Retiring Bishop Vashti McKenzie, first AME Church woman prelate, reflects on a groundbreaking career

Retiring Bishop Vashti McKenzie, first AME Church woman prelate, reflects on a groundbreaking career

(RNS) — Just-retired Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie is an apologist for an adaptive style of leadership. It’s what has helped her succeed as the first woman to hold many roles in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. And it’s a style of leadership she said was needed during the pandemic.

“Adaptive leadership means that you are faced with situations but do not have a solution or answer that comes from past experiences, so you have to adapt,” she said in an interview on Thursday (July 15), a week after her retirement began at the close of her denomination’s General Conference in Orlando, Florida.

“You have to know how to pivot, you have to step back, get on the balcony, survey the scene, throw out what you know or what you think you know and then find the answer that’s going to fit this issue right here.”

McKenzie, who remains the national chaplain of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, acknowledged this approach appeals to her because that’s the way she’s lived her life as a female trailblazer in her  205-year-old denomination. In 2000, McKenzie was the first woman elected bishop and later the first to serve as president of its Council of Bishops and chair of the General Conference Commission, which organizes the denomination’s quadrennial meeting.

Now one of five women bishops elected in the AME Church, McKenzie remains ready to answer anyone who questions their ability to lead.

“Do I think women can do this? Yes,” she said. “Do I think women are called to this? Yes. Do I think the women that have been elected in my denomination have done an exceptional job? Absolutely.”

As she led AME regional districts in Africa, Tennessee and Texas, McKenzie said she focused on her work rather than her title, letting the results speak for themselves. She modeled holding babies with AIDS to show it was safe and proved it was worthwhile to develop church websites to help attract new members and it was practical to use golf tournaments as fundraisers for church projects and seminary scholarships.

As she spoke at the conclusion of the General Conference bishops’ retirement service on July 9, she thanked her husband, former NBA guard Stan McKenzie (the first male episcopal supervisor of missionary work in the AME Church), her denomination and God for their support.

“What God did for me is evidence of what God can do for you,” she said. “For if God could do this, God can do what God promises you. That can be done no matter who says it can’t be.”

McKenzie, 74, talked with Religion News Service about her journey as a female bishop, those who paved the way for her to reach that role, and what’s next for her and for her denomination.

Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie, center, outgoing pastor of Payne Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore, bids longtime member Helen Thorton farewell on her last Sunday at the church in Sept. 2000. At left is her husband, Stan McKenzie. Photo by Carl Bower

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Looking back as the first woman bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, is there a way you would sum up your experience since 2000?

Being the first of anything, there is no book. There is no DVD. There’s no movie. There’s nobody in front of you, to be able to share back experiences of what it’s going to look like and feel like and be like and so you’re charting your own way. And as people receive you — not only as you are in your position but also receive you as a human being — and begin to see you have something to bring to the table and be able to embrace the uniqueness of my femininity. I do what bishops have to do, but I don’t do them in the same way because I’m Vashti.

Your family has long been in the journalism business, running the Afro American newspaper chain. You wrote newspaper articles starting at age 16 and as bishop you oversaw denominational publications including The Christian Recorder. What was it like to move from being in the news business to becoming a newsmaker?

It was a little bit different being on the other side of the microphone, the other side of the camera and on the other side of the notepad, really, because I grew up telling some other people’s stories. And then the shift comes where then you become the story. And so, my intention was not to have my episcopal career be about me. That my episcopal career would be about the people I serve. So I was intentional, to focus on the work, rather than the first. God didn’t just call me to be first. God called me to do the work. And so that’s what I focused on in each of the districts I served.

You mentioned in the “Echoes from the General Conference” documentary that, though 2000 was a turning point for women bishops, it was preceded by earlier actions. What and/or who paved the way?

Well, many, many women. Many women whose names were not written, who did not get a footnote, who were in the margins. Faces and names people have forgotten a long time ago. Beginning with Jarena Lee. Jarena Lee stood at her time, when Bishop Richard Allen says he’s not going to license women. But God created an opportunity and she stood, and so then off she goes to walking and preaching hundreds of miles.

