Vashti Murphy McKenzie

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (WOMENSENEWS)–Vashti Murphy McKenzie raises her voice to pray, and the stained glass does not shatter. In fact, her congregation’s voices rise with her, seeming to embrace this woman who broke through the gender barriers in the African Methodist Episcopal Church to become the first female bishop in its 215-year history.

McKenzie was in Albuquerque recently to celebrate the 120th anniversary of Grant Chapel, the oldest African Methodist Episcopal church in New Mexico and Arizona. The 48-year-old reverend is a symbol of the change in the role of the ministry and the church’s mission.

McKenzie made history in 2000, when she was elected the 117th bishop, making her the first woman to achieve the highest rank in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Since McKenzie was elected, two more female pastors have announced they are candidates to become bishops in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. “That,” said McKenzie, “is just the tip of the iceberg.”

McKenzie said she has made her thoughts on promoting women within the church clear to her fellow bishops.

“It should not be the best man for the job in our church,” she said. “We now look at everyone regardless of their gender. Our church is seeing pockets of progress in this area.”

One sign of this progress is the commission Women in Ministry, a group that advocates and supports women who are ordained and serving in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. McKenzie heads the commission, and more than 300 women pastors attended a conference she held recently in Tampa, Fla.

“My election pulls back the covers and shows that gifted and talented women just need an opportunity to serve. We shouldn’t be burdened by sexism,” McKenzie said after being elected.

Dr. Milton A. Reid, pastor of Gideon’s Riverside Fellowship in Norfolk, Va., said the time has come for allowing women to assume leadership roles in churches. He said he applauds McKenzie and sees other women following her lead.

“It was an ancient biblical message from concepts rooted in Judaism that said women were not valid,” he said. “Many people have stuck with those concepts that women should be subservient to their husbands and nothing more. But clearly, we know these concepts no longer carry any validity in our society.”

Reid’s church is part of the American Baptist Association, which has a membership of 5 million people. He said the association has women pastors, board members and others in leadership roles.

Church Has History of Activism

During the last 10 years, the African Methodist Episcopal Church has become more active in social issues including welfare-to-work programs, domestic violence, pornography and prostitution, McKenzie said.

“We were doing some of that before I was elected,” she said. “But now maybe some programs are coming to fruition sooner.”

McKenzie helped start an annual $1 million faith-based job-service training program in Maryland. Ninety-nine percent of the clients are women needing skills to end reliance on federal assistance and re-enter the work force. The program has helped 600 women find jobs in the state over the last two years.

The African Methodist Episcopal Church has a long history of social activism. It was one of the first major religious denominations in the Western world with origins based on sociological rather than theological beliefs and differences. The African Methodist Episcopal Church was formed in 1816 by Richard Allen and others who had fought to end segregation within their churches. Allen, a member of the Episcopal Church, united with Methodist leaders to form the new church.

Today there are African Methodist Episcopal churches worldwide in the United States, Canada, Africa, South America, England, the Bahamas and the Caribbean. (The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, established in 1796 in New York City by James Varick, Abraham Thompson, William Miller and others, was similar in that it grew from the Methodist Episcopal Church and was necessitated by discrimination and denial of religious liberty.)

McKenzie presides over the 18th Episcopal District, which includes the African nations of Mozambique, Botswana, Swaziland and Lesotho. She oversees 25 schools and 200 churches. She is based in Baltimore and spends several months a year in Africa.

AIDS Pandemic Is Key Priority

“One in three people in Mozambique and Botswana have the HIV virus,” McKenzie said. “There are more orphans as a result of this disease and they have nowhere to go but the streets. Our priority is in building housing to take care of these children and to help them get an education and to strive to become self-sufficient.”

McKenzie also has helped establish scholarships for students in her district to go to college. Under her guidance, the churches have established scholarships for students to study ministry in America in hopes they will return to Africa to help establish more churches.

Barbara Chavez is a features reporter and writer for the Albuquerque Journal in New Mexico, as well as a freelance writer.

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