Whether in the pulpit of a church, at the podium of the Democratic National Convention, or over the phone for an interview, when Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie speaks, it is an experience. Her voice is full-bodied, brimming with the wisdom one only gains from years of overcoming, and also perfectly calm — a manifestation of someone with a great God in her corner and no worries. When I hear that steady confidence backing up every syllable, I couldn’t help but think, “I want that.” But as the title of the Bishop’s first book denotes, her current state of being is “Not Without a Struggle.”
Like most positions of authority in this world, church leadership is and has historically been a male-dominated field. Though her book on women in Christian leadership was published in 1996, it wasn’t until 2000 that Bishop McKenzie was elected and consecrated to her position, becoming the first female bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church. In 2005, she defied history again, becoming the first female president of the Council of Bishops and therefore, the titular head of the A.M.E. Church.
But the traditional understandings of biblical scriptures, and particularly those New Testament scriptures written by the Apostle Paul who forbids women from being in church leadership or authority over men, still pose a barrier to women in ministry. Even a decade after she first broke the “stained-glass ceiling,” as she famously told EBONY Magazine at the time, the Faith Communities Today 2010 survey of 11,000 churches of various denominations showed that only 12% of principal Christian church leaders are women. That statistic drops to 3% for African American women. Bishop McKenzie says that the barriers to women answering the call to preach and to pastor in the church are wrought with institutionalized sexism and a misunderstanding of scripture in context.
“We have to ask, what is the historical context and what actually is Paul addressing? We look at what God says and we look also at how Jesus acted. When we look at the whole spectrum, what we see is that Jesus talked to women and Jesus included and empowered women in the ministry. The first person He spoke to after His resurrection was a woman [Mary Magdalene]. He told her ‘Go. Tell my disciples that I have risen.’ The word He used when he said ‘go’ was the same word for ‘preach,’ or ‘go and tell.’
“You can even trace the thread of female leadership from the Old to the New [Testaments], women are there. In the Old Testament, Miriam was just as much a prophet as her brother Moses. Huldah was a prophet, Deborah was a prophet, the wife of Isaiah was a prophet. Move over into the New Testament, the woman at the well was sent by Jesus to tell everybody in her village about Him, the four daughters of Philip, Aquilla and his wife Priscilla were co-pastors of a church, Lydia’s house was the place where the church started, so the thread of female leadership in the Bible is very impressive and very constant.”
While she has been very active in speaking to women and empowering women to answer the call without fear of the obstacles both in the pulpit and daily on her website and Twitter page, the Bishop does not feel a need to try and justify the call on her life to anyone.
“A wonderful woman told me once, ‘You can spend your whole entire ministry trying to justify your call.’ But if [you’ve been called by God], that is not of your own choosing, and in responding to the call you prepare yourself, whether it’s in seminary or other kinds of processes, you prepare yourself to exercise this call that you have. If God called you, He called you, not [the naysayers]. As you preach, some people will be converted and will believe and some will not. That’s between them and God. What we’re called to do is to demonstrate the love of God in tangible ways and to have an impact on the people who God has called into the ministry and on the broader community. It’s not my call to fix the whole world; that’s [God’s job]. My call is to exercise my ministry and gifts [alone].”
Bishop McKenzie’s evident peace of mind springs from her differentiation between a person’s responsibilities and God’s responsibilities, and it is sweeping, covering even the most emotionally and politically-charged issues of the day. When faced with sexism and racism inside and outside of the Church, as well as the intersection of religious ideologies and the secular political world, from same-sex marriage to abortion debates, Bishop McKenzie says, “Belief systems are what is held sacred [to each person]. What changes a belief system is an experience with God and a revelation from God for what is true. People try to legislate what people ought to believe and say, ‘This is what you ought to believe.’ Well, no. Everyone has a right to share what they believe and what they don’t believe, what they like and what they don’t like. It’s guaranteed by our Constitution. We do not always like what others have to say, but as a person of faith, we ought to speak the truth in love. In speaking the truth in love, in the secular context or the political context, of course, the prayer is that the other person receives it.”
But I really witness the passion of Bishop McKenzie when we discuss what isn’t considered an emotionally-charged issue. “Poverty is not a hot-button issue; why not? We live in the wealthiest country in the world and yet, people go to bed hungry. If it wasn’t for school lunch programs, there would be people who would not eat at all during the day. Poverty, hunger, people who are marginalized in our community. Who’s asking, will the very young be able to have the care and the nurturing they deserve and will the very old be able to enjoy the sunset years of their lives with integrity and dignity? We don’t talk about that. But as a pastor of the urban poor, we have to address those issues.”
As a member of President Obama’s inaugural Advisory Council of the White House Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, Bishop McKenzie has done just that, respecting the line between church and state but encouraging the participation of religious organizations in the political process. She says, “Your faith does not exempt you from having an impact on the broader community,” but on the contrary, requires it. She also notes that oftentimes, national and local governments can make decisions “that impact that budgetary bottom line of the church’s congregation and assuming [the government can cut certain programs and entitlements” thinking that the church is going to pick up the slack, without even inviting the churches to the table.
“My premise [to the government] is invite us to the table, to the discussion. What new [ideas they’re trying to implement, the churches] have been implementing and fighting in these issues for a long time. Why don’t you ask us what we’ve tried, what’s worked, what’s failed? It’s going to take [the government] 2-5 years to get geared up trying what we already tried, just ask us so we can tell you what our experience has been. We’re in the trenches [in our communities]; we’re at ground zero every single day.”
As for the image of Christians in politics today, she warns Christians to “participate without being compromised.” She explains, “There are [high-profile Christians] who have major platforms because the extreme always sells. It sells ads, it sells newspapers, [to show people] ‘the latest thing you need to be scared of.’” But the Bishop says that Christians cannot operate out of phobias and be effective in exemplifying the spirit of Christ in a secular world.
“We’re afraid that this segment of the population or this ethnic group, we’re afraid of the women, so we push them to the side, or we don’t like this segment, so they can’t be in our neighborhoods we don’t want to live with them, we don’t want to worship with them. But we have to go back to the scriptures; we have to take a look at what Jesus did. Jesus brought those people who were on the edges of community, the fringes of society — they were the recipients of God’s grace.
“The lepers of His time were recipients of God’s grace. The ethnic groups, the Samaritans, who were hated and despised, were called “good,” by Jesus, when he gave the parable of the “Good” Samaritan. The woman at the well with a less-than-stellar resume and lifestyle, she was a recipient of God’s grace. So we have to look at what Jesus did, [despite] lifestyle choices, decisions, sins, whatever, Jesus still reached out and touched those who were maligned by the community and who were not considered socially acceptable and reached toward them. We must do the same.”
When dealing with our political leaders – particularly Christians like President Obama—the Bishop says Christians must adjust their expectations. “[We] have to remember that the President is the President of all the United States and not…the religious leader of the whole world.” Instead, she advocates that Christians both pray and take action. “We need to surround [the President] in prayer, if we think he is off to the left or to the right, then let him know. Write a letter and send it to the White House. Write a letter to the editor of your newspaper. Write a comment on EBONY.com. We are living in the ‘best of times and it is the worst of times.’ But every challenge, every crisis gives us the opportunity to do better. We want to seize the opportunity to do better in spite of what obstacles we must face.
“We have been given a wonderful platform by our ancestors, our mothers and fathers and we ought to build strongly on that foundation because the next generation is waiting in the wings. We don’t want to provide less for them than what we were given. Every rung still needs to go higher and higher.”