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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. myoleman

    Our Lord Jesus Christ departed this Earth, that we might have the company of the Holy Spirit. Today we celebrate his triumph over death, which brought us eternal life in his kingdom. Let's reaffirm our commitment to his promise!

    April 24, 2011 at 9:04 pm |
  2. Al

    Thanks so much for a great essay. Very personal and moving.

    April 24, 2011 at 8:58 pm |
  3. paperclip

    Beautiful story and thanks for sharing!!! 🙂

    April 24, 2011 at 8:32 pm |
  4. realworld95

    LOL Tyler

    April 24, 2011 at 8:32 pm |
  5. Professing to be wise....

    This was a wonderful article, not sure why atheists feel the need to protest here.....

    Just an observation: it appears to me that most atheists are not so much anti-God as they are anti-Christian. I am shocked at how openly they criticize believers and insult their intelligence. I'm curious as to why they relentlessly criticize Christians, but not Jews, Mormons or Muslims. My take on it is that Christians are an easy target. If you say anything negative about Jews, you are anti-Semite. If you dare say the slightest criticism of Islam, they will threaten to kill you.

    Are there some obnoxious hateful Christians – yes there are. Are there some hateful atheists who have nothing better to do than attack Christians – yep. Christians who judge the souls of others usually are misinterpreting the Bible. What is the excuse for atheists? Why attack others who choose to have faith?

    April 24, 2011 at 8:31 pm |
    • Eric G

      I think "attack" is a little strong. I agree that some atheists on here are just out to start a war of words with believers, and I try not to egg them on.

      That being said, I only ask those who profess to have knowledge to present verifiable evidence to support their claims. My request is non-denominational and universal. I really am interested in why they believe. What method do they use to justify that belief, and do they use that method to form other actions in their lives?

      Unfortunately, many people who comment on this blog (believer and atheist alike) are not interested in civil dialog. My questions are normally met with sarcasm and the daily threats of eternal hellfire.

      Too bad, really.

      April 24, 2011 at 9:24 pm |
  6. Tyler

    Go to bed Zeeb. You've had a long and exhausting day.

    April 24, 2011 at 8:26 pm |
    • GAW

      Agreed. Someone needs to get out and get some fresh air. Exercise. Start a hobby. Get a date for Friday night. Me thinks he doth Obsess too much?

      April 24, 2011 at 8:51 pm |
  7. Pete Lewis

    Beautiful Story and for all the 'nay sayers', I'd much rather live my life as though there was a loving God then die and find there isn't one than to live my life thinking there isn't one then die and find out there is!!

    April 24, 2011 at 8:20 pm |
  8. dm

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5UImDjlX3Vk&feature=share

    April 24, 2011 at 8:11 pm |
  9. realworld95

    To the people who are being disrespectful and blasphemous...wow, really ignorant and uneducated comments. You will learn the hard way I guess. I have seen miracles happen and I have also seen evil. I am no saint and I don't claim to be one but God is real and so is the Devil. Satan has you deceived who are you to question God? you have no idea of the Power and awesomeness of God your in for a rude awakening going off on God are you crazy or something? Take a Prozac. Your human your not all knowing. Your brain must be the size of a dust particle if that. Who are you to rant off about people having faith in God? last time I looked it is a free Country If you hate God that's your problem and its a BIG problem. I feel sorry for you having to go through life with no hope in anything. Keep it to yourself It is you who have been brainwashed by Media, Radio and society to have no faith or belief in God. Maybe bad things have happened to you in life- well join the club it's called life and your obviously miserable. Your lucky to be alive in the first place. Good Luck in life wow If I were you I would be very scared after speaking about God the way you are watch your mouth..the God you slander is the one who died for your sins. YoU should be the ones celebrating the most on this day. Go watch the Passion and get your thumb out of your mouth

    April 24, 2011 at 8:08 pm |
    • Eric G

      You posted many threats in your rant. I find it necessary to ask for evidence that will support your claims when threatened.

      I do not hate your god. No verifiable evidence has been presented to support the hypothesis of your gods existence. How can I hate something that you believe in but cannot prove exists?

      I also find it interesting that you consider others "brainwashed", yet you believe in something and claim knowledge without evidencial support.

      If you do have evidence to present for verification, I would very much like to see it.

      Thank you for your help, and try to have a better evening.

