NEWS FEATURE: First Woman AME Bishop Begins Her Tenure

c. 2000 Religion News Service BALTIMORE _ Just before reciting her final benediction as pastor of Payne Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church, Bishop Vashti McKenzie concentrated on the ongoing needs of her congregation. “Now, let me remind you, Rev. Harriet is looking for you in Bible study on Wednesday,” she said, referring to Harriet McCombs, […]

c. 2000 Religion News Service

BALTIMORE _ Just before reciting her final benediction as pastor of Payne Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church, Bishop Vashti McKenzie concentrated on the ongoing needs of her congregation.

“Now, let me remind you, Rev. Harriet is looking for you in Bible study on Wednesday,” she said, referring to Harriet McCombs, one of her ministerial staffers. “Don’t take this day as an excuse to back away from your spiritual development.”

McKenzie, 53, was set to depart Wednesday (Sept. 27) for her African assignment as the first female bishop of the 213-year-old AME denomination, but just days before she seemed to relish her last time in the pulpit. She rocked her head to the music of the Mighty Mass Choir, recalled the times she celebrated births and stood at gravesides with members, and urged congregants to do a “pew check-up” to ensure their neighbors were “saved” and didn’t need to be escorted down the aisle during the invitation to Christian discipleship.

After focusing on the spiritual development of the congregation, McKenzie walked down the street to unveil the cornerstone of the inner-city church’s latest initiative for economic development.

The NIMROD Center, an acronym recalling a biblical hunter and standing for Neighbors Investing Money & Resources for Development, evolved from a dilapidated apartment house that once served as a haven for drug users. It became a $1.8 million economic development project with financial support from city, state and federal governments.

“That’s cause for us to shout, fall out, scream and say `Thank you, Jesus,”’ McKenzie said from the entranceway of the nearly finished five-story building before leading a brief service dedicating it to God.

The center will include a senior adult day-care center, a computer lab and business incubation space.

“Our community needed to have a bright spot on the corner and now the bright spot has begun,” she said.

Although women bishops date to the early part of the 20th century in African-American Pentecostal groups, McKenzie’s July consecration marks the first time a woman in a mainline African-American denomination has reached the top level of its clergy.

The weeks before her departure to Lesotho, the base for her oversight of four countries in southern Africa, were a whirlwind of celebratory activities. She gave the invocation at a White House prayer breakfast, received an honorary degree at her alma mater, Howard University in Washington, and served as the guest of honor at numerous events sponsored by well-wishers.

The Baltimore native, whose family founded the Afro-American newspaper chain, credits God for giving her the stamina to keep up with the rapid pace as she transforms from a congregational pastor to the leader of 200 AME churches in Botswana, Swaziland, Mozambique and Lesotho.

“God gives you the energy to do what needs to be done,” she said in an interview. “Plus, I love what I do. I love to preach. I love to pastor.”

Members of her Baltimore congregation crowded the foyer, waiting for the 8 o’clock service to conclude, so they could fill the 500-seat sanctuary and its overflow room to hear her last sermon during the second Sunday service. Cited in 1997 by Ebony magazine as one of the top 15 African-American women preachers in the country, McKenzie drinks hot ginger tea with lemon and honey to preserve her preaching voice.

“She preaches on things that everyone can relate to,” said Valerie Vaughn, 42, sitting in a pew upholstered in a shade of blackberry McKenzie selected for its calming effect. “She’s a sister girlfriend preacher.”

Jasmine McKenzie, one of the bishop’s three children who will stay behind in the United States, introduced the bishop at Howard’s convocation Sept. 22 and acknowledged her mother’s sermons reached her when parental prodding did not.

“She taught me to go for it even when there were times when I didn’t want to exactly hear what she had to say,” said the younger McKenzie, a Howard sophomore. “She managed to fit the right advice in a sermon so that when I wasn’t paying attention during the week, I could hear it on the weekend.”

