McKenzie, Vashti M. 1947–
Vashti M. McKenzie 1947–
African Methodist Episcopal Church Bishop
Her lineage is rooted in distinction. Her fervor exemplifies a passion for doing God’s work. Her perseverance drives a desire for certain accomplishment. Once in her presence, it is clear that this visionary’s compassion, spirituality, and strength will forever be etched in the memories of those she’s encountered. It seems Vashti Murphy McKenzie has been pre-ordained for greatness. As pastor of Payne Memorial AME Church in Baltimore, McKenzie made phenomenal accomplishments within the church and pioneered successful efforts to bridge the gap between the church and its surrounding community. After serving 10 years as pastor of Payne Memorial, McKenzie made an exceptional stride toward demolishing the walls that have separated the church and women for hundreds of years when she became the first female bishop of the AME church. She accepted the victory as her own, but also as an opportunity that would open doors for other Christian women across the globe.
McKenzie’s story began in 1947. Raised in Baltimore, she grew up in a well-respected family that was dedicated to community service. Two members of her family made historical efforts in early attempts to gain equality for blacks—her great-grandfather, John Murphy, was the founder of the African American newspapers. Her namesake and grandmother, Vashti Turley Murphy, was one of the 22 founders of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., a public service organization that began in 1913. Today McKenzie serves as the sorority’s national chaplain.
McKenzie attended Morgan State in Baltimore until her junior year when she traded books for matrimony and married professional basketball player, Stan McKenzie, a Baltimore Bullets team member. Her husband was transferred to the Phoenix Suns, but the couple later returned to the Baltimore area. Back in Maryland, McKenzie decided to complete her bachelor’s degree at the University of Maryland. After graduation, she worked as a fashion model and a journalist. According to www.payne-ame.org, McKenzie held a number of positions that ranged from staff writer to corporate vice president of programming at media organizations including the Arizona Republic Newspaper, The Afro-American Newspaper, WYBC Radio, and WJZ-TV. McKenzie was maintaining a career, marriage, and motherhood, but something was missing in her life. Though McKenzie formed a relationship with Jesus Christ as a child and had been active in the church and the community, she realized
At a Glance…
Born Vashti Murphy on May 28, 1947; married Stanley McKenzie; children: Jon-Mikael, Vashti-Jasmine, Joi-Marie; Education: Bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland, College Park; Master of Divinity degree from Howard University School in Washington, D.C.; Doctor of Ministry degree from United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. Religion: African Methodist Episcopal.
Career: Fashion model; journalist: Arizona Republic Newspaper, The Afro-American Newspaper, WYBC Radio, WJZ-TV; pastor of Payne Memorial AME Church in Baltimore, MD, 1990-00; bishop to the 18th Episcopal District in Southern Africa, 2000.
Selected Awards: Named in Ebony magazine’s “Year of the Black Woman” 1992; selected for Ebony magazine’s Honor Roll of Great Afri can-American Preachers, 1993; received a letter of commendation from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees for Payne Memorial AME church’s support of the “Love Baton Project,” 1996; delivered closing prayer on opening night of the Democratic National Convention, 1996; named at the top of Ebony magazine’s 15 Greatest African-American Female Preachers, 1997; delivered closing day invocation at the Democratic National Convention, 2000; honored for achievement and community service by organizations including: Religious Role Model, 100 Black Women (Richmond, Virginia chapter), Operation PUSH, National Alliance of Black School Educators, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority (Baltimore Alumnae Chapter), Voreese College, Howard University Alumni,
Selected Memberships: 100 Black Women; Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, national chaplain; Wilberforce University, board of trustees; National Advisory Board of the Family and Community Violence Prevention Program for historically black colleges and universities.
Addresses: Office—c/o Payne Memorial AME Church, 1714 W. Madison Ave, Baltimore, MD 21217.
that God intended for her to be more than a member of the church and the community; she realized that she had been called to preach.
In her late 30s, this mother of three stepped out on faith, left her job at a Christian radio station, and enrolled in Howard University’s divinity school. According to Ebony, McKenzie and her husband joined forces to raise their three children, Jon-Mikael, Vashti-Jasmine, and Joi-Marie, so she could tend to her studies. Facing opposition from male counterparts who doubted her capabilities, McKenzie pressed on and obtained a Master of Divinity Degree from Howard University’s School of Divinity. She later earned a Doctor of Ministry Degree from United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.
After receiving her divinity degree from Howard University, McKenzie was assigned to a small church in Chesapeake City, but it was her 1990 assignment to Baltimore’s Payne Memorial AME church as its first female pastor that triggered her metamorphosis. Historically, the AME church, which was founded in 1787, has been considered a progressive force in matters of combating racism, but has been less motivated in the fight against sexism. According to Christianity Today, women account for 70 percent of church congregations, yet less than one percent of senior pastors in the AME church are female. McKenzie’s assignment to Payne Memorial’s pulpit placed her as the leader of several hundred members, but her appointment came with challenges. Payne Memorial was in the heart of Baltimore’s inner city—an area riddled with blight. Despite the apparent obstacles, the church experienced a growth in population from 330 to nearly 1,700 members under McKenzie’s leadership and established an impressive 15 new ministries.
