Why? 'Because God told me to'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

She did not lose faith. There were days when she cried out to God in anger and pain, because an eviction notice had arrived, or the phone had been turned off, or she'd walked miles in the cold and rain, carrying groceries and schoolbooks, cars whizzing by, and no one offering a ride. But she did not lose faith.

How could she think of how far she had come and not believe in a power greater than herself? From drug addict to straight-A college student. From the brink of death to a creator of life: not just Takii, her miracle baby, conceived despite the doctor's predictions, born without breath, the cord wrapped around his neck, but also Ebbie, Junie, Cinny and all the rest of the characters whose struggles and yearnings filled the pages of her fiction.

And so when things got tough, when the food stamps ran out, when eviction seemed inevitable, when the strain of raising a child alone while going to Washington College was almost too much to take, Christine Lincoln did the only thing she knew to do. She waged spiritual warfare. She prayed. She meditated. She spoke to God, and he spoke back.

"I have been criticized, by people who maybe don't have that level of relationship with God, or don't understand," she said recently. "Because it sounds crazy. Who's going to go someplace with no money, no place to live, and then say, 'Well, I'm going because God told me to go.'"

But would it sound crazy if you could examine each step in your painful journey and see so clearly how God has always made a way? The check that came just in time. The unexpected reduction in the rent. The glimpse of a smile on her son's face when she was on the verge of giving up. Angels in her path, time and time again.

"Every time things would start getting really bad financially, my family would say 'Come home,' and I'd be saying, 'Well, if I can just make it through, I know that God is going to bless me mightily.' And he would, every time."

Maybe some people would have said Lincoln was crazy, listening to her two weeks ago, as she sat at her desk at the college's Center for the Study of Black Culture, which she'd nurtured from dream to reality in her three years as a student. At 34, she was about to graduate from Washington College with a degree in English. She had no car, no phone and was on welfare. And yet, she was certain that she and 6-year-old Takii were moving in the fall from Chestertown to South Africa, where she would pursue a master's degree and doctorate in African literature and teach creative writing - as a volunteer - to teen-age victims of violence.

Asked how she was going to finance these plans, she said:

I don't know how. I have no idea where the money's coming from. But I know that when I go, I will not have to work. And I will not have a financial worry. God has promised me that. I don't know how he's going to come up with this money, but I know that he will.

She laughed, a confident, joyful laugh.

And he has until October.

Yesterday, on the day she graduated from Washington College, first in her class with a 4.0 average, Lincoln learned she had won the Sophie Kerr Prize, given annually to the senior who demonstrates the greatest "ability and promise for future fulfillment in the field of literary endeavor."

The prize was $54,266.

Five months early, a mighty blessing indeed.

How could it not be God? Shouldn't she already be dead? If not from drug addiction, or the dangers of the streets, then from the pills she took in an attempt to end her life a decade ago.

But she lived, and ended up in a rehabilitation center in Texas, where a staff member handed her a sheaf of papers, with the instruction: "Read this every night for 30 days."

It was called a letter from God: ... Let me share with you again, the secret you heard at your birth and forgot. You are my greatest miracle. You are the greatest miracle in the world. Those were the first words you ever heard, then you cried. They all cry.

She fell to the floor, sobbing, knowing her life had been saved.

How could it not have been for a purpose? From that day on she would go places and accomplish things she could never have imagined. First she gave birth to Takii, despite having been told that she couldn't get pregnant. He was the son she'd always wanted and an inspiration to live a better life, but his health problems and medical expenses forced her, broke, to move to her mother's house in Baltimore.

"It was a real traumatic time for me," she says. "I didn't know how to make sense of it all. So I started to write."

And she started to know God. He spoke to her, woke her at night, directed her to pages of Scripture, showed her how to meditate and pray for hours at a time. And write. That was part of it. She would write the lessons she was learning, about the Bible and about herself. On the pages of her notebooks her past was revealed and validated and transformed.

Writing as healing

Back then, her writing was a spiritual act, a healing one. She wrote things she couldn't tell anyone - about her past, the behavior she was ashamed of, the abuse she suffered as a child. And then one day she was helping a girlfriend who attended Baltimore City Community College with her homework. "You're the one who should be in college," said the friend.

Lincoln started at BCCC in 1995, at age 29. Writing was no longer a private matter, but something to be shared. In one class she was assigned to write about a piece of family memorabilia. What unfolded on the page was about the only remaining photograph of her long-lost Aunt Rose. "Her inky black hair cascaded down her back like a flowing river. Her eyes were black pearls that sparkled mischievously. She had skin the color of mocha. A wisp of a smile played a game of hide and seek across her full lips."

"I can see her!" the teacher wrote in the margin.

Lincoln could see her, too, but Rose didn't exist. Never did. Lincoln was writing fiction. She was creating people from nothing. What could be more divine, more powerful than that?

It was then that God brought her a memory from long ago, of a 9-year-old girl who wrote a story so good that it decorated the classroom wall all year. The plot of the story was forgotten but not the teacher's words. "Chris, you are a writer."

Other realizations came in the form of signs: A missed bus that told her not to take the job she'd been offered at BCCC after graduation, even though it promised security, health benefits and a life close to her family in Baltimore. An unread magazine article that she just couldn't throw away, even though she tried. Something told her to take it out of the trash - and read it.

It was about the Sophie Kerr award, and the literary program at Washington College.

