African American, Woman, Leader
Vashti McKenzie is a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and author of several books, including Not Without A Struggle: Leadership Development for African American Women in Ministry.
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “African-American, Woman, Leader,” qualities this presidential election has at times pitted at odds. My guest this hour, Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie, holds them all together. She also sheds light on the socially critical tradition of African-American Christianity that became a point of political controversy in this election year. We offer her wisdom and good humor as an edifying lens on the American past, present, and future.
BISHOP VASHTI MURPHY MCKENZIE: I live for the day. I live for the day. I’ve said over and over again, I live for the day when my gender and my race means nothing — means nothing — that my gifts, my skills, my character, my mental astuteness, these things qualify me to do the job. Period.
MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett.
I’ve been wanting to interview Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie all year. The current U.S. election has illustrated how gender, race, and religion can become lightning rods and seen as potential stumbling blocks to leadership. Vashti McKenzie is a pioneering figure on all these fronts and all at the same time. When she became the first woman bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest the of the historic black churches dating back to the early days of the American republic, she declared, “The stained glass ceiling has been pierced and broken.” Vashti McKenzie also sheds light this hour on the socially critical tradition of African-American Christianity that became a point of political controversy in this election year. We offer her story, her wisdom, and her good humor as an edifying lens on the American past, present, and future.
BISHOP MCKENZIE: I live for the day. I live for the day. I’ve said over and over again, I live for the day when my gender and my race means nothing — means nothing — that my gifts, my skills, my character, my mental astuteness, these things qualify me to do the job. Period.
MS. TIPPETT: From American Public Media, this is Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas.
Today, “African-American, Woman, Leader: Meeting Vashti Murphy McKenzie.” Vashti McKenzie was ordained a bishop in 2000 and now leads the 13th Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, or AME. The roots of the AME were laid in 1787 when preacher and former slave Richard Allen and other black Methodists walked out of a church in Philadelphia to protest their treatment by whites.
For Vashti McKenzie, religion was just one supportive aspect of an altogether empowering upbringing. Her great-grandfather founded a chain of African-American newspapers in 1892. Her maternal grandfather, Carl Murphy, had five daughters and raised them to carry on the family business. Vashti McKenzie at first followed in this tradition, becoming a broadcaster and corporate vice president of programming at a TV station. She married an NBA basketball star, Stan McKenzie, who’s been her husband now for 40 years and with whom she has three children.
Then in the late 1970s, she preached her first sermon in a pulpit in her native Baltimore and knew that this was her life’s calling. Yet through all her accomplishments, Vashti McKenzie has experienced the crosshairs, as she puts it, of racism and sexism.
BISHOP MCKENZIE: I have been female and African-American all my life. When I look back over the places where I’ve been in life, I have not been in, traditionally, places, roles, functionalities that were traditionally female except for I think one time. But doing Morning Drive, Morning Drive was not at that time in the ’60s a traditional place for a woman to be. Being a program director in a major market, Washington, D.C. — and we got good ratings, yay. But that was not a traditional role for women. Being a general manager of a radio station at the time was not a traditional role for a woman. So to be able to face the jokes. You know, you’d come into work and you’re program director now so you are going off shift and you’re going to handle the administrative responsibilities and duties. And the next person coming behind you, I’d give a little reminder. I said, ‘Don’t forget to leave the studio the way you found it.’ And so the young man said to me, ‘But you can’t tell me what to do, because a woman is not supposed to tell a man what to do.’ And I said, ‘Excuse me?’
BISHOP MCKENZIE: I’m your program director. I sign your checks, you know. Pardon me. And he says, ‘Well, the Bible says that a wife is supposed to submit herself to her husband.’ And I said, ‘Am I married to you?’ And he says, ‘No.’ ‘Then make sure the studio looks like this when you go off shift.’
BISHOP MCKENZIE: And it’s those kinds of things that you face on a daily basis. You know, those kinds of things. And it becomes very disappointing when you believe that you’re holding hands with your brothers who are of African descent, who you believe that together we’re going to help open the doors for the generation that are coming behind us, and together we’re going to work to be sure that people don’t look at our color first but they look at our skills, our qualifications, our education, our background. And then all of sudden the hand that you’re holding turns around and closes the door in your face because you’re a woman, see. And so that’s what it means being in the crosshairs. It’s sort of like a double-whammy. You know, bam, you get hit because of your color, and then you get hit again because of your gender.
