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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. Raj

    Reminds me of my experience of receiving the Holy Spirit. The gentleman still needs to continue on and obey the Word of God fully. Our Lord Jesus said in the gospel, JOHN 3:5-8:
    5 † Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
    6 † That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
    7 † Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.
    8 † The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.

    April 25, 2011 at 6:03 am |
  2. LEB

    You didn't experience the Holy Ghost, you imagined it. Kids have extremely powerful imaginations and frequently create false memories of people and events that never happened.

    Kids will also believe whatever grown-ups tell them is real, which is why most kids have to figure out for themselves that Santa Claus isn't real. Too bad not every kid has the same eventual realization about Jesus... but I suppose most wouldn't, considering that the adults are still fooled.

    April 25, 2011 at 4:52 am |
  3. L.R.

    When I was 12 years old, I had three very power "Mystical" (or "Holy Spirit") experiences that were similar to the author of this story. Each time that I experienced this powerful "Loving force", it gently possessed me for what seemed anywhere between 5 to 15 seconds. It filled my heart with such Love and Peace while at the same time it purified my personal spirit. I knew that it was a benevolent energy because it was so pure (clean) and yet so powerful and great. My life has never been the same since experiencing this "Pure, Loving, Force". If you are skeptical of my personal experience, please rest assure that I am not a "freak" or "crazy"; I am a sane. In addition, I am a graduate of one of the finest and most prestigious Universities in the United States.

    April 25, 2011 at 3:34 am |
  4. Matt

    We'll all see who's right and wrong in the end. I just know without a doubt that God always wins.

    April 25, 2011 at 2:19 am |
  5. WOT

    MAy God help this generation of air brain, who does not believe in the resurrection and life! There is no wonder America is in such a drug STATE!!!!

    April 25, 2011 at 2:05 am |
  6. Jeremy

    Many of the atheists posting on here seem to be highly vitriolic and intolerant of anyone who doesn't share their particular worldview. In this respect I find them little different than the Taliban.

    April 25, 2011 at 1:47 am |
  7. 20 Year Veggie

    The realization that this is all there is, that we are biological beings like all those around us, is too hard for most people to bear. I don't blame them for believing if they possibly can. Reconciling that you'll never see loved ones again, that no, horrible people are not punished for eternity in Hell, is a burden. I wish I could "faith" it away. I tried for years. I wanted to see my grandmother again. But it just isn't so. And not only can I not find a preponderance of evidence that it is, but I cannot even find so much as a shred. Many of the phenomena that are labeled "miracles" today will be explained eventually, just as that scary ball in the sky was, and just like seasons are, just like we figured out epilepsy wasn't possession by Satan. Honestly, I envy you people. But that doesn't change reality.

    Now, that being said, by and large, other atheists/agnostics I have met do MORE for the world they live in now, because their legacy is not a house on a street of gold, but how they contributed in their lives. Period.

    April 25, 2011 at 1:17 am |
  8. Truth101

    Although I disagree with you in some areas, I'm glad you shared your experience with the Holy Spirit. I'm sure their are many here who dont' understand God, and just like human nature, something they don't understand they deny it or fear it.
    I hope on this day everyone takes a few minutes and remember our Lord and Savior Jesus, one thing I don't understand is why nonbelievers are fast to judge us, Christians, and complain about our faith and are intolerant when it comes to God, yet on the other hand want us to be tolerant with them.
    Maybe they should take a lesson from the Good book and "do unto others as they want done unto them."

    April 25, 2011 at 1:06 am |
  9. Truthteller

    Although I disagree with you in some areas, I'm glad you shared your experience with the Holy Spirit. I'm sure their are many here who dont' understand God, and just like human nature, something they don't understand they deny it or fear it.
    I hope on this day everyone takes a few minutes and remember our Lord and Savior Jesus, one thing I don't understand is why nonbelievers are fast to judge us, Christians, and complain about our faith and are intolerant when it comes to God, yet on the other hand want us to be tolerant with them.
    Maybe they should take a lesson from the Good book and "do unto others as they want done unto them."
    God Bless.

    April 25, 2011 at 1:03 am |
  10. chris

    im not 100% sure if God is real or not but i believe so. I do know one thing for sure, in my experiences people with faith in God are better people. And many people who don't believe in God, do not want to, which is very strange to me.

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

      @Chris – I believe if you asked, you'd find many non-believers were once believers, but over time and through education and experience, they could no longer ignore the contradictions of their earlier belief systems. Once this skepticism took hold, many began to see that not only were the clothes invisible, but the emperor was equally absent.

      April 25, 2011 at 1:00 am |
    • tallulah13

      Chris, I have known wonderful people who call themselves christians, yet some of the worst people I've encountered also make that claim. I have known many wonderful people who are atheists, yet there are some I have encountered on the internet who are just plain jerks. Look at the person, not the faith, and you will get a truer picture of an individual's character.

