AME Bishop Offers Christmas Wisdom

Vashti Murphy McKenzie is the 117th Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the first woman to hold the position. She reflects on Christmas and offers a message of hope. The faith leader also talks about her service in Africa.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. It's December 25th, Christmas Day. Merry Christmas, everybody. And because it's Christmas, we decided to bring you a series of conversations that stand at the intersection of wisdom from the past, news of today, and hope and joy for the future.

In a few minutes, my conversation with a man who witnessed up close the atrocities of the Nazis and has used that experience to build bridges between people. It's a special repeat broadcast of my interview with Leon Bass. And then, we'll talk about holiday, food and wine with two of the most joyful voices in their respective fields, celebrity chef G. Garvin and wine maven Callie Crossley.

But first, to talk about the meaning of the season, we've called on Bishop Vashti McKenzie. She is the 117th elected and consecrated bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. She's also the first woman elected bishop of the AME Church, and we are pleased to have her with us now for some reflections. Bishop, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Bishop VASHTI MCKENZIE (117th Bishop, African Methodist Episcopal Church): Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: As you prepare for Christmas, what goes through your mind?

Bishop MCKENZIE: Christmas is like walking into a room and taking off your coat of challenges and the world troubles and images and stepping into a room that says, no matter what's going on, hope and joy and love and peace is being born into the world again. It is shaking loose troubles and trials from your tresses and saying, let's get back to the real meaning of Christmas, which is more than a tree and Rudolph and snowmen and things that are wrapped under the tree. The meaning of Christmas is the kinds of things that we give to each other that doesn't cost money. It may cost time. So it's the rebirth of love again.

MARTIN: And as I think you alluded to, these are difficult times for many people. The country remains at war on two fronts. Tough economy make the holidays very hard for many, many families. There's a lot of anxiety among families, even if they aren't experiencing, you know, the worst of the downturn. What is your message of hope for people who might consider themselves hopeless?

Bishop MCKENZIE: President-elect Barack Obama writes about the audacity of hope, but I'd like to preach about the capacity of hope. Hope can delayed, that what you're looking for and hoping for is coming but it's not here yet. But the capacity of hope that says, even if all you have is hope, it will help you endure the worst of times, to endure recessions and endure depressions and all of that. Hope won't put food on your table but hope will keep you until food arrives. You can't take hope to the bank and cash it, but certainly, you don't want to leave the house without hope. You can't marry and stay in a relationship and have a family without hope, and so the capacity of hope, the work of hope means hope will never be defeated.

MARTIN: Let's talk about you, if we can. As I mentioned, you made history back in the year 2000 by becoming the first woman elected and consecrated bishop of the AME Church. Since then, you've become president of the Council of Bishops, a bishop of bishops, if you will. When you were growing up, did you ever envision such a role for yourself?

Bishop MCKENZIE: Absolutely not. You know, I was going to grow up and write the great American novel. I grew up in a family of journalists and so writing was, you know, it's like drinking a glass of water. So - and on my horizon, really, was, you know, own a string of radio stations and ride off into the sunset. But God has other plans in mind. It's not what you plan all the time but what God intends for your life.

MARTIN: How did you recognize your calling?

Bishop MCKENZIE: It's like walking outside, and if you walk outside in the middle of wintertime, you're cold and nobody has to tell you to go back and put your coat on. That's the kind of thing that you know deep down in your heart. And you try to go in other directions - I'll do this, I'll do this, I'll go here, I'll go this - but you always end up in the same place. And then when you finally say yes, and that is the surrender of heart, mind and soul - when you say yes, there is such a peace that cannot be described. It's a wave of peace that comes over you and you know that you're in the right place doing the right things at the right time.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're having a special Christmas conversation with Bishop Vashti McKenzie. She is the 117th elected and consecrated bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and she's offering some reflections on the season.

You're serving now in Tennessee, as I understand it, and parts of Kentucky, the 13th district, but before that you led the 18th Episcopal district in Africa - the Sothos, Swaziland, Botswana, Mozambique.

Bishop MCKENZIE: Yes.

MARTIN: Surely in these places, you witnessed hardship, which I think many Americans might find - many Americans are suffering hardship themselves, but I think there's a level there that perhaps many Americans would find hard to fathom. Could I just ask what were some of the things that you worked on there, and what's the message there when many people say, you know, we've been poor so long, we deserve more than this. When will our hardship end?

