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. Jim Bean

    Im loving the fact that when you post something religious online it gets torn to shreds, I really do because it shows that religion is so flimsy it can't stand up on it's own without some appeal to ignorance, and theres always someone out there that can fill holes in any religious story.

    "The internet is where Religion comes to die" ain't it the truth.

    Sure religion will be around forever but im proud to be alive in the day and age where religion get's it's veil lifted and seen for the ridiculousness that it is.

    April 24, 2011 at 11:19 pm |
  2. Imperfectone

    Thank you, Mr. Blake, for sharing that beautiful, beautiful experience! The baptism in the Holy Spirit is the most wonderful experience anyone can (or can't!) imagine; and as you described, it has nothing to do with the head and everything to do with the heart - being drenched, directly and intimately and undeniably, by the overwhelming love of God. And this experience happens not just in Black churches but in every Christian denomination. I am Catholic and it happened to me in 1986. It instantly changed my life, radically and permanently, and the power of it has not diminished one iota from then until now.

    I don't blame those who doubt intellectually. I consider myself somewhat of an intellectual, and it actually is pretty unbelievable! But it is absolutely true. If you are a doubter, simply ask the Holy Spirit into your heart and ask Him to reveal the truth to you. The Holy Spirit is in the life-changing business, and He will not disappoint.

    April 24, 2011 at 11:11 pm |
  3. james

    When is Santa Claus coming?

    April 24, 2011 at 10:56 pm |
  4. Brendan K

    Really enjoyed reading your article, Mr. Blake. Thank you, and Happy Easter!

    April 24, 2011 at 10:52 pm |
  5. WhatPlanetAreYou FromAtheists?

    Narcissism – if the shoe fits – who's calling the kettle black? Who's behaving hypocritical if not you? Atheists do have a belief system – it is based on narcissism – on their very own self-styled belief system and they are their own gods. Tell me can you make your cells divide and split? Can you instruct your lungs how to breath? Can you command your heart how to beat? Your circulation system to function so oxygen travels to the parts of your body? Can you tell your digestive system when to go? Do you make your own legs walk? Can you make all the complicated systems and signals in your body to flow and function? CAn you count the stars in the universe? Do you know how many gallons in an ocean? God knows the number of the hair on your head and how many fell out today. This is not all an accident. Whatever caused your rebellion against life, God, His Truth I hope you resolve it. Whatever hurt you I hope you can come to terms with it. You did not create yourself. You were conceived first in the heart of God. His love for you is deeper than the ocean and He knows the measurement of the oceans. You have turned from Him because you don't know Him. If you did you wouldn't turn so readily from HIm. You have free choice but there are consequences to our choices. Because you choose not to believe that what He is saying is truth, it does not change the fact that it is truth just like you choosing to believe gravity does not exist it does not negate the fact that it does and it affects you. You will come under His Judgment system in the end whether you believe in it or not. Check out the stories of those God allowed in death experiences and dreams to visit Hell and the horrifying experiences these people encountered and then were sent back so they can let others know it is a real place. If you're thirsty you won't be able to drink, if you're tired you won't be able to sleep ever. If you loved lust you will be tormented by that demon but without relief. You will try to breath and you won't be able to because of the incredible stench. The demons themselves hate your guts and will slice you with their long sharp claws. They will take their vengeance out on you. You were created in God's image and they hate us and will try to deceive through atheism and all the isms. People will be screaming down there – it'll be dark and a pit of fire with people falling into it. I can go on. It's not made up. These are the stories of many who God allowed to have that "momentary" expereience for the sake of warning others. But once you've been judged and basically that's where all those who say no to God end up – once there you will never ever for all eternity be able to leave or change God's mind after. I suggest you stop your arrogance that claims to know more than God who was never created and always was and always will be and stop treating your own life so disrespectfully and ask for forgiveness.. If you do He is faithful to forgive and He will reveal Himself to you but He does resist the proud because they claim to know more than Him and claim they don't need Him. Buddha is dead. Mohammed is dead. Krishna is dead. They can no sooner save themselves let alone you. Leave this foolish destructive path behind if you truly are as wise as you make yourselves out to be.

    April 24, 2011 at 10:50 pm |
    • Eric G

      You may be right. Please present the evidence you have to support the theory that your God exists to be verified. As an atheist, I do not claim to have all the answers. The answers I do have are based on verified evidence. You, on the other hand, claim to know quite a bit about my future and seem to have no problem making threats about how horrible it will be. Unless you have evidence to support your claims, they are not valid.

