Mary Lee Talbot
Bishop Vashti McKenzie grew up in a family of journalists. Her great-great-grandfather established a newspaper when only one-half of 1 percent of black Americans could read, she said. The Baltimore Afro-American is still run by her family.
“Living in a household of writers, thinkers and ideas, is it any wonder I have written five books?” she asked.
“Faith was always a part of our lives,” she said. “We had the responsibility to use our faith to do things to make life better. Not going to college was not an option. We went to college and then on to some kind of service somewhere.”
Her family would spend the entire day in church.
“I loved to sing in the choir — the adult choir, not the children’s choir,” she said. “ Since I could not read yet, I memorized the words.”
McKenzie went to college during the time of Martin Luther King Jr., civil rights and the Black Power movement. She wondered what kind of work she should do, but she wasn’t receiving the answers from God she was looking for.
“I had learned ‘churchianity,’ but not Christianity,” she said. “I had a relationship with the church, but not with Christ. When the church disappointed me, I went another way.”
She found her way back to the church through a group that prayed before taking on any kind of project. It was through this group that she gave her life to Christ.
By this time, she was married and working in radio broadcasting in Ohio and Maryland. She envisioned buying and building her own network of stations.
“But I had a call to preach that I could not ignore,” she said, “I had to go home and tell my husband I was called to preach and I needed to go to seminary.”
McKenzie started her ministry with small African Methodist Episcopal churches in Maryland.
“I was blessed in each congregation,” she said. “It is a joy to watch people grow as Jesus grabs them and they grab back. My book Journey to the Well is about that kind of transformation.”
She noted that many people are uncomfortable with change.
“Jesus is all about change,” she said. “Jesus is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, but the church isn’t. We become a new creation in Jesus, but we want Jesus to check with us first. He does not have to do that.”
She described her journey to becoming a bishop.
“God closes every door except the one he wants you to go through.” she said.
McKenzie had returned home from the church’s annual conference and was describing what she hoped to accomplish in the next year. Suddenly, she began to cry.
“My assistant came up and said, ‘God just called you to the episcopacy, didn’t he? God will give you what you need to get it done,’ “ she said.
She declared her candidacy in 1996 to be elected as bishop in 2000. In that time the church had to deal with questions like, could a woman handle the workload? Would congregations receive her and respect her authority? Was there a woman who had enough experience in the church to be a bishop?
In 2000, the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s General Conference voted against ordaining women as bishops. But 600 people had voted for ordination, and only 800 votes were needed to elect a bishop.
“I concentrated on finding those 200 votes,” McKenzie said.
Since there were not enough votes the first time, a second ballot was required. McKenzie was then elected July 11, 2000.
At the beginning of the Vespers, the Rev. Paul Womack, who presided, offered an apology for his church ancestors, who necessitated the founding of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
In Philadelphia in the 1780s, there were African-Americans, some free and some enslaved, praying in a Methodist church. The white church members came in and told them to leave. The African-Americans asked to finish their prayers, but the white members dragged them out. One of the African-Americans who was dragged out was Richard Allen, who went on to found the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
McKenzie accepted Womack’s apology, thanked him for it and prayed that the Methodist churches might all be united in the future.
During the Q-and-A period, McKenzie was asked if such a unity had been discussed.
“The AME, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Churches are talking,” she said. “And talking, and talking.”