FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.
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CHIDEYA: Two hundred and thirteen years, that's how long it took the African Methodist Episcopal Church to elect a woman bishop. In the year 2000, Vashti McKenzie broke what she called the church's stained glass ceiling.
Continuing our series Leading Ladies, I spoke with Bishop McKenzie about her pioneering career. Bishop McKenzie was raised in Baltimore, Maryland. She told me she comes by her fierce spirit naturally. Her great grandfather founded the city's black newspaper, The Afro-American, in 1892. And at the start of her career, she followed her family's lead into that world of journalism.
Bishop VASHTI MCKENZIE (African Methodist Episcopal Church): In growing up in my family, my grandfather had five daughters, didn't have any sons. And so the expectation is that the family members will, you know, follow that path and go into journalism and ultimately management and administration and running the newspaper.
So there was no son to follow in my grandfather's footstep so he really did not treat any of the daughters differently, whether they were girls or boys it didn't matter. So one of my aunts was an editor, my mother was in marketing and advertising, another aunt went on to be the publisher of the Washington Afro-American newspaper. So the expectation is that you will follow in that path, but it wasn't predicated on whether you were a male or female. It was predicated upon the gifts that you bring to the table.
So that was really a blessing for me, that I can go in the direction where my gifts and my callings were.
CHIDEYA: Well, let's move forward to your call to the ministry. When did you first feel called to the ministry, I mean, literally tell me what it felt like.
Bishop MCKENZIE: Well, I believe that every believer has a call, has a ministry, whether that ministry is in hospitality, usher, singing in the choir, being an officer in the church. The key is you have to find out your call. For me, I thought it was in Christian broadcasting. I was on the air every day in, you know, my little niche hole of ministry.
But in talking to people on the phone every day and being in relationship with them in the Washington community, I realized that God was asking me to do a little bit more than being on the radio every day. And it really took a long time because I kept asking, are you sure it's me? Can't it be somebody else? I'm in a career path, I know what I want to do. Corporate vice president in charge of programming, you know, I know my path. I know where I want to go.
And God just keeps knocking on your door, knocking on your door, until you ultimately agree. And the moment that I said yes to God, it was such an incredible peace, such an incredible flood of peace to my life that I knew that it was the right decision.
CHIDEYA: Well, you mentioned sermon writing. Tell us about the first time that you preached to a congregation. What was the theme of your sermon and what did it feel like?
Bishop MCKENZIE: The title of the sermon was called "The Real Thing." And at that time we had a lot of commercials going around touting that this product is the real thing, a lot of products. But I wanted to present the word that says, Jesus is the real thing and do not be fooled by fabulous fakes and imitation. Imitation: you know, a product may satisfy your thirst, but it will not satisfy your soul.
It was really an incredible journey and a process. It was a whole lot of weight on your shoulder. You can imagine the pressure. It's one thing speaking before an audience, talking about different subjects, but it's another thing preaching the gospel. Somebody's soul is on the line, somebody's life is on the line, and you have to come and share with people what you believe God has shared with you. So there was another season of praying and fasting. My husband would tell you I cleaned the house about 399 times leading up to that trial sermon because I had all this excess energy under that pressure; I didn't know what to do with it.
CHIDEYA: So you went on to become the first female bishop in the AME's 200-year existence. I understand that you campaigned for the position. I may be wrong, you can set me straight, but is that part of how the AME Church produces its leadership? And what does it mean to campaign? How did you make the decision to put yourself up for that kind of massive leadership position?
Bishop MCKENZIE: I believe that the episcopacy is a call, just like pastoring and preaching and being an evangelist is a call. But I believe that the kind of ministry that God was giving me was a kind of ministry that was for more than one church.
And yes, you do have to campaign. Many Protestant traditions elect their Episcopal leaders. Every four years, we have delegates that come from all over the world for our general conference. And the year I was elected, the general conference was in Cincinnati. So you have delegates from Africa, the Caribbean, Canada, the United States, the northern tip of South America. For them to vote for you, you have to sell your ministry. You have to introduce yourself to them, and you certainly want to do that before they get to the seat of the general conference.
So I announced that I was seeking the office of the episcopacy in 1996, and it took four years to introduce who I was and what I was about, and that they should extend one of their votes to me. And praise God, in July of 2000 I was elected.
