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. Suzanne

    He says: A series of remarkable coincidences took place in my life. That is the Holy Spirit working in his life right there not coincidences!. The Holy Spirit works in many different ways but always to the longterm good of believers and also to promote the Gospel.

    April 25, 2011 at 10:35 am |
  2. inkydj4

    What a joke religion is.People will say that he allowed his son to endure extreme torture and death to save us,and in the same breath call him just and mercyfull.Give me a break.That's like calling Jack the Ripper an great butcher because he was handy with a knife.

    April 25, 2011 at 10:27 am |
  3. inkydj4

    What a joke religion is.People will say that he allowed his son to endure torture an death,and in the same breath call him mercyfull.I wellcome any posters who want to debate the issue.

    April 25, 2011 at 10:22 am |
  4. Ava

    Thank you for sharing your story.

    April 25, 2011 at 10:03 am |
  5. Rich

    You can't even begin to imagine how silly this reads when you believe there is no god. So you got caught up in the excitement of the moment and got frightened of it? And hide from church for over a decade? Astounding.

    April 25, 2011 at 9:56 am |
  6. Weston

    Every time in the new testament that miraculous experiences happened, they were to faithful and sincere believers. God doesn't force you to believe, and this would be tantamount to that.

    The age of miracles is over, as Paul said: Where there are tongues they shall cease, for I know in part and prophesy in part but when that which is perfect shall come, that which is in part shall be done away.

    The bible in written form heralded the end of the age of miracles.

    April 25, 2011 at 9:51 am |
  7. John Marshall

    How come its ok to have " black churches " and not ok to have " white churches "? Nobody addresses racism from blacks. Until that distinction is gone from those supposed Christian churches, I wouldnt call those churches " Christian ".

    April 25, 2011 at 9:27 am |
  8. Greg s

    The holy Spirit never gives up on us I had similar exp. Similar in that the first time it happened I denied it, the second time a few years later I accepted it. The funny thing is a few yeas later in talking to my brother It hit him on the same day at the same service it hit me the second time. Talking in tongues is not a requirement or proof of the holy spirits presence. Ive seen it, I believe it, But I feel in some churches its exaggerated, especially when that church uses speaking in toughs as proof of your salvation, There lies a really big problem.

    April 25, 2011 at 9:14 am |
  9. Bud

    If there was "nothing" before the Bang, then what exactly went "bang?" And please, be scientifically specific and don't generalize.

    April 25, 2011 at 9:06 am |
    • Nonimus

      Technically nothing went "bang" as there was no gas / no sound (although I wonder if there was a vibration in the early universe analogous to sound.) But if you are asking what expanded, I think the theory specifies that a singularity expanded. A singularity being a point of infinite gravitation. The technical details of what is a singularity, however, are beyond my knowledge and might require extended study and research.

      April 25, 2011 at 10:24 am |
    • Veritas

      Then who creaeted the creator.....it is a two way street.....

      April 25, 2011 at 10:24 am |
  10. Sean

    I believe in God. I even do my best to thank him every day that I'm allowed to wake up and be with my family. I don't however go to church. I don't believe in church and I don't believe that I need to go to church in order to go to heaven. In that same respect I also do not believe in these "moments" that people all over the world seem to have where they "see" God or and angel or get "the Holy Ghost" or whatever it's called. Maybe it's because I personally have never even come close to anything like that but I just don't believe in them.

    I get a kick out of reading stories such as this one though. I mean I'm sure that the person recounting the story experienced something as far as they are concerned. I just don't believe it was real.

    April 25, 2011 at 8:56 am |
  11. The Word

    Awesome testamony !. So many people are uncomfortable and unwilling to accept what is happening through a God experience. I was the same way, those crazy Jesus freaks, I did not want anything to do with them. It does not stop God from completing His purposes. I can only imagine all the prayers that his aunt prayed for him and his brother. I can only imagine all the other people she has helped out of compassion and mercy learned and given from the Holy Spirit. The best conversion story is in the bible the apostle Paul. He did all he could to destroy the believers in the early church. Then God showed up with the same mercy he shows us all. What caused such a great change in some one so contrary to the faith? In one moment this zealous jew changed course. The things he went through for that faith yet never waivered, against all odds to help people know, understand what God gave him.The reasons people rant and rave so much are inumerable, but if that heart/soul will but open to Christ all doubt is washed away with knowing God is real! His love is real! Jesus did die for us, to save us from hell.

    April 25, 2011 at 8:51 am |
  12. Nancy Celano

    When people do not understand something they tend not to believe, and, nothing is more profound than belief in God. The perfection of the universe-the planets, sun, stars, comets, black holes, etc.-is awesome. It has taken centuries for scientists to discover and understand even the existence of these things. All this just didn't " happen". Only a Supreme Being could have created everything.

