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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. LAURA

    John, I was touched at hearing your testimony. I agree with you..The shouting always has been hard for me to swallow but it has been part of the black church and Ive learned to accept it for what it is. I however prefer quieter moments with the Lord... possibly because of the peace I so desperately crave. The Lord Brings that to me. I am touched by your experience with the Holy Spirit. God Bless you... Your making your Auntie very proud.....

    June 28, 2011 at 12:49 am |
  2. william Johnson

    this has a lot of truth....I was 12 years old sitting on a bed at my friends house i was reading the ten commandments on a charm bracelet it felt as if my friend forced me to read them,thou i caint understand why...any way i layed back on the bed and felt like something was crawling under my skin...it felt good yet so frieghtning my friend was jumping up and down screaming can you feel it...as if he was making it happen ,or has experienced it ...the trip scared me so much i left his house and ran home..........years later in my 40s i shared for the first time to my preacher,he was so excited and has heard of so many stories,,,,he asked me a question that i will never forget,,,and will never know....he said do you remember what commandement you were readind????

    June 26, 2011 at 9:27 am |
  3. Trevor

    That was very touching. I am going through something like that now and your story has opened my eyes and heart not turn away from the church but to ask Jesus to give me strength and clear direction.

    Thank you

    June 21, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
  4. Elisa

    Very touching and moving. It brought tears to my eyes. The power of love.

    June 21, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
  5. Sharrosh

    Beautiful story. You should write a book. Good writing.

    June 17, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
  6. YANKO

    http://WWW.WPRAY4U.COM

    June 9, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
  7. worded scientist

    pwerful

    June 6, 2011 at 7:50 am |
  8. Nona

    Thanks for sharing. I have experienced almost the same, God touches our hearts, souls, and guides us through the Holy Spirit! Praise the LORD JESUS!

    June 5, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
  9. James Black

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aGSvqMBj-ig

    June 2, 2011 at 7:39 pm |
  10. Bruce

    Thank you sir for sharing this. I found it moving and encouraging.

    June 1, 2011 at 12:19 am |
  11. Patti

    What a wonderful article. It blessed me when I read it. As I read it it reminds me of my own upbringing and the people who guided me.

    May 25, 2011 at 11:32 am |
  12. Prodigal Son

    Mr. Blake,

    Thank You for sharing this.

    May 24, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
  13. Bob

    Thank you John, for sharing. Since last year, I have been attending a Black Baptist church, and I find the people their, who I now think of as family, to be some of the best examples of what the Holy Ghost really does to a person. They are caring, sharing and love God. With that they (we) take it out to our community to show the rest of the world what love really is: a verb.

    May 23, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
  14. Alex

    The "Holy Ghost"? The product of a Sick mind!

    May 23, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
  15. Cleveland Jim

    Ya'll are so dumb

    May 23, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
  16. ephraiyim

    I have had a couple of experiences very similar to what you have described. I KNOW that God exists and that He loves me. I struggle with doubts about many things but never that.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:38 am |
  17. Natalie Davis

    I am a pentecostal, and this story sounds like he just got emotional in the service. If the Holy Ghost was inside, it would be evident by the speaking of tongues. The anointing can get so high in the service that it causes you to want to dance, run, clap and so on. Thats called Joy!!! The Holy Ghost tho, thats another thing... And you dont have to catch it, God dives it freely to all who ask for it!! Acts 2

    May 19, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
  18. Mandee

    What a great story! Thanks so much for sharing. Truly inspirational

    May 18, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
  19. Ericka

    Great Story.

    May 11, 2011 at 11:36 pm |
  20. DVA

    I don't believe in god, but I do believe in love. And that was a beautiful story of love – thank you so much for sharing! ))

    May 9, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
    • BayArea

      I love your comment because even though you do not believe in god, you did not find the need to trash the article or the author, and better yet, you found something nice to say! I am often confused at people who come on a blog like this and decide to tear apart people who do believe but I thank you sincerely for not being one of them. Maybe you come across people in your life that do not make you shun those Christians who live the lessons of Jesus, which is to LOVE LOVE and LOVE when you think you can't LOVE any more. 🙂 Best to you!

      May 31, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
    • Wes

      DVA,God and Love are pretty much the same.God gave you the abillity to love another person. But wheather you belive in him or not,guess what . He belives in you..Your half way there 🙂

      June 9, 2011 at 8:36 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.