MS. TIPPETT: Now, you were, is this right, in sixth grade when integration arrived in Baltimore.
BISHOP MCKENZIE: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: How did that imprint your sense of what it meant to be African-American culturally? I mean, did that make you more aware of your race than you had been before?
BISHOP MCKENZIE: Yes. I believe that, you know, growing up in Baltimore we were in a very wonderful community where we knew everybody in the neighborhood, and it was a wonderful affirming place. In school, your schoolteachers were likely to be the same persons who were your Sunday school teachers. It’s like a unit between the church, the school, and the community. It was a wonderful incubator, you know, just a wonderful incubator.
And then all of a sudden integration comes and we are bussed across town to a new school where, instead of being a part of a majority, you are a part of a minority. You may be the only person who is of African descent in your class. There may be two or three of you. I don’t remember; I believe there were only about seven to 10 kids in this humongous elementary school where I finished the sixth grade.
And of course they couldn’t get my name right. I was Vash-tee and I kept saying, no, I am Vash-tye. Or, ‘You’re Wash-tee,’ and, no. And the kids in the class, ‘Well, why didn’t your mother name you Mary or Ann like the rest of us?’ ‘Because my name is not Mary or Ann like the rest of you. It is Vashti.’ ‘Well, we have to find a name. We have to call you something; we just can’t call you your name.’ And then all of sudden you’ve become an oddity, and it was really a new experience. And so you find yourself in a position where you have to teach people about your culture and your heritage because they didn’t know and they didn’t understand.
MS. TIPPETT: And that’s not an easy thing to do when you’re in sixth or seventh or eighth grade, when you’re wrestling with your identity at such a fundamental level as well.
BISHOP MCKENZIE: Mm-hmm. Well, at that point you find that you have to prove yourself every day. Before then you were just you. Here you are, you’re in class with teachers who, you know, looked at you and expected you to do great things. Then you’re thrust into an environment where people expect you to fail. They look for you to fail. They look for you to be in the lowest reading group. They look for you to do the worst in math. And so you find you have to prove different.
The school was wonderful because they had a whole lot of others things that we didn’t have. You know, I was at Robert Brown Elliot School Number 104, which, at the top of the school, in stone, it said, “Colored School Number Nine.” All we had was a playground and a cafeteria. But at this new school, there was a gymnasium. We’d never had a gymnasium before. They had a band. Track and field outside out back. I mean, it was like, wow. You know, they had all these kinds of things that we didn’t have in our elementary school, which was wonderful, but I was already taking piano lessons. So when I got to that school they said, ‘Well, we already have a student playing piano. You’ll have to learn another instrument.
MS. TIPPETT: Gosh.
BISHOP MCKENZIE: I said, ‘OK, fine.’ And you find that in every place that you’re put, you have to prove your existence, that you have a right to be there. And that’s what African-Americans and that’s what women do every day in a leadership position. You have to prove that you have a right to be there.
MS. TIPPETT: Bishop Vashti McKenzie. I’m Krista Tippett and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, “African-American, Woman, Leader.”
Before Vashti McKenzie became the first female bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, she spent 10 years as the first female pastor of the historic Payne Memorial Church in Baltimore. As she was about to accept that call in 1990, one bishop pulled her aside to question her readiness. “He said,” she’s written, “that my failure would not just be my personal failure; it would mean that a woman would not be appointed to such a charge for a very long time.” Under Vashti McKenzie’s leadership, Payne Memorial not only grew, it launched multiple community projects, including a Human and Economic Development Center with a senior adult daycare and a Head Start program. Payne Memorial also secured a $1.5 million welfare-to-work contract with the state of Maryland.
This kind of social engagement is a contemporary expression of the traditional role of African-American churches as a hub of common life, not just worship. Vashti McKenzie says this kind of action is essential in light of her theology and the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s sense of mission.
BISHOP MCKENZIE: You know, it’s seek out and save the lost. Visit the sick. Cheer the fallen. Encourage thrift, economic thrift. You know, housing. Visit those who are in prison. And these are biblically based. These are not things that were just grabbed out of the air. When you go to Matthew, the 25th chapter, when Jesus says, you know, when the people respond, “When did we see you hungry? When did we see you in prison?” And the Lord’s response is, “As you’ve done it unto the least of these you’ve done it unto me.”