    Ponder the perfection of the human body. There are many separate systems, each with its own functions. Each system can still affect another system. We did not slither out of slime. Only God could have created such perfection.

    Look at nature. Each seed knows what it should grow into. Some plants need sun, some need shade, some a little bit of both. But, every living thing needs water. Water is composed of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. Any deviation and it is not water. Who but God could have created this perfect thing-water?

    Therefore, we are not required to understand everything. After all, we are not divine. Even the most educated scientists will never learn all there is to know about the world and humanity. There is only one God, and, it is much easier to just believe than it is to question everything.

    April 25, 2011 at 8:47 am |
    • Nonimus

      @Nancy Celano,

      "...the universe-the planets, sun, stars, comets, black holes, etc.-is awesome."
      I whole-heartedly agree; it is awesome. And, I can understand how the beauty, complexity, and grandure of nature enhances your belief in God. How the more we learn, the more amazed you are with God.

      However, why do you stop your appreciation of (His) nature at this point: "We did not slither out of slime"? Everything in nature so far as we know says that we evovled from previous species in a wonderful, complex, and beautiful process that all life goes through. Why deny what (His) nature tells us?

      April 25, 2011 at 10:13 am |
  13. munkittrick

    Does anyone else find the underlined humor in the line "suddenly, something seemed to slip inside of me" while in the context of religion just a bit to Freudian for normal digestion?


    Just me then?


    April 25, 2011 at 8:40 am |
  14. Pastor Carlton Evans

    I'm going to help some of you. Religion originates from the Devil and is practiced by many decieved people, but Relationship originates from God and is practiced by the few true believers who are filled with His Spirit!!!

    April 25, 2011 at 8:13 am |
  15. Carlton

    It's amazing how all the things happening throughout the world right now, the Bible clearly talks about and people still don't believe. Wow!!! Not really too surprising though because Jesus Christ performed many miracles right before the eyes of many and they didn't believe either.

    April 25, 2011 at 8:10 am |
  16. Pastor Carlton Evans

    Only a "FOOL" says in his/ her herart that there is no God. The Holy Ghost is the gift of power and authority to the one who chooses to believe that Jesus Christ is the only begotten Son of God. The evidence of the existed of the Holy Ghost is speakin with diverse tongues. I know a lot of you don't believe this, but keep on living and sooner or later you'll find out this is real and is from God.

    April 25, 2011 at 8:05 am |
    • In Reason I Trust

      "Fool" huh? When I start publicly speaking in gibberish and expect others to still take me seriously then you can call me a fool.

      April 25, 2011 at 8:11 am |
    • StoopidIzAzStoopidDuz

      If that is what you think all Christians do, then you are completely ignorant. I think people look foolish doing that too, but that certainly doesn't mean I don't believe in God or the Holy Ghost. It strikes people differently, I guess.

      April 25, 2011 at 8:39 am |
  17. Anna

    What a beautiful account of your faith journey. And kudos for the courage you showed to share it with the public. I know it will make an impression on others in their own journeys, as it has on me. God has clearly gifted you with the talent of writing, as well.

    April 25, 2011 at 7:37 am |
  18. Randy


    I love how believers think we Atheists are narcissists and pompous. Yet people likeYOU say "No need to respond, you are already forgiven". Well, how about the fact that I'm not looking for forgiveness, at least from some God that I don't believe in? I've researched plenty about religions, and the only one I actually believe in is Buddhism, since Buddha himself did NOT want to be revered as a God. He merely had found a way of life that could minimize suffering while helping others. So are all you Christians going to tell me that I won't be "saved" because I don't believe in Jesus as son of God??


    April 25, 2011 at 7:34 am |
    • May

      Exactly Randy. God gave us His son that we might know Him. God is a loving and merciful God, if we but open our hearts a mere crack, He will find a way to draw us closer to Him.

      April 25, 2011 at 8:02 am |
    • STBV

      To asnwer your last question, ummm YES. Buddah was just a guy- he's deal. The tomb of Jesus is empty and is true Son of God- NOT just a man. Read the Bible- the only truth. This is why people had such angry and fearful responses to the Bible and it's message. It's powerful. However, you should be focues on where you will spend eternity. Get prepared.