      In the future, if you make claims about something, please have your evidence ready to be verified. Threatening people without proof is childish.

      April 24, 2011 at 11:02 pm |
  6. cygnusryder

    It's a disgrace to see so many small-minded people shredding this article and its author. The point of the article is how this gentleman found his way back to his faith and how much he credits his Aunt for making him who he is. Let's leave the argument of the existence of God to other forums. " Love your enemies" was taught by Jesus himself (Matthew 5:44).

    April 24, 2011 at 10:47 pm |
  7. Chris Collino

    That thinking worked really well for Cambodia under Pol Pot, Russia under Stalin and Europe under Hitler. Can't wait to see how that will work in modern society.

    April 24, 2011 at 10:44 pm |
  8. free thinker

    Is Atheism a religion? By the way those who claim to be atheists ridicule those they view as religious intolerants, they become intolerant. So they become what the despise? At least one who calls themselves an agnostic has enough sense not to pretend they truly know. Maybe an Atheist should learn from an Agnostic and not look so foolish as to think they have the answers.

    April 24, 2011 at 10:44 pm |
  9. Neal Sheppard

    Those who believe that religeous people believe in "magic" should look at the bigger picture. Do I believe that God can do "magic"? Absolutely. However, "magic" is a relative term. In the relatively short time that humans have been on this planet we have already learned how to do things such as travel to other planets and make artificially intelligent computers. I'm sure that our ancestors of 1000 years ago would consider our wireless technologies of today as "magic". And I'm sure that humans of the 30th century will be routinely doing things that today we would consider magic. My point is that a being who has been around for billions of years (or longer) can probably do a lot more than our minds can comprehend, maybe even create life.

    April 24, 2011 at 10:33 pm |
    • Eric G

      I agree Neal. However, you are attributing actions to a god without establishing verifiable evidence to support the existence of that god.

      To say that some action or thing seems "magical" is another way of saying "I don't know how that happend or what that is". To attribute actions or things to something tangible without evidencial support is illogical.

      When I do not understand why something happens or how something came from, I would rather use "magic" to admit that I do not know the answer than say "god must have done it".

      April 24, 2011 at 10:42 pm |
  10. Nne

    For those of you that don't believe that there is no such thing as a "God" (never "god" small letter g are false gods). the time will come when you will regret accepting Jesus and what he did on the cross.
    It"s true that many have done evil in the name of God, but that doesn't mean that you should just give up.
    If you truly reach out to God with all your heart about your confusion and questions about him and life in general, truly he will answer you. Don't look unto man or at what man does because man can fail you, but the true God doesn't.
    You can never fully comprehend a personal life changing testimony of some one who has come to know God in their life, until you have an experience or breakthrough of your own.
    For people that are atheist or of different religions, you might never know,whether now or in your old times (according to Gods purpose and will for you, God did not create people just to live and die, there is a reason, purpose and will for everyone), when you will come to believe in God and accept Jesus. That story can become examples unto others.

    April 24, 2011 at 10:23 pm |
  11. Joe

    Thanks to all the aethiests who've shown up here with the "facts". Please by all means submit your proofs to the appropriate scientific circles and clear a spot on your mantels for your Nobels, because up to just now your "facts" were merely theories. What's next? Cancer? Fusion? I'm excited.

    April 24, 2011 at 10:13 pm |
    • LuLz

      Only a moron would make a statement like yours.

      April 24, 2011 at 11:16 pm |
    • P

      Those "theories" allow the technology to exist that you are using to spread gibberish like this. Why don't you boycott those theories and just "pray" that your message appears here?

      April 24, 2011 at 11:21 pm |
  12. smitty77

    All releigions ares total nonsense and only gives us the right to go and kill those who don't go to our Church! How many do you think have died in the name of "ourr God"! Can't imagine there are so many that believe this nonsense!!
    We want to send in Drones to kill those infedels but justify it by claiming it makes the U.S safer. Really? I think it makes people are more likely to think of ways to hurt us! WE are flat broke and keep charging into the Arab world like we have a license to kill, a la 007! There will be a day of reconning and it may be when debts become due!!

    April 24, 2011 at 10:00 pm |
    • Joe

      Your intellect is truly dizzying. Watch out for the iocane powder.

