The speaker of tonight's Anacostia Community Museum's 25th annual Martin Luther King Jr. program, Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie, was on the path to become a career journalist and radio station owner—until she followed a calling and entered the ministry of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
In 2000, she was elected to serve as the 117th bishop of the church, the first woman in the more than 200-year history of the church to hold that position. Since then, she has continued to make history, winning a 2004 election to become the Titular Head of the denomination, as the president of the Council of Bishops. She also became the first woman to serve as chair of the General Conference Commission of the AME Church. She continues to serve as the presiding prelate of the church's 13th Episcopal District.
As she prepared for the program, we asked McKenzie a few questions about her life, her career and why being a superwoman might not mean doing it all.
Your talk is titled “Defining Moments; Maximizing Life’s Milestones.” What do you consider some of your larger milestones, and how have you used them to advance your calling?
In the speech I talk about defining moments, those moments where when it happens, everything else changes after that. And especially for a person of faith and especially for a preacher, conversion really is a defining moment. The call to preach was a dynamic change in my personal life because I was in a career, on a career track and thought I had my life planned out for the next five, 10, 15 years. I was in broadcast management and, you know, I was going to own a radio station and do this and this. And then I find myself, in answering this call, leaving a wonderful job, going into seminary and preparing myself for ministry without being able to see the end of the road. It’s like starting to climb the steps and you don’t know how many landings you have to pass before you get to the top , and so certainly that was a defining moment.
Your first four years as bishop were spent in the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s 18th district, which includes Lesotho, Botswana, Mozambique and Swaziland. How did the community respond to you there? Were they more or less accepting of women leadership than the AME community in America?
Africa, the part that I was in, is a very patriarchal society and there were definite rules about what men and women would do. Some of them are the same as in America and some of them are very different. But I came as a leader who was authorized by my denomination to administer, to do ministry and to provide services. And in Africa if you have a gift you are able to exercise that gift whether you are male or female. So you find that there were women doctors, there were women prime ministers, there were women who were presidents of universities and colleges, women who were exercising authority and leadership in the community because of a particular gift or talent. So it wasn’t an exclusive ‘You can’t do this because you were a woman.’ If you have that gift you get to exercise it. And I’m sure there was trepidation, and some hearts and minds were going ‘Now what are we going to do with this?’ But when you go to your assignment and the people get to know that you care and are willing to embrace them and link arms and hands with them to try to solve the problems in life then the dynamics change a little bit.
While working as the first women pastor of Payne Memorial AME Church in Baltimore, you helped develop the Human Economic Development Center, which I read helps with job training and placement and also provides Senior daycare and youth and adult education programs. Is that similar to the work you’ve done in your role on the President’s Advisory Council of the White House Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships?
I have in my ministry believed that a ministry goes beyond the four walls of the congregation—that our ministry is a community ministry, that we are caretakers, we are guardians, we are the nurturers and the resources of the community wherever the church is located. So my understanding of ministry is that you take a great big eraser and you erase the boundaries and erase the borders and whatever happens inside is available for the broader community. So when discussion began many years ago about faith-based initiatives and so forth we were the vanguard of that. We were the only African American congregation to petition the state of Maryland and we won a $1.5 million contract to provide services to help people, for us to train people and get them into employment. We’ve been in the trenches, we have a track record, we have a trust relationship with our community and just because we happen to have a faith that should not exempt us from helping to rebuild lives and rebuild the community. I’m sure that’s not the only reason but that might be one of the reasons—understanding how government and faith organizations and nonprofits can work together to solve problems.
Your parents were active members of the church, and you were also active in the children’s choir and bible camp as a child. Have you seen any distinct changes in how children and communities interact with the church today? How do you see the relationship between faith-based organizations and communities growing?
I think I grew up in a time when parents said, ‘Anybody who lives under our roof and sleeps on our bed and eats food from our table goes to church on Sunday.’ Church was not an option. Today I see many parents giving children options, saying ‘Well we’ll wait until they’re grown to make a decision.’ And on Sunday the blue laws in the state of Maryland meant that everything was closed on Sunday–so you didn’t have a choice, I mean you didn’t have an excuse. But now we live in in a 24/7 world and there are people who do work on Sundays, so it’s challenging for them to come, or for other reasons they don’t. So I think we have a generation, maybe two, of children who were just not taken to Sunday school and don’t have a faith memory to build on when they become adults. And so that’s one of the changes that I’ve seen. Then there are churches like the one that I’ve pastored and others in the community that provide services like after-school programs. So they may not make it in on Sunday but they are involved and engaged in the church in some other kinds of activities–after-school programs, culture enrichment programs, homework help, summer camps, community choirs. They may do those things and not necessarily be members of the church, but they’re still in a relationship and that relationship can be built on.
Your first book, Not Without Struggle (1996), includes a piece called "Ten Womanist Commandments for Clergy." The fourth commandment is 'Thou shall not be a superwoman.' What does that mean? Why is the “superwoman syndrome” not effective?
In conversations over the years it has been that women have more than one job—you have the job at home, you have a husband and children, you’re responsible for household duties and then you work outside of the house. And so in order to be able to do everything its kind of like you’ve got to be that superwoman: You’ve got to be the top ace, no. 1 person on your job, and then you’ve got to be the top mother and the top spouse. That tends to be like the superwoman syndrome, and you just can’t do it all. You cannot do it all. It’s nice to think that you can but you just cannot do it all. Now you can have it all, but you just can’t have it all at the same time. The main thing is to prioritize. When your children are young there are certain things you won’t be able to do. You have to wait for a specific season or a specific time. So set your priorities, do what your season demands and requires, and then the next season comes in and you do what’s next. All work and no play is a formula for a breakdown, a burnout or depression.
Smithsonian's Anacostia Community Museum's 25th annual Martin Luther King Jr. program begins at 7 p.m. in the Baird Auditorium of the National Museum of Natural History, on 10th St. and Constitution Ave N.W.