“The first woman elected AME Bishop”
When Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie, the first woman to be elected bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, was speaking to a graduate class at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, she said, “You have been prepared to be critical thinkers … open your eyes and seek new ideas … find new ways to explore new spiritual frontiers. We are counting on the class of 2006 to open their eyes and do something about what they see … I dare you to make wherever you are a better place.”
Although McKenzie represents the AME church, she characterizes hope for equality for all women, especially in the ministry, as they try to break through what the bishop called the ever-present, “stained glass ceiling.” The AME church has added another “notch” to its flow of increasing accomplishments for women. Being first has become commonplace for McKenzie. She was the first woman to pastor the Payne Memorial AME church in Baltimore, Maryland prior to becoming the first woman to be elected bishop in the 213-year history of the church. And she was the first woman bishop to preside over the council of bishops, the governing body of the AME church.
Upon her election, she reportedly said, “I stand here tonight on the shoulders of the un-ordained women who served without affirmation or appointment. I don’t stand here alone, but there is a cloud of witnesses who sacrificed, died and gave their best.” Her ascension as bishop cleared the way for other women to rise to prominent positions in other denominations. Not only has McKenzie been a role model for women—in and out of the ministry—but her presence also affirms a validation among women that they can have a family and a career at the same time. She has also stated that it is all right to be womanly beautiful, intelligent and successful, and not have to choose between a career in the ministry and her family.
McKenzie was born in Baltimore, Maryland, May 1947 to Ida Murphy Smith and Samuel Edward Smith. She was named after her maternal grandmother, Vashti Turley Murphy. After attending high school as one of six Black students at Eastern High School, she went on to Blair School of Journalism for a brief period before enrolling at Morgan State University (MSU) where she majored in history. McKenzie then earned her Bachelor’s degree at the University of Maryland, College Park and began working for her family newspaper. (Her grandfather was the publisher and editor of the “Afro- American” newspaper which was started by her great grandfather). There, she wrote her own column, “The McKenzie Report.”
While attending MSU, she met her future husband, Stan McKenzie of the Baltimore Bullets basketball team. Some time later, he was traded to the Phoenix Suns and they moved to Arizona—despite the wishes of her parents. While in Arizona, she became a reporter for the “Arizona Republic” newspaper, and after returning to Baltimore, McKenzie transitioned to radio and television journalism hosting gospel programs on WEBB and WYBC radio stations, and serving as vice-president of programming at WJZ-TV station.
McKenzie finally walked away from journalism and enrolled at Howard University’s Divinity School in Washington, D.C. where she earned a Master’s degree followed by a Doctor of Ministry degree from Union Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. In 1984, she was ordained a deacon and the following year, the pastor of Oak Street AME church in Baltimore. There, she pastored Payne Memorial AME church for 10 years before being elected the 117th bishop in 2000.
During her tenure at Payne, McKenzie secured funds for a welfare-to-work program with the State of Maryland where approximately 600 men and women were educated, trained and placed in jobs, leaving the welfare system. In addition, she led the church to purchase a building and turned it into an economic development complex, with a senior-citizen center, a Headstart program and several other businesses. McKenzie was also active in organizing the Collective Banking Group of Baltimore, the Church Health Alliance and was president of the AME Ministerial Alliance.
Prior to, and since becoming a bishop, McKenzie has been in great demand as a speaker and has been described as a dynamic preacher who has set a high, public oratorical standard in delivering messages of social involvement in the community. “Ebony” magazine has described her as one of the “15 Greatest African-American women preachers.” She is also national chaplain of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated, which was founded by her grandmother.
Her first assignment as bishop placed her over the Eighteenth Episcopal District, which included Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana, Mozambique and South Africa. There McKenzie embarked on a vigorous campaign to strengthen the district’s infra-structure. She instituted an ambitious agenda creating computer labs, entrepreneurial projects, educational workshops for teachers, new classrooms and an increase in schools supplies, giving life and vigor to the school students.
In Swaziland, she made inroads by building three large group homes for 36 orphaned children and parents without any government assistance. This project was accomplished with help of many unselfish individuals who only needed strong, moral leadership, which McKenzie provided.
After serving in Southern Africa, McKenzie moved to the Thirteenth Episcopal District covering Kentucky and Tennessee, where she is presently the presiding prelate.
McKenzie has authored several books including “Not Without Struggle” (1996) and “Strength in the Struggle.” (2006). In one of her books, she outlined “Ten Commandments for African American Clergywomen” and “Ten Womanist Commandments for Clergy” that consist of basic common sense rules designed for all clergy. Since men have historically dominated most institutions in society—including the clergy—the “commandments” seem slanted towards women offering them gender leverage to change the world from inside out.
The path of success that McKenzie has traveled since her historic election has certainly quieted the naysayers considering the barrage of questions that were raised. It was because of the symbol of a role model she provided that women preachers from all denominations came together and participated in united services to demand the real (God-given) equality that is often spoken but seldom practiced. Her work is a reminder of the distance women have yet to go and the loss that the world suffers by excluding women as equal partners in all affairs.
McKenzie is widely recognized as an expert on the theological and historical struggles of Black women. She has said that obstacles she faced while moving up the church ladder were identical to those any woman would face in a secular position adding, “You have to work a little harder, try a little more so people can see that you are real and that you are called of God. It’s essential for people to see that you are serious and committed to getting the job done.” And she continues getting the job done in a big way.
It is therefore appropriate to proclaim that McKenzie, as the first AME bishop, broke the “stained-glass ceiling” and literally pioneered the way for others including Bishop Carolyn Tyler Guidry of the Sixteenth Episcopal District and Bishop Sarah Frances Davis of the Eighteenth Episcopal District.
Bishop Vashti and Stan McKenzie are the parents of three children: Jon-Mikael, Jasmine and Joi-Marie.
“Legends” is the brainchild of Danny J. Bakewell Sr., executive publisher of the Los Angeles Sentinel. Every week it will highlight the accomplishments of African Americans and Africans.