      April 24, 2011 at 10:20 pm |
  13. greg

    Jesus H. Christ, CNN.com ......

    April 24, 2011 at 9:58 pm |
  14. Rose

    I feel so sorry for the poor people here who do not believe in Jehova God and his son Jesus christ! I had a vision and it was real. I was having a bad time in my life and I was doing many things I should not do. One night I laid down and I had a vision of Jesus with his arms outstretched. He asked me what I wanted,did I want to do good or continue doing bad, I told him I wanted to do good. The love and warmth I felt could only be felt from our savior Jesus Christ. I am not crazy and I know It sounds like crap to many people but it wasn't. Please look beyond everyday things and ask Jesus to show you he is real if you do not believe. You do not have anything to lose and everything to gain!

    April 24, 2011 at 9:56 pm |
    • DK

      I feel so sorry for you that you don't believe in the leprechaun or the tooth fairy.

      April 24, 2011 at 11:23 pm |
  15. Muneef

    Could have he had felt what they normally feel during "Zar" sessions?


    April 24, 2011 at 9:54 pm |
    • Peter

      We reach for the transcendent, ineffable divine presence in what ever way our culture offers us. Whether it is the "tarab" of the Zar rhythm or being slain in the spirit. The surface expression is different and we fight about this like fools. But once you have experienced that Divinity you know it is more real than anything this earth could offer and your soul will forever seek union with that holiness.

      April 24, 2011 at 10:28 pm |
    • Muneef

      Is that what they call Sofi's like the Darawish of Egypt?

      April 25, 2011 at 8:36 pm |
  16. William Marlowe

    Brilliantly written. You have found your calling and do it well and your Aunt I am sure is very 'happy' in Heaven.

    Keep writing, you will be very famous writer someday because you are already a brilliant one.

    William Marlowe

    April 24, 2011 at 9:45 pm |
  17. Fhahsd

    Yeah she relied so much on God that she died of liver failure, which the most likely cause of would be alcoholic cirrhosis.
    So it looks like she depended on God and Jack Daniels!
    But I guess God was calling her at that time right!

    April 24, 2011 at 9:24 pm |
    • Charles

      Such a comedian. Grow up.

      April 24, 2011 at 10:27 pm |
  18. JW

    Great article. Thanks for sharing. It gave me a lot to think about... and probably some phone calls to make to some dear ones 🙂

    April 24, 2011 at 9:19 pm |
  19. Rick

    Beautiful story Mr. John Blake. Your faith will carry you wherever you want to go so please keep writing..

    April 24, 2011 at 9:18 pm |
  20. Ginny

    Wow! How could a religious article generate so much venom? And I'm surprised so many atheists have chosen to read it. The description, even when it was a front page headline, fairly depicted its content. I don't know who is right or wrong or even if there is a right or wrong but the hate by both sides is very obvious.

    April 24, 2011 at 9:08 pm |
    • levend

      I think people aren't against religion, its the fact it forces people to comply.e.g Birth control is banned so people now die of HIV aids. Church says don't sin and you have nothing to worry. Then we hear about the 1000's of Pedophile priests protected by the church. This story is a good story but the church has a bad image, like a middle east dictator promising to change, its too little too late for most.

      April 24, 2011 at 9:34 pm |
    • Chris

      I can't speak for everyone, but I'm an atheist and I chose to read this article because I'm fasinated how people can still believe in this stuff.

      It's absolutley amazing to me!

      Some of you ask us for "proof that god doesn't exist", the "proof" is there, the problem is this conclusion is based on a preponderance of the evidence. There is TONS of evidence! However you must have the desire to learn, to read, to be curious, to ask questions, to search for answers. Your mind has to be thirsty for knowledge, you have to read and learn about all aspects of , in this case, religion.

      It's very clear, that the concept of a "god" has been around for quite some time, and has taken many forms. Your "god" is no more significant than the many, many other "gods" that have come and gone over the centuries.

      I think human socieity would be better off without the belief in the supernatural, I think these beliefs are dangerous to our long term survival.

      April 24, 2011 at 9:45 pm |
    • cygnusryder

      Absolutely! These hate-filled people have no clue what the article is about. Please leave the argument about God to other forums.

      April 24, 2011 at 10:49 pm |
    • TrueReality

      @Chris: Frankly, I think atheism is more dangerous than religion. Religious extremists of any sort, whether Islamic, Christian, or Shinto, are very dangerous to themselves and others, but the most brutal regimes the world has known were based on atheism, or at least worshiping a leader or the government itself, not any god: Stalin's Russia, Hitler's Germany, Mao's China, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the French Revolution in the 1790s.

