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She opens doors once closed to women

By James Blair Special to The Christian Science Monitor / February 1, 2001


More than two decades ago, Vashti Murphy McKenzie - now Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church's 18th Episcopal District in southeast Africa - realized God had something more in mind for her than her then-successful career in journalism and broadcasting.

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"Lightning didn't flash and great balls of hail didn't fall from the sky," she remembers. "It was more like an inner knowing."

Acknowledging that call, she found "doors would open for me in areas where God wanted me to go." And when some of those doors opened, Bishop McKenzie became the first woman in the 214-year history of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) to walk through them.

There was, for example, her 1990 appointment, after pastoring two other congregations, to Baltimore's Payne Memorial Church.

"It's a fairly large church, and it was the first time in our denomination that a woman had been assigned to a congregation of that size," says McKenzie.

The assignment was as challenging as it was prestigious. Payne Memorial was located not only in the city's urban core, with all the attendant problems of drugs, crime, and violence, but also in a neighborhood of other large and active religious institutions.

By carefully assessing the needs of the church and its community, focusing efforts on spiritual growth, educational and economic development, and community revitalization, Payne Memorial, under her leadership, was able to institute 25 new ministries and increase its congregation from 300 to more than 1,700.

Another door opened at the AME's quadrennial convention in July 2000 with her election and consecration as bishop of the 18th district, which comprises some 10,000 members and 200 churches in Lesotho, Botswana, Swaziland, and Mozambique.

This, too, was a first for a woman, but it was not necessarily a sure thing.

"There were some from other delegations who kept saying we can't elect a woman because the Africans are not going to receive her," recalls McKenzie. Representatives of the 18th district disagreed. While the continent is "decidedly patriarchal," she notes, "there are a lot of strong women in leadership roles in Africa." They gave her a standing ovation when her name was finally called.

She was, perhaps, better prepared than most for her new posting.

"I had been in and out of Africa since 1994 and had been to three of the four countries where I serve. I had met some of the people, knew some of the leadership, and had some of the culture."

She also had the AME's deep tradition of community involvement and service going for her.

"Especially in the African-American community, it has never been just about counting souls. In the black church, we always had to take a look at all the other needs that were not being met. The ministry had to respond to any issue that impacted the congregation, because we're talking about ministry in the trenches."

Nevertheless, she says, cultural differences could get in the way of understanding.