      April 25, 2011 at 2:02 am |
  11. TrueReality

    I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into Hell. On the third day, He rose again from the dead. He ascended into the heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From thence He will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Christian Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.

    He is risen; alleluia! Happy Easter!

    April 25, 2011 at 12:48 am |
  12. An atheist

    That was a nice, touching story 🙂

    Thanks for writing it down.

    April 25, 2011 at 12:47 am |
  13. captainboss

    Thank you John for such a bold yet personal insight. I too had a loved one who made sure that I was raised up in the way which I should go. I would not trade my growing up in the black church and all the experiences for the world. It is that experience which led me to my relationship with Jesus Christ and sustained me during these perilious and evil times. Thank you for not hating on those who do not believe. That only generates and fuels strife which makes us all losers. Yes the Holy Ghost is real. Like a mighty rushing wind. Alive in the hearts of every believer.

    April 25, 2011 at 12:18 am |
  14. Timothy Ryan Richardson

    It's a shame how people have done nothing but bash our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I will Pray for each and everyone of you and I Pray that Jesus comes into your Hearts. Jesus teaches nothing but Love, while Satan teaches nothing but hate. That's whats happening to each and everyone of you, Satan is teaching you lies. He's Brainwashing you, we need to bring GOD and show ALL Glory to the one true GOD. I won't rest until I bring GOD back into our Country. GOD BLESS YOU ALL!

    April 25, 2011 at 12:04 am |
    • Zach

      If you pray for me, I'll think for you. Deal?

      April 25, 2011 at 3:57 am |
  15. Jeremy Toponce

    It's sad that man thinks he knows all. We are nothing without Heavenly Father and Jesus. They talk to our hearts and minds through the Holy Ghost. Pride keeps us from hearing.

    April 24, 2011 at 11:59 pm |
  16. Jack

    No matter what the story shows all of us the power on one person. One person with so much love and faith that it changed this man's life for the good of all of us. I would welcome a moment like that in my life,

    April 24, 2011 at 11:55 pm |
    • Carol

      I agree with you, I hope for the same thing. I am at a place in my life where I need to believe that there is something greater than ourselves because this world has become so bitter and divided that I need an intervention by a greater power. As a former catholic, I really need to believe that GOD exist and that doing the right thing in this world is still the moral and ethical way of life.

      April 25, 2011 at 1:46 am |
  17. Goddog

    Debating religion among friends is sketchy at best... why try it with complete strangers? People believe whatever they want to believe. Just keep your reality to yourselves and all will be OK. You pray for me... I pity you. There, we're even.

    I personally don't know how you can call Christianity a religion. They can't even agree amongst themselves. If the Bible is the instruction manual for the soul, you're all screwed. When I build my coffee table from Ikea, it will look just like some guy's half way around the world. Christianity looks different within a one mile radius.

    April 24, 2011 at 11:43 pm |
  18. DoodleSheep

    You didn't get the holy spirit, you fell victim to the mass hysteria and delusion of the group. You're all wrong, but that's what happened.

    April 24, 2011 at 11:28 pm |
  19. DK

    The holy ghost is just another word for an active imagination. What a surprise that a bunch of old ladies feel over themselves in church. It's like all the kids each year that swear they hear Santa Clause on the roof. Cute in kids.. but pathetic for adults.

    April 24, 2011 at 11:26 pm |
    • samurai_lincoln

      Wow that's a great analogy one of the best I've ever heard. Some of these comments are making me laugh hard; some are just emphasizing what an incredible loose grasp of reality and rationality they have. I've also seen people on those conspiracy/ufo websites who truly believe the government secretly has and uses a stargate for intergalactic travel like in stargate SG1.. It goes to show you there will always be a great deal of people in the world who display certain traits that make them more susceptible to all sorts of beliefs whether it's religion or some other belief. Regardless it doesn't matter what you write here, I'd bet money that an infintesimal number of them get more than a sentence into an alternate viewpoint.

      April 25, 2011 at 3:20 am |
  20. free thinker

    One day I stood by an ant hill and listened as they debated my existance. Some said that they worshiped the human. Another group said they didn't know if the human was real or not. Then a third group who called themselves ahumans called me a myth and made fun of the rest of the ants for not being as intelligent and enlightened as they were. All the ants had gathered inside the footprint beside the anthill that I had left. Stupid unbelieving ants.

    April 24, 2011 at 11:23 pm |
    • BJ

      if you did not speak in tongues as the scripture has said (Acts 2:1-4), then you did not receive the Holy Ghost. The Holy Ghost comes with the evidence of speaking in an unknown tongue.

      April 24, 2011 at 11:59 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.