      April 24, 2011 at 9:31 pm |
  10. dm

    Why is it THERE IS A GENOCIDE TAKING PLACE UNDER ANOTHER DEMOCRATIC WATCH!!!!!
    Obama is too busy making believe he is a christian while endorsing election frauds by the UN and Hillary ex…. the Ivory Coast in favor of Allasane Ouattara. Since then only 2-3 weeks ago, that candidate (Allssane Ouattara – another Muslim, not wrong with them, except for this one) has been on a killing spree to eradicate all Christians in that country. The Ivory Coast is the largest Christian nation in Africa (At least it use to be)
    The massacre perpetrated by Allassane Ouattara (http://ivorycoastgenocide.yolasite.com/) Images are graphic. The puppet that Obama try to legitimize through a congratulation speech. ((www.youtube.com/user/whitehouse#p/search/0/GHRA4jqeCaQ)

    Amazingly, it is a REPUBLICAN Senator, Inhofe of Oklahama, who has decided to bring this GRAVE injustice to light; unfortunately, he is in the minority and Obama thinks it is in the US best interest to hope it goes away. Believe me, it won’t. Too many lives have been destroyed, too many innocent have been killed; too many no longer believe in this so called International Community who are willing to kill democracy, and back the slaughter of thousands to promote their own selfish interests.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T57CSvZF6BM

    April 24, 2011 at 7:56 pm |
  11. Alexis

    omg People are idiots! If you stare at the ghost and the kid in a small suit It's the same thing! all you have to do is just copy the image and move it in the back and if you notice whenever these photos are taken there blurry? HELLO PEOPLE IT'S FAKE!! Ghosts and Jesus are real but this photo is F.A.K.E FAKE! when do ghosts look like the same person in the photo? it's fake whoever made this and whoever believes it is real are totally bakas

    April 24, 2011 at 7:41 pm |
  12. TARYN TARVER

    TAKE A LOOK

    April 24, 2011 at 7:38 pm |
  13. Chris

    How people argue for Christianity when they're stupid:

    God exists because God says so in the BIble, which must be true because God exists.

    That's called a circular argument... and it doesn't prove anything.

    I could write "And then Elvis said "I am the only true God" These words are the words of God" on a piece of paper and then claim that it must be true because it says it's true. The only difference is that it's been 2000 years since the writers of the Bible wrote it.

    April 24, 2011 at 7:34 pm |
    • K.Jones

      sorry but that's an idotic statement. Appreciate the writers story for what it is... a personal experience from his life. It can even be argued that his "Holy Spirit" moment had nothing to do with God but with his raising by his aunt, in that church. Its a story about a family member, guidance and love - nothing more.

      April 24, 2011 at 8:06 pm |
    • JesusisLord

      Repent or perish in hell forever. You're arrogant, not smart.

      April 24, 2011 at 9:04 pm |
  14. humanbean

    I too felt the "Holy Spirit" in 1981 in a camp in Colorado. It was called being comfortable and accepted by everyone I was with, followed by a surge of adrenaline. Adrenaline is the Holy Spirit in this case, and I'm sure, many others.

    April 24, 2011 at 7:28 pm |
  15. zek2

    I wonder why CNN posts things like this even if this is a blog. All this is going to do is get atheists angry which makes christians angry. Let people believe what they want to believe in whatever you say/do/or pray is not going to change them at all. I am an atheist who gets harassed by Christians almost every day at my school for being who I am, not exactly very loving. One of my best friends is Muslim and he gets harassed about being Islamic. I can see how both sides are upset nobody likes to be told that "your wrong and I'm right." It is our right to believe in whatever we want to believe in, this is America right? I hope for those doing the harassing of others they will soon stop because it hurts and annoys people.

    April 24, 2011 at 7:23 pm |
  16. nooner

    What a waste of my time...

    April 24, 2011 at 7:06 pm |
    • Kat

      Then why did you bother to come to this page? You had to know the article was about religion - I did. It was obvious. The only reasons you would have for coming here to read this are to attempt to ridicule people of faith - or because you are still looking for something in your life which you hope to find here. The first would truly BE a waste of time - your time, not ours. The 2nd could NEVER be a waste of time.

      A waste of time? Then go elsewhere and waste the rest of your time. Obviously you don't have enough to do!

      April 24, 2011 at 7:40 pm |
  17. Eli at Atheists

    Athiests,

    Every argument I have seen of yours is completely flawed. You hypocrites. You marry in churches–God's house. You celebrate Christmas–Christ's birthday. You cry to God in despair saying, "Oh my God!" Your "scientific" minds believe in life elsewhere in the universe but you have no empirical evidence–blind faith. You conclude God does not exist–but you provide no proof before me. You conclude the bible is lies–but you provide no proof. Since you cannot provide proof–your words are mere opinion. You hypocrites. You will never receive a sign from God because of your hardened hearts. You have ears that won't hear and eyes that won't see. Your anger, hatred, and virulence are astounding.

    I will pray for you as I pray for all atheists. That's love. That's God. God bless you.

    PS The proof of God's existence is Christ. And you can no more deny His existence than you can the civilizations that came hundreds of years before Him. Blessed are those who believe in Him who have not seen.

