CINCINNATI - With shouts of jubilation and tears of gratitude last night, the Rev. Vashti M. McKenzie of Baltimore was elected the first female bishop in the 213-year history of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
McKenzie, the broadcaster turned minister who has been the pastor at Payne Memorial AME Church in West Baltimore for the past decade, was elected on the second ballot along with the Rev. Richard Norris of Philadelphia.
When the votes were flashed on a screen in the convention hall shortly before 8 p.m., it was McKenzie's supporters, recognizable by the red shirts they wore, who first reacted with screams, cheers and outstretched arms. Soon, the entire convention, realizing what it had done, rose and applauded.
Then McKenzie, wearing the brilliant red suit that all week made her stand out in the sea of delegates, and Norris were swept to the stage by their supporters for a celebration.
"Brothers and sisters," McKenzie said in a voice filled with evangelical fervor, "Because of God's mercy and grace we are able to stand in this hour. Because of his favor, the stained-glass ceiling has been pierced and broken!"
Her husband, former Baltimore Bullets basketball player Stan McKenzie, stood by her side with their three children, wiping away tears.
"I don't stand here alone," she said. "But there is a crowd of women who sacrificed, cried, died and gave their very best. The women who took the heat for us. The women who stood in the mid-1940s on a stage until ordination was given."
The victory was particularly sweet for the Marylanders who were present. When Adriene Breckenridge, a member of the ministerial staff at Payne Memorial, heard the vote tally, "I jumped up in the air and shouted `Hallelujah!"' she said.
"It's just awe-inspiring," said the Rev. Richard Greene, pastor of Union Bethel AME Church in Cecilton. "It's history in the making, not because she's a woman, but because she's capable."
`This is a great day'
In the days preceding last night's balloting, delegates favoring the election of a woman turned up the heat, urging their fellow African Methodists to make history and to act in contrast to the Southern Baptist Convention, which last month voted to include a provision in their statement of faith limiting the office of pastor to men.
"This is a great day for the African Methodist Episcopal Church," said the Rev. Frank M. Reid III, pastor of Baltimore's Bethel AME Church. "Given the recent vote of the Southern Baptists against women in ministry, this changes the tone and the direction of the conversation."
McKenzie started with a strong showing in the voting. On the first ballot, in which no candidate was elected, McKenzie received the second-highest vote total.
After the first ballot, the General Conference went into recess for a half-hour to allow for caucusing and negotiations between candidates' camps. Knots of delegates formed throughout the convention floor as deals were struck. Delegations raced from one end of the hall to the other in a mini-show of shuttle diplomacy as an organist serenaded them with driving gospel melodies.
`This is the ticket!'
McKenzie emerged with the other three top vote recipients. The four ministers rushed into the hall with hands clasped overhead, surrounded by dozens of their supporters, who chanted, "This is the ticket!" as the group paraded through the rows of delegates.
The other two members of the ticket, the Rev. Gregory Ingram and the Rev. Preston Williams, were the next highest in the tally on the second ballot and were elected on the third ballot later in the evening. Igram is from Detroit and Williams is from Atlanta. The General Conference elected four bishops out of 42 candidates.
McKenzie and her fellow bishops-elect were to be consecrated at a ceremony last night that culminates the quadrennial General Conference. She was also to receive her assignment, which will likely take her not just from Baltimore, but from the United States. Traditionally, new bishops are given first assignments overseas, either in Africa or the Caribbean.
McKenzie, a Baltimore native who is a member of the Murphy family, owners of the Afro-American newspaper, is a graduate of the University of Maryland's journalism school. She holds a master of divinity degree from Howard University School of Divinity and a doctor of ministry degree from United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.
She was named one of the 15 Greatest African-American preachers in 1997 by Ebony magazine. She is the author of "Not Without a Struggle," a treatise on women in the ministry.