CHIDEYA: Your husband is someone who seems incredibly important to you, which makes perfect sense given the integrity with which you are leading your life. And you two seem to have a real partnership. He supports you. When we called to try to get you to come on to NEWS & NOTES, he was the one who helped arrange your schedule. And you have also been in a position to help him and really work with his goals in life.
Looking from a biblical perspective or just from a woman's perspective, how do you bring together all of the ambitions that you have to lead and guide in the church, and also the scriptural views on men and women? And how does that all come together for you in your personal life?
Bishop MCKENZIE: Let's see if I could chip that question off a piece at a time. My husband and I have been married for 39 years, which is longer than a whole lot of people have been alive. This is who we are. I supported him when he played in the NBA, and followed him and went wherever he was playing. And being an NBA player, it's a pretty fast life. The pressure is just crazy because every day there's a new game. Whether you win or lose, you got to put yourself fresh out on the court to do it again. And so guys who play have to have a good amount of support system to help them do their best job. And so that's exactly what I did.
And then when I wanted to go back to school, go back to seminary, my husband was right there and said yes. So I support him, he supports me; that's how we have lived our lives for the past 39 years. He stands in my balcony and gives me a standing ovation and I stand in his balcony and give his. Isn't that how we're all supposed to work it out?
CHIDEYA: What about some people who interpret living a Christian life - or not even just Christian, living a religious life - as a woman being subordinate to a man?
Bishop MCKENZIE: Understand that my husband and my children allowed me to pastor them when I was a pastor. And that's a blessing. But the moment I walked across the threshold of my house, my husband is king and priest of our home. Did that help you?
CHIDEYA: It clarifies things.
Bishop MCKENZIE: Yeah.
CHIDEYA: Do you ever get push-back from women about that who say, nah, I can't deal with that part of the package.
Bishop MCKENZIE: Absolutely. Submission is a big word, but what happens is that we don't interpret the whole text. The only thing we see is, wives submit yourself to your husbands. Wives have two directives in the scripture - submit yourself to your husband and that you're to honor your husband.
The interpretation is like you stand up on the inside when, you know, with husband, you honor him. That's what you're supposed to do. But if you take a look at the verse immediately before wives submit yourself to your husband, it says you ought to be submitted one to another. It's all - we forget that whole part now. The two of you ought to be submitted one to another.
And how does a man love his wife as Christ loved the church? Christ died for the church. That is just an awesome thing that a man must do for his wife. And so I think the onus of the burden really is on the man more than it's on the woman.
CHIDEYA: We've been interviewing women who have taken leadership positions in all sorts of secular fields. Is religious leadership just as important to the health of the country or the health of the world as achieving political office or taking another position?
Bishop MCKENZIE: I believe that you cannot segment your belief life, your spiritual life, your Christian life. It is something that you live 24/7. God is just not somebody you go visit for 90 minutes on Sunday afternoon. God is a part of our everyday breathing and living life, so I don't think you can just segment it into a little box and pull it out. I get in trouble so I'm going to go pull out my religion and ask for the church community to help me.
I'm going to run for office so I'm going to pull out my spiritual life and I'm going to expect everybody who believes like me or whatever to support me. It has to be a 24/7 thing. It is just like putting on your shoes and putting on a coat everyday. It's all a part of your life.
What we try to do to people, especially those who are running for a political office, oh, you're a Mormon so we're going to have - you're going to make us all Mormon. You're a Catholic, you're going to make us all Catholic. You are Jewish so you're going to make us all Jewish.
You know, I believe that we can live our faith and our belief relationship without making other people believe the same thing. But we present to you what we believe and give you an opportunity to if you so desire.
CHIDEYA: Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie, thank you so much for sharing your time and your vision with us.
Bishop MCKENZIE: Thank you so much for having me. I hope I've said something that's been a blessing to somebody today.
CHIDEYA: Again, that was Bishop Vashti McKenzie, the first woman ever elected bishop in the AME Church. We've posted several online only audio clips at our Web site where you can hear Bishop McKenzie talk more about her faith. That's at npr.org.
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CHIDEYA: And just ahead, the U.S. prepares to slap sanctions against Sudan, and we get a little crazy over March madness.
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