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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. Dm

    THERE IS A GENOCIDE TAKING PLACE UNDER ANOTHER DEMOCRATIC WATCH!!!!!
    Obama is too busy making believe he is a christian while endorsing an election frauds by the UN, ex…. the Ivory Coast in favor of Allasane Ouattara. Since then, that candidate (Allssane Ouattara) has been on a killing spree to eradicate all Christians. The Ivory Coast is the largest Christian nation in Africa (At least it use to be)
    The massacre perpetrated by Allassane Ouattara (http://ivorycoastgenocide.yolasite.com/) Images are graphic. The puppet that Obama try to legitimize through a congratulation speech. (www.youtube.com/user/whitehouse#p/search/0/GHRA4jqeCaQ)

    April 24, 2011 at 8:15 am |
  2. Florence B. Matyas

    It is my opinion that people are in different places in their bodies (each person with a biopsychosocial makeup at a given point in time). When people are at a crossroad, and resolution must occur, bystanders may receive that which they did not expect. Law, medical, religious"enforcement" are meant to protect and keep people free in this United States. If they do not, then there is a problem.

    April 24, 2011 at 8:14 am |
  3. Ricky

    Did God give any one of you premission to speak for him? Your relationship with God is between you and him. For he will be you judge. God only and no one else

    April 24, 2011 at 8:14 am |
  4. Joe12

    This story is not news. It is not even information.

    April 24, 2011 at 8:14 am |
  5. Larry

    This story reminded me so much of my own childhood, I got a little chocked up. The Holy Goast came upon me in the car on the way home from work one day. Through the years of military service and shift work I've drifted away from the church a little, I'venever gone far. Thanks for the memories God Bless You.

    April 24, 2011 at 8:13 am |
  6. bigrotti

    I think these stories are posted so that it generates a discussion between others, that will hopefully turn to a bunch of bickering through a keyboard and solves nothing. @zenith and @christopher, I see/like your points you've made. No matter what your religion: Happy Easter everyone! Have a good day! (no disrespect to anyone posting)

    April 24, 2011 at 8:13 am |
  7. stubbycat

    This is a great story and reminds me when granny and grandpa took me to the Church of God at 62nd. and Langley Street in Chicago. I didn't see any wigs flying through the air but the women did get up and scream, "I got the Holy Ghost, I got the Holy Ghost" from time to time. Interesting enough it was always the women and not the men who "got the Holy Ghost." I loved this church but didn't like all the excitement and often found that my personal sense of the scriptures wasn't what I got when listening to the pastor. I preferred my own. As I grew in life I turned to GOD my own way, which each of us is allowed to do, and would often get such a spiritual sense of Life that I would drop the physical sense altogether. It was this profound consciousness which allowed me through inner guidance to rescue my mother when she was having a heart attack. I am very grateful that I am allowing myself to be awakened spiritually.

    April 24, 2011 at 8:13 am |
  8. bigrotti

    I think thee stories are posted so that it generates a discussion between others, that will hopefully turn to a bunch of bickering through a keyboard and solves nothing. @zenith and @christopher, I see/like your points you've made. No matter what your religion: Happy Easter everyone! Have a good day! (no disrespect to anyone posting)

    April 24, 2011 at 8:11 am |
  9. james

    he is risen ................. HE IS RISEN INDEED

    April 24, 2011 at 8:11 am |
  10. J

    What a wonderful blog...and what a shame to see some of these neg comments. This man isn't asking anyone to believe what he believes, he's just sharing a story of his life, and what a beautiful story it is. It's not a question of whether you believe in god or not, it's a question of whether you can understand the humanity of the story.

    April 24, 2011 at 8:09 am |
  11. Propel

    If it bothers you to read about other's people faith, don't read it. Have respect for those who do belileve, and are trying to live lives of Peace, joy, compassion, hope and love. May your hatred be softened by all that is good, by the example of those who do believe in a higher power than ourselves, and not the mess of humans.

    April 24, 2011 at 8:08 am |
  12. BornAgain

    Ally: The Almighty God did not need a son – he gave one – as a gift for you. John 3:16, 17 "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him, should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved." And, your other answer is "The Holy Trinity" – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one. There is no backseat. Jesus died on the cross for our sins. (Father, forgive them for they know not what they do) He's asking for our forgiveness.

