May 3, 2019 Brian Allain

When “I AM” Calls

 

By Chanté Griffin

 

 

“Write a book about race and Christianity.”

God’s words hit me as strong and thick as the Ghanaian sun under which I sat.

Still, I still questioned their legitimacy, partly because I felt unqualified. At the time, the only bylines to my name were the ones I had amassed during college: a poem about Ebonics published in Stanford University’s Black Arts Quarterly, and a couple of news stories completed during my internship at the Claremont Courier, the closest city newspaper to the Claremont Colleges.

“If you’re really telling me to write a book, Lord,” I volleyed back, “then have someone else tell me, too.”

Looking back, I recognize that this “fleece” wasn’t only about not feeling qualified; it was about wanting to do everything perfectly, including hearing from God. But thankfully God works through our insecurities and our imperfections.

One week later, this time stateside, one of my students, Karla, looked me square in the face and said, “You should write a book about race and Christianity, you know— like Doug Schaupp’s Being White book, but the black version.” (Backstory: Karla was one of the students I worked with as a university chaplain with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Doug Schaupp was an InterVarsity colleague who had written a book about race.)

When I heard Karla’s words, my eyes bulged externally as my spirt leaped internally.

Okay God, I whispered internally, I hear you.

Always the “A” student, I started the book project almost immediately. One evening, after a long day of meetings, I sat down with my laptop, opened up Word, created a document, and…stopped.

I don’t know how to write a book, I thought. I have no idea where to begin.

I researched local writing programs and located a memoir writing class through UCLA Extension. It was a bit pricey, but seemed perfect. Right before I was set to register, my mom recommended I check out my local community college. “You can usually find the same classes, but way cheaper,” she advised me. She was right, as moms usually are. I enrolled in a Memoir writing class, led by Professor Joe Ryan, who also taught at the University of Southern California. Thank you Jesus for university level classes for community college prices!

That community college class introduced me to the fundamentals of good writing. I knew nothing about writing (outside of how to craft a basic news story and the lessons my high school English teacher had drilled into me). I made every mistake newbie writers make: I told the story in chronological order, I named every character, even if she wasn’t important to the story arc, and I started every sentence with “I.” In short, I didn’t understand that non-fiction writing is as much about shaping a story as it is about telling the truth. I discovered that although memoir is true, its truth is shaped.

Eagerly, I took the class a second time, only this time as an Independent Study course. My writing improved, and I rushed to finish the first quarter of the book. I was on a roll, excited to be doing the thing God had told me to do. I didn’t realize then that sometimes God puts us on a path, only to take us off it.

“Stop writing the book,” God told me.

Like a defiant teenager, I kept going, mainly because I’m not a quitter. I refuse to be one of those people who say they’re gonna write a book but never finish it, I told myself.

“Stop writing the book,” God told me again.

But again, I kept going because I had been accepted into VONA Voices, a prestigious summer writing workshop co-founded by Pulitzer Prize author Junot Díaz.

“Stop writing the book,” God told me a third time.

This time I listened. After the workshop, I set the manuscript on my bookshelf. Disappointed and sullen, I pleaded with God, Please let me know when to pick this up again.

 

*

 

On February 26, 2012, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by a neighborhood watchman who insisted the young boy, carrying only an iced tea and a pack of Skittles, was up to no good.

August 9, 2014, 18-year-old Michael Brown Jr. was shot and killed.

November 23, 2014, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was killed.

April 12, 2015, 25-year-old Freddie Gray was murdered.

Alton Sterling was shot and killed July 5, 2016. The next day, July 6, 2016, Philando Castille was killed in front of his girlfriend and her baby.

The murders of these young black men and others like them ushered me into an extended period of mourning for Black people in the US who have been killed by the police and vigilante citizens in dubious circumstances.

So in 2017, when all the Black folks I knew were hurt and disillusioned, and political pundits were trying to figure out how a presidential candidate who espoused racist and sexist views could become President, I began to wonder if it was time to revisit the book., even though by then I had published numerous bylines as a part-time freelance writer, but I still felt under-qualified. I prayed, asking God, “Who am I to write this book? I can think of several other people more qualified, who are also better writers…”

God responded back, “I AM is sending you.”

That’s when I cried and realized—as cliché as it may sound—that it’s not about me.

I was used to being a star student, but this book would be different. God would have to work through my imperfections. Not only that, he would shine through them.

I’m not the best writer, but I am called. I’m not the most qualified person to write this book, but I’m called. Strangely, this sense of call compels me to study the craft of writing and to build my resumé; Four years into my freelance writing career, I hold bylines in almost 50 publications.

Still, my hope rests in the call and the God who calls. This, I’m learning, is the best way to operate—in book writing and in life.