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
BISHOP MCKENZIE: You know, for me the church ought to be a center of the community. And being in the community, then, our responsibility is not only to those who are members of your church; our responsibility is also to those who live in the shadow of — I call it the shadow of your citadel. And so there is a neighborhood, there is a community of needs and beings and so the church ought to respond to that. And being at Payne — and you must understand, every church I’ve pastored, I was the first woman.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
BISHOP MCKENZIE: It’s not just Payne.
MS. TIPPETT: All right.
BISHOP MCKENZIE: Every church. Every church along the way, I was the first woman to pastor that congregation. I’m excited to say that I was not the last woman to pastor. But being in Payne Memorial and that northwest Baltimore area, that congregation for the most part people drove in from other neighborhoods to attend that congregation. They used to live around there. But around that neighborhood, there was violence. There was crime. There was drug activity. There was prostitution. There were people who were hungry, people who were homeless on the street. So what are we supposed to do? Drive in, have our wonderful service, and go home?
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
BISHOP MCKENZIE: And not do anything to enhance the life of those who live around your congregation? And so then our job is, is to be sure that the power that is on the inside becomes the power that reaches the people on the outside.
So that means you do more than have a food pantry, where once a week people who are hungry can come with a sack and we give you non-perishable food items. You have to go beyond that. You know, it’s like, ‘I saw you last week. Now what are you going to do this week to be sure you’re not in my line next week?’
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
BISHOP MCKENZIE: What can we do to help you and empower you next week?
MS. TIPPETT: And so that was your welfare-to-work programming that you started.
BISHOP MCKENZIE: It’s a natural lead-in. The outreach center, you know, started with, of course, the food pantry and the clothes pantry — the traditional things that happen. And then we moved to helping people with their shut-off and cut-off notices. And then we became like the referral agency. ‘I need help.’ ‘OK. Let’s see how we can connect you to the appropriate agency or organization in the community, in the city, that can help you with that need.’ Because some people just can’t navigate all the red tape that they face when they need help. Or they don’t know where to go for help. And so the natural progression was to move into a place where we train persons for jobs and, you know, held their hands while they navigated coming out of tennis shoes and jeans. And we had a professional clothes closet. We did soft skills of how to get your résumé out, how to do an interview, how to do all those kinds of things, and then go through the training program. So we did all of the prep work.
MS. TIPPETT: You really helped connect the dots.
BISHOP MCKENZIE: Sure.
MS. TIPPETT: These very practical dots.
BISHOP MCKENZIE: And it’s called demonstrating the love of God in tangible and practical ways.
MS. TIPPETT: You became a bishop. That was your next move from Payne Memorial.
BISHOP MCKENZIE: That’s correct.
MS. TIPPETT: And so now in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, as in many Protestant churches, you feel a calling to run for bishop. You run for bishop. It’s kind of a political process; it’s not an appointment from on high.
MS. TIPPETT: So tell me, did you start to feel that calling to a broader leadership in those experiences you’re describing? Is that something you can trace?
BISHOP MCKENZIE: Yes. I believe that there is a call to the episcopacy. I believe it’s more than a decision. You don’t just wake up in the morning and say, ‘Well, you know, I’ve done this long enough. It’s time for me to go do something else.’ Or, you know, ‘I’m ready for the next level of service.’ I believe that just as there’s a call to preach and there’s a call to pastor, there’s a call to teach. I believe there’s a call to Episcopal service, because the road to being elected is not an easy one. It is not an easy one for your family and it’s not an easy one for you. It is a political process. You have to campaign. Every four years, the AME Church holds a general conference. There are delegates who come from all over the world, who come from, of course, the United States, the Caribbean, England, Europe, Africa, Canada. They come from all over the world, and they will elect Episcopal leaders. And so you have to present yourself to these delegates, because they’re going to vote for you. And that means you’re going to have to travel. You’re going to have to go outside of your annual conference.
MS. TIPPETT: You have to hit the campaign trail.
BISHOP MCKENZIE: Yeah, you’ve got to hit the campaign trail. And that’s exactly what you do. And there, of course, we have campaign workers. You’ve got volunteers. You’ve got T-shirts. You’ve got banners.
