Joy, tears at church on eve of transition

Bishop: Worshipers gather at Payne Memorial AME as Vashti M. McKenzie prepares to take on her new role in southern Africa.

July 17, 2000|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

As Payne Memorial AME Church shook with song and spiritual ecstasy yesterday in West Baltimore, Diane Watkins stood in a hallway fighting back tears.

She had come to hear one of the last weekly sermons by the funny, fiery, philosophical Vashti Murphy McKenzie, tapped last week to be the first female bishop in the history of the 213-year-old African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Though delighted for McKenzie, who will soon begin a four-year stint in southern Africa based in Lesotho, Watkins could not comprehend saying goodbye to the person she credits with turning her life around.

In 1994, when Watkins first visited the church to hear McKenzie preach, she was in the grip of crack cocaine.

She never again succumbed to the drug, she said, thanks to McKenzie's support and inspiration.

"She would talk to me about a lot of spiritual things," said Watkins, 40, now a church usher and volunteer. "She let me know life was better in the church than on the street. She just changed my life."

McKenzie has touched many lives since she arrived at Payne Memorial 10 years ago - an impact reflected in the congregation's steep rise from 300 members to 1,700. The church has recruited new faith- ful by targeting Bible study classes for different age groups; older members continue coming from as far as the Eastern Shore and Virginia.

"Everybody has a story - `I was going through something, but I found the help I need,'" McKenzie, looking regal in her purple bishop's robe, said with satisfaction after the three-hour service.

The church has tried to improve lives in other ways. It owns a nearby building that houses 11 community groups providing services such as support for people with AIDS, and job training. Another building is being readied for an adult day care center.

Just because she is leaving Baltimore, McKenzie told an overflow crowd of 700 parishioners and visitors, does not mean the good works will slow down at the church, on the western edge of Bolton Hill.

"Stay with the ship," she exhorted in her sermon. "God is counting on you to stay with the ship. The enemies of God are praying this is a personality cult, but it ain't. This is not me; it's all about God."

Amens and hallelujahs filled the sanctuary, which is adorned with brilliant blue stained glass streaked with red, yellow and lavender. People shot up from the pews, and raised hands began swaying to the organ music.

Life, McKenzie said, is full of transitions: People marry and graduate; they get married and start new jobs; they lose spouses; and, sometimes, they are elected bishop. Even women.

"Not one of us is untouched by the season of transition," she observed.

In many ways, her transition has been a source of great pride. McKenzie's puncturing of the "stained-glass ceiling," as she put it after her election in Cincinnati last week, was a long time coming in the eyes of some church members.

"You can't hold back women but for so long," said 75-year-old Beulah Pratt, who has been worshiping at Payne Memorial for 67 years and wasn't sure she would live to see a woman elected bishop.

It's not just her gender, though. McKenzie is also the first bishop to come out of Payne Memorial since it was founded 103 years ago, said Floyd Cooper, chairman of the church's board of trustees.

And, he said, she has been one of its best pastors. "The congregation has soared by leaps and bounds - spiritually, financially, economically," he said. "She is going to be a total loss."

Yesterday, the dominant mood was one of joy. McKenzie was surrounded by family members, including her husband, Stan, who played professional basketball for the Baltimore Bullets and other teams in the late 1960s and early '70s, and their three children, ages 14, 17 and 25.

About 100 members of the Delta Sigma Theta service sorority - for which McKenzie is spiritual adviser - piled into the church, nearly all clad in the group's red colors that McKenzie used in her campaign for bishop.

"Thank you, God. You've taken us places in the last 10 days we never thought we'd go," preached assistant pastor Angelique Mason. "Thank you, God. You've changed us. We'll never be the same."

McKenzie seemed utterly at home in the pulpit even with a bank of TV cameras trained on her. At one point she said the church would only get "gooder and gooder" - a comment she quickly admitted would knock her English teacher on the floor. But, she added to laughter, "Ebonically, it is correct."

At the end of the service, she was presented with a bouquet of roses and a framed photo of a lion - a reference to an African proverb she had included in a sermon.

Like almost everyone else, Watkins, the usher, got swept up in the excitement, belting out hymns and swaying to the rhythm. But she knows it will be tough when McKenzie leaves, which could happen in just two months, depending on when Bishop Vinton R. Anderson picks her successor.

"When it will really hit me," said Watkins, "is when she leaves."

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