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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. Countryboy

    You can't make the bible a lie! The greatest book ever. http://WWW.CDBABY.COM/ALL/NUMONE buy now!

    April 24, 2011 at 4:32 am |
    • Pie

      People experience their spiritual walks at different points in their lives. Sad to say many may die without this experience. What I have in my heart, soul, and mind spiritually, no one can take away or discourage me in any way. *Everyone dies but, everyone do not live.*

      April 24, 2011 at 4:50 am |
  2. Gary

    God isn't real and neither are black people.

    April 24, 2011 at 4:31 am |
    • nash237

      god bless your soul

      April 24, 2011 at 9:54 am |
  3. Zenith

    Wow Edward. Its a good thing that they are usually in church when that happens. With that kind of expressed joy, they could mistakenly find themselves arrested for disturbing the peace , while under the inluence ) of God

    April 24, 2011 at 4:31 am |
    • Priscilla

      it doesn't just happen in church- get some education on the subject

      April 24, 2011 at 4:56 am |
  4. me

    Challenge.. Say that word Jesus three times a day and then make a comment.

    April 24, 2011 at 4:21 am |
    • Frank

      jesus jesus jesus. paul made him up

      April 24, 2011 at 4:42 am |
  5. Jonathan

    I grew up in a southern Pentecostal church my whole childhood. This gentleman describes the same emotions and feelings I felt as a child and as a teenager, to a eerie detail. It's an overwhelming feeling totally letting go and letting God work, bringing you down to your core.I have not attended a church service in several years, however those feelings will always be with me. I am now on my second tour to Iraq, the up-armored truck I was driving July of 2009 did its job protecting me from the blast that rocked my truck, but had it not been for my almighty God who knew me while I was in my mothers womb, I might not be writing this comment. May God bless you all and keep us all safe

    Happy Easter everyone

    April 24, 2011 at 4:18 am |
    • Priscilla

      Come home soon- its not an easy job but someone has to do it- so we do- stay strong and make it home to your next duty station.

      April 24, 2011 at 4:54 am |
  6. MLaurel

    The article was great and hats off to CNN for having the kahunas to post it. It's a free country and everyone has the right to express what they believe. I experienced the light during a NDE and it is the best day you will ever have. This article is not about religion...it is about a spiritual experience. Considering all the sham, corruption, and despair in the world, it is great to read an uplifting article that doesn't deal with politics or Hollywood. And no matter how much you believe about the article, in the end, its all about the people you love.

    April 24, 2011 at 4:17 am |
  7. Kelly5

    Beautiful story. I had my Holy Ghost conversion at 37. I am so blessed!

    Thank you for sharing your story. God's love worked through your aunt. May she rest in peace.

    April 24, 2011 at 4:07 am |
  8. Void

    This does not belong on the front page. Not even the most devout Christian would claim this to be "news".

    April 24, 2011 at 4:07 am |
    • Dave

      They are only talking about this because tomorrow is Easter.

      It's not like they are forcing you to click on the link...

      April 24, 2011 at 4:25 am |
    • TruthOarConsequences

      Dave, this Atheist agrees with you. I read the story and found it folksy and quaint but intellectually lacking. The responses to it are the interesting part.

      April 24, 2011 at 9:11 am |
  9. Zenith

    Some people use the fact that "God forgives all" to do unthinkable things to themselves and:or others. In other words, as long as you ask for forgiveness, you can get away with anything.
    Is it too much to expect that a human being strives to be a decent person, simply because doing so makes him feel the most content rather than out of a fear of the wrath of God or an ability to repent if he acts like an a–? Just asking.

    April 24, 2011 at 4:04 am |
    • Priscilla

      Having forgiveness in your heart- that is the point. We cannot judge only God our Lord and Savior can

      April 24, 2011 at 4:51 am |
  10. Seth

    Nice story, but i don't like the division. Black church this and black church that. I imagine your jesus is my jesus and the only jesus... why put a color on a church and how it is "black". I would think some "other color" churches get loud and do all those things too.

    April 24, 2011 at 4:02 am |
    • Priscilla

      That was not the point of the story- it was a recount of a black man, his Aunt and how his experince with faith ties together. This was a story that deeply affected this man and shaped how he grew up as a young man, how he conducts himself now, what his values as a human being are, and how he is raising his family.

      April 24, 2011 at 4:49 am |
  11. Kane

    Countless humans have been spouting the same, tired lines for thousands of years. Affirmations of Christianity's supposed truth, in response to this article, are but a collective continuation of such delusional behavior. This species is beginning to rise from the darkness through the power of technology. We will escape the prison of our biological reality and take control of our evolution through our science. Those who desperately cling to the ideals of the old ways shall most certainly be left behind to wither and rot in the same manner as their predecessors. If they forcefully attempt to halt the scientific progress of those who embrace the one true future of this race, then they will be brutally destroyed. This is not science fiction. This is fact. Your fantasies will not, and cannot, interfere with the advancement of this species.

    April 24, 2011 at 4:01 am |
  12. Jesus

    The Jainists have it all over the Christians. There's a religion where you actually have to be ascetic – a word most Christians have no idea even exists, much less of which they know the meaning.

    April 24, 2011 at 4:00 am |
  13. fifo

    He is risen, i think this story had to be posted n black friday when the jew & roman mock him, spit on him then crossfid him, but today Jesus is Risen, he washed our sins & grant us a new life,u me & those non belivers r living it, but once he return he gana judge us. As he said before if u dont belive his words ,belive him for his mircals =)

    April 24, 2011 at 3:55 am |
    • Jesus

      belive him for his mircals. Uh, yeah...

