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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. A

    Wow...a lot of anger and mean spirited comments! Why? I am surprised.
    This story is more about the innocent faith and needs of a child, and the love of an aunt who provided a community and a foundation. Look deeper into your soul, not at any man made dogma, but where love comes from. God is that love in your soul. Love back....

    April 24, 2011 at 6:58 am |
    • Doug

      No... the story is about the faithful giving tons of cash to the TV Preach who lives in a ten million dollar home... Jpel osteen, joyce myer, benny hinn.. These thieves live like the donald on grammys dollars, disgusting !!!!!!!

      April 24, 2011 at 7:16 am |
    • Doug

      It's time to stop the tax free church zone !

      April 24, 2011 at 7:17 am |
    • pacoder

      This is a story of how a child was brainwashed, that's about it. Nothing innocent about it. I'll admit to having anger toward organized religion, where I grew up if you weren't part of the church you were an outsider and they let you know it constantly. Then we can get into the awesome things religion is the cause of gay murders, the mass molestation of children, wars (Norther Ireland sound familiar)? The Terry Jones, Jim Baker, David Koresh, Jim Jones, Fred Phelps of the world and, well you get the point I could go on for page after page. A real rogues gallery. That's your religion.

      April 24, 2011 at 7:31 am |
  2. deb

    one day every mouth WILL confess the KING OF KINGS like it or not

    April 24, 2011 at 6:57 am |
    • what the

      and that king is zeus! You will confess you have worshipped the false deity called jesus! CONFESS SINNER!

      April 24, 2011 at 7:02 am |
  3. what the

    I will pray to zeus for all the christians who are worshipping a false god, that they will not end up in hades and will instead will roam the fields of elysium with the hero hercules! All hail zeus!

    April 24, 2011 at 6:57 am |
  4. Sports Fan

    My grandparents forced my brother and I to attend a Pentacostal church with them during an entire summer when I was about 8 years old. Some people would "get the Holy Ghost" and get up and do laps around the church acting crazy, other would speak in tongues. My grandparents forced my brother and I to go up and get "healed" of poison oak one week. It did not help the poison oak, but it absolutely cured me of any religious belief.

    April 24, 2011 at 6:56 am |
    • what the

      ahmen!

      April 24, 2011 at 6:57 am |
    • Sports Fan

      The grandparents were also REALLY into those charismatic TV preachers who can never seem to raise enough money. It is sad to me that some people need this garbage in order to feel complete.

      April 24, 2011 at 7:03 am |
  5. spfripp

    I remember watching a movie called the last exorcism. In one part of the movie the reverend makes a bet that he could preach about how to bake bread and his followers would not take notice because they really don't listen to what he is saying and he won. Kind of reminds me how you mentioned in this article that you really did not know what your reverend was talking about.
    This article left me thinking that race is an issue with your church which is a true shame after all why would there be a "black church" and a "interracial church"? Isn't that racist?

    April 24, 2011 at 6:55 am |
  6. Chena

    Awesome encounter you had with Holy Spirit as a child!! I hope you continue to welcome Him in your life. Let the Spirit of Christ reveal Himself strongly to you.

    April 24, 2011 at 6:54 am |
    • what the

      child I hope one day you have the intelligence and education to understand how the power of group suggestion can cause a 9 year old to THINK he has seen a ghost, and that you will understand ghosts, spirits, and other such nonsense is not real. That there is no evidence to show the bible is anything more than a myth.

      April 24, 2011 at 6:59 am |
  7. PMF

    Thank you, for being brave enough to post this. In this oh so cynical world, that is really just crying out for someone or something to feel HOPE about, you have given an olive branch.

    April 24, 2011 at 6:53 am |
    • what the

      I think it's more of a combination of a lack of education and an upbringing that encourages people to think irrationally

      April 24, 2011 at 7:01 am |
    • Carolyn

      What the – sounds like you are just a smart-alec. Rationally is just a judgement call. Being human is first always flawed. Your words show you don't think much.

      April 24, 2011 at 8:19 am |
    • TruthOarConsequences

      Carolyn, I actually though that "What the" posted was very true and articulate. On the other hand, your post about Rationally is a just a judgement, I guess your for irrationality, and being only human is flawed, like what else could we be, I found to be, well, IRRATIONAL. I do get the feel that your a pleasant and nice person to be around though. 😉

      April 24, 2011 at 9:54 am |
  8. I felt the Holy Spirit once

    BTW the hicks in the South call it the Holy Ghost since they have very small vocabs. Anyway, I was watching Weekend at Bernies in the theatre with my buddy and his grandma. It was so unfunny. Then a flash of light occurred. I then started to laugh at all the jokes. A miracle.