Bishop MCKENZIE: Well, I don't think you have seen poverty in America. I'm not saying that there are not people who are poor, people who live below the poverty line and that there are not pockets of poor neighborhoods, poor communities, poor urban areas. But the depth of poverty that is in Africa is a whole lot worse than it is in the United States. You're talking about cities and communities where the unemployment rate is 50, 55, 60 percent, not seven, eight or nine percent.

But what I saw in Africa in the midst of devastation, poverty, hunger - I mean, absolute hunger - but what I also saw was the strength of the human spirit. People who refused to die, who refused to give up, that as long as I'm above ground, as long as I have the activity of my limbs, I can make a living. I can survive. And so everyone is an entrepreneur. If I have land, I can plant. I have harvest. I take the harvest, one-third I eat, one-third I sell, and one-third is seed. If I have a sack of potatoes, I can sell it out of the back of my car. If I can sew, then I sit in the marketplace and I sew and make garments and sell them. Everybody is involved in selling something, making something. It's the entrepreneurial spirit which I think that we have lost in many ways here in the United States.

MARTIN: Is that sometimes hard, though, after coming back from serving in Africa to come back here and minister to people whose concerns, however dramatic to them, don't seem nearly as dire as that which you've just been addressing?

Bishop MCKENZIE: Well, the hard part when you come back having served in Africa is trying to help people understand that you really are better off than you think you are. One of the things that we did, my husband and I insisted that our children go to Africa so that they can see how another culture lives, how the other half of the world lives, so they can see how sophisticated Africa is and at the same time how poor Africa is, those twin things there. How kids get up at 4 o'clock in the morning, feed the animals, haul the water, clean up after the breakfast and walk to school.

They're - in fact, my youngest daughter says, where's the school bus? I said, there's no school bus. They're going to walk for a whole hour, miles to go to school, and will be in place at 7:30 in the morning with their uniforms pressed and starched and then walk home and repeat the process. That amazes American kids. They go, like, we're not going to do that.

MARTIN: So it sounds like, yeah. It is hard to come back, perhaps, and be sympathetic to people whose concern is that they don't have as many sneakers as they want or that perhaps they don't have the boyfriend that they want or...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Bishop MCKENZIE: Well, it's like, you know, what you try to - you come back with the stories. I tell kids these stories all the time, and they say, really? The kids do that? Yeah, the kids really do that. And it helps you to look around and say, well, really, it may not just be as bad as I think it is.

See, we tend to make up our minds about how good our life is according to our stuff. I got to have this kind of car, I got to wear this kind of jeans, got to have this kind of coat. I got to spend this amount of money on my hair, my nails or whatever, my cut. As long as my stuff is, then I'm happy. And when we have economic recession and we can't have all the stuff, then we think life is really bad. But this is a good opportunity to become connected to what really is important in my life. Can we still be family together if we don't have stuff?

The other night, my husband and I came back from church to find out that the cable was down. You know, there was a little storm, so there was no TV and there was no Internet. And so my husband said, what are we going to do? And I said well, I'm getting a book.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Bishop MCKENZIE: We're going to do what families used to do before there was stuff, you know. You have conversation with each other. Hi, how are you? What's happening in your life? Where do we want to be this time next year? What do we want our lives to look like two and three years from now? And then what steps are we going to take to get there from this day?

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you before we let you go - and you've been most generous with your time. You are, as we've discussed, you are also a wife and a mother in addition to your ministerial responsibilities. This is the time of year when many women particularly feel overwhelmed by the need to make everybody happy. How do you do it all? How do you balance your responsibilities to your family, your responsibilities to those you're serving in ministry? How do you do it?

Bishop MCKENZIE: Let's start with you can't make everybody happy, and you won't get approval for everything you do. That's two. And then stick to the priorities and take steps towards the goals that you set for yourself.

A wonderful woman came into my life at a very important time, when my kids were very, very young - Dr. Ella Mitchell(ph), who recently died. And what she said to me, she said, Vashti, sit down and make a list of your priorities. And when you make a list of your priorities, list those things that only you can do. And so when I did that, I found that the husband, only I can do that. Children, that's me. That meant all those other things, other people can take care of or other people can help me with, even when times are tight. And so you can't do everything, but ultimately, the things that are most important are the ones that you take care of.

MARTIN: Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie was kind enough to join us from WEAA, our NPR member station in Baltimore. Bishop, thank you again so much.

Bishop MCKENZIE: Thank you, Michel, and Merry Christmas to all of you and to your family and your listeners.

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