That was where she was going. She knew it. Even though the school was far from her family, even though the tuition was something like $20,000 a year, even though she had no money and a son to raise.

She knew it with such certainty that she applied to no other schools.

To prepare for her future, Lincoln returned to her past. In her application to Washington College, she wrote about something her grandfather had told her long ago, sitting on the porch at his house in Lutherville. Lincoln, once a good student, had become a rebellious teen-ager, taking drugs, running the streets, getting ready to drop out of high school.

Her grandfather said nothing about her plans. He just told her the story of a proud boy who once dreamed of going to college. Falsely accused of cheating on a test, the boy left school rather than take the test over. But he promised himself that the children he raised, and their children, would go to college.

Even as a teen-ager, as Lincoln wrote in her essay, she realized: That proud man had taken a chance at lowering himself in my eyes just so I wouldn't mess up my life by denying myself an opportunity he had ached for. I was this man's dream.

Follow the journey, and how can you not see the purpose? In 1997 Lincoln arrived at Washington College and met a small band of student leaders trying to educate the administration on ways to make the predominantly white college more diverse and its atmosphere more welcoming to minority students.

Lincoln hadn't liked to speak in public. But now here she was, standing up, giving speeches, protesting, educating, inspiring. Once, after a campus meeting, she was identified in the school newspaper simply as "a woman who spoke with passion." But it was her full name that appeared on the bottom of the Campus Racial Climate Report, co-written with five other students and submitted to the college president in November 1997.

The report not only detailed racist incidents - such as "nigger" being written on residence halls doors and spoken assaults against black students - but outlined a comprehensive plan, complete with costs and priority rankings, to improve the racial climate on campus. This included everything from sensitivity training to improved efforts to hire black faculty members. Nearly all of the objectives in the report have been achieved; Lincoln's pet project, the Center for the Study of Black Culture, opened in April last year.

Though on campus she was fighting for racial equality, in her early life as a writer she ignored the issue of race. The characters in her first stories were colorless and without ethnicity. But as Lincoln's writing developed, she realized she had to look within herself to find her true voice.

"I could no longer separate myself as a black woman from the stories I wanted to tell," she wrote in the introduction to her Sophie Kerr entry. "Not that all of my characters had to be female and black, but I experienced the world from that perspective and so I had to write out of that particular way of viewing the world."

The stories in the winning collection, "Sap Rising," explore "the very idea of what it means to be African-American." Many focus on young women dealing with the tension between the longing for personal freedom and the need to be a part of a community. Most take place in the 1940s and 1950s, in a rural town modeled on Lutherville. It was there, on the back porch of the family farmhouse, that Lincoln's grandmother told her the stories and folktales that formed the root of her voice as a writer.

"I know God gave me the ability, but she fed those seeds. She watered them. She nurtured them."

In April, as Lincoln was preparing to graduate, her grandmother was diagnosed with lung cancer. Lincoln stayed the night with her in the hospital and told her that "'the stories you told me every night, they gave me the power and the magic of words.'"She looked at me, and she said, 'I had no idea ...'

"I asked her if she could just please make it to my graduation."She told me, 'I'm not going to make it, Chris.'"

Lincoln stayed by her side. "It was so beautiful, because I watched her, and she would fall into these states. She wouldn't be asleep, but she wouldn't be awake, and she would start talking to someone, and she would just start smiling and laughing. And it was just this glow. And at first it scared me, and I'd say, 'Nana, who are you talking to?' And she'd say, 'I'm not talking to anyone.' She'd be right in this world but the minute it would get quiet, she'd fall back into it. And she would just be smiling. It was so beautiful. I think she was meeting God. That he was preparing her for Heaven."

She did not lose faith. Not when students who didn't support her cause filled her e-mail with hateful messages. Not when school and work robbed her of time with her son. Not when she was tired, and filled with doubt, and writing stories was so difficult that she sat in her thesis adviser's office and cried.

Not when her grandmother died, the day after Lincoln finished her thesis.

She did not lose faith.

Leader of her class

Yesterday, because she was graduating first in her class, Lincoln led the processional of black-robed students into the gymnasium and took her seat on the end of the front row. Draped around her neck - and around the neck of every African-American graduate - was a brightly colored sash inscribed Class of 2000, a show of unity and pride, courtesy of the Center for the Study of Black Culture.

It was clear from the cheers when she received her diploma - along with an award for best English student - that Lincoln was loved and respected. But it was not until the name of the Sophie Kerr winner was announced that the place exploded.

Christine Renee Lincoln.

She bent over in her seat and sat for a moment, her hands over her face, tears coming to her eyes. Then she stood, walked to the stage, accepted the award and paused for the snapping cameras as the crowd rose to its feet. It sounded as if the applause would never end.

Finally she returned to her seat and the place quieted. As the provost resumed reading the list of awards, Lincoln, her head slightly bent, moved her lips in silent prayer.

Moments later, her name was called again, and she was awarded the George Washington Medal, for the senior "who shows the greatest promise of understanding and realizing in life and work the ideals of a liberal education."

Then there were more photographs, and a flood of reporters, and all the attention that comes with winning the Sophie Kerr Prize, the largest undergraduate literary award in the country. In the hours and days ahead, everyone would want to know Christine Lincoln's story.

And so, starting with a news conference after the ceremony, she would tell it. She would tell it for her grandmother, for her son, for other African-American students. For anyone who has ever lost faith.

"Why did you come to Washington College?" a reporter asked.

"Because," Lincoln began, "God told me to."

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