    April 24, 2011 at 6:51 am |
  9. David Goggin

    Thank you – for your love in the form of sharing that with us. Your testimony gives us a piece of the grace you experienced that night and more often thru your aunt. It's moments of grace like those that get us through.

    April 24, 2011 at 6:51 am |
    • PMF

      I agree, and BTW Happy Easter!

      April 24, 2011 at 6:57 am |
  10. mike

    News...CNN hacked by The Onion.

    April 24, 2011 at 6:50 am |
    • what the

      lol

      April 24, 2011 at 6:59 am |
  11. kiks

    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.

    Dear John, I EXPERIENCED the same thing I was 29 years old. glad u posted this...tnx I FELT ONE WITH THAT HAPPY AND PEACEFUL LIGHT. COULD NOT CONTROL MY TEARS.........

    April 24, 2011 at 6:48 am |
  12. great article

    in that i had so much bad stuff to say about it. cnn sux- keep censoring me.

    April 24, 2011 at 6:46 am |
  13. ray

    Im not 2 sure what 2 believe in anymore but its not cool 2 knock 1s faith i guess well all find out tha truth some day but till that day im a live my life

    April 24, 2011 at 6:43 am |
  14. Movitar

    I just got a $829.99 iPad2 for $117.37 and my girlfriend snagged an awesome $1299 MacBook Air for only $111.93, its being delivered tomorrow. I would be a fool to keep paying high retail prices at places like Walmart or BestBuy, when I even sold a 37" HDTV to my boss for $600 that I only paid $78.24 for. I use two sites, both are good, BidsGo.com
    and SnagBids.
    com

    April 24, 2011 at 6:41 am |
  15. cloverstatic

    Suppose there are three general groups of people. Group 1 who for whatever reason, or nose/brain condition, has never smelled a smell. Group 2 who smell just fine, and group 3, who are not sure if what they experience is indeed a smell, imagination, or a medical issue as the non smellers insist. Just because you cannot prove to group 1 that you smell things,(a sensation they cannot understand, having never experienced it themselves and being unable to see it) does not make it untrue.
    Lack of proof is NOT the same as disproof. What undeserved arrogance, to assume that because you have never experienced something, and no one can provide proof, that it must not exist.

    April 24, 2011 at 6:39 am |
    • TruthOarConsequences

      Actually, what you smell can be proven via the ole factory and the science behind it. Being incapable of smelling is not analgous to being incapable of understanding if there is a God or Not. Not being able to smell is a medical conidtion while believing or not believing in a God is a choice based on facts or faith. Placebos work for some as does faith, for me however, the truth matters. I don't care if faith works or not, for me, it HAS to be TRUE.

      April 24, 2011 at 9:49 am |
  16. Ryan

    Lizaa YOUR A FUGGIN MORON!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! YOU KNOW NOTHING AND SOUND LIKE A CRAZY CAT LADY OFF HER MEDS!!!!!!!!

    "If we gave you an eneima, you could be buried in a matchbox."

    April 24, 2011 at 6:37 am |
  17. Movitar

    I just got a $829.99 iPad2 for $117.37 and my girlfriend snagged an awesome $1299 MacBook Air for only $111.93, its being delivered tomorrow. I would be a fool to keep paying high retail prices at places like Walmart or BestBuy, when I even sold a 37" HDTV to my boss for $600 that I only paid $78.24 for. I use two sites, both are good, BidsGo.com
    and SnagBids.com

    April 24, 2011 at 6:37 am |
  18. Ryan

    so to clarify: your liars. religion is a joke, a sick twisted bad one at that. use reality to show you the way to reason and logic. stop deceiving children. read a science book. and carolyn, shut up already. your weak and pathetic.

    im out. :]

    April 24, 2011 at 6:35 am |
  19. John

    This man is telling the truth. The only way I know that is because the experience he described happened to me as well. I came to the same point, wanting to know if God was really there or not, praying about it and finding nothing. I gave up, deciding that ithere must not be a God after all. I then felt what this man felt, the overwhelming love of God for me. It was not anything I could have produced in myself. It happened. If it had not happened, I would be one of the atheists making comments here. If you want proof of the existence of God, find out for youself. Ask...

    April 24, 2011 at 6:27 am |
  20. Ryan

    Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Dennett, etc. These people could teach you nutcases something. STOP LYING TO CHILDREN YOU SELFISH IGNORANT FOOLS! akhem.....please?

    April 24, 2011 at 6:20 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.