    April 24, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
    • ZeebleZub

      Okay, Eli, here's my answer to your silly post:
      I don't marry in churches. I don't celebrate Christmas. I don't call upon your fake god. And I believe nothing without empirical evidence.
      That extra-terrestrial life is a statistical certainty is probably beyond your ability to comprehend.
      You have no proof of your "god" – for it does not exist.
      All the thousands of years of no proof is pretty damning evidence, or "proof" that your god does not exist.
      There it is! Proof "before you" that your god does not exist!
      And the Bible IS full of lies – there are hundreds of places on the web where you can see each lie spelled out for stupid people like yourself.
      But I'm not going to waste my time listing every damn thing I've personally found to be a lie in the Bible. It would take several days or weeks just to list them all.
      You know there is proof against much of what is in your bible already. Your desperation is obvious. Your faith is barely hanging on, but it's just a mental illness so you should be glad to see it go!
      The destruction of your lies is all the world needs to enter a new age of rational thought.
      Until that day, we are forced to suffer gibbering rants like the one you have written here. You speak without knowing, without proof, without anything that supports your position.
      In short, your argument is useless and empty. Like your head.
      I am not a hypocrite about religion. Nope.
      I hate hypocrisy. I hate lies more. And I loathe religious lies and hypocrisy. Don't ask me what I think of you personally. I don't know you.
      All I see is what you wrote. And most of it was pure bullshlt.
      Very typical for Christians. Lies and hypocrisy. yep.
      Be glad to see you all get blown off the map, but that's not likely anytime soon. In the meantime I let you continue lying and swindling and cheating and defrauding and murdering, etc.
      I am not hindering you in any way. I am just condemning you without seeking retribution or any other type of justice.
      You are pretty ungrateful, I must say...!

      April 24, 2011 at 7:37 pm |
    • the truth

      Eli, You are a fool. Don't go away mad, just go away. Your faith is dying a death by a thousand cuts. Science and knowledge will finally dissolve the ignorance in the 21st century and highlight the stupid hangers-on.

      April 24, 2011 at 8:00 pm |
    • GAW

      A Fundamentalist vs a Fundamentalist.... How fun. Please, both of you show us how NOT to think. lol

      April 24, 2011 at 8:41 pm |
    • Nat

      God exist despite of anyone's rejection. The miracles that happen everyday all over the globe are the Proof of God's presence. Science could not heal my pain, and my struggle. Years in therapy and 10s of medications did not solve the problem. What did it for me? Praying the rosary at night, lifted my OCD away. not permenantly, but it makes it bearable to go through the day.
      You see, how can you accomplish great things if you don't believe in greater power. Personally i don't give a damn about non-believers. For all i care, you will rote in hell and i won't. that makes me sleep well at night. I wont even pray for atheists, they are just like judas, will only believe in God if they get something materialistic back. Love and faith is unconditional. And for those claiming they have an evidence that the bible is a bunch of lies, again i don't give a damn unless you present me with something that 200% undeniable. And it better not be a theory, because a theory is not an evidence.

      April 24, 2011 at 9:09 pm |
    • Frenchy

      Actually, a lot of scientists believe in God and the Bible.

      April 24, 2011 at 9:18 pm |
    • Wonderful Message

      Dear Eli, what a *Wonderful* Easter message you have brought to us! It is so very inspiring and I hope all non-believers can take heed of your fine words. Sometimes they have to be presented with "tough love" like this. But it is meant to awaken them from their horrible nightmare they have been living all along. They must see the Light of Jesus Christ their LORD and Savior and very soon! Already many are converting and becoming Christians as the ONLY way to Heaven is through Jesus Christ. Again, thank you for this wonderful eye-opening message and here's my hope that all Infidels will see the Truth that they cannot spend their eternity in Christ's Light without acceptance of Him but will be going to a place where they may be more comfortable in, being that they do not care for God, do not believe in Him, and do not embrace Him, at their appointed time of physical death, What They Have Sown They Will Unfortunately but Most Assuredly Reap.

      April 24, 2011 at 9:18 pm |
    • Ben

      Eli,
      I don't need your condescending prayers, hatred, or hypocrisy. Take your version of "love" somewhere else. Happy Easter 🙂

      April 24, 2011 at 9:46 pm |
  18. JackoB

    Whether you believe in Easter or not... I think 100% of us have better things to do than sit inside on a computer on a Sunday evening.

    April 24, 2011 at 7:00 pm |
  19. Owen Conway

    a beautiful story. Drop your politics and just try to appreciate what faith means to so many people.

    April 24, 2011 at 6:30 pm |
    • gdouglaso

      Agreed, an absolutely wonderful story and beautifully told.

      April 24, 2011 at 7:43 pm |
  20. mike

    great post – what an intimate story shared here

    April 24, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
    • jonathan

      I agree it is a wonderful experience...but too rare..there is much more Jesus wants for us.. sadly somehow Christians are fixated on politics..We need more holy Ghost experiences...We need this more than anything else. John 7:37-39...
      this is the true description of the Holy Spirit as per Jesus ' testimony also liken to John chp 3 ...to reach this level in the spirit you must seek Him Jesus with your whole heart..pursuing him with all the energy in your body expecting ..oh by the way get yourself baptized in Jesus name as per Acts 2:38.. 🙂

      April 24, 2011 at 7:36 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.