MS. TIPPETT: Videos. I heard that you had a great video that greeted people at the convention, about your life and ministry.
BISHOP MCKENZIE: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. The whole thing is how do I get the message to people beyond the political barriers. It’s the same thing that the candidates are doing now.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
BISHOP MCKENZIE: But my campaign was on my track record, my experience. And I told people, ‘Don’t elect me, because I’m a woman. Elect me because I’m qualified to do the job. Elect me if you want me to be your bishop, because, you know, one day I just might be. You know, I haven’t served all my life, I haven’t worked all my life, to be a novelty, to be a token anything, just to dress up the stage, you know, to be the feminine presence in all this kind of thing.’
MS. TIPPETT: It seems to me that you had a pretty challenging or at least stretching adventure your first appointment as bishop. You went to serve as the chief pastor of the 18th Episcopal District in southeast Africa, and so you were in Lesotho and Swaziland, Botswana, Mozambique. But tell me how that time in Africa continued to evolve and shape your theology and your understandings of ministry and leadership.
BISHOP MCKENZIE: Well, Africa was and is a great place to do ministry, because there are so many needs. And it’s not difficult to convince people, ‘Well, you know, we have a problem here.’ ‘Yes, we have a problem.’ ‘Now let us all come together and see how we’re going to solve the problem.’ They’re going to say, ‘Yes. Let’s go.’ Which is different. You know, when you’re in the United States and you say, ‘Hmm, have you noticed the neighborhood is decaying and we really ought to do something about it.’ And they say, ‘Well, we’ll go home to the suburbs and we’ll think about it. We’ll come back and when we have an official board we’ll discuss it.’
MS. TIPPETT: Yes.
BISHOP MCKENZIE: But, you know, you’re in Africa and there was the HIV/AIDS pandemic and in that southern region you had 7,000 people dying every week. Church life is interrupted, because pastors and people have to pull together resources to bury people. And you have children who were left by the roadside or who were left on the steps of hospitals that are already overburdened. And you have 10-year-olds raising their three- and five- and six-year-old siblings, because their parents are in various stages of death and dying.
I’ve seen poverty in the United States. I’ve seen what poor is. I’ve seen hunger here. I’ve seen homeless here. But you have never seen poverty as it is in Africa. It will break your heart.
MS. TIPPETT: Did that put you more in touch with the prophetic tradition of the African-American church in particular?
BISHOP MCKENZIE: You mean African Methodist Episcopal Church?
MS. TIPPETT: Well, yeah, but even I think African-American theology in general in the United States has — it’s in the Bible, OK, but, I mean, in terms of churches that have retained that at their core. I think that’s more true of African-American theology in the United States perhaps. Did it awaken that in you or deepen that in you?
BISHOP MCKENZIE: I couldn’t say it awakened in me because I felt that I’d been at it all along in the prophetic social-Gospel tradition, all along. And so it’s a continuum. It says, yeah, you’re right on course. You are right in line. You are stepping in the right direction in your preaching, in your theology, in your approach to ministry.
MS. TIPPETT: Here is Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie preaching at the Washington National Cathedral in January. She’s expounding on the biblical story of the 40 years the ancient Israelites spent in the desert, after they had been liberated from Egypt, before they reached the Promised Land. The Exodus story of the Israelites’ liberation from slavery and their guiding figure of Moses are pivotal in African-American biblical interpretation and theology.
BISHOP MCKENZIE: In other words, God said to Moses, ‘Enough is enough,’ and Moses turned around and told the people the same thing. And so if we’re talking about the pursuit of happiness, it appears that God indicates that direction is just as important as destination. The destination was set, the promised place of God. They knew where it was located. They were in the general vicinity for more than three decades. It wasn’t a new destination and neither were the people just informed about it, for the promised place of God was in their mission statement for 400 years and a part of the strategic plan at least for 38. They didn’t know where to go. They knew where it was, but they just couldn’t get there. And so all they were doing was going around and around in circles. They were marking time in merry-go-round agendas. Do you think we do the same now? Is God saying to us this morning, ‘Enough is enough. You’ve been going around in circles long enough.’ Merry-go-round agendas with the lives of people; merry-go-round agendas where some people have everything and others have nothing; going around in merry-go-round circles where race and gender qualifies you or disqualifies you for an office, whether it’s the president of the United States or the president of the eatin’-meetin’-greetin’ club. We know the destination. Our direction is confused. And God says we have walked around in circles long enough.
