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. Maa_daie

    Really enjoyed the article. Very inspirational!

    May 9, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
  2. EJ Jennings

    Thanks for sharing, great story! I think its awesome that non-religious people read the religious blog. Makes you wonder if you're looking for something? Nobody, and I mean NOBODY except for God will be able to ever prove anything to you. Its all about love! Its the feeling of love, hope, and a future. It's very hard to prove or explain Love. Atheist, if you have kids, I'm sure you love them. How can you prove to me that love exists between you and your kids? Can scientist prove it?

    O another note, say for instance non of this was real? But people still believed in something that gave them a peace, a hope, and just pure happiness until they died. Why would you want to take that away from them? Why would you want to kill their joy? Why wouldn't you want their joy? Why bring them down to your level?

    Please don't get me wrong, I respect everyone's beliefs and I love real non-combative discussion. But why do so many non-believers hate it when believers try to convince them otherwise. However, they're doing the same exact thing. Non-Believers is a religion itself and it should be recognized as that. You are religious.

    May 9, 2011 at 10:19 am |
  3. Stuart Dauermann

    Despite those who might find this story laughable or objectionable in some way, I am convinced that the night time experience was a Divine visitation. The author deftly and economically expresses the essence of such an encounter with the numinous Presence of Christ. I know of others for whom his language perfectly describes transformational encounters of their own with the Risen Nazarene. Thank you for being so transparent, It took integrity, courage and faith.

    May 8, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
  4. Lee

    Beautiful story, beautifully told. Thank you! And let me add that for those of us who have had Near Death experiences, or Near Death-like experiences, your experience with the Loving Presence in the Light is entirely familiar. It was definitely not your imagination. For those of you who are interested, check out the phenomena of near death experiences. Even science is beginning to acknowledge that life may exist beyond the physical. How cool is that?!

    May 8, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
  5. Fritz Hohenheim

    You can't get no holy ghost without being hit by Pastor Benny Hill's holy jacket and sowing a $1000 seed of faith! Get it through your head! You may be twisting and twitching but Jesus aint gonna send you a miwacle without you paying his preach first! Amen!

    May 6, 2011 at 8:12 pm |
  6. delano j sheffield

    I wish I had time to see how the dialog went from a guy sharing his story about the Grace of God in a family member to the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics.

    Hold To Truth http://www.holdtotruth.com

    May 5, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
  7. writingmomma

    This was a warming, inspirational story. Thank you for sharing your experience with us. There may be babes in Christ that don't fully understand what is happening to them. Yet, God has allowed you to not be ashamed of His Gospel and give them the "Good News." Again, thank you for sharing. Also, pick up "Come Walk In My Lost Shoes," This is another awesome story.

    May 5, 2011 at 9:21 am |
  8. nastafara rastafara

    good writing skills. your aunt should be proud. please inspire more....i wish such writing would be compiled into books and shared with african kids....

    May 5, 2011 at 4:13 am |
  9. tChron

    Thanks for sharing.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:36 pm |
  10. Roy

    I believe with all my heart in the Lord Jesus and His sacrifice at Calvary. For all you people asking proof of God's existence, all i can say is that you will see with your own eyes when He comes back the second time. Whether you believe in Him or not now, you will bow you knee and confess with you mouth that Jesus is the Lord. But alas, there is a problem with doing that then – it will be too late and you will go straight to hell while people like Linda and a few other wonderful Christians who wrote posted comments here will go up to heaven.

    Remember all this rubbish you have written here (and obviously spoken elsewhere) denying God's existence and holding on to stupid human (and so called scientific) logic in your pea sized brains. You will be accountable for every word you have spoken. A time will come and very soon when you will regret what you have said, but then it will be too late.

    Repent and be saved by believing in Jesus. He is coming soon!!

    May 4, 2011 at 11:20 pm |
    • James Harold Adams III

      I was reborn on April 17, 2011 and since then God has really been dealing with me and allowing me to see this world, it seems, through new eyes. I never noticed just how corrupt this world is and backwards. I really do pray that everyone can receive the same vision as me and my fellow brothers and sisters of Christ. Because one day you'll see the Sun crashing down before your eyes, and that wil be the day that you finally realize that it's over.

      May 9, 2011 at 1:13 am |
  11. R Edwards

    I think athiest have to have a lot of faith not to believe in God. If they are right & there is no God nothing happens, you just die. But you die & there is a God, You have everything to lose. So I think athiest are real brave people.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:11 pm |
    • Helpful Henry

      R. Edwards,

      1) Just in case you are feeling comfortable... what if you have chosen the wrong god? Allah, Ra, Vishnu, Zeus, Thor and many of the tens of thousands of others will not go easy on you if you haven't chosen them.

      2) What if the real god prefers and rewards people who use their minds to actually think, instead of blindly following old myths.

      3) It's 'atheist' ... and the plural is 'atheists'.

      May 4, 2011 at 11:25 pm |
    • Chuck

      Helpful Henry,
      Just in case you are feeling comfortable, that same list of Gods, plus one, would theoretically have you under the same scrutiny, would they not? Should your defense be your theory that there is no God, consider the 2nd law of thermodynamics (increasing entropy) which clearly illustrates that all order descends toward chaos. In other words, this this established law is the exact opposite of the theory of evolution. The only other possibility is that life is the result of intelligent design. I agree, it takes far greater faith to be an atheist than to recognize the obvious fact that there is a God. And, by the way, he loves you.