Elizabeth Scott ran for the episcopacy for many, many, many years. The women who were appointed presiding elders, the women who were appointed pastors, and did fabulous work because if they didn’t, then they would never give another woman a chance.

The 2021 episcopal address, the message of the bishops to the denomination during the General Conference, spoke of longtime struggles for women to gain ordination, and the rank of bishop. What action do you think is needed still?

What seems to be difficult for the church at large — and I’m talking about the universal church, denominations at large — is the inability of embracing inclusivity, as far as women is concerned. Just because you’re at the table, doesn’t mean it’s success for all women. Just because there’s one presiding elder, one woman who is a bishop, doesn’t mean the playing field is level for all women. And so in order for that to happen, we have to be intentional, and intentional means you don’t promote or assign just because a woman is a woman. You recognize her gifts. When I ran, I didn’t run on a platform saying elect me because I’m a woman. I ran on a platform that says elect me because I’m qualified.

Was there something you’re particularly proud of achieving in ecumenical or interfaith circles?

Most of my ministry is focused within the AME Church but I preach everywhere. I have preached for the Presbyterian women, the Baptist women. I preached for the Hampton (University) Ministers’ Conference with denominations from all over, for the United Methodist Church, for the United Methodist annual conferences. And in that way, sharing prophetically also helps to shape people’s embracing women. I have preached at Catholic churches. I have spoken in Jewish communities.

I have preached in seminaries, and it’s so important for the female seminarians to be able to see someone who is their same gender, who has the same kind of uniqueness, as an encouragement to see the broader picture, to see ministry beyond your own front door.

The AME Church has voted to start an ad hoc committee on LGBTQ matters. Do you think it may be turning a corner about acceptance of LGBTQ people, just as the denomination turned a corner on women bishops 21 years ago?

I think dialogue is going to be good for the church because there are different people in different places having different kinds of conversations and to be able to have open conversation, which an ad hoc committee would provide, where the church is gathered, will be healthy and may be helpful.

Do you see an end to the ban on same-sex marriage?

I think we’re going to have to wait and see the conversation, the power of the conversation. I just think it’s just too hard to predict at this moment. We have to remember the church, the broader church, has a hard time dealing with racism. Church, period, had a hard time dealing with sexism. They have a hard time dealing with agism, classism. And now, this is the next wrestle. And after this wrestle, there’ll be another, and there’ll be another, and there’ll be another, and there’ll be another.

So now that you have reached retirement as an AME bishop, what’s next for you?

I’m going to continue with Selah (Leadership Encounters for Women, her professional women’s empowerment organization) because I have a passion for leadership. I plan to write. This is a good time to sit down and put some thoughts down on paper. And then, as they say, we’ll look into the horizon to see what also is next.

This story has been corrected to clarify that the African Methodist Episcopal Church has a ban on same-sex marriage. It does not have a ban on ordination of LGBTQ persons.

 

Wilberforce University, AME Church school, cancels debt for 2020, 2021 grads

Wilberforce University, AME Church school, cancels debt for 2020, 2021 grads

 

Rodman Allen hugs his mother after the 2021 Wilberforce University Commencement, Saturday, May 29, 2021, in Wilberforce, Ohio. Courtesy photo

(RNS) — There are usually lots of cheers and applause at university commencements.

But 2020 and 2021 graduates of Wilberforce University, a school affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, had an extra reason to celebrate during their ceremony on Saturday (May 29) in Wilberforce, Ohio.

Their president announced that any debts they still owed to the historically Black university had been forgiven.

 

“Because you have shown that you are capable of doing work under difficult circumstances, because you represent the best of your generation, we wish to give you a fresh start,” said President Elfred Anthony Pinkard. “So therefore the Wilberforce University board of trustees  has authorized me to forgive any debt. Your accounts have been cleared and you don’t owe Wilberforce anything. Congratulations.”

As soon as Pinkard said the words “forgive any debt,” the masked students started screaming, shouting and jumping, prompting him to smile and laugh before he continued his surprise announcement, which was streamed live on Wilberforce’s YouTube channel.

When he added “accounts have been cleared” there were more cheers, jumps and hand-waving among the black-robed students wearing green and gold stoles.

