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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. Rick

    I was brought up going to church, it was not until I was almost 19 years old when the Holy Spirit came into my life. I went to bed on an evening in May, 1979, crying my eyes out. I knew, the way my life was headed was the wrong direction. I prayed to God, in Jesus' Name that He would come into my heart and take me by the hand and guide me through life, just as if he were my father. I suddenly felt a peace come over me like I never had before, I suddenly knew for a fact, if something should happen to me that night, or anytime, that I would go to heaven! It was as if a light went on in my soul! It was as if every dark corner and every closet door were exposed and opened for God to see. Was I perfect? No, far from it. I needed God to wipe away my sins through his son, Jesus Christ, and for once in my life, I knew that I could believe the Bible when it says that God will wipe away our sins and that nothing shall ever separate us from the Love of God, NOTHING!

    Over the years, I began to start living more like I should be living, doing away with the alcohol that once enslaved me and looking toward the things of God and His Kingdom. I know for a fact, if I should die right now, I will meet God at the Pearly Gates and I know for a fact that my name is written in the Lamb's Book of Life, that God will allow me to enter heaven for eternity.

    For those who think that Christianity is not for real, what do you have to lose to accept it as truth? If there is any chance it is not real, what have you lost? Nothing! However, if you DO NOT accept Christianity, and you die to find out it IS REAL, you will be pretty surprised to find yourself in hell for ETERNITY! I would rather chance that it is for real and I know full well where I am going!

    April 24, 2011 at 7:24 am |
    • Atlanta123

      Amen!

      April 24, 2011 at 8:01 am |
  2. Antman

    We all will soon find out if the HOLY GHOST AND JESUS is REAL!!!! Those who believe will be saved!!! No joke!!!

    April 24, 2011 at 7:24 am |
  3. God Soldier 007

    Still, till the days Each Sunday on the South like NC GA SC each Sunday after Church is like Easter or Thanksgiving Day

    People and family gather to spend together eat .. take pictures have fun and is just what you thought of the American Life to be . sadly it wont happen at all parts of USA .

    I love the part where the young boy back then have just wonderful memories of her aunt that treated him like her real son ..
    KIds keep those great memories till the end 🙂 had myself similar story with one of my aunt only that i had several Moms

    Yes God does watch it all he is there and every where .

    April 24, 2011 at 7:24 am |
  4. Propel

    I pray for all those who do not believe, and pray with all who do. May peace be with everyone on this Blessed Easter Morning, and may the grace of our heavenly Father, Son and Holy Spririt live in everyone's heart. I love this article because we all go through a journey to find our own path. May each one of us find the way to him.

    April 24, 2011 at 7:23 am |
  5. Bro. Joseph M Keen

    Why do people test God, to debate about the bible if it is real or not,it is the oldest book on the face of the earth and you have the gusts to test it to find out if it is real or not? When you die you will know then,when you are in hell asking God for one dope of water to cool your forkit tongue. Why test God? When someone writes a testimony about there experience with God you persecute them why? Who is a liar but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist, that denieth the Father and the Son (1John2:22). Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antchrist shall come ,even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time.(1john2:18) But these, as natural brute beast, made to be taken and destroyed, speak evil of the things that they understand not; and shall utterly perish in their own corruption; And shall receive the reward of unrighteousness, as they that count it pleasure to riot in the day time. Spots they are and blemishes, sporting themseleves with their own deceivings while they feast with you; having eyes full of adultery, and that cannot cease from sin; beguiling unstable souls: an heart they have exercised with covetous practices; cursed children:(2peter2:12-14) These are wells without water,clouds that are carried with tempest; to whom the mist of darkness is reserved for ever.(2peter2:17)

    April 24, 2011 at 7:22 am |
    • Lily

      Bro Jo, have you read anything other than the bible? Were you serious when you said that the bible is the 'oldest book on the face of the earth.' Man, you are delusional, or rather a believer! There are books, manuscripts, scrolls, clay tablets that existed 5,000 yeard BC

      April 24, 2011 at 8:43 am |
  6. oldman57

    What a moving and refreshing story,

    April 24, 2011 at 7:21 am |
  7. Woody

    Holy........Ghost. Not your average, run of the mill, haunted house ghost or even Casper, but a HOLY ghost. This certainly is quite the entertaining blog.

    April 24, 2011 at 7:20 am |
  8. Brad

    Wow. Thanks for sharing your life with us. Maybe different from my story, but so similar pattern. ... I had to realize much later in life that what I saw and experienced through child's eyes growing up had a history and meaning I didn't understand grasp as a child. I thank God that he has opened up my understanding. Thank God for your aunt. What a generous, brave, and beautiful woman of faith she was for you.

    April 24, 2011 at 7:18 am |
  9. Tom Tac

    Thank you for this testimony.

    As a white boy who grew up during those times, I can tell you that others were oppressed, too, and had the same feelings that "things can't change, it's just the way things are" .... To have the Civil Rights Movement come along as an example of people overthrowing their oppression was simply inspiring.

    And to have you describe its source as the energy of black people, coming from black churches, that's quite an insight. So many things come from God, without our realizing it.

    Does your story sound "crazy"? Of course it does! You describe things that are not "earthly", and it will sound strange. But I realize that the only answer to that is to keep talking about such things, so more and more people will know about them.

    God's Blessings...