      April 24, 2011 at 4:01 am |
  14. Doug

    I just read about all the millions and millions of dollars the TV evanelists spend and the multi million dollar homes they live in..
    Religion is the most evil power on this planet... Joel Osteen's home was bought last year for 10.5 million, Benny Hinn spends as much as 9000 per night for a hotel penthouse, Joyce Myer's has her entire family held up in a 10 million dollar compound.. Come on folks, let's quit giving churches tax exempt status.. This is just insanity !

    April 24, 2011 at 3:53 am |
    • Doug

      He has risen all right.. Right to the Lexas lane..

      April 24, 2011 at 4:05 am |
    • KeithTexas

      This is one anti-religious post I can agree with. I hope some of the Christains can see that your examples have nothing to do with the mesaage in the Bible.

      Tax the rich, tax the churches, tax the oil companies, tax GE, and for one time give the working man a chance.

      April 24, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
  15. Chaiah

    CNN, why is this news? There are people starving, pols are corrupt, our world's eco system is in serious jeopardy, war torn countries have people displaced and suffering, and you report fluff news with no real substance except that you want us to think it has. Report NEWS, not someone's religious experience, for crying out loud. John Blake's psychotic experience with the "Holy Ghost" is not news. It belongs in a rag like the National Enquirer or in some evangelical magazine. I have had you as my home page for many years now. However, no longer. I am going to try to find an organization that actually seems to care about real news.

    April 24, 2011 at 3:52 am |
    • Pez

      Done with CNN as home page and as source of news as well. Many articles I read here at CNN seem to be written from a perspective holding on to ignorance (tradition?) and not giving intellectualism and reason the value and importance they require to truly educate and move us away from magic. To The New York Times and AP instead for no-nonsense news.

      There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that "my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge."
      -Isaac Asimov

      That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.
      -Christopher Hitchens

      April 24, 2011 at 4:14 am |
    • Duh

      You're so cynical and annoying. Why even read the article then? You didn't have to click on the headline after reading it you know. All that so called "real news" you talk about is always there. Use your eyes, and click on those headline instead! Jerk. This is interesting for many other people. You don't have to believe in the holy ghost to find it interesting either.

      April 24, 2011 at 4:28 am |
    • Chaiah

      Hey, Duh, I didn't read the article. I didn't need to do so.

      April 24, 2011 at 9:19 am |
    • KeithTexas

      This is not news but it is interesting. This is a religious holiday for many people although it is not one of mine I respect their beliefs. It is really too bad that you are not mature enough to respect others.

      April 24, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
  16. Zenith

    Nice personal account of this man's spiritual journey. Everyone's journey is different. I personally just try to treat others how I would want to be treated, take care of myself and folks I know, and try to maintain balance in every way. I used to look for God's word and assistance, but always seemed to find disappointment, so I decided to just focus on being th best person I can be. I am more content.

    April 24, 2011 at 3:52 am |
  17. Zenith

    Nice personal account of this man's spiritual journey. Everyone's journey is different. I personally just try to treat others how I would want to be treated, take care of myself and folks I know, maintain balance in every way.

    April 24, 2011 at 3:49 am |
  18. alex

    This story cracks me up. Only religion could come up with something so funny, so illogical, so crazy and think that it has any value in modern society. Holy ghost nothing. This is strictly imitation of all the insanity around one in order to feel like you're part of a group.

    April 24, 2011 at 3:48 am |
    • MeIAm

      What a miserable, cynical sort you are. You have brainwashed your boring self! Do you honestly think there is nothing more to reality than lifeless logic? You think you know everything, don't you? How naive!

      April 24, 2011 at 4:03 am |
    • Frank

      i like how religious people like MelAm accuse other people of saying "you think you know everything", when in fact it's quite the opposite. being an atheist is realizing that there's more out there than stories from a booked passed down from several generations. just because we're atheist doesn't mean we're saying we know what's happening, we're saying we're so in awe of what's around us that we couldn't possibly fathom that we can understand it all by saying "jesus did this, and jesus did that." maybe you should wake up and admit you dont know anything, MelAm. There's tens of thousands of religions that have existed throughout time, but because you have a feeling (hint it's all in your head) that it somehow supersedes all other religions that have come before it. so what happened to them? they all went to hell? for millions and millilons of years of humans evolving, they all burned in hell until two thousand years ago? gimme a break. wake up and realize that YOU know nothing

      April 24, 2011 at 4:27 am |
    • Alex is great

      I agree with alex. Melam, funny how you think Alex is brain washed... Maybe you need to open your eyes!

      April 24, 2011 at 4:32 am |
  19. Wonder

    HAPPY EASTER! MAY YOUR FAITH BE INCREASED AT THIS TIME!

    April 24, 2011 at 3:42 am |
  20. C Mart

    GOD IS REAL

    April 24, 2011 at 3:40 am |
    • Frank

      no. he's not.

      April 24, 2011 at 3:53 am |
    • armin

      he could be.

      April 24, 2011 at 4:03 am |
    • MeIAm

      Frank, He's probably not real by YOUR definition. In fact, you may not be real. Oh sure you might exist on paper on as a walking thing, but who you are on the inside, you don't exist. You are no different internally than the next person. You are one and the same, a carbon copy, there is no "you". "You" don't exist at all.

      April 24, 2011 at 4:20 am |
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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.