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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. Alive

    Truly a wonderful story. I thank you for sharing it. CNN take note. I am applauding.

    April 24, 2011 at 5:23 am |
  2. joann

    What,a lovely story.Easter or whatever holiday we maybe celebrating.We should All go to church.Happy Easter,Jesus

    April 24, 2011 at 5:22 am |
  3. Elissa

    What a wonderful story to read on this Easter morning. Praise Jesus!

    April 24, 2011 at 5:22 am |
    • Keefer7

      The author's story, honesty, and genuineness is so refreshing to read. Would love to see more of this kind of thing at CNN.com.

      April 24, 2011 at 5:26 am |
    • ZeebleZub

      What utter bullshlt. This is not "refreshing" to read, this is a pathetic piece of bullsht masquerading as an article.
      This is no place for blatant proselytizing, this is a news website.
      Lies should be opposed at every turn, from start to finish, with no compromising. Lies are lies whether someone sincerely believes them or not.
      I think this article is disgusting and should be banned from publication on any honest news site.
      But this is CNN. They are just trolling with this article.
      You brain-damaged idiots can slobber on each other all you want in church or on church-related websites. But you can't keep it in your pants, can you? That's why you need to be swatted down like a bunch of slobbering dogs. Your "holy spirit" has shown itself to be utter bullshlt. Period.

      April 24, 2011 at 5:39 am |
    • gunther

      wow zee how do you really feel, lmao tff.....

      April 24, 2011 at 6:01 am |
    • Ryan

      zeeblezub is so right on with every dam post. thank you sir. im loving it. not for the hilarity of it all, but because its sooooo true. although the early morning laughs are great too! tell em how it is. :]

      April 24, 2011 at 6:33 am |
  4. Jackie

    Its funny how passover and the ressurection are two serperate feasts and you guys celebrate them your on way. According to lev 23:23 each feast has an appointed time and name not easter, the sunday worship is also a false teaching according to Gen 2:1, ex 20:8, and Christs example in luke 4:16. The true day of worship is the seventh day and according to the bible, dictionaries and the calender it is a Sat. The day God set aside for us. But yet because man think they are superior to God they changed the day of worship in 321 a.d to sunday and made it a "holiday" "holy day" so if God set aside a day but we change it, how can we possibly receive the rest, blessings and holiness from God. Seriously think about it. And if you think the OT law was changed when Christ came or when he was cruxified then why would he say in Matthew 5:17. Clearly he says he did not come to abolish anything and nothing will be changed from the law till heaven and earth disappear. And I'm pretty sure earth isn't destroyed yet so. Please understand that the bible isn't ment to be interpretted by our own wisdom and knowledge but the bible itself interprets and references itself. So according to Gods word the day of worship is Sat and Passover according to the 14 day or the 1st month of Nisan (the month the isrialites were free'd from slavery ex 12:1-14) and since the bible used the sacred calender when we compare it to the solar calender passover was april 17. In the New testiment the passover is found in Matthew 26:17, luke 22:7,and in many other verses. If you truly want to find the Church testified in the bible that keep all the feast of God according to Christs teachings email me – Moostorms@hotmail.com

    April 24, 2011 at 5:21 am |
  5. andrew

    Holy ghost or epilepsy? Sounds more like epilepsy to me.

    April 24, 2011 at 5:17 am |
  6. padii

    I can say that my faith has wondered, but reading this article enforces the idea that faith is lost but it can also be found and made anew. thank you.

    April 24, 2011 at 5:17 am |
  7. Anthony

    There is nothing like receiving Christ as your savior. I remember doing it and just was overcome with the power of love that he shares with everyone. Whenever I think about the moment I received Christ, tears well up in my eyes because of the joy that he brings. We all sin, we're all imperfect but knowing Christ will be there 100% of the time and never leave you is the most reassuring and incredible thing you can imagine. We do not deserve the eternal life that he died and rose again to make a reality for us. It is the most selfless and wonderful gift! He is Risen!!

    April 24, 2011 at 5:16 am |
  8. cmart3

    get this religious jargon off the front page, cnn.

    April 24, 2011 at 5:14 am |
  9. realworld95

    There is no such thing as a Atheist, when the ground shakes everyone looks up at the sky. Get right with God, you never know when your # is going to be up. Thank you Jesus for taking on the worlds sin's. Ask forgiveness while you have the chance

    April 24, 2011 at 5:09 am |
    • TruthOarConsequences

      Earthquake are because faults in the Earth's crust, subduction and slip faults are the main two kinds. Usually, when the ground starts to shake I try and avoid flying objects around me and then, if near the coast, head for high ground. Looking up to the sky NEVER crosses my mind. Oh, I am an ATHEIST. You see the human species has gone from polytheist, having a god for everything, such as sun, moon, sea, wind, fire, etc., to theist, believing in one god, to atheist, believing in no god(s). However, we take in new beliefs based on new facts, something religion, for the most part does not allow.