In a statement on the university’s website, the school said the amount of debt forgiveness for both classes totals more than $375,000 for the 166 new alumni.

It said the “zero balance” was the result of scholarships from the United Negro College Fund Inc., Jack and Jill Inc. and other institutions that aided students in the spring and fall semesters of 2020 and the spring of 2021.

It noted all student also benefited from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund established through the CARES Act. In particular, that financial assistance had previously helped the students whose balances due to the school would have prevented them from registering for their fall classes in 2020.

One student spoke of the difference the debt forgiveness will make for him in the years ahead.

“I couldn’t believe it when he said it,” Rodman Allen, now a 2021 alumnus, said in a statement. “It’s a blessing. I know God will be with me. I’m not worried. I can use that money and invest it into my future.”

During the ceremony the university also awarded posthumous doctorate degrees to civil rights leaders Fannie Lou Hamer and Medgar Evers.

Wilberforce, the oldest private historically Black school operated and owned by African Americans, was founded in 1856.

100 years later, Black church leaders seek reparations for Tulsa massacre

100 years later, Black church leaders seek reparations for Tulsa massacre

(RNS) — On the first Wednesday in May, as the centennial of the Tulsa massacre approached, the Rev. Robert R.A. Turner stood outside Tulsa City Hall with his megaphone, as he does every week.

“Tulsa, you will reap what you sow and that which you have done unto the least of these my children, Jesus said, you have done also unto me,” said Turner, 38, the pastor of Historic Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church, captured on a video posted on Facebook.

“We come here to say, for your own benefit, you ought to do reparations not tomorrow, not even next week, not next month, not next year, but we demand reparations now!”

Turner’s Vernon AME is one of the plaintiffs in a suit filed in September that calls for the city of Tulsa and other defendants to pay reparations to relatives of victims and survivors of the May 31, 1921, massacre that destroyed a part of town known as “Black Wall Street.”

Beginning with false rumors spread though the Oklahoma city that a young Black man had assaulted a white female elevator operator, within about 16 hours, a white mob killed an estimated 300 Black people and destroyed thousands of homes, businesses and churches.

As Tulsa pauses to mark the somber centenary in its Greenwood district, where Black Wall Street was located, Turner and other Black people of faith are among those saying the time has come to repay as well as to remember.

The lawsuit argues that the tragedy is a continuing “public nuisance” that Tulsa should remedy through monetary means.

Among the suit’s petitions to the Tulsa County District Court are payments to descendants of those who were killed, injured or displaced by the massacre; development of educational and mental health programs for individuals and organizations in Greenwood and North Tulsa; and a scholarship program for “Massacre descendants” for post-secondary education in Oklahoma.

The suit states that Vernon AME Church, “founded in 1905, is the only standing Black-owned structure from the Historic Black Wall Street era and the only edifice that remains from the Massacre. Vernon’s sanctuary burned in the Massacre. The basement was the only part of the red brick building that remained.”

The church joins other plaintiffs in charging that they never received resources to recover from the trauma and damage of the massacre.

The city, responding in court documents to the suit, questioned the framing of its claims and the idea that the city’s current problems can be attributed to 100-year-old wrongs.

“At its base level, Plaintiffs are attempting to seek reparations for the events of June 1921 while working around the inherent statute of limitations problems that have thwarted other lawsuits bringing similar claims,” the city argued.

It added that the suit’s claims of continuing racial inequalities are “nebulous” and said “community wide issues such as racial disparity are caused by a number of factors and cannot be traced to specific actions or omissions to act of or by the City, nor is it a nuisance that can be simply abated by the City.”

In 2001, the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 called for reparations for the massacre, including payment to survivors and descendants, a scholarship fund, establishment of an economic development zone in the historic area, and a memorial for reburial of remains of victims found in unmarked graves.

“Perhaps this report, and subsequent humanitarian recovery events by the governments and the good people of the state will extract us from the guilt and confirm the commandment of a good and just God — leaving the deadly deeds of 1921 buried in the call for redemption, historical correctness, and repair,” wrote then-state Rep. Don Ross in the prologue of the report.

