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. Bro. Joseph M Keen

    Man you can tell those that are the child of davil because they mad when we talk about Jesus.

    April 24, 2011 at 7:52 am |
    • Rev. Evon Carrion

      I would just like to say that critics and atheists will never be able to kill the influence of the Holy Spirit. For two thousand years, they have been trying to extingquish the fire that set men's hearts aflame on the day of Pentecost. I, too was pessimistic until the Lord Jesus called me into the fold. The tender embrace of the Holy Spirit is as real today as it was when Daniel faced the lions and when David played the harp. Anyone that denies the existence of God and the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ is obviously ignorant of the history of the Acts of the Holy Spirit in the Church during the ages. History is prophecy fulfilled and can never be denied because it the proof of the accuracy of God's Word. Thank you so much for encouraging me with your testimony. HE will forever remain the same, yesterday, today and forever.

      April 24, 2011 at 8:09 am |
    • jimmynog

      What an ignorant fool you are. The "Holy Ghost" was invented well after the start of Christianity because it was felt a "trinity" of mulitple "gods" (and especially a man who is also a god) would make Christianity more palatable to the Greeks and Romans, who preferred to have lots of gods around. As others have noted, the burden of proof that this god exists is on YOU. Just as if I were to tell you that a tiny, silver teapot is orbiting the sun, closer than Mercury, and I believe it is there even though it's so tiny no one can see it, the burden of proof lies on me. Because it is just as ridiculous a notion as god. Now you can go back to fondling and sodomizing little boys.

      April 24, 2011 at 8:16 am |
  2. Movitar

    I just got a $829.99 iPad2 for $
    117.37 and my girlfriend snagged an awesome $12
    99 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 $6
    00 that I only paid $78.24 for. I use two sites, both are good, BidsGo.com
    and SnagBids.com

    April 24, 2011 at 7:52 am |
  3. AtheistSteve

    This is just another example of how anecdotal evidence is used to bolster a belief. Those of faith read this story and hear exactly what they want to hear. They listen to someones tes.timony of a personal experience and immediately accept it as true without questioning the details behind the events depicted.

    So in this case we have three separate events spanning decades of time in which the person involved believes the things happening are the result of a personal communion with the Holy Spirit. The background setting is clearly one where religious indoctrination played a large role in setting up the frame of mind of the teller. The net effect is such that any occurance of an unusual or unfamiliar tone become infused with spiritual meaning. Lets examine the individual events and see if the conclusions arrived at are valid examples of the supernatural.

    Event #1-At the age of 9 the feeling of the Holy Spirit washes over them during a fevered sermon.
    First this is barely credible simply due to the vast amount of time that has elapsed. Memory is extremely fickle and the further back in time the memory is the more unreliable it becomes. Details become less distinct, some are forgotton and others are created. The content of the memory becomes shaped and altered to align with future experiences and mindset. I have memories of my childhood that while vivid are not accurate representations of the actual events as they occured.
    Also this was happening in a setting that is known to create biochemical changes in the brain. A raucous sermon working the parishioners into a frenzy by a screaming pastor. Funny things happen to people in mobs. Feelings of euphoria are common to participants in such things. People are swept up in the moment and experience elation at rock concerts, sporting events and political rallys too.

    Event #2-During their soph.omore (say 19yrs of age) college year an unusual experience upon waking up. Any time I hear about people refering to dreams or waking sensations as valid experience I have to laugh. The brain is still processing elements of its subconscious when we come out of sleep and I have many personal examples of truly strange events and thoughts that accompany this time. It well known that most UFO abductions are detailed as waking experiences. In a process called sleep paralysis where the person feels unable to move yet seemingly able to perceive the presence of enti.ties around them become amplified later into recollections of being experimented on by aliens. The subconsious again a.sserting its influence colored later by attempts to provide meaning to the perceived images.

    Event #3-At the death bed of the aunt a simple look without verbal confirmation is imbued with a deeper meaning. Approx. five years after event #2. Significance given to the aunts glance is evidence of nothing. The story teller is trying to cope with heavy emotions while a loved one is dying and coloring the events to coincide with their belief. At my fathers deathbed a similar feeling of a deeper significance was given to his last words and looks. Looking back I understood it was my own grief and unwillingness to let go that clung to his final moments as being more important.

    In conclusion the story is unconvincing upon examination. It spans too long a time period and is tainted by a preconceived notion in the supernatural. Of cource none of what I said will sway believers to dismiss what they fervently cling to hold true. It is enough for them that these anecdotes confirm what they already believe and no amount of critical a.nalysis will dispell their preconceptions. Is this a credible story of the presence of the Holy Spirit?? Not by a long shot.

    April 24, 2011 at 7:50 am |
  4. Kelly Vickers

    I resoonate with this on so many levels. I too was drafted into the church, and fought it, yet I had a remarkably similar supernatural experience where I left my body and was taken up into light and love. I've spent most of my life seeking to understand what happened. I'm frankly astonished that CNN went with this as their featured story...thank you for that; it was a bold move. http:///www.MasterPeaceDisputeSolutions.com You made me cry...a sweet gift on this holy morning.
    Kelly in Albuquerque

    April 24, 2011 at 7:48 am |
  5. Dylan

    Complete, delusional mumbo jumbo. No wonder the human world is so neurotic.