    April 24, 2011 at 7:17 am |
  10. Lily

    It's interesting how religion, and obsession with religion, like the author's Aunt Sylvia, can make one imagine things and hallucinate! Once you believe in religion it takes over your brains and shuts down the logic and common sense areas, everything becomes related to the holy ghost, miracles, and signs from god. One start seeing and imagining things that only exist in their head, just like the authors experience with the holy ghose!

    April 24, 2011 at 7:14 am |
  11. Becca

    I grew up in Baltimore, not in a black area but this story just felt like home to me. What a wonderful Aunt and an incredible writer to be able to put her into words-she must have been very proud of him.

    April 24, 2011 at 7:13 am |
  12. David

    I loved this. Thank you to the Author.

    April 24, 2011 at 7:07 am |
  13. Angela

    A Beautiful Story. Comments by Angela.
    4/24/11.

    April 24, 2011 at 7:07 am |
  14. talithakoum

    ryan, i am praying for you and JESUS LOVES YOU VERY MUCH!

    April 24, 2011 at 7:04 am |
  15. bob

    Easter is a pagan holiday, full stop. Today you learned something! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C4%92ostre

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

      Good source of information there bob. You've proven so much. WHAT A MORON YOU ARE!! Anybody who is smart knows that you can't trust wikipedia as a source of information. why don't you crawl in your hole and stay there instead of patronizing other people's religion with negativity and false info.

      April 24, 2011 at 7:41 am |
  16. Angela

    A beautiful story! I hope to see the sequel which reveals your next experience – that of receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, evidenced by speaking with "new tongues". For those of us who have received this gift, our lives have never been the same!! Infused w/supernatural love and the power to forgive others. I'll never forget the day I chose to "lose control" and give my life totally to God through Jesus Christ. I'm loving this "Holy-Ghost" filled life!

    April 24, 2011 at 7:02 am |
    • Lily

      Angela, I think you lost your brains the moment you decided to give your life to god through jesus christ! And of course lost control of your brains thereafter.

      April 24, 2011 at 7:23 am |
  17. JJ

    Mr. Blake, what you experienced has happened to me at many really good concerts, in all sorts of genre's, from rock to salsa. It's got nothing to do with religion.

    April 24, 2011 at 7:02 am |
    • Linda

      Oh but don't you see the holy spirit touched you through the music? Why is it so hard for some people to accept there is a higher being, it's not a bad thing. It makes perfect sense, some things can't be explained but they exist nevertheless. Just look around at nature, or a sunset. Or a newborn baby.

      April 24, 2011 at 7:10 am |
    • Lily

      Linda...what a cliche! Is this the best you can come up with? 'some things can't be explained but they exist nevertheless,' hence the only explaination would be the ghost and holy spirit. Have you heard of something called science?

      April 24, 2011 at 7:19 am |
    • Will

      You have no idea what a genuine religious experience. Im no bible thumper but what u say is otherwise offensive

      April 24, 2011 at 7:21 am |
    • ray

      JJ just because you evoked the same emotions as described in this article does not prove or disprove that this young man at the time was lead by the holly spirt....you worship "mosh" secular satin owned tools of distractions and continue to deny Gods existance as if you were there at the begining of creation. Christianity is not based on scientific data but faith.. science is what close minded educated white men use to attempt to explain the universe yet, the more they learn, the more they realize they don't know.

      April 24, 2011 at 7:34 am |
    • Lily

      Will, no, i have no idea what a genuine religious experience is and i am happy i don't. Those who had one means they were so brainwashed to actually believe that there is such a thing as a 'genuine religious experience.' In reality it's their minds playing games on them and conforming to what they've been taught to believe.

      April 24, 2011 at 8:53 am |
  18. ElissaE.

    CNN, I must give you props for having this article. I must add though it is quite wonderful to be an American. To be able to speak our minds on any given topic. I do love this country. GOD BLESS AMERICA!

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

      There is NO god to bless America. Wake up and use your brains!

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

      Lily u really are a narrowminded shallow girl. Maybe u shouldnt post a reply ur not smart or clever enough. Sorry

      April 24, 2011 at 7:25 am |
  19. Baltimore

    what a dump. it's a crazy place that will make you see ghosts, holy and otherwise. i still don't get the holy trinity...there are three dudes running the show or just one? i don't think they even know.

    April 24, 2011 at 7:00 am |
    • Chien

      Proof that God exists? We can 'prove' the wind blows: 30 mph....see the trees shake, see the clouds march through the sky, see the gentle breeze roll through the sheets on a line drying in the sun. But we cannnot 'touch' it, we cannot 'see' it, we cannot 'taste" it....but this does not mean the wind is not there.
      God is surely 'there'...we cannot 'prove' He is there with scientific facts....if we could, there would be no need for 'faith'.
      For those who believe no explanation is needed, for those who don' t- no explanation is possible.

      April 24, 2011 at 7:28 am |
    • Pseudonym Withheld

      He never said that he saw a ghost. He had an experience with the Holy Spirit that cannot be seen, but felt. You don't have to believe if you do not want to, but from what I believe there are 2 judgements for the dead. The judgement seat of Christ for the followers of God who receive rewards in Heaven for the good that they have done, and the Great White Throne Judgement for those who chose not to follow and cannot reside with the father because he hates their unforgiven sins. If I am wrong for believing this way then I will have lived an exemplary life by certain standards, but because there is nothing after death then I wont be able to regret it. Now if I am right then forever is a loong time to regret past actions.

      April 24, 2011 at 7:34 am |
  20. MotherNature

    What a beautiful story!!!

    The World Is A Beautiful Place When You Smile! 🙂

    April 24, 2011 at 6:59 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.