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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. ryan evans

    dear john blake,
    you are not special. you and your entire congregation are delusional. you did not see an angel. cnn should sue you for your salary back.

    April 24, 2011 at 6:19 am |
  2. David

    Beautiful story, thank you for sharing.

    April 24, 2011 at 6:18 am |
  3. peter

    I know and understand everything you have written about which is why I find it hard to read some of the comments. Be strong and pray.

    April 24, 2011 at 6:12 am |
  4. Ryan

    Carolyn, dont judge! Your god is the only one that can judge! You should know this. You dont thow. Which shows how bad at your religion you are. You all talk the talk but never walk the walk. And dont use this 'im a sinner. god forgives me' crap. for you to knowingly sin and think its ok is spitting in your imaginary gods face! come on carolyn! play the game by the rules, or dont play at all. your small mind believes whatever lie you hear because your too stupid to use reason and just wanna be on the side that mommies on. pathetic. happy easter!

    April 24, 2011 at 6:12 am |
    • Carolyn

      Your reasoning could easily be shot down. I don't go out of my way to pee on people's faith like you do. Why would you want to take a trait that is beautiful away from someone? What does that say about you. You are small minded and small hearted. Rationally is just a judgement call. I pretty much got you defined. As predicted you will never make a real connection with anyone.

      April 24, 2011 at 6:17 am |
    • Ryan

      Wrong again carolyn!!!!! Ive got a lovely wife, two beautiful kids, numerous friends and a large happy extended family. I wake up every day loving and being loved. I go to sleep every day with a smile. I feel whole, complete, driven, and all around great! Now, if i can just do everything to make sure you people stop trying to end the human race so my kids kids kids and enjoy this place called earth too, ill be satisfied. Im actually rather intelligent and been told by friends that im a compassionate guy. Id do anything for my friends and family. Your a joke. Go pray to your god that he shows me exists. Then ill letcha know if he does. I wont be needing any contact info, because, well you know...... :]

      April 24, 2011 at 6:29 am |
    • Carolyn

      Aaaah Ryan, interesting that you need others to define who you are. Time will tell. May your philosophy and what you put out come full circle.

      April 24, 2011 at 6:39 am |
  5. Michael

    It's remarkable to me how often atheists comment on religious stories. You'd think they'd realize just how dumb all believers are, and just leave us to it. Yet they come back, over and over again, just to snarl. It's odd.

    This was a nice story. Notice how the dumb, misguided woman's faith helped to save this child's spirit from the crushing weight of poverty. What a moron! Had she spent more time telling him that life has no meaning, and perhaps turning him on to clove cigarettes and Sartre, he would have been much better off. Religion is so stupid.

    April 24, 2011 at 6:08 am |
  6. rcjark

    he has risen. james said, faith without works is dead.

    April 24, 2011 at 6:06 am |
  7. Connie

    Bless you my dear one.

    April 24, 2011 at 6:06 am |
  8. Moses

    This has to be the dumbest article ever posted on CNN, if I wanted to read about the dreams and meltdowns of village idiots, I would have watched Fox news, why are you guys dumping this nonsense on cnn? Great idea btw to lump the church with the black freedom struggle and mislead everyone into believing that the catholic church was pro black, when really all this guy got from church was a place to meet people and make friends with other idiots dumb enough to believe in the "holy ghost". This guy didnt have any spiritual experience, what he had was barely an experience, part of the charade of screaming idiots that can be found in any church during their "holy ghost" sighting, when they start babbling and people think they are speaking in tongues.

    April 24, 2011 at 6:05 am |
  9. WW

    What this man has shared with the internet, a tale of his own spiritual awakening, has touched me, a deist. Whether the character of Yeshu was borrowed from earlier messiah figures, or that there are astrological references in the bible, matters not. The soul of man connects him with the universe. All is one, and this man is one with All, thriving in this spirit. If his story is anything to go by, I can only hope that I have the spiritual strength this man has, to come to terms with loss, and yet find joy and Truth in the terrible beauty of life. This story has reached me, and indeed has touched my heart profoundly.

    April 24, 2011 at 6:05 am |
  10. Ryan

    I would agree that love and respect are a good thing. But you would call out people lying and making stuff up and being irrational too. So here it is. Why cant people capable of rational thought act and speak and think with reason with only one topic? You people are usually bright and perfectly normal and good people, then you support this crap that kills and sets humanity back. What if a massive cult started worshiping a rock? Or an invisible thing in the sky? Oh wait, they already do. Shut up and grow up and when you do, youll get the respect you desire. I cant respect someone who lies to children, deceives children, and kills people. I want to be a good person because its the right thing to do. No rewards, just because it is. You want to be a good person for fear of damnation or reward of eternal life and heaven. So whos the greedy one. If god actually existed, something tells me he would look on favor with my intentions over yours, for mine arent driven by fear of loss or greed and lust. Shame on you.

    April 24, 2011 at 6:05 am |
  11. matthew h

    jesusneverexisted.com

    April 24, 2011 at 6:00 am |
    • Carolyn

      There is no doubt that a man Jesus lived – there is too much historical evidence. Believing he was the Christ requires more conviction. You atheist site is just bunk.