You see, they were delivered but they were not free. There’s that word again. They were delivered, but they were not free.
MS. TIPPETT: Vashti McKenzie preaches with her whole body, so we’ve posted video of her preaching this past Easter Sunday at Trinity United Church in Chicago, the former congregation of Senator Barack Obama. You can watch her speak about the need for prophetic passion in American Christianity and witness how her words resonate with that predominately African-American congregation.
And we also wrote about the rigorous task of researching and selecting audio clips of Vashti McKenzie’s preaching. Read a behind-the-scenes account of that process on our blog, SOF Observed, and tell us what you think. We want to know not only if we hit the mark, but how these selections resonated with you. Look for links on our homepage, speakingoffaith.org.
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MS. TIPPETT: After a short break, Vashti McKenzie sheds light on the prophetic tradition of preaching and social criticism to which she belongs and which came to public attention in sound bite form when scrutiny focused on Jeremiah Wright, the former minister of Trinity United Church of Christ. Also, her thoughts on life beyond the election.
I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.
[Sound bite of music]
MS. TIPPETT: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “African-American, Woman, Leader: Meeting Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie.”
Vashti McKenzie is bishop of the 13th Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, or AME. In 2004, she was also elected president of the Council of Bishops of the AME, yet another first as a woman. Her life reflects a convergence of themes that have come to the surface of American life during the current presidential campaign — race, gender, leadership, and religion.
Vashti McKenzie values the prophetic tradition of socially activist thought and preaching. This became a focus of political analysis and controversy when portions of sermons of Senator Barack Obama’s former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, were publicized this past spring. Vashti McKenzie has long known Jeremiah Wright as a friend and has preached across the years at his former church, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.
MS. TIPPETT: I do want to ask you about some of the issues that were raised in our culture, but I think not anywhere near resolved, around the person of Jeremiah Wright in the context of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. And I don’t want to talk so much, you know, about him but about — here’s one question I’d like to ask you is just how you experienced that conflict. You know, what you longed for people to have a better grasp of to be able to put any of that into context. I’ve kind of asked you a bunch of questions there, but wherever you’d like to weigh in.
BISHOP MCKENZIE: Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
BISHOP MCKENZIE: Sure. First one was how was the experience. It was painful. It was very, very painful to watch and hear and listen to the negative firestorm that came at the end of a successful pastoral ministry. Very painful. And a lot of it was only because Senator Obama was a member of that congregation.
Secondly, I don’t think people understand black theology.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
BISHOP MCKENZIE: They need to read Cone’s books and all the others. And I think Cone did an excellent job in interviews and others in sharing.
MS. TIPPETT: James Cone, right?
BISHOP MCKENZIE: James Cone, right. About theology, black theology. And the reason why I said it is the lens. In other words, theology is the system through which you evaluate and interpret Scripture or ministry and all of that. And then there is a thought of universal theology; in other words, the universal human experience. But for many African-Americans and for women there is — they’re not a part of that universal experience. And so the starting point for your interpretation, the starting point for building your theology, comes out of the African-American experience.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
BISHOP MCKENZIE: Just as womanist theology begins with the woman experience as the starting point, building the lens through which you interpret. So I think a lot of people don’t understand it, and there are some grabbed it and ran with it in a direction that sort of startled everybody. And, you know, preacher after preacher and bishop after bishop through the years had preached similar things, but nobody raked them over the coals. And of course the thing that was on YouTube that I guess started the whole ball rolling was not what he was saying. He was quoting someone else who is not African-American.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. And I’m just trying to cast my mind back. It was about — it was linking the events of September 11th in a broad historical perspective with American actions in the rest of the world.
BISHOP MCKENZIE: Sure.
MS. TIPPETT: Right? It was making connections between events and moral culpability.
BISHOP MCKENZIE: It wasn’t his thought.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. And it wasn’t his thought.
BISHOP MCKENZIE: It wasn’t his thought.
MS. TIPPETT: He was expounding on it.