    April 24, 2011 at 8:07 am |
  13. jen

    So some dead guy is watching me to save me and every time something good happens its due to god and when something bad happens, well, its a plan. So all those children with cancer and suffering are because god has a plan, Yes, I want to have you born, suffer mercilessly, and die so you can go to heaven. and if you disagree with me I burn you in hell. YEA that's love.
    How about people looking in the mirror and facing reality and treat others with love, and compassion. Feed a starving child, help your neighbor. God or not, we are a pathetic race and need to get our heads out of our backsides and stop tripping on fairy tales,

    April 24, 2011 at 8:06 am |
    • sns

      He isn't dead actually. Just sayin'.

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

      I could not have expressed this any better than you have.

      April 24, 2011 at 8:16 am |
    • marrod

      I grew up with Jesus by my side and I know that when I die I will go to his side. This world is a mere passage to the afterlife. When our bodies die our soul has to go somewhere. Think about it our bodies are just instruments that carry our souls. I know that when I am gone my soul will rise with the ONE above, the ONE who WAS, IS and forever will BE. He is waiting for me, for you and for all of those who accept him and I am sure for those who don't because he is all about love. Open your heart to him and he will introduce himself to you. He is always waiting there patiently.
      Happy Easter everyone.

      April 24, 2011 at 8:33 am |
  14. rewinder

    To ask for proof of god's existance is contrary to the idea of faith. If in fact we humans had proof of the existance of God and his power, and knoledge of what we are to face in our afterlife, then only a fool or a schizo would live a life that promises eternal suffering, hence having proof of God's existance would compel a rational, thinking human being to believe in and worship God, because there is proof of his existance. This worship would be involintary, akin to relegious slavery. God doesn't want people to love and worship him because they are compeled to, because they have proof of him. He wants us to worship him because we love him and we believe in him, even without proof. That is why it's called having faith. Faith is the evidence of things not seen.

    April 24, 2011 at 8:05 am |
  15. sns

    Regardless of your belief or unbelief it is irrelevant to the fact that ALL will fall on their face before the Lord Jesus on that day. And at that point... it's too late! But you WILL see even though you don't think so!!

    April 24, 2011 at 8:05 am |
  16. jen

    A good laugh reading all the comments posted. Thanks for making me smile today. Now off to nosh on some eggs.

    April 24, 2011 at 8:00 am |
  17. Buddha Dude...

    Cool story! Calll it, "receiving the holly spirit", or "enlightenment". It's ALL good!

    Just try to keep in mind, Christians don't have a monopoly on the connection to the Higher Power. Many different rivers flow into the ocean.

    April 24, 2011 at 7:58 am |
  18. Jason

    In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, I offer this prayer to You, Blessed Savior, for the souls of all humanity, whether they believe as I do or not. Those who question You, or declare that You do not exist, know not what they do. They have been blinded, whether it be by Satan or the world. Please allow Your Love and Your Mercy to be manifested for them, so that they may believe and be saved, through the powerful, and best of all, FREE, transaction of believing in Jesus Christ, who was nailed to a wooden cross almost two thousand years ago so that we may be saved. He didn't do it to prove a point, He did it to be the bridge the Father wanted him to be, a direct connection to us. Open their eyes, and soften their hearts to know the truth, that is the freely given salvation through the blood shed on Calvary.

    Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name,
    Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on Earth, as it is in Heaven.
    Give us this day our daily bread,
    and forgive us our traspasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
    Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,
    for Thine is the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Glory, forever.
    Amen

    April 24, 2011 at 7:56 am |
    • jimmynog

      blah blah blah mumblymumblymumbly. You fake SOB.

      April 24, 2011 at 8:18 am |
  19. gail

    Thank you Mr.Blake, what a touching story. We are all that same insecure little child inside. We all need an anchor for our soul.
    It's not about merely a sunday worship service, these are the last days. I am so sorry for the major trajedies that await people.
    The Lord is coming very soon. Prophetic signs, all around us. Is Jerusalem theirs to divide? Nope, but they'll try. Unleashing so much destruction on everyone.
    My hope is in the Lord. God Bless.

    April 24, 2011 at 7:56 am |
    • jimmynog

      Gail-twit, you do not have a soul. Nor a brain.

      April 24, 2011 at 8:17 am |
  20. Dylan

    What complete and utter, delusional mumbo jumbo. No wonder the human world is so horribly neurotic. Humans need to take responsibility for the fact that they are fearful and don't comprehend a lot of things.DEAL WITH YOUR FEAR and stop projecting all these ridiculous theories upon the rest of us.Religion is the opiate of the masses.

    April 24, 2011 at 7:56 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.