be glad and rejoice in it.for those of you who have never experienced the Holy Spirit,I can only feel sorry for you.enough of this im going outside and thank my God that Ive been chosen.

    April 24, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
    • ZeebleZub

      Bye, sweetie! Keep an eye out for some real proof while you're outside.
      You never did come up with any. Tell your god to hurry up. We're all waiting.

      April 24, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
  11. icostner

    This was amazingly beautiful!!! Thank you for sharing your experience. I am sure your Aunt would smile as your shared this testimony.

    April 24, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
  12. pb

    Now that's what you call faith in action. Love never falis. Thanks JB, great read. Her story and ours is proof that's nothing (on earth) last forever, but what is done for love does and often multiplies. David Blamires...Until We Know.

    April 24, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
  13. HooDatIS?

    THIS IS ONE OF THE BEST ARTICLES I HAVE EVER READ IN MY LIFE......THANK U FOR SHARING...PRICELESS
    VISIT MY BLOG

    http://ethicalfutures.wordpress.com/2011/04/05/changing-faces-the-worlds-first-black-woman-president/

    April 24, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
  14. MadDog

    Thanks ZeebleZub, we need more people like you to speak up. God was an imagination of the cave man and this imagination spread with nomadic groups to distant geographic regions as they moved and became isolated. In these isolated groups, that old imagination took different forms as they faced adversaries. The smart ones became God-men and the stupid ones that followed became men-of-god or believers. After thousands of years, the stupid ones continue to follow the smart ones. The fact is most of the smart ones are not believers themselves, they know that the stupid ones do not have the ability to figure out the hoax and they keep up with the game and use that power to acquire wealth, which the stupid ones are ready to give. The question is why do we still have the stupid ones? It is because they have been brained washed from childhood by stupid parents and their God-men (priests). Another question that begs itself is why grown ups are still remain stupid in this day and age ? it is because when they were growing up (in school), their ability to think independently was suppressed by other stupid ones who run the school curriculum and governments. It will take a mayor revolution to get rid of these imaginary beings of the stupids. Scientists and atheists don't get involved because you cannot convince a stupid one that he/she has been brainwashed or that they are plain stupid or prove a negative. I thinks its good to have these stupid ones, how else are we to be entertained ? Holy Ghost !! LOL.

    April 24, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
    • believer1

      madDog my brother...I don't exactly understand your rant...I'm not sure that you completely understand what you wrote either... however...maybe you've never experienced the power of our God in your life...maybe through a collection of lifes bad experiences your heart has become hardened and unaccepting of God's love and promise to accompany us through life...and love us unconditionally forever until we once again return to be with him forever...the sad reality of a life without Christ certainly won't bother those you may be trying to impress with an atheistic life choice however I pose this question to you..."what if... " the bible teaches us that eventually ever knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord...are you absolutely certain that you're not riding the emotional response to peer pressure and denying yourself of the life that God truly has planned for you?
      I post this for all who may think that bashing God elevates you in your particular peer group but leaves so many of your questions unanswered...you're not forced to believe however there are consequences to remaining ignorant and turning away from the God who loves you...more than you may ever know...:)

      April 24, 2011 at 8:28 pm |
  15. HeavenSent

    Heaven sent us:

    bubonic plague, menignitis, pneumonia, lupus, Alzheimer's, AIDS, malaria, dengue fever, tetanus, tuberculosis, meningitis, and numerous other diseases and cancers that cause horrid suffering.

    Thank you Jesus, thank you lord. You azzhole.

    Amen.

    April 24, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
  16. Chris

    Sounds like a spiritual awakening of some sort.

    The Ignorance falls on all of us.. The scientist, and the churchgoer both.. Once this happens to a person, the sensation is almost like you'd been insane all your life and you had suddenly just become sane.

    This probably sounds like boulder-dash to all of you, but some of us are significantly more evolved than others. if scientists would spend less time and money sending toy rovers to Mars, and instead study the dynamics of the human brain, we would advance a lot further as a society.

    April 24, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
  17. someoneelse

    Religion is for people with a hole in themselves and their logic. 'Nough said.

    April 24, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • ijreilly

      You mean like an a$$-hole?

      April 24, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
  18. Luis Wu

    How utterly freaking stupid. Just goes to show you that when people work themselves up into a frenzy, they get crazy. Same thing as with voodoo. No difference whatever. I can't believe that in the 21st century, people still believe in ignorant old ancient myths. Wake up and get a brain people.

    April 24, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
    • Clif Evans

      I agree Luis. It is only in the name of religion that a person can get away with this deluded behavior. If I was doing the same and talking to my imaginary freind I would be committed. On top of it, the liars who spread these delusions get a tax break from the Government. Geeze.

      April 24, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
    • lilyq

      How strange, given your thoughts on the article, that you read it anyway. I hope God speaks to you on this day. The person below, too.

      April 24, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
    • Apassionatemother

      How sad that you have no faith. If you believed in ANYTHING life would much better. I grew up in church – but that is NOT why I believe. I had a night similar to this one, and I felt the presence of the Lord. He held my hand. I was going to commit suicide. God told me that soon my life would have meaning. I was 30 years old. If it didnt have meaning already, I thought it never would. I found out I was pregnant a few weeks later. I am now 50 years old and have two children. I was told at six years old that I would never be able to conceive. God truly worked a miracle in my life. He does exist. I hope that you find him soon. He has been waiting for you. God bless you and keep you.

      April 24, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
    • david

      If some of you people don't have Faith why do you call having Faith in Jesus ,"stupid"on Easter Sunday no less?I agree religion is worthless.I don't have religion,I believe Jesus rose from the dead and that he is the Son of God.There's a big difference.You people should try Jesus out.He will change your life ! He LIVES !

      April 24, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
  19. nichole

    Beautiful. Thanks for sharing your special experience not only with your aunt but the church and your faith as well. I guess many people forget that our stories, experiences and choices are our own. We don't share them to change a person's mind or convert them. We are just sharing.

    Thanks again

    April 24, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
  20. RichardSRussell

    Given the length of this essay, I would hardly call the author "reticent". Perhaps you meant "reluctant" or "recalcitrant".

    April 24, 2011 at 2:09 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.