For the decade that she led the 103-year-old congregation in growing from 330 to 1,700 members, the elder McKenzie proved to be a role model for her daughter, members, officers and her 14-member ministerial staff, 12 of whom are women.

“When I look at her, I see the woman, but I see moreso the leader,” said Marilyn Aklin, executive director of Payne Memorial Outreach, the church’s nonprofit, faith-based agency that created projects such as the NIMROD Center and a welfare-to-work initiative that has trained 1,000 people and placed more than 680 in new jobs.

“It was comforting to see another role model.”

McKenzie, a former newspaper reporter and television executive, said she didn’t have many people to look up to when she pursued the ministry. In the early 1990s, she wrote a doctoral dissertation aimed at guiding African-American women religious leaders that laid the groundwork for her 1996 book “Not Without a Struggle.”

She confided in a male mentor at Howard University School of Divinity after keeping secret for almost a decade that she felt God was calling her to be a bishop.

At first, McKenzie found the prospect “very, very frightening,” but she said the Rev. Lawrence Jones, then dean of the divinity school, convinced her that she needed to listen to God’s call to be a bishop.

“When people began to affirm what God was saying to me _ and they had no idea because I shared it with no one _ when they began to say, `You’re going to be bishop someday,’ I used to laugh, `Oh right,” she recalled. “But I knew what God was saying in my heart and now God was sending people to say it to my face.”

Five years after “God and I agreed together,” McKenzie is headed to the AME Church’s 18th Episcopal District. Her husband, former professional basketball player Stan McKenzie, will serve as supervisor of missions _ the position traditionally held by female spouses of bishops.

In that southern African region, she says, people are faced with poverty, AIDS and earnings of $100 a year.

“It’s a very challenging task that’s ahead of me and I will attempt to tackle it the way I tackle most things _ by prayer and fasting,” she said.

The bishop also plans to do a needs assessment with leaders of the regional AME conferences to learn how best to help them during her four-year term there.


Many in the church speak of the sea change in opinion about women’s leadership in the denomination _ from her congregation to her now-fellow bishops.

“The same ones that didn’t want a female don’t want to see her leave the congregation,” said Floyd Cooper, chairman of Payne Memorial’s trustee board. “She has had that much impact on their lives.”

In early September, at the Atlanta funeral for Edith Ming, the wife of Bishop Donald Ming of the Philadelphia-based First Episcopal District, McKenzie rose to make acknowledgments for the grieving family and found herself the recipient of a standing ovation.

Pre-election support came from local church members, her women colleagues in the ministry and her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, of which she is national chaplain.

Now, she wears congratulatory gifts coming from her election _ a necklace from the AME bishop of the Baltimore-Washington area and a huge amethyst ring surrounded by diamonds from Sisters of the Covenant, a group of African-American preachers. Sorority sisters have called her affectionately “Soror Bishop McKenzie.”


In addition to the new face in the leadership of her denomination, community members say McKenzie has brought change to Baltimore.

Besides the economic development programs of Payne Memorial Outreach, McKenzie founded the Collective Banking Group of Baltimore and Vicinity, which includes four banking institutions and 107 churches and has fostered church construction and expansion as well as financial services in minority communities.

Now, as McKenzie leaves her hometown, both church and community leaders say it is a bittersweet time.

“The city is very happy, very proud,” said Joseph Haskins, chairman and CEO of the Harbor Bank of Maryland. “We’re going to lose this dynamic person, but we’re hoping that because she has family roots here that after she kind of travels the world a little bit, that she’ll return.”

McKenzie, in her sermon, urged her church to continue on without her _ and threatened to return and check on them.

“Don’t lose your zeal. Don’t lose your excitement. Don’t lose your enthusiasm,” she shouted, pulling the congregation to its feet. “Let the power of the Spirit resonate in you.”

Then her voice softened and she added: “Don’t let me come back and find out that you done slipped, but you are in place and doing the work of the Lord.”


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