Africa inspires AME bishop

Former city pastor works to help orphans of AIDS

July 18, 2002|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

As a pastor of a West Baltimore church, Bishop Vashti M. McKenzie was a witness to human misery.

But nothing on the streets of Baltimore prepared her for the suffering and culture shock that have confronted her in southern Africa, where she was sent two years ago as the first female bishop in the two-century history of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

She has traveled to remote, mountainside villages with no running water or electricity, where people walked for two days to greet her. She has eaten exotic foods, like a bowl of stale, sour grits that's considered a delicacy. She's been honored by having her dinner slaughtered in front of her, and later presented with a bundle of raw meat as a parting gift.

Her greatest challenge, she said, is dealing with the AIDS pandemic in the 18th AME District she oversees, which includes Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique and Botswana. There, hordes of children orphaned by the disease must fend for themselves on the streets.

"The extended family in Africa is a very real institution, but there are just so many people dead, so many people dying, that the extended family cannot absorb anymore," said McKenzie, who is in the Baltimore-Washington region this week to promote her latest book, Journey to the Well.

Her response to the African travail is as deliberate as her efforts were in Baltimore, where she developed a $1 million faith-based nonprofit corporation at Payne Memorial AME.

Drawing on the concept of the extended African family, the AME Church, under McKenzie's direction, is building five group homes for children orphaned by AIDS. Each will accommodate 12 children, supervised by a house parent.

"We're not talking about building orphanages, where you have this huge number of children in an impersonal environment," McKenzie said. "They're group homes, where it's small, it's intimate."

It's a small dent in an enormous problem. According to projections released last week at the International AIDS Conference in Barcelona, Spain, the number of children in the developing world who will have lost at least one parent to AIDS will increase from 13.4 million today to 25 million by 2010. A Swiss-based advocacy group had an even higher estimate of 100 million orphans by the end of the decade.

"Twelve children at a time doesn't sound like a lot, when you're facing 25 million or 100 million," McKenzie said. "But if we don't start somewhere, then we will really be overwhelmed. The game is to stimulate other" nongovernmental organizations.

McKenzie said she was a bit nervous when she arrived in Africa, given its patriarchal family and social structure. At her first series of church meetings, "they would introduce me as `this angel of light who has come to serve,'" McKenzie said. But it wasn't long before she became "the leader of the 18th District."

"Everybody gets a name in Africa when you come and serve," she said. "I can't pronounce mine, but it means, `The mother who holds the sharp end of the knife.' And that demonstrates that you have power, that you have strength."

She said she has been deeply moved both by the poverty of the people she serves and by their resilience. She recounted a journey to a remote village in the northern province of Mozambique, the poorest country in her district, "where the center of town was just a spigot."

"Children had clothes that were four sizes too small and had been on their bodies too many weeks in a row. And every morning the mothers come out and lay oranges out around the spigot and the children would come and have breakfast," she said. "It was a place where I said, `I can't cry here.' But it was so horrible that it would make you cry."

McKenzie regularly returns to the United States to speak at conferences and preach at revivals, something she calls a necessary part of her ministry.

"I have to because the money that I raise to do the projects comes from the United States," she said. "If I stayed there all the time, I would not be able to raise the money that I need to do these projects."

Her current visit, a two-month cross-country tour, is promoting a book that began as a series of sermons on a biblical passage about a Samaritan woman - an outcast in ancient Jewish society - being transformed by meeting Jesus at a well.

In the book, McKenzie encourages women to discover aspects of their lives that often are hidden or squelched.

"If I can get you to see that there is more to you than meets the eye, then maybe you will celebrate all of those selves that are on the inside of you, instead of trying to hide them away or starving one to death for the sake of another," she told an overwhelmingly female, African-American audience Tuesday night at the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

Those who knew her in Baltimore say the experience in Africa has clearly affected McKenzie. "We have seen her grow," said the Rev. Gwen Chinn, an associate at Payne Memorial. "Her compassion has deepened." And to her listeners, McKenzie remains a powerful voice in their lives.

"She is our pastor, our bishop, our sister-girlfriend," said Sharon Johnson, who was a member of the Circle of Love, a women's Bible study at Payne Memorial AME, where McKenzie developed many of the themes in the book.

"And she loves us," Johnson said. "She hangs with presidents and kings and heads of state, and she still has time for us."

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