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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. realworld95

    Renee, very well put. It's refreshing to read your posts. Love to see a Bold Christian who loves GoD and is willing to stand up for his Holy name surely he will remember you when you come into his kingdom. God bless you and yours for taking a stand

    April 26, 2011 at 2:52 am |
  2. cyberCMDR

    There will always be those who believe what they were raised to believe, regardless of any amount of proof to the contrary. They gain far more from steadfastly sticking to beliefs that provide a framework for their lives than giving consideration to any contradictory evidence. You're not going to change their minds, because by the rules of existence they accept the contrary evidence is by definition wrong. With God all things are possible, therefore He can have "made things look that way to test our faith". This is why science and religion can not overlap, because religious beliefs are inherently untestable.

    April 26, 2011 at 12:40 am |
  3. fsmgroupie

    Casper!! come out and play!

    April 26, 2011 at 12:11 am |
  4. sue17

    This is for CNN. I was highly offended by the David Koresh/Waco story the night before Easter. The story was interesting but couldn't you have shown it at another time? There are a lot more stories you could have done that would have been a POSITIVE Christian story. I am so repulsed by the Waco story before Easter I can't even turn on CNN. I think your network purposely did the story at that time as an anti chistian message.

    April 25, 2011 at 11:58 pm |
  5. Melvin

    One thing i love about God is that he gives us free will. So i can get on this blog and say, "YOU ALL NEED TO BELIEVE IN GOD"...thats your own decision. My job is to show you the way, and its up to you to make the decision. But as ive already said to a few people. If i am wrong, when i die , that will be the end. No heaven, no hell. ANd i would have lived a life being "hopeful" and encouraging people to live better lives just as Ive tried. OKAY!! BUt if YOU who do not believe is wrong...WHat is your fate?

    All im gonna say is, I use to question God. But quite frankly i cant look at this world without seeing God at work. If we understood everything about him, or why he does the things that he do, or why he allows certain things to happen, then why would he be worthy to be called God? We wouldnt need him then.

    My prayers are with you all.

    Melvin

    April 25, 2011 at 11:36 pm |
    • fsmgroupie

      get on your knees and beg for forgiveness of the sin i created you with or burn in hell for billions of years . i give you free will so make your choise. ha ha ha haaaaah

      April 26, 2011 at 12:18 am |
  6. john leddy

    the catholic priest says"this is my body" and a piece of bread becomes the creator of the universe!!! all these man made religions are pure myth.

    April 25, 2011 at 10:31 pm |
  7. Iqbal khan

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UhsWc41qPb0&NR=1

    April 25, 2011 at 10:09 pm |
    • Ruhlmann

      Swaggart is out of his depth against this man. He all but called him an a$$ directly. Ahamed Deedat is an intellectual and interesting whereas Swaggart is a preachy bumpkin. I am not a believer in their god but simple human respect is the first vital componant of debate. Thank you Iqbal, I was off to bed but now I have to watch the series. Adieu

      April 26, 2011 at 1:56 am |
  8. Gail

    I loved your story about faith and love. I loved that your Aunt meant so much to you and that you were touched by God.

    April 25, 2011 at 6:50 pm |
  9. kyu o kim

    Based on the article, it is clear that the author (John Blake) himself never made a conscious effort to believe in Christ but received the Holy Spirit just as he had decided to forsake the Lord forever. I wonder if John Blake has ever considered that Christ has always been in him, not just from birth, from the very beginning of time; that he (Blake) is not of this world; that he has Christ's DNA in him; that he is one of the "sons of the kingdom" as explained in Matthew 13:38.

    April 25, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
  10. Josie

    You want proof that a God/Creator exists...walk outside, look in the mirror, it's all around you. It's joy, peace, hope and faith..through the good and the bad times. There has to be something on the other side when we finally move on, because if not, the people I have lost in my life wouldn't be there anymore...and that I can't live with!

    April 25, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
  11. Reshapethehumancondition

    Believing in yourself is the hardest thing for most people to believe in.

    April 25, 2011 at 6:07 pm |
  12. Obadiah

    And so what is the point of proving that there is or isn't God? If you prove through science that there isn't a God what peace will it bring you for the remainder of the time that you are here on this Earth? If I believe that there is a God and live my life giving thanks for His grace and loving my neighbor as myself, what harm do I bring you? If you prove that there is no God and therefore no need to love my neighbor as myself...but instead I should treat people anyway I chose and not worry about eternal consequences, have you won your argument? Have you proved your point if everyone simply did things that were pleasing in their own sight? I personally would not like to live in that world. If the belief in God helps man to act and behave civilized then why would it be criticized? If belief in a Declaration of Independence helps an individual to behave civilized then why would it be criticized? Why is a burden of proof necessary if the belief does more good than harm?

    April 25, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
    • mrspansas

      Well said...There are many mysteries in life and after death that cannot be explained. God is in control...