Turner, who arrived in the city in 2017 to lead his church, agrees with all of the commission’s recommendations and hopes for a full criminal investigation. His petition for reparations has been signed by more than 26,000 people.

“This is about sin and an abominable sin — racism,” said the minister, who calls the massacre a “genocide of people simply because of the color of their skin.”

Gregory Thompson, co-author of a new book, “Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair,” said the Tulsans’ demands show how the movement for reparations has extended beyond atonement for the United States’ involvement in slavery to repairing societal ills, and that not just the federal government but local and regional officials are being called to account.

“It’s not to say that I don’t think the federal government should be involved — I do,” said Thompson, a white scholar who directs Voices Underground, a team of researchers and community members focused on the history of the Underground Railroad in the Philadelphia area. “But I think community-based reparations allow African American leaders a lot more agency in this conversation than if it’s located at the federal government, which is not equitably representative of African Americans.”

Regional reparations initiatives have become more common of late. Since the 1990s, descendants of survivors of the 1923 massacre in the majority-Black enclave of Rosewood, Florida, have received state scholarships.

In March, the Evanston City Council, in Illinois, began approving reparations that provide mortgage and other housing assistance to local Black residents to make amends for racially discriminatory housing practices. In April, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed a bill mandating that five of the state’s older public universities pay for scholarships or community redevelopment programs, starting in 2022, to benefit descendants of enslaved workers who built them.

Vernon AME is one of 23 churches in Greenwood that predate the massacre, of which 13 survived, according to a tally by Faith Still Standing, an ecumenical group of congregations that have rebuilt in the area or beyond it.

The Rev. Robert Givens pastors Christ Temple Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, a congregation that was founded in Greenwood but has since moved. Its original building was still new when it was destroyed in the massacre.

“When we think of Black Wall Street, it was tremendously a thriving area of all-Black businesses,” said Givens. “So a lot of the churches were just now getting started in that area” when they were burned down.

“Nothing was ever done for them or to help them in that situation,” said Christ Temple’s trustee board chairperson, Annette Gathron, of the people who lost homes, businesses and belongings along with their churches.

Some of those whose families survived the massacre have become key figures in the city’s Black history. The late John Hope Franklin, the famed historian, was a member of Christ Temple, and his father, attorney B.C. Franklin, helped pay off the church’s mortgage on the brick building it constructed after the massacre.

Gathron said she hopes to attend some of the worship services marking the centennial.

A ” Unity Day Worship Guide ” for congregations to use on the last Sunday in May is included in an online list of options for commemorative activities.

Gathron said she also intends to keep younger members of her family aware of the history of the city where she has lived for more than 60 years.

“I think that it’s good that we are remembering and I plan to take my great-grands to some of this so they can understand the struggles that we have had,” she said.

She traditionally takes nieces and nephews visiting from across the country on a walking tour through historic Greenwood, including a stop at Vernon AME.

“I think it’s important for them to know that they can achieve because this, at one time, was a very thriving community.”

On May 31, Tucker’s 130-member church, which opened in a rebuilt sanctuary in 1928, plans to dedicate “a prayer wall for racial healing” that will include an exterior wall of the basement that survived 100 years ago.

Once built, Turner hopes it will draw people of all faiths and none for prayer and meditation. “The idea behind it is to have people of all nations come and to pray and talk to God to help us with this racial healing that we need in the world,” he said.


You can hear from Pastor Robert Turner alongside other leaders virtually tonight (June 2, 2021) at Friendship West Baptist Church in Dallas, TX as they commemorate the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 in A Sankofa Moment. Conversation will also feature Nancy St. Jacobs, VP of Community Business Development for Truist Bank, and Lamar Tyler, Founder of Traffic Sales & Profit moderated by Dr. Frederick D. Haynes III.

 

Gospel singer Deitrick Haddon commemorates pandemic’s ‘year of loss’ in new song

Gospel singer Deitrick Haddon commemorates pandemic’s ‘year of loss’ in new song

Gospel singer and pastor Deitrick Haddon has lost family and church members to COVID-19, as have many other Americans.

The star of the “Preachers of L.A.” and “Fix My Choir” reality shows has turned to his art form to express that shared sense of grief.