      April 24, 2011 at 6:13 am |
  12. Rich

    Religion is delusional.

    April 24, 2011 at 5:57 am |
  13. lmoreno

    Great story, thanks CNN for sharing this.

    April 24, 2011 at 5:57 am |
  14. Michael

    The hateful Atheists are in full attack-mode today. Why can they not see that religion – real religion, meaning the spirituality aspects, not the ritualistic aspects – is about love and respect for your fellow human being. Not about 'proof,' (whatever that is supposed to mean in a religious contect), rules, donations, buildings, organizations, books, and the like. All those other things are the trappings, the wrapping on the present. Even the most hard-core Atheist would agree, I imagine, that love and respect for other people is a good thing.

    April 24, 2011 at 5:52 am |
    • Troy

      Not sure why they appear hateful. They just are being brutally honest and upfront. You see, it is difficult to sit by and watch someone throw their life away. If you understand something and you see someone else who is confused and delusional, you feel obligated to step and say something. What kind of human being would you be if you did not at least try and attempt to save someone from wasting their lives in a delusion of indifference with others that are not the same?

      April 24, 2011 at 6:43 am |
  15. Ryan

    god isnt real. you people are nuts and/or liars. ignorant in the least for believing this crap. arrogant at the most for expecting me to believe it too. grow up children. say what you will. really. nothing changes facts people. lol. seriously. thats enough now. time to come back to reality and start using reason. youve had your fun pretend time. big glass of logic ought to do the trick! happy easter! :]

    April 24, 2011 at 5:51 am |
    • Jody

      I feel sorry for you Ryan

      April 24, 2011 at 6:22 am |
  16. steve

    My aunt Sylvia is a 'Christian' with Altzheimer's... Sad to think that memes are inherited too.

    April 24, 2011 at 5:45 am |
  17. Martha Bush

    I'm so glad this man is not ashamed to "testify" of his Lord and Savior. God's blessings to him on this Easter Sunday morning.

    April 24, 2011 at 5:39 am |
  18. Rsticbob

    Well said. This article sounds more like a mental condition than any conversion. If all this craziness comforts you in your sad, lonely lives, so be it, but stop dragging children into your madness, and give them a chance to grow up without your cultish needs and desires.

    April 24, 2011 at 5:35 am |
    • Ryan

      amen! [pun intended] :]

      April 24, 2011 at 5:53 am |
    • Carolyn

      It is a parent's duty to teach their children about that concept of God. If not done, you leave quite the question mark or holes. Sounds like your parents did a bang up job on you. Narcissism is your mirror. Good luck making good, lasting connections with anyone.

      April 24, 2011 at 5:54 am |
    • Secular religion

      Oh contrairre Carolyn, it is the Parents job to teach them how to think and make decisions based on fact. While I am an Atheist, I did not espouse my views on my young children. I taught them to think and make decisions. I love them both and they are grown now, one believes and one is an atheist like me. It is NOT your job to ensure your children believe as you do. I have spirited discussions with my son that believes, but we get to a point where it does us no good to continue talking about or beliefs so agree to disagree.

      April 24, 2011 at 9:34 am |
  19. Elissa

    Praise the Lord! What a blessing to read this wonderful story on Easter!

    April 24, 2011 at 5:24 am |
    • Doug

      No... Don't praise the lord.. Send money to the following so they may maintain their ten plus million dollar homes.. Joel Osteen, Joyce Myers, Benny Hinn, The one in Atlanta that likes young men, Pat Robertson, ohhh the list goes on and on..

      April 24, 2011 at 5:37 am |
    • ZeebleZub

      What a waste of time to seek lies and find them on a news website. pah.

      April 24, 2011 at 6:02 am |
    • Troy

      While I can understand a nine year old believing in the holy ghost (He probably also believed in Santa Clause at this time as well), I don't understand why he has not grown up since then. For the same reason he no longer believes in Santa, he should probably stop believing in other fairy tales.

      Religion is a delusion. It divides, causes all the heartache and sorrow in the world. Whether it be Jihad from the Muslims, Israel's control of our Mid East policy in pursuit of a fictional "Rapture", or Catholics ruling against birth control and condoms as a worse sin than murder or adultery. I should probably hold my remarks for the Abramamic religions, but in general, Secular religion causes harm to people, period.

      Some people believe we should be serving someone. They believe that pure bliss can only be achieved by submitting and serving a master. This mentality was necessary until about 140 years ago when being a slave in this world went out of fashion, but certainly understandable prior to that.

      In 1890, 90% of the population of the USA worked in the servitude of others. There were no corporations, only families. If you didn't have a family farm, you worked for someone else's farm or in their home. The concept of servitude was widely accepted in both regular life and in religion. But today, it is not necessary or even attractive to submit to anyone for any reason unless you are either desperate, ignorant or both.....

      April 24, 2011 at 6:23 am |
  20. andrew

    Seriously, this person needs to get an EEG and an MRI. Geschwind syndrome anyone?

    April 24, 2011 at 5:23 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.