Woman poised for AME milestone

Baltimore pastor one of two female candidates of 41 vying for bishoprics

July 10, 2000|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

In the African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded 213 years ago by black Americans seeking equality in worship, women have served as ministers, pastors and elders.

But a woman has never been elected to the AME's highest office of bishop - until, perhaps, now.

The 2.3 million-member denomination, established in 1787 by a group thwarted in their attempts to pray with the white congregation at a Philadelphia Methodist church, is poised to break that barrier this week during its general conference in Cincinnati. Baltimore has its own favorite daughter candidate: the Rev. Vashti M. McKenzie.

McKenzie, pastor of Payne Memorial AME Church in the 1700 block of Madison Ave., is one of two women, out of 41 candidates, running for at least two positions vacated by retiring bishops. Also running is the Rev. Caroline Tyler Guidry of Sacramento, Calif., who is an elder, one rung below bishop in the AME hierarchy. Delegates can vote, if they choose, to increase the number of bishop slots.

On the convention floor, there is a growing consensus that at least one woman will be elected this time as bishop in a denomination whose membership is overwhelmingly female.

"There is a sense that it's time," said Mike McKinney, an AME spokesman. "The church has always talked about being a church of equality and justice. It would be a contradiction to say we believe in equality and justice and in the last 213 years of our church we have not elected a woman to the highest position."

Five years ago, the AME's General Board passed a resolution urging that a female bishop be elected in 2000. An Internet poll conducted by AME Today magazine showed that 69 percent of those participating thought the church would elect a female bishop this year.

McKenzie said all the reasons given in the past for not elevating a woman to the episcopacy - lack of theological education or ministerial experience - no longer apply.

"We have women who are more than qualified," she said. "We have women pastoring large churches. We have women who have served as elders. All of these things have been done now."

The Rev. Sandra Smith Blair, an Oakland, Calif., AME minister who is president of Women in Ministry, said it is time for the men to give up their hold on ecclesiastical power and set aside at least one of the new bishop slots for a woman.

"It's tantamount to affirmative action," she said. "If people have been outside of the center of power for a long time, sometimes you have to intentionally create an opportunity. Males don't yield power easily. Sometimes you have to make an opportunity for inclusiveness."

The church has 20 active bishops, one an ecumenical officer and the others each supervising a geographical district. Within each district, under the bishops, are several elders who directly supervise a number of churches. The conference sets church policy.

Robert Franklin, president of Atlanta's Interdenominational Theological Center, a consortium of six seminaries that includes an AME school, said there is excitement in the larger black church community about the possibility that the election presents.

"There's hope that greater gender justice and inclusion in the pulpit and in the leadership ranks of the church is a proper way to begin the 21st century," Franklin said. "I have a sense that this is the fullness of time, and it may be time for this to happen."

McKenzie, a Baltimore native and a member of the Murphy family, owners of the Afro-American newspaper, has been pastor of Payne Memorial for the past decade and can boast a long list of accomplishments. She was instrumental in the creation three years ago of a collective banking group, in which more than 109 African-American churches signed an agreement with four financial institutions ensuring fair treatment for the mostly inner-city churches.

At Payne Memorial, she helped secure a $1.5 million welfare-to-work contract with the state of Maryland that resulted in the training of more than 500 men and women, enabling them to stop receiving public assistance. And the church recently purchased a vacant five-story apartment building, which it is renovating into a $1.8 million social services and economic development center, with the help of state and federal grants.

"The Lord has blessed me with gifts, skills and experiences that can be of great service to our church on the Connectional level," she wrote in a glossy brochure soliciting votes for bishop.

If that sounds like a stump speech, that's because a campaign for bishop closely resembles a run for political office. There are T-shirts, buttons, caps and signs promoting candidates. Each hopeful has a booth at the convention. There are videos of pastors preaching and photos with important personalities.

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