April 20, 1998 12:00 PM

It was a particularly urgent wake-up call that changed Iyanla Vanzant’s life early one morning in 1979. “The voice of God herself came to me and said, ‘Leave here now,’ ” recalls Vanzant, then a 25-year-old mother of three living in Brooklyn with her abusive second husband. Carrying clothes stuffed into grocery bags, Vanzant led her crying children to the subway. When she realized she was penniless, she says, “that voice came again and said, ‘Don’t give up.’ ” Moments later she was on her way to a friend’s apartment, thanks to a stranger who paid her fare.

Vanzant still rises early, only now it’s from a king-size bed in her colonial home near Annapolis, Md. “I’ll wake up and say, ‘Good morning, God, what is it you want me to do today?’ I’m grateful for everything—from being homeless to sitting in a half-million-dollar house.”

That enduring sense of gratitude is a pillar of the self-help gospel that has made Vanzant perhaps the most popular spiritual guru among African-Americans. Her seven inspirational books, including two new bestsellers, One Day My Soul Just Opened Up and In the Meantime, have sold more than 1 million copies, and Vanzant’s recipe of New Age affirmations and African spiritualism spiced with frank accounts of her missteps led one book store manager to call her “Whoopi Goldberg with a message.” Vanzant, 44, who five years ago couldn’t pay her rent, is earning $1.1 million for a three-book deal and counts Jesse Jackson and Danny Glover as fans.

“Her books are just so powerful,” says comedian Sinbad, who carries them in his gym bag and hands out her popular Acts of Faith to friends. “You read them and feel like you can make a difference in life.”

Vanzant’s own life began in Brooklyn in 1953 when she was born in the back of a taxi. Her mother, who had not married her father, died when Vanzant was 2, and Rhonda, as she was called, was sent to live with her paternal grandmother. But the woman was so violent, once beating Vanzant with an iron’s electrical cord, that at age 5 her father and stepmother took her in. Two years later, after the family lost their apartment, she went to live with family friends, including a man who raped her, she says, when she was 9. At 16 she gave birth to a son, Damon, now 27. A brief marriage at 19 produced daughter Gemmia, now 25, and in 1977 she married Charles Vanzant, who gave her a daughter, Nisa—and steady beatings. That’s when she followed the divine marching orders.

But Vanzant’s life wasn’t through changing direction. After putting herself through college and law school in New York City, in 1988 she took a job in the Philadelphia public defender’s office. Two years later, again heeding the Voice, she walked out of her office one evening without clearing her desk. “I didn’t want to practice law,” she says now. “I wanted power.” (Her former boss insists Vanzant was dismissed.) Out of work, she combined legal training with her spiritual beliefs—she took the name Iyanla (pronounced ee-YON-la) after studying the philosophy of Nigeria’s Yoruba culture—and began lecturing welfare women on changing their lives. In 1990 she wrote Tapping the Power Within: A Path to Self-Empowerment for Black Women. In 1993, Simon & Schuster published Acts of Faith, which remains her best-selling book with 765,000 copies in print.

For Vanzant, professional success has been accompanied by personal happiness. Last May she married childhood friend Adeyemi Bandele, 47, a father of seven grown children who is helping Vanzant raise her 6-year-old grandson, Oluwa, while daughter Nisa, 23, “finds herself,” says Vanzant. “We are blessed,” says Bandele, “but it has taken a lot of work to get to this place.” And Vanzant says she struggles every day to stay there. “I can still cry at 44 about being raped at 9,” she says. “The wound is still there. I’m trying to save myself and I’m doing it publicly and getting paid for it. If that helps somebody, that’s wonderful.”

Larry Hackett

Jane Sims Podesta in Davidsonville, Md.

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