    April 24, 2011 at 7:48 am |
  6. guy

    Dear Jesus,

    thank you for my health, my friends, my family, my job, my full belly and my warm home. Almighty Creator – i am sorry for being such as sinner. I've lied, cheated, stolen etc. – as you know all of my thoughts and indiscretions. Please grant me inner peace and wisdom, along with patience and kindness. Please open non-believers minds to your Truth and give them peace and the promise of Eternal existence. Thank you Jesus for everything good in the world. Amen

    April 24, 2011 at 7:45 am |
  7. Adam

    I'm baffled how people as handicapped as the writer of this blog can tie their shoes or operate a computer.

    April 24, 2011 at 7:45 am |
  8. Ms Rayn

    Mr. Blake thank you. Obedience is better than sacrifice. Easter/Resurrection Sunday is truly about Jesus laying down His life for sinners and He said the Comforter would come which is the Holy Spirit. Becoming a single mom at age 15 I didn't form a relationship until in my late 20's.I accepted Jesus in my life and one day was filled with the Holy Spirit. I cry as write this because through the Holy Spirit I raised two sons who are currently in college. My oldest will graduate in Dec 2011 w/degree in Accounting. People say I did a great job and I say I give all praise and glory to my Lord Jesus Christ and for the Holy Ghost leading me into all truth. I'm now 40 waiting and still trusting in the leading of the Holy Ghost. He is REAL in my life! I'm a living witness. Amen.

    April 24, 2011 at 7:45 am |
  9. kren

    a lot of holy ghosts for altar boys

    April 24, 2011 at 7:42 am |
  10. rewinder

    This is a test

    April 24, 2011 at 7:41 am |
  11. LIONARTist

    I find it amazing that, after reading someone's beautiful account of their memories of family and faith, others would take the opportunity to personally attack that person for believing in something that they personally don't believe. Atheists are a strange bunch. They always use the same propaganda. They claim that those of us who believe in a higher power are just too stupid to understand that there is no God and everything can be explained scientifically. Well, aren't they the intelligent ones. They obviously have gained all the knowledge in the universe that there is to attain and are very generous in their attempts to teach us poor uneducated rubes.

    April 24, 2011 at 7:41 am |
  12. Karen

    America would be a safer more prosperous country if Americans learned to love and rely on their fellow man as opposed to relying on some ridiculous belief in a god. Believing in god is truly akin to believing in the Easter bunny, Santa Claus and leprauchans. Proof of such an existence falls on the defender of its existence.

    April 24, 2011 at 7:39 am |
  13. lurline whitfield

    Remarkable story, actually, quite similar to my upbringing..God is good all the time. He has truly blessed me.

    April 24, 2011 at 7:37 am |
  14. JJ

    And don't forget that the concept of the "holy ghost" was added to the bible by people who wanted others to believe in the trinity. In other words, it was a political arrangement.

    April 24, 2011 at 7:37 am |
    • Hope4You

      JJ, you are very anti-religion. Jesus was too. I wonder if you have ever met any true believers.

      April 24, 2011 at 7:55 am |
    • sns

      Too bad the entire Bible was inspired by God. What a sad life! Just remember: believing is irrelevant to the fact that you WILL fall on your face infront of Jesus one day!

      April 24, 2011 at 7:58 am |
    • james

      Acts 1 -8 says YOU WILL BE FILLED WITH THE HOLY SPIRIT . nothing political here . it is not made up ....

      April 24, 2011 at 8:00 am |
  15. Will

    The point here is this. everyone has their own religious views and beliefs but, with a world with so much hate and bigots god has been the one to see me through my ups and downs and ins and outs. But theres many different outlooks on religion. I wnt push my religion anyone but I know what I believe ia what I believe. Period no one will persuade me otherwise.

    April 24, 2011 at 7:36 am |
  16. Rebecca

    Thank you CNN for sharing this beautiful story! I was deeply touched and blessed by it! Hope to see more like it and not just on Easter.

    April 24, 2011 at 7:35 am |
  17. cruz

    Beautiful story for those that know and understand the power that faith has in our lives.

    I dont cast judgement on people who dont believe, therefore do not cast judgement upon me or others that have seen the power of God in their lives.

    I also struggled with faith abd religion, but for me there are no words that can describe the feelings I get when I think about God. For me tge feelings are so strong that I can no longer believe there is no God. Its more than a chill, an excitement for a favorite rock group, the brightest light in the world, the strongest embrace, its something you will never know unless you experience it.

    April 24, 2011 at 7:34 am |
  18. Paul Beach

    The Bible records this statement: "He has risen, just as He said."
    And as we look to the future, He will come agan, just as He said.
    At that time, all debate will end.

    April 24, 2011 at 7:32 am |
    • JJ

      Don't forget the one about the cow flying over the moon. That's a good one too, but I do believe all debate ended a long time ago on that one as well. 🙂

      April 24, 2011 at 7:38 am |
    • MG Ready

      There are people who still believe in this crap?

      April 24, 2011 at 7:46 am |
  19. Bill

    Say what you will, but faith is a deeply, intensely personal thing...as is one's relationship with God. But one thing seems quite plain to me: someday, after our earthly life is over, you will stand face-to-face with the living God. Like it or not, admit it or not, it will happen. Think about it.

    April 24, 2011 at 7:31 am |
    • JJ

      Convincing yourself that BS is fact is indeed an intensely personal feeling, indeed. It's a pity that so many children are abused by people who take advantage of the fact that human children are wired to believe anything adults say.

      April 24, 2011 at 7:39 am |
    • Will

      Jj keep an eye out in life look around and youll see gods miracles.....then u will realize his existance and then youll have miracles of your own.

      April 24, 2011 at 7:53 am |
  20. Joe


    April 24, 2011 at 7:30 am |
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About this blog

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.