      And I do not understand how atheists construct a system of morality. I don't mean to say that atheists are immoral – I know quite a few who are wonderful, kind, intelligent people who I prefer over many who call themselves Christians. But in an entirely atheistic worldview, I don't see where morality can come from. As a Christian, I believe morality comes from God; we see it in what we call our conscience, for example. But without God, what's the point? Treat others as you want to be treated is an excellent way to live your life, and also makes logical sense in a way, but what's the motivation for following it?

      As a Christian, the progression is thus: God has a code of morality for humanity, though it is in our nature to disobey Him and violate that; by our own fault, we cannot live up to that standard, but because of love for us He has provided us a way to be forgiven for betraying Him, our creator. A proper response to that is to love and respect God by behaving how He has asked us, to the best of our ability and with His help And in a large part, this should take the form of loving all people.

      As an atheist: why bother with anyone else? There is nothing else in the universe. There is no negative reinforcement, like avoiding eternal damnation, reincarnation in a worse state, avoiding the wrath of any god, or insulting ancestors who watch over us. There is no positive reinforcement of loving and worshiping a god of any sort. It seems to me the only logical end result, following it to its conclusion, is to not care about anyone or anything besides yourself and your own benefit.

      Now, as I said, I know most atheists are not like that – but I think it's in spite of their atheism, not because of it. The simple fact is that humanity as a whole has a general idea of right and wrong, throughout history and around the world, which we cannot seem to get rid of, though we try pretty hard. Where does it come from? Christianity (in fact many religions) offers a much more satisfactory answer than atheism can.

      April 24, 2011 at 11:05 pm |
    • DK

      The "holy ghost" is another word for an active imagination.

      April 24, 2011 at 11:20 pm |
    • Elizabeth

      As one very early Christian who lived in the desert said, God is like a point of a compass. You cannot draw a perfect circle for an arch by piecing together the outside; the line will be wavy and the arch will fall. You must meditate on the center point. Atheism tries to draw a circle with a lot of little finite line segments (as calculus), and cannot complete the smooth line, because atheists cannot have any idea what infinity actually is. It is their very limitation that angers them; all the paradoxes that they cannot solve either by mathematics (proposing 11 dimensions) or by examining emotions (as they have no theory that explains the least thing about emotional health). They will not understand a heart-felt story, or its point, because they cannot see a point, or center. There are many modern problems in churches, because within the churches many do not follow God but their own schemes, but that in no way can deny the existence of God.

      April 25, 2011 at 12:46 am |
    • Q

      @Elizabeth – I have no idea what you're trying to say. Atheism is simply the rejection of god-belief in the face of no evidence. It is not pieced together from what is, but deduced from what isn't. The argument you make is much more befitting of theists who invoke any manner of subjective pieces to construct their beliefs, glued together with faith and preserved with a denial of contradictions by the fear of death and a vain promise of immortality.

      April 25, 2011 at 12:52 am |
    • TrueReality

      @Q – I think what Elizabeth means is that for a Christian, God is what we center our life on, what we use to make sure our moral compass is calibrated correctly. An atheist worldview doesn't permit any equivalent sort of spiritual anchor, leaving the person adrift, at the mercy of their own whims or other influences.

      Though in a way, atheism is not simply the rejection of belief; it takes faith too. Compare "I believe in God" to "I believe there is no god" – the common link between those two statements is "I believe". The most vocal atheists, like Richard Dawkins for example, show similar characteristics to the worst religious fundamentalists: he has consistently and publicly called religion a disease, said that atheists should not to respect others' beliefs, and equated parents giving their children religious upbringing with emotional abuse. Supposedly defending intellectual freedom, atheists are allowed to entertain any notion – except the possible existence of any higher power or anything beyond the material world, for which they would be loudly and viciously attacked by fellow believers in atheism. Though they often claim to advocate tolerance for everyone, they (as many of the comments on here show) are quite intolerant and hateful towards religion, especially Christianity. In contrast, people call Christianity an intolerant religion, but its most central tenet is that there is a God who is the epitome of love, to such a degree that He is willing to do anything for us, things He has created and who have in turn betrayed, insulted, and attacked to no end.

      April 25, 2011 at 9:24 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.