LOS ANGELES — 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.
"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.
"If you take the [cultural] blinders off ..., you find you meet people who have the same needs you have. The language is different, the culture is different, the cultural myths are different, the mindset is different.... You have to ... move past the context and go directly to the human need."
Although she began her four-year appointment with a needs assessment, she knew that assuming the American way of doing things is best could be a serious mistake.
"You have to grasp that people want help, but they don't necessarily want you to help them. [They] have pride. So you have to think of creative ways to do that."
"One of the things we're looking to do is to respond to the number of children who are being abandoned [because] of AIDS.... There's the potential of wiping out a whole generation between 18 and 36.... You have great-grandparents who are trying to raise their great-grandchildren because everyone in between is gone or sick."
"You come alongside people and you bond with them. When your heart beats with their hearts and your mind begins to think the way they think and you're spiritually joined together, then you can look at ... [helping] them."
So, instead of rushing to build Western-style orphanages, McKenzie sought a solution in the African tradition of the extended family.
"We're going to break ground [this month] for our first group home," the bishop says. She hopes to build five. "And it's an extended family home. There will be a set of parents, and the children will be part of that family."
While other needs of her African community, like poverty and lack of educational opportunity, may at first seem similar to what she had to contend with in Baltimore, the depth and magnitude are on an altogether vaster scale.
"There is a part of Africa that is decidedly third world, poverty you have never seen anywhere in the United States.... Many people in my district will make only $1,000 a year, if that. [Some] only make $20 a month."
Increasing those incomes isn't just a matter of a job-training program.
"You can train them for a job," she says, "but [what] if there's no job to have? You're talking about looking for ways to nurture the entrepreneurial spirit, to create jobs where there are no jobs, and then create a training force for jobs that are not there yet. This is real grass-roots economic development."
The 18th district operates a number of schools, but money for necessities, let alone additional construction, is short. There isn't a single student computer in the district's five high schools in Lesotho. In Mozambique, ravaged by poverty, flood, and years of civil war, the district has no school at all. This leaves parents to choose between paying high local school fees or buying food.
"This is our poorest nation," says McKenzie. "It's heart wrenching what the people have to endure, but nevertheless, they do. The spirit is just phenomenal."
As impossible as some of the challenges facing her might appear to others, McKenzie remains hopeful.
"I have seen many miracles," she says. "I have seen how God handles 'impossibles.' God has not run out of blessing."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society