BISHOP MCKENZIE: He was repeating what someone else said from another ethnic position. I was in Africa for 9/11, and I never feared for my life as an American anywhere in the world except for during that season. Serving in Africa for those four years, I was able to view the United States through the eyes of someone else other than American media. I found the BBC, the Chinese news, you know, all the other countries — Italian news or French news or Spanish news service — you know, able to hear what they said about my country. And, in fact, you have a totally different picture of your home when you see it through other eyes and you’re watching the media, you’re watching American media covering the same issues and the same story. I was going, ‘Wow. This is very subjective.’
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
BISHOP MCKENZIE: I said, ‘Ooh, this is not objective at all. This is very subjective.’ So on the one hand, you know, it’s like let us entertain you. And then on the other hand, this is what you have to be afraid of today.
MS. TIPPETT: OK. So prophetic preaching is the opposite of entertainment.
BISHOP MCKENZIE: Ah, you’re not going to let me talk about this, are you? [Laughter
MS. TIPPETT: No, no. I am. I am. But what I want to — OK. If you want to come back — if you think I’m derailing you, don’t let me. But what I was going to say is what felt inflammatory when people heard sections of Jeremiah Wright’s sermons on YouTube and really things taken out of context, it was that combination of seeing things in a different way, but also the anger and the righteous indignation — righteous indignation — that is part of the prophetic tradition. And it was that passion attached to the idea that maybe America was morally culpable in the large sweep of history and maybe there was some connection between that and bad things that were happening to us now that struck a really emotional nerve in the American psyche of something being almost anti-American. So what did you want people to understand about that kind of preaching and that kind of theology?
BISHOP MCKENZIE: Well, I have to come back. I have to come back.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. OK. OK.
BISHOP MCKENZIE: You know, I’ve got to come back and say that from any pulpit in America, whether the preacher is black, white, Asian, yellow, blue, pink, or green, whatever color, you will hear somewhere some strain some of criticism or opinion about America. You will hear it. I hear it when I go through the channels and I listen and I listen and I listen, you know, and I hear a preacher say, ‘You vote for those who believe in your values.’ Or you switch the channel and you hear the preacher say, ‘Now we’re going to support our troops — right or wrong!’ OK. Here’s this opinion here. You hear a variety of things, not just in the black church. You hear a variety of opinions that support a particular political line, a political bent, you know, a political thing. It’s not just in the black church. I’m saying it is in all churches.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
BISHOP MCKENZIE: What happens in America is we have an opinion that we can’t do anything wrong, that everything we do is right. Mmm?
MS. TIPPETT: We as a culture.
BISHOP MCKENZIE: Mm-hmm.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
BISHOP MCKENZIE: What do you think?
MS. TIPPETT: What do I think?
BISHOP MCKENZIE: Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m a journalist. You know I don’t have any opinions.
BISHOP MCKENZIE: Yeah. Right.
Ms. Tippett: When Americans hear those kinds of opinions in the pulpit, the other kind of opinion, that we support our troops, right or wrong, that sounds patriotic. Now, what I hear you doing is being patriotic in a sophisticated and complex way. And I think you’re still saying that in the pulpit, it’s appropriate to point out that everything is not perfect with American democracy. I mean, you know, so take what you just said to me and tell me what is the place for that kind of analysis in the pulpit and in preaching and how that comes together with this prophetic tradition.
BISHOP MCKENZIE: Well, the prophetic tradition is one thing. If you’re talking about social criticism and whether social criticism has a place in the preaching tradition, yes. Does political criticism — I think that’s what you’re asking now — whether political criticism belongs in the pulpit. I think you’ll find a lot of opinion that says, ‘No. We preach Jesus Christ, him crucified and risen from the grave. You know, that is our mandate. That is the gospel ministry.’ But to be silent about what’s happening in your neighborhood, is that sin? So for me, if I’m in my neighborhood — let’s say I’m back in Baltimore. I’m at Payne Memorial. I’m the pastor and I have 5,000 people who cannot feed their families, and I look up and I’ve got another 5,000 coming, because they’re being dropped out of a system, then I’m supposed to be silent? And not pick up the phone and call my council representative or my mayor and say, ‘This is what’s happening in my neighborhood. What can we do together to fix this? Because in a minute, it’s getting ready to be out of hand.’