“Sick World” — a single featuring both gospel and trap, a form of hip hop music, premiered on the 2021 Inaugural Gospel Celebration and is available on various platforms, such as Spotify and Amazon Music.

Haddon, who has a Pentecostal background, leads Los Angeles’ Hill City Church, a nondenominational, predominantly Black congregation that is marking its fifth anniversary this month (March). The church hasn’t met in person for a year, due to COVID-19, but he plans to host an outdoor service on Azusa Street — known for being the historic site of a revival in the early 20th century — on Easter Sunday.

Haddon talked to Religion News Service about why he co-created “Sick World,” his personal and national losses from the pandemic and his plans to keep up pandemic practices long after it’s over.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you decide to create the new single “Sick World”?

I could see the world was grieving. I was grieving. I lost my Aunt Celeste (Folmar) last year in 2020. I lost one of my eldest brothers, Shawn (Derrick) Haddon, rest in peace. Even lost a member of my church. I just wanted to write a song that will bring some peace and comfort to people and help people realize there is life beyond this pandemic. We’ve all lost a significant amount of people in a short amount of time. I said, if I had the opportunity to speak to everybody, whether you were Black or white, rich, poor, a believer, or unbeliever, Democrat, Republican, what would I say to everybody? And that was the song that I wrote.

Why did you choose to use music that combines gospel and trap music, a form of hip hop, and work with record producer Zaytoven?

Zaytoven is like a brother of mine. He’s been supportive of my music for years. He’s had success in the trap world. He’s considered to be one of the originators of that sound. He’s produced hit records with (rappers) Gucci Mane, Future and a lot of artists. He has a love for gospel music, and we just brought it together. Gospel music can’t really be put in a box. You can place the message in any form. It just gelled perfectly. The lyrics flowed. Once I heard the music, the song wrote itself.

The lyrics include the words “can’t stand to lose nobody else.” Why did you choose to use those words?

First of all, it was a big blow to lose Kobe Bryant and his daughter at one time. And all the lovely souls that were in that helicopter crash. Then, in the midst of that pandemic, we lost great people like Chadwick Boseman. His career seems like it was just really taking off, skyrocketing, and he’s the king of (the mythical nation of) Wakanda, for God’s sake, in our minds. He’s too strong. We’ve seen how people had succumbed to COVID, and how powerful COVID-19 was. The only thing I can hear in my heart: Man, we can’t stand to lose anybody else. I mean, how much more can we take?

You wanted to capture a broader remembrance of lives lost at this time.

Yeah. Yeah. Just anybody whose lives were lost last year. It’s hard to separate it from the pandemic. It’s just a year of loss, great loss, whether through the COVID pandemic or not, just too many people. One of my favorite No. 1 gospel artists in the world — one of the best — was Rance Allen. I never thought in a million years that we would lose him. And I learned how to sing listening to him.

Have you had to officiate at funerals of church members who have died because of COVID?

We’ve only had one member that belongs to my church. We called her “Cookie.” I had to preach the service under a tent outdoors, outside of the actual funeral home building.

You also sing of the debates about wearing masks and say thousands have died because we cannot agree. Are there other ways you’re trying to move people beyond the debates other than your song?

Making people agree with you is a hard thing to do. But I put my opinion and my perspective in a song. This will all go down in history, that thousands have died ’cause we could not agree. I do believe we extended the pandemic. I do believe we made it worse than what it should have been because of our inability to unite and come together as one as a nation and agree on the simple things like wearing a mask. You asked the question: Am I doing anything outside of my song? No, I’m not doing anything outside of my song because I can’t force anybody to do anything. I put it in the song ’cause the song can go where I can’t go.

What was it like to present your musical message at the time of the inauguration, since it was both a new administration and an administration that’s been focusing on COVID-19 from the beginning?

I thought it was perfect for me because I’ve been an advocate for people wearing masks and keeping their hands clean. So I’m right in sync with Joe Biden’s administration’s calls to get this thing cleared up and get a unified effort as a nation to come together. I was also excited to be a part of such a historic event, where we had the first female vice president of the United States of America.

What are you looking forward to most when more people are vaccinated and the country may experience what everybody’s calling a “new normal”?

