CINCINNATI - Bishop Vashti M. McKenzie, consecrated early yesterday as the first female bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, is continuing a journey that began two decades ago at a seven-member congregation in Cecil County.
Her journey will now take her to southern Africa.
McKenzie, one of four bishops elected to office Tuesday night, will assume leadership of the 18th AME District, which includes churches in Mozambique, Lesotho, Botswana and Swaziland. Following the AME tradition to assign new bishops overseas, the bishops elected with McKenzie are also bound for Africa.
"What has been going through my mind has really been where I'm going," a jubilant but exhausted McKenzie said during an interview yesterday between denominational meetings and newfound commitments. "I'm beginning to think about how I'm going to make an impact and make a difference in that particular area."
"I think the diversity of issues we'll all face are symptomatic of the issues we face here: poverty and hunger, other family issues, health issues, men's and women's health," she said.
But all anyone wanted to talk about was her groundbreaking election. As she walked through the convention hall, women young and old stopped to congratulate her and have their picture taken with her. Elderly women held her hands and told her how proud they were to see this day.
McKenzie says she gladly assumes the mantle of trailblazer.
"There always has to be somebody who bangs against the brick wall, and it seems I'm the one who takes the heat to bang against the brick wall," she said. "And this will probably make it easier for the sisters, who have a role model at this level of leadership, a mentor at this level of leadership."
"The exciting thing about our church is that there are a lot of talented women all across the connection, serving well, doing well, and they deserve a chance," she said. "Frankly, with my election, now maybe they'll get that chance, that people will stop looking at gender as a border, as a limit, as, 'OK, that's a woman, we don't have to consider her.'
"But now, maybe they'll get a second look and a third look," she said. "So my prayer is that I'll do well, so other women will have an opportunity. Getting in the door for one person is one thing. We have to begin to think in terms of not one, but some."
McKenzie, who received the call to ministry while she was a member of Bethel AME Church in West Baltimore, had a humble beginning as a pastor two decades ago in the Cecil County town of Chesapeake City. She and the Rev. Ann F. Lightner-Fuller, now pastor of Towson's Mount Calvary AME Church who led a church nearby, shared a trailer where they lived with both of their families during the weekends.
McKenzie laughs heartily recalling the early days, when she had seven congregants. Neither the size nor the location of the church mattered for the two young pastors, who, McKenzie says, were "motivated."
"All of that motivation is that we knew we were called to preach and called to pastor," she said. "We didn't care where it was. It could have been on a two-by-four boat in the middle of the Delaware River. It didn't really matter."
She made her mark and about 10 years ago, Bishop H. H. Brookins, who then led the local AME district, called her to pastor Payne Memorial AME. Not everyone took it well.
"It's a very traditional church. It's one of the mother churches of the conference. It's a leading church," she said. "Usually those churches go to others who have been serving longer. And there were a lot of people who really wanted to go there.
"And this bishop took a chance on a young woman preacher."
The young preacher made her mark, increasing attendance from about 330 when she got there to more than 1,700 who attend weekly services today. She developed innovative programs, such as a welfare-to-work contract with the state of Maryland and a collective banking agreement signed between more than 100 African-American churches and four lending institutions ensuring fair treatment for their congregants.
Her achievements prompted the Rev. Harold A. Carter Sr., pastor of New Shiloh Baptist Church and one of the most prominent African-American church leaders in Baltimore, to call her "a modern-day Esther," after the biblical heroine who becomes the queen of Persia and thwarts a plot to massacre the Jews. The story, which is celebrated in the feast of Purim, is recounted in the Book of Esther.
McKenzie has another connection with that book. Vashti is the name of the queen of Persia who is repudiated and executed by the king for disobeying his command. The king then makes Esther his queen, putting her in a position to save her people.
Now McKenzie embarks on the next stage of her journey.
In a late-night ceremony Tuesday that extended into the early hours of yesterday morning, McKenzie and the other three newly elected bishops donned the deep purple robes of their office for the first time and were consecrated to the episcopacy.
As McKenzie knelt on a stage in front of the 1,800 delegates and thousands of observers, about a half-dozen bishops laid their hands on her head as one of them intoned, "The Lord pour upon thee the Holy Spirit for the office and work of bishop in the church of God, now committed unto thee by the imposition of our hands, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen."
As McKenzie returns to Baltimore today, she faces the task of making her farewells. She and her husband, Stan McKenzie, leave within the next 90 days for Maseru, Lesotho, a mountain kingdom surrounded by South Africa, where she will have her headquarters.
"I've been thinking about home, the Payne family that I love, and I'm going to have to say goodbye to as their pastor," she said. "But I'll still be present. They may have a new pastor, but they'll always have my love."