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
BISHOP MCKENZIE: And they tell me, ‘Well, we made these decisions months ago and years ago.’ And I said, ‘But you made these decisions and you expect me to feed these people and take care of them and be a part of the safety net system. That means now you’re impacting my budget — my tithes and offerings, that are going to go from our people to help fix this problem that you created — and didn’t bother to consult me. So you want me to shift my budget to be a part of the safety net, because we’re going to do that anyway. You know, we’re going to demonstrate the love of God in a very tangible way, but I’m supposed to do that silently and not ask questions to see how we can make sure this doesn’t happen again?’
MS. TIPPETT: Bishop Vashti McKenzie. The lens of black theology, as Vashti McKenzie said, is influentially explored in the writing of James Cone of New York City’s Union Theological Seminary. Here is James Cone being interviewed earlier this year at the Trinity Institute of the Episcopal parish of Trinity Wall Street in New York.
INTERVIEW: Now you come to this, reading the Scriptures, the same Scriptures that the dominant white church read. How can people read Holy Scripture so differently? How do you read the Scriptures?
JAMES CONE: I read the Scripture from the bottom. That is, I read the Scripture from the vantage point of the weak, the poor, and the helpless. I think that’s the dominant theme in the Scripture. I think you’ll see that in Amos and a lot of the prophets. I think you see that in the Exodus, that symbol. I think you see that in the story of Jesus’s life. And certainly in the Cross. I think you have to read the Scripture through the eyes of those who are marginal, weak, helpless in this society. But I know everybody doesn’t read it that way. And the people who don’t read it that way are usually the people who are already on top. They are the advantaged. Now there are many voices in the Scripture and you have to choose. What the Scripture doesn’t do is self-interpret. You have to make a choice. I choose by looking at the Scripture from the vantage point of the Cross, a violent event. An event in which the helpless Christ Lord is hanging there. I think that is closer to a lynched black victim than it is to somebody who is sitting up in some mansion somewhere.
MS. TIPPETT: Watch that entire interview with James Cone on our Web site, speakingoffaith.org. I’m Krista Tippett and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, “African-American, Woman, Leader: Meeting Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie.”
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MS. TIPPETT: I want to ask you a similar question to the one that I asked at the beginning of this, talking about Jeremiah Wright. There was a point in the primary campaign, and this is when I started thinking about wanting to interview you, where there was suddenly — it was like the notion of being a woman leader, being an African-American leader, somehow there was a competition between the two in a sense. You know, which would be best? And I started thinking about Vashti McKenzie who is an African-American woman leader and how you hold those qualities together in yourself. And I just want to ask you also how you experienced some of the dynamics that were raised about gender and about race in that primary period. How you personally took that in. What disturbed you? What did you feel we weren’t really addressing head-on?
BISHOP MCKENZIE: Well, I still feel that there is still more emphasis on whether one is black or whether one is female and that our focus should be upon the issue, the program, the platform, the track record, and then again the things that need to be done to look ahead. I mean, we have issues that need to be dealt with and they need to be dealt with effectively, not only for our future, but for our children’s future. We have a domestic policy that is kind of ragged here, and we already know what’s happening on Wall Street’s stock market.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
BISHOP MCKENZIE: Our government is bailing out the financial system here, private financial organizations, to keep it from getting worse, but then you wonder who’s going to bail out the American government. You begin to wonder is America for sale. And these are very tenuous times in our country, and we’re all hoping for the best and the better. So we should not be focusing on whether one is a female or whether one is African-American. Let’s focus on what they say, what they say they can do, what the policy can be, how can they perform. That should be the focus. I live for the day. I’ve said over and over again. I live for the day when my gender and my race means nothing — means nothing — about whether I’m qualified to do a job or perform a task; that my gifts, my skills, my character, my mental astuteness, these things is what gets me in the door. Not whether I’m female or not whether I’m African-American, not whether I’m from the Asian Pacific Rim, not whether I’m Hispanic or Latino, but my gifts, my skills, my graces, these things qualify me to do the job. Period.
MS. TIPPETT: You often write about, you know, leaders who happen to be women. And I can imagine you also, leaders who happen to be African-American or happen to be Latino.