The church worked vigorously to erase a long-standing division between church and community. Payne Memorial worked in collaboration with its non-profit community service agency, Payne Memorial Outreach, Inc., to build many programs including a summer youth camp, an after school program, a food pantry, and a rights to passage program for boys and girls. Payne Memorial also created a job service program that provides training and job placement for welfare recipients. In 1997, the church received a $1.8 million contract to administer the job service program which supports more than 1,000 clients. Another community program developed under McKenzie’s tenure was the Human and Economic Development Center—a five story building that serves as a center for education and senior care. “We were able to move from the understanding of that [traditional] concept to the concept of reshaping our spiritual and community service delivery needs from one of just coping and adapting to one of empowerment,” McKenzie was quoted as saying in Crisis magazine.
Soon the news of McKenzie and Payne’s work captured the attention of the masses. Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley told The Seattle Times, “There’s a core of people in the city who demonstrate their faith through their actions, and Vashti McKenzie is one of them. She puts one foot in front of the other and she expects everyone to march along with her to meet that goal.”
Gaining popularity and recognition, McKenzie spent much of her time traveling throughout the world as a preacher and keynote speaker. She even managed to continue her journalism trade and published her first book, Not Without a Struggle: Leadership Development for African American Women in Ministry, in 1996. Soon she realized that she was in store for a second calling.
McKenzie told Ebony that she received a second calling while preaching a service at Payne Memorial. “A voice told me I had to take what was given to me and share it with the world. At that moment, I knew I would be a candidate [for bishop],” she was quoted as saying. McKenzie knew the road to bishop would be difficult to tread. While the United Methodist Church had elected its first female bishop in 1984, and the Episcopal Church elected its first female bishop in 1989, the AME church had never elected a woman bishop.
McKenzie began a vigorous campaign for bishop, traveling domestically and abroad to share her vision for the AME church. Her efforts were rewarded on July 11, 2000, when at age 53 she added her own link to a 213-year-old chain and was elected as the first female bishop of the AME church. According to Christianity Today, the AME denomination was the first of three large African-American denominations to appoint a woman as bishop; the other two are AME Zion and Christian Methodist Episcopal.
“Because of God’s favor, the stained-glass ceiling has been pierced and broken,” McKenzie was quoted as saying in The Dallas Morning News during her acceptance speech in Cincinnati, Ohio. According to www.africana.com, McKenzie acknowledged her appointment as a triumph for the many women who came before her. “I stand on the shoulders of the unordained women who served without appointment or affirmation. I don’t stand here alone,” she was quoted as saying. As one of two women among 42 candidates, McKenzie, a first-time campaigner, received the second highest number of votes. According to The Dallas Morning News, McKenzie was consecrated as a new bishop with three others—Rev. Richard Norris of Philadelphia, Rev. Gregory Ingram of Detroit, and Rev. Preston Williams of Atlanta.
Newly elected bishops are assigned to Africa if there are no available districts in the United States, and are required to serve four years abroad during their tenure. AME congregations exist in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean Islands, England and Africa. McKenzie is one of five African episcopates and will lead the 18th Episcopal District in Southeast Africa. Her district includes Lesotho, Botswana, Mozambique and Swaziland. McKenzie plans to address issues including the AIDS crisis, economic development, church membership and educational advancement.
Despite anticipation of opposition from the nomination, McKenzie told Ebony that she received exceptional support. “Cab drivers stopped me in the street. Hotel workers came to my door. Conventioneers sent me cookies. People of all races grabbed me and hugged me. It’s not just my victory anymore. It’s a victory for the human spirit. We are taking off the glasses of racism, classism and sexism that blind us to human potential.”
While her duties as bishop will keep her busy in Africa, McKenzie has still found time to pursue other ventures. Her second book, Strength in the Struggle: Leadership Development for Women will be published in 2002. As the title indicates, there is still a struggle for women in leadership roles. It is a struggle that McKenzie has faced with a vengeance and is driven to overcome. McKenzie may have expressed her hope for the future of African-American women when, in Not Without a Struggle, she wrote: “Some of the greatest sources of frustration for women of African descent in America is having the door shut in our faces twice.” She continued, “There must be concern as long as the door is shut for any reason, racism or sexism. A community divided cannot stand. Only the committed and continual strength of both genders, serving with each other and not pitted against each other, will propel us towards a biblical egalitarianism. The men will not make it without the women. The women will not make it without the men. The struggle continues.”
Not Without a Struggle: Leadership Development for African American Women in Ministry, 1996.
Strength in the Struggle: Leadership Development for Women, 2002.
McKenzie, Vashti, Not Without a Struggle: Leadership Development for African American Women in Ministry, United Church Press, 1996, p. 119-120.
Christianity Today, July 24, 2000.
Crisis Magazine, December 2000.
The Dallas Morning News, July 13, 2000, p. 5A.
Ebony, September 2000, p. 185-189.
The Seattle Times, July 13, 2000, p. A15.
—Shellie M. Saunders
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