I love to take my three kids and my wife on trips to Disney World and everywhere. So hopefully we’ll be able to get back and feel comfortable with traveling and enjoying life and wonderful things that we do, like going to the movies, just the regular things we do that we’ve taken for granted, I believe. But I also hope we will understand the importance of keeping our hands clean and not just touching everything, and I hope we can keep some things going, because that’s how germs transfer. Hopefully, we can continue to comply a little bit with keeping our hands clean and wearing a mask. I think I’ll always keep that in place from now on.

Really? That’s a long time.

Michael Jackson knew something we didn’t know.

Prison Fellowship joins campaign to reform cocaine sentencing guidelines

Prison Fellowship joins campaign to reform cocaine sentencing guidelines

Prison Fellowship has joined forces with criminal justice and prosecutorial organizations to support bipartisan efforts to reduce disparities in sentences that punish Black Americans more harshly than white Americans.

The #EndtheDisparity campaign, a partnership with organizations such as Families Against Mandatory Minimums, has recently focused on the 18-1 ratio in federal sentencing for distributing crack cocaine versus the drug in powdered form. Advocates are pushing for a 1-1 ratio instead.

“We think this is so important an issue and that action is needed now to correct this now long-standing injustice,” said Prison Fellowship President and CEO James Ackerman at an online roundtable with journalists on Tuesday (March 9).

After reading from the biblical Book of Proverbs that “The Lord abhors dishonest scales but accurate weights are his delight,” Ackerman said the disparities in cocaine sentencing are unfair to all Americans but especially to African Americans.

RELATED: Evangelical leaders push for criminal justice reform

According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, 81% of crack cocaine trafficking offenders in 2019 were Black, when African Americans comprise a much lower percentage of the U.S. population.

“Think about it: the African American community represents 13.4% of the citizenry of America but 81% of the people convicted for crack cocaine distribution in 2019 alone were African American,” said Ackerman, leader of the 45-year-old evangelical prison ministry founded by former prisoner and Nixon aide Chuck Colson.

“That’s not right and this has existed too long.”

The campaign comes at a time when legislation is being discussed on Capitol Hill that would end the sentencing disparities.

In January, Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., introduced the EQUAL Act, whose acronym stands for “Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law.”

On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of House members — Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., Bobby Scott, D-Va., Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., and Don Bacon, R-Neb — introduced the House version of the bill.

Previously, Durbin introduced the Fair Sentencing Act, which passed in 2010 and reduced the disparity from 100-to-1, when someone sentenced for distributing 5 grams of crack cocaine served the same amount of time — five years in prison — as someone who was apprehended for distributing 500 grams of powder cocaine.

William Curtis, who was sentenced when the 100-to-1 disparity was in force, told reporters during the online roundtable discussion that he saw the differences in treatment while he was in prison for 20 years and six months for selling $20 and $50 rocks of cocaine.

“I sat in prison many a day and saw people sentenced under powder — white people sentenced under powder — get out of prison, go home, turn around and come back for doing the same thing and then they would get out of prison again, go home, turn around and come back and I’m still here,” he recalled.

Curtis, a Black man, is now continuing the rest of his 327-month sentence under home confinement in Tennessee due to COVID-19 precautions.

FAMM President Kevin Ring said the “political compromise” attained previously to reduce the disparity to 18-to-1 needs to be followed by a complete elimination of the difference in sentencing for distribution of two different forms of the drug.

“The crack powder disparity is the most obnoxious of the discriminatory aspects in our federal justice system,” he said. “Now it is time to finish the job and we think this is a matter of criminal justice and racial justice at a time where our country needs both.”

Heather Rice-Minus, Prison Fellowship’s senior vice president of advocacy and church mobilization, noted that more than 40 states already have laws with 1-1 ratios for punishments related to powder and crack cocaine.

Ring and roundtable participant Frank Russo, director of government and legislative affairs of the National District Attorneys Association, called the disparity a “moral issue” that needs to be addressed.

Russo said his association of local and state prosecutors endorses “common-sense reforms such as the EQUAL Act to improve our nation’s justice system and ensure that we are applying justice equitably.”