      April 25, 2011 at 6:21 pm |
  13. EMERSE

    I think 90% of the people who freak out and roll on the ground a church because they "got the holy ghost" are putting on a show or need their heads checked! You believe in a false sense of hope, fine. Have fun! Its just like the people who see ghost when no one else was around! Im at the point where I really don't think there is a god. I have studied the bible but I was also born with a little thing called commen sense too. A sense of reality! It is human nature to need something to believe in and to need a reason to be. Religion is also a really good way to control people so they live well and not run around like nuts! To live a Christian life style is to live well and there is nothing wrong with that. The problem is, you will never really know if there is a god until you die and to me that is wong. If I am really going to base my whole life and life stlye on something, real proof is not to much to ask. Then again, that is why we are told to "believe" and have "faith" Those are cheap words for something that contains no proof.

    April 25, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
    • Melvin

      Hey Emerse,

      I know how you feel because i use to be you. But one thing that i came to realize was that, as i looked at the earth and how intricate (misspelled that i think lol) it is, how things work in nature, and finally when I looked at how intricate our bodies are and how they opporate, i knew that there was a God. You cant tell me that everything thing that i know, and everything that i am is not a work of GOD. WHen i look at my daughter I see Gods work at hand. When you dismiss God, you are actually saying that everything that this world is....happened by chance. Please, Please, Please re-evaluate what youve said. Because it really boils down to these facts: If im wrong, I will have lived a life with "false hope" that helped push me to be a better person and when i die i will no longer exist and thats the end....but what happens if your wrong....PLEASE THINK ABOUT THAT.

      Much love and respect to you,

      MELVIN

      April 25, 2011 at 11:11 pm |
  14. steve billings

    Mr. Blake, this is your testimony. Thank you for being like those in your article, those who had the courage to share. Only people who have experienced what you felt, can understand.

    April 25, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
  15. Nancy Celano

    submitted this morning

    April 25, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
  16. Grace

    Come on fellow believers – let's be loving and kind on this board as well as any other and not hurl insults at people. That isn't a demonstration of Christ's sacrifice on the cross for our sins. Maybe I'm wrong, but I certainly didn't accept Jesus because someone told me that I was dumb or a myriad of other things that have been said out here.

    To those seeking proof – can I ask if God doesn't exist then why do you need proof? I mean if it's all made up then what is the harm or benefit of believing it? Isn't it only if God does exist that it matters? Just a question to chew on.

    April 25, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
    • EMERSE

      A false sense of hope or a reason for being here in the first place.

      April 25, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
    • mrspansas

      Amen!!!

      April 25, 2011 at 6:12 pm |
    • Jimmy James

      Grace, there is no harm in the belief of it as long as that said belief doesn't effect the lives of people who do not believe. Such as the issue for gay marriage. The belief is the harm and the forcing of said beliefs on people who are doing the believers absolutely no harm is in and of itself dangerous and vile.

      April 26, 2011 at 12:03 am |
    • Jimmy James

      affect*

      April 26, 2011 at 12:03 am |
  17. Andrew Rourke

    Thank you for sharing. Very moving.

    April 25, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
  18. jj

    An impoverished neighborhood within walking distance of a mall? What was she doing walking children home from there at night?

    April 25, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
    • Will

      Probably Mondawmin Mall, which is in an impoverished area of West Baltimore. Let's just say you won't find a Nordstrom's or Abercrombie there.

      April 25, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
  19. Caliban

    "The author (foreground, age 7), his late aunt, Sylvia Blake (left) and other family members outside their Baltimore church."

    Wow, you didn't even have a chance, got you young and brainwashed the living hell out of you. But I am sure they exposed you to a few other religions simultaneously so you could make an informed decision when you grew up. Right?
    We both know the answer, no. Most children are the same religion as their parents, get em while they are young and impressionable. Get kids to believe in things like Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, maybe even the Easter Bunny, storks delivering babies and after that getting them to believe in some super-being overlord (without proof) is easy as pie.
    The other 5,000 gods people worshiped since human existence are all fakes right, only your is real. LMAO

    April 25, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
    • Doug

      Now here is an original post!

      April 25, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
    • Ron

      Yes he is real. Thousands of years of scriptures will tell you that. When you die I hope you will come back for a day and tell us what hell was like, before you return there.

      April 25, 2011 at 5:58 pm |
    • Mark

      You think christianity is the only religion with thousands of years of scripture? I'd go do some research.

      April 25, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
    • Rich

      LMAO? I feel sorry for a person as lost as you. One day you will come to know God. All paths lead there, regardless of the name of the religion, LMAO.

      April 25, 2011 at 7:57 pm |
    • bob

      everyone always has a chance to change they're mind and often people do. most non believers say they have no reason to blieve God exists but all of us has some sort of encounter that makes us question ourself. in a nut shell God always gives us reason to believe. its up to us wether to trust us or not.

      April 25, 2011 at 8:27 pm |
  20. KidCanada

    Sounds more like stress and a panic attack, but that's just logic talking!

    April 25, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
    • Messenger

      For those of you who came here to the Comments section expecting to see a more encouraging side of society, not the ubiquitous hollowness and hate that abides; I ask you, "Why do seek the living among the dead?"

      April 25, 2011 at 6:09 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.