      May 5, 2011 at 5:32 am |
    • Paul

      Hey Chuck, Go back to your high school science book before spouting off about the second law of thermodynamics. Entropy increases in a CLOSED system getting no additional energy. We have been recording energy for 3 billion years. Look outside and look up. It's a big round yellow ball called the sun. Energy can drive complexity upward....e.g. Evolution.

      May 5, 2011 at 9:13 am |
    • Golyadkin

      Chuck's science classes consisted entirely of youtube creationist videos.

      May 5, 2011 at 10:47 pm |
    • kells

      you call that bravery, i call it stupidity because an atheist saying there is no God means there is no humanity which is bizzare.

      May 6, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
  12. JustKammie

    To each it's own. I respect everyone's religion, whether I agree with it or not. Besides, nothing will ever be agreed when it comes to religion or politics.

    May 4, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
  13. TheOracle8191

    Amen and God bless you brother!!

    May 4, 2011 at 12:53 pm |

    I respect everybody's opinion of religion, but no matter how you feel you can not tell me my testimony is fake. 4 months ago i was an active gang member sinning everyday from when i woke up to when i fell asleep. I went to church one Sunday and the holy spirit hit me..I've since given myself to God and accepted Jesus as my savior..I have to say the passed 3 months have been wonderful and peaceful..when you believe you can achieve...all because I NOW have faith...You can say there is no God..but he has turned my life around full circle...

    May 4, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
    • JesusLives

      Amen BornAgain!!!!! I rejoice with you! Glory be to God in the highest!!!

      May 5, 2011 at 9:43 am |
  15. Dowtin Thomas

    The Holy Spirit reminds me of The Emporer's new clothes. You can only trully understand the bible if the Holy Spirit is in you. So to belong we do what everyone else is doing in their church. To deny the Holy Ghost existance is to say that the emporer is naked.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:00 am |
    • Felix Estrada

      Dowtin... If i remember the story well, the emperor WAS NAKED. Real Christianity does not get involved with mind games, it is the true and only true, in spite of the mind games that attract those who do not stick to the word of God. 2Th 2:7-11 For the mystery of lawlessness doth already work: only there is one that restraineth now, until he be taken out of the way.
      And then shall be revealed the lawless one, whom the Lord Jesus shall slay with the breath of his mouth, and bring to nought by the manifestation of his coming; even he, whose coming is according to the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders, and with all deceit of unrighteousness for them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this cause God sendeth them a working of error, that they should believe a lie:

      May 4, 2011 at 9:53 pm |
  16. Believer4ever

    This story is very touching and made me smile. Arguing over the existence of God, takes away from the heart of the story IMO. The bible already tells us that the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18). And in 2 Thess 2:9-12, that " The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with how Satan works. He will use all sorts of displays of power through signs and wonders that serve the lie, and all the ways that wickedness deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness. " Atheists are under a powerful delusion, brought on by their unwillingness to first accept the truth and the law of God. Only God himself can remove the scales from their eyes, and lift the veil which blinds them from the truth. If I am friendly with someone who is atheist, and they are welcome to open, conversation, then I try to pass a message on. Otherwise, I leave them to God, and hope that God will reveal the truth to them. Otherwise, they may feel attacked or that you are trying to indoctrinate them. The true work of a christian, as a light in a world of darkness, is to teach the gospel of Christ to those who have fallen into sin or don't know about God. It is to show them a way to Christ. To those who blaspheme God and say he isn't real or is a sky god, they have already rebuked the message. This will only turn into a fight about who's wrong or right. And may even invoke anger instead of productivity. What I don't get, is why they come to religious blogs, if they are atheists? It's very hard to convince someone who's had a personal experience with God that he isn't real. So I hope that isn't the objective. Perceptions of God as a delusion or false idea will increase as we get closer to Christ' return. People give credit to evolutionary science for this new surge in atheism, but didn't we have evolutionary science in the 90's? Americans seemed to be more theistic then. We're shifting into the time period warned about in the bible.

    May 4, 2011 at 2:15 am |
    • writingmomma

      AlI can say to this is, AMEN!!!

      May 5, 2011 at 9:23 am |
    • Veronica

      I second that Amen! And for those non-believers who continue to rely solely on the scientific theories of creation, ie evolution, take a look at "Unlocking the Mysteries of Creation" it disproves every scientific theory that attempts to take the glory of this earth from God...He is real and I refuse to argue it with anyone. I will continue to be the light Jesus asked me to be and live the life that He calls for us to live. I've seen divine miracles, and even if I didn't my faith holds everything in the Bible to be true. Thank you Jesus!

      June 12, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
  17. Teresa

    What a beautiful testimony to your Aunt's love for God, you, and your brother! She demonstrated what God's love really looks like in human form. Thank you for sharing such an intimate part of your life!

    May 3, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
  18. Gr8isHE

    Beautiful testimony John Blake! God always knows just what we need to comfort and encourage us.

    May 3, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
  19. jj

    I ain't afraid of no ghosts!

    May 3, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
  20. Ana Ballas

    So beautiful thanks for sharing. I was ACCEPTED on a dream. I woke up a different person – happy, emotionally healed, an undescribable joy that could only come from our Heavenly Father. In my dream, I was entering a hotel through revolving doors, I could sense a lot of people but saw no one, it was a bright sunny day, perfect – as I entered there was a sign with capital, bold letter that read "ACCEPTED." I had this dream during a period of my life when I was wondering about my relationship with God and Jesus, thinking that God could not forgive me for past sins.

    May 3, 2011 at 2:32 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.