      April 24, 2011 at 9:24 am |
  10. Zenith

    The word 'usually" does not mean 'only'. Don't be so quick to demean someone without knowing the meaning of the words you read or choose to use. My comment was meant to be humorous. In no way did it exhibit ignorance. You do not sound like the 'Christian' believer you portray yourself to be.

    April 24, 2011 at 5:03 am |
  11. Lisa

    this is a beautiful testimony!

    April 24, 2011 at 5:00 am |
  12. Ariel

    This has to be a joke or written by someone with questionable motives. This is a not a true representation of the works of the Holy Spirit and I believe that her stories about the Black church are partially false (her confusion) I am sure someone around her, even other children, could have provided answers to many of her questions. This really has no place on the front page. I would suspect that the decision maker, to post this on the front page is not a Christian, Nevertheless, Christ loves you and He died for you also. The Holy Spirit will be a help to you in the practical application of your faith. Those things posted here are make believe, but Jesus is real. I pray that all who read this article will experience Christ in a real way.

    April 24, 2011 at 4:57 am |
  13. Charlotte Crist

    What a surprise article to read Easter Morning! Thank you CNN.

    April 24, 2011 at 4:54 am |
  14. Debra

    Mr Blake, thank you for the courage to share your spiritual experience on a day when spiritual reflections are in order. One cannot understand what one has never experienced.

    April 24, 2011 at 4:51 am |
  15. Andrew

    Thank you for a beautiful story and an enjoyable read. I read CNN daily but have never come across your name. I can see why CNN hired you. Your writing shows that you can be thoughtful and funny at the same time while presenting a serious subject (to many).

    April 24, 2011 at 4:49 am |
  16. Fokjou

    If John Blake really felt something "slip inside him and go up his spine", (excluding the possibility of it being a priest's hooha) it could actually be a treatable medical condition and should be looked at...then again, after 50 years of few problems, other than the slight delusional schizophrenia, it might just have been the mass hysteria associated with massive gatherings and loud music – I get that spine chilling feeling every time I listen to DEATH METAL myself!! Rock on John, rock on!! \m/ \m/

    April 24, 2011 at 4:49 am |
    • blondegeisha

      I do not doubt that something real happened to this gentleman. All of the people around him contributed to the phenomenon. I believe Fokjou had it right with mass hysteria.

      April 24, 2011 at 7:03 am |
    • TruthOarConsequences

      Nothing more than learned behavior. If John was in a church were everyone was quiet and talking normal there would be no loud Holy Ghost visits.

      April 24, 2011 at 9:19 am |
  17. Mark

    No serious person, when looking at the vastness of the universe, can possibly continue believing in gods & demons concerned with petty human affairs.

    April 24, 2011 at 4:43 am |
    • gunther

      Blame evolution my friend, some species climbed out of the gene pool BEFORE their brains were fully developed....

      April 24, 2011 at 4:55 am |
    • Randal

      So, you look at all this magnificance that is too big for your imagination to grasp and you conclude God is not real? Did you ever think that all this amazing stuff came from somewhere and that just maybe it was for us? All I am saying is that it is possible.

      April 24, 2011 at 5:23 am |
    • Mark

      The problem is all religions share an extreme solipsism. To think that pre-scientific nomad herders in a small part of middle east, mostly concerned with tribal local affairs, were contacted by an omniscient and omnipotent deity? That all the galaxies we can see (over 28 for every person on earth), each containing billions of stars, were made with us in mind? And that we are the center of all creation? It seems almost certainly improbable.

      April 24, 2011 at 5:54 am |
    • TruthOarConsequences

      Randal, who made God?

      April 24, 2011 at 9:15 am |
  18. andrew

    The Holy Ghost is God.I received the Holy Ghost,and the church that I go to the Holy Ghost is always moving in that place.And yes you do feel power entering your body.

    April 24, 2011 at 4:43 am |
    • ZeebleZub

      It's called brain damage. God must want you to act like an idiot.

      April 24, 2011 at 5:28 am |
  19. Que2you

    Just when I was about to give up on CNN for horrible shows like Back Story, Mail Sail and Living Golf, they surprise me with an article that can actually invoke pure emotion that does not involve war.

    April 24, 2011 at 4:40 am |
  20. SW

    Thank you CNN. Its refreshing to have something meaningful to read in the news. As for all the ignorant comments...God loves you and forgives you.

    April 24, 2011 at 4:33 am |
    • teresa

      ditto

      April 24, 2011 at 5:11 am |
    • Keefer7

      Well said. Amen.

      April 24, 2011 at 5:22 am |
    • ZeebleZub

      How stupid of you to expect anything but actual news here.
      Why don't you go to a "Christian" website and pat each other on the back at your wonderful faith and how you are better off than other people you don't approve of?
      Go puke your religious tripe somewhere else. Your religion needs to be destroyed for the lies that fill it up to overflowing.

      April 24, 2011 at 5:27 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.