BISHOP MCKENZIE: Right. Mm-hmm. You know, when the ship is sinking and you’re going down for the third time, OK, you know, somebody’s getting ready to cast a net to say, ‘I can pull this ship out of the water and all of you will live,’ are you going to stand there and take time and say, ‘Are you African-American? You know, what’s your heritage? What’s your parentage?’
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
BISHOP MCKENZIE: You just want to get saved. You want to live. You want to get out of the rough waters here. You don’t want to drown.
MS. TIPPETT: You talk a lot in your books about it’s important for you for people to think for themselves about what are societal defining moments for them, and I’d just love to know what your perspective is, you know, in these years we’re in now. Because I have the feeling you may not give the obvious answers. You know, what are the societal defining moments that you see, that you’re experiencing, that are going to shape us as we move forward well beyond, you know, this year, this presidential election and the crises of today?
BISHOP MCKENZIE: I think that you’re referring when I talk about defining moments, things that happen so that things are different after that moment happens. They have impact upon your life, so that how you were living prior to it was changed by that moment, so that you live differently after that. Like certainly for me the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a defining moment for me. And I think in this era, this election, whoever wins, it’s going to be a defining moment. I believe that because there’s so many young people — hooray, hooray, hooray — who have been content to let other people make decisions for them, who are waking up and who are working and volunteering and getting excited. And there’s going to be one group that’s disappointed, and my fear is that they will just throw up their hands and walk away and that they’re unable to handle it. I would hate for that to happen. I would hope that whichever side, whatever it is, that they would use that disappointment to continue to participate and to work and to volunteer and, of course, to vote.
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BISHOP MCKENZIE: This is a most exciting time to be alive in the world. We are right on the cusp of moving into new directions. We are learning, moving from this industrial age to this information age, which is changing all of our relationships. And I think the church is the last place where we’re going to learn how to relate to each other as human beings.
MS. TIPPETT: You mean it’s the last place — it’s one of the last places where that is what we focus on; is that what you’re saying?
BISHOP MCKENZIE: Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
BISHOP MCKENZIE: Where it’s taught. Where it’s preached, where it’s taught, where you learn it, where you’re in Sunday school. We don’t do it in school anymore.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. It’s inter-generational, too, in churches.
BISHOP MCKENZIE: Yeah. Absolutely. On how we relate to each other. But for me, I remember very vividly my dad — big guy, 6’4″, 200-pound guy, you know, AAU track champion out of the University of Wisconsin, big guy — you know, you daddies are always the little girls’ hero. And I vividly watched my dad watching the dogs and the hoses released on people who were in the Freedom Marches down South with tears coming down his eyes. And I was a little girl, and he turned to me and he says, “Never let anybody ask you what you did for your people and for your country.” And so I never want my children to ask me, “What did you do?” I want them to be able to see it. And I hope every adult who is living and alive today will be able to do something to improve where we live and who we are so that when you turn around and hand this world to your children, you will not be ashamed.
MS. TIPPETT: The Right Reverend Vashti Murphy McKenzie is presiding prelate of the 13th Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. She is based in Nashville, Tennessee. She has authored several books, including Not Without a Struggle: Leadership Development for African American Women in Ministry.
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MS. TIPPETT: To hear more of my interview with Vashti McKenzie, visit our Web site, speakingoffaith.org. There you can download an MP3 of my unedited conversation with her as well as this program for free. Or subscribe to our podcast, and we’ll deliver them directly to your desktop. And on our staff blog, SOF Observed, we’re looking to you for ideas, everything from how we might explore the ethical and moral boundaries of our developing economic crisis to suggestions for music on an upcoming program on revenge and forgiveness. Scientists are exploring how and why revenge and forgiveness are biologically driven instincts. They are in our DNA. My guest in that program says that if we better understand our capacity for revenge then we can nurture our capacity for forgiveness. We’re looking for your stories of revenge, of forgiveness, and of what you’ve learned in your experience of them both. Look for links to Share Your Story and SOF Observed on our Web site, speakingoffaith.org.
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MS. TIPPETT: The senior producer of Speaking of Faith is Mitch Hanley, with producers Colleen Scheck, Shiraz Janjua, and Rob McGinley Myers, with assistance from Amara Hark-Weber. Our online editor is Trent Gilliss, with Web producer Andrew Dayton. Kate Moos is the managing producer of Speaking of Faith. And I’m Krista Tippett.
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