      April 25, 2011 at 8:03 am |
    • S.W.A.G.tested

      Sir I think it's awesome you stick to your guns man....anybody who believes in anything should stand firm to it. Can I ask what you mean when you said you researched many different religions? Does that mean you skimmed through them all or did you actually try to live by the ways you read about and then come to a conclusion it was a load of bull? I'm asking truly because I took the approach with Christianity to "research" it meaning I read the scriptures and decided to try them whole heartedly to prove God was a scham and so was His Christ...only problem was...He's not a scham and Christ is real. I use this anaolgy a lot concerning the gospel...we didn't know atoms, protons, neutrons, electrons...and all of these things existed...we theorized that they could before somebody invented an instrument that could be used to see them...same with the stars and galaxies and planets we're now finding...there had to be a telescope made powerful enough to see them otherwise it's a figment of our hope or belief but can't be proven without the proper tool to see it. God works the same way...you won't see or believe anything concerning Him until you look with the proper tool...which is faith. You don't have to have faith initially at all because I had none...My approach was ok Christ is supposed to be the all and all for this religion so I'll start by trying to do what it is He's saying and when it doesn't work then I can tell the whole world to pop their bottles and prepare the birth control and condoms THERE IS NO GOD!!!!!

      Problem was the opposite happened...you don't need faith initially to find out about Him...if you read the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) I read Matthew and then try it without judgement...He will reveal Himself to you in terms you will recognize and understand for your personal style. That's a promise from someone who experienced it. I can only tell you my honest experience...believe it or not I can understand your line of thinking because I came from it...but my life changed when He showed He existed to me

      April 25, 2011 at 8:11 am |
    • hopeforusyet

      Sorry Randy,but I would have to say yes. The Bible makes it perfectly clear those who deny Christ will be denied by Christ before God. The only way to heaven is accepting Jesus Christ as your Savior and repenting of and turning away from your sins. Just being a good person isn't gonna get ya there.

      April 25, 2011 at 8:52 am |
    • Randy

      Guys, I copied and paster Runner's comment and responded with 'Yes'. I'm not in any doubt of my salvation and who the one true God is. I know the consequences of not accepting Jesus as the Son of God, that is why I have accepted Him as that and as my saviour.

      April 25, 2011 at 8:59 am |
    • Pumbaa

      Randy, they will tell you that in a minute. I had a Southern Baptist "minister" tell me that I was going to hell because I told him I was a Methodist. I figured I had better not tell him that I was a Buddhist or I would never get away from him preaching to me.

      April 25, 2011 at 9:11 am |
    • Pumbaa

      Randy runner305, they will tell you that in a minute. I had a Southern Baptist "minister" tell me that I was going to hell because I told him I was a Methodist. I figured I had better not tell him that I was a Buddhist or I would never get away from him preaching to me.

      April 25, 2011 at 9:15 am |
    • Veganman

      Thank you Randy for being a voice of REASON amongst the sheep.

      April 25, 2011 at 10:02 am |
  19. Robin

    Thank you John Blake for sharing your beautiful story with the public. What lovely memories of your preious aunt.

    April 25, 2011 at 7:19 am |
  20. angelarnold

    I do not agree with the some of the posters saying that just because he did not speak in tongue he did NOT receive the Holy Ghost!! I do not believe that God would say....you didn't speak in tongues so you must no blieve in me....
    so because of that you cannot get into heavan...I have never read that in MY KJV BIBLE...

    April 25, 2011 at 6:23 am |
    • S.W.A.G.tested

      Lol you don't believe because it's not true...not everybody has to speak in tongues to receieve the Holy Ghost Paul layed out all of the gifts of the spirit throughout his gospels in specific 1 Corinthians 12, some speak in tongues, some interpret tongues....others have gifts of helps(help the overall ministry to keep all issues from staying on leadership...ushering would be an example, or the hospitality ministry), etc. The way you know you received the Holy Spirit is when you know you believe...simple as that...when you believe Jesus in the Son of God and not only did He die to have His perfect life cover our sins, but most importantly He rose proving He was the Son of God. If you believe a Jesus, a physical man, rose from the dead in the flesh...then you are a Christian...if you don't...faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God.

      To be clear I agree with you I'm just adding on to your comment

      April 25, 2011 at 8:00 am |
    • OurGodsAreAliens

      Anyone speaking in " tongues " is full of STUFF anyways.

      April 25, 2011 at 9:01 am |
    • Religious sects

      My Mother has studied "really studied" many religions, almost converted to Judaism, practiced rituals of celebration of 5 mainstream religions and along the way gained the ability to speak in tongues..it's creepy to witness. Now after all of her studies & experience she settled as an Atheist and still retains the ability to speak in tongues. She can't explain it & doesn't know what she is saying (if anything) but this ability has nothing to do with religious connection & is simply a function of the human brain.

      April 25, 2011 at 10:18 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.