Bishop Vashti McKenzie has started her own project to inspire gratitude during COVID-19. The aptly named Gratitude Project focuses on inspiring feelings of gratitude, inspiration and joy to combat anxiety amid COVID-19.
“I’m often asked, ‘How do you stay positive in a crisis?’ The truth is that the pool of pessimism will call my name before the porch of positivity invites me to sit down,” said Bishop McKenzie in a news release. Bishop McKenzie serves as the 117th elected and consecrated bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and was the first woman elected to episcopal office in the more than two centuries history of the denomination. “How you start your day is important. I practice my spiritual disciplines daily whether through prayer, praise, study, meditation, worship, fasting and more. I read devotionals or a book, and use various apps like Abide and Calm.”
McKenzie has partnered with April Ryan, White House correspondent and Washington, D.C. bureau chief for American Urban Radio Network; Carla Harris, renown financial expert and senior client advisor managing director at Morgan Stanley; Sybrina Fulton, founder of The Trayvon Martin Foundation; and American gospel musician Earnest Pugh. She’s encouraging everyone to send their gratitude moments in to be shared via social media. You can find additional words of gratitude at http://thisisyourwakeupcallonline.com and on Bishop Vashti’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts.
“I’m inviting everyone to join me in a special Gratitude Initiative: pray a gratitude prayer daily; write at least two things about what you’re grateful for, whether in your journal or recorded on your computer, tablet or cell phone; and share what you’re grateful for online or on social media,” said Bishop McKenzie in a news release. “Let’s get this gratitude train going and keep it going! You have to work for it, so love your neighbor as yourself. Let’s be partners in hope, carriers of optimism and purveyors of joy!”
The 37-year-old is a foster care graduate who took her experiences and used them as inspiration to create the Fostering Change Network, a nonprofit that creates avenues to a successful life while eliminating the stigma of being a foster care child. The organization is based in the Washington, D.C., area. When O’Neale was approached for this interview, she was eager to tell her story so that anyone who has gone through similar troubles will be encouraged. Check out our interview with Shalita below as she shares her journey from sufferer to survivor.
THE BEGINNING OF GOD’S CHARGE
O’Neale was thrust into a horrific situation that many do not survive, but her tenacity to be loved served a purpose and she was encouraged along the way by an unlikely person.
How did you end up in foster care?
SO: My mother was murdered when I was two years old and my father was never part of my life; he drank himself to death when I was 16, but I didn’t find out until I was 19.
What was your experience in foster care?
SO: My experience in foster care was extremely lonely. I tried very hard to fit in and to avoid being a burden, even with my own family. I was put in a Kinship Placement with my grandmother at age five, but due to her alcoholism and physical and verbal abuse I was placed with my uncle until I was 13. Unfortunately, he was also physically abusive. At 13, I gathered the courage to tell someone and officially went into foster care. I lived in two different foster homes before going to live in a group home and often felt I was being punished because I did not have parents. There were people along the way that encouraged me and spoke to my potential and I am forever grateful for them. It was this and my desire to prove everyone wrong that fueled my ambition to succeed.
What are some of words inspiration that kept you going?
SO: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” — Mahatma Gandhi
CB: Who was your role model growing up?
SO: Aaliyah! I was so lonely through my different living situations, despite that I had much older siblings (17 years older). My brother and sister were dealing with their own set of trials, because of our mother’s murder. But Aaliyah was the big sister I never had with her mix of tomboy and “girly” style, love of music, and humility that I could relate to. When she died I grieved heavily, but she still inspired me to grow into that type of woman, a woman who was loved and admired for all that she gave to the world.
Shalita chased the light despite her strenuous beginnings and went on to complete her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and her master’s degree in social work, with a concentration in community organizing and social action from the University of Maryland. Looking at Shalita, she did not seem like the hard-core detective type like Misty Knight from Luke Cage. We laughed about that. However her past did dictate what her future would become and in this case it was a good thing.
What was your “savior” moment? What made you create the Fostering Change Network?
SO: I’ve had several savior moments. Every time I wanted to give up, even end my life, there was something that removed the despair. Almost as if in the next moment, the feeling was forgotten and my will to live and to continue to move forward, replenished. I believe God has consistently used people, angels and spirit guides to intervene on my behalf. I started Fostering Change Network to show others from foster care that they are valuable contributions to this world and that they are capable of great things. I created FCN to highlight the accomplishments of alumni of foster care nationally and internationally and to provide the support they need to take their personal and professional endeavors to the next level.
Do you feel like God handed you this journey for a reason?
Shalita poses with her family. She admits that her family’s love is what keeps her motivated in spite of her past.
SO: Absolutely! I have come this far, learned so much and kept my “crown” in place during all attempts to remove it. I accept the power that I have been given and understand it is my calling to help others do the same. I’ve been married to an amazing human being for almost 10 years. He has always been very supportive of and patient with me. He was the first one to show me that you can disagree with someone without leaving them. You can love someone and not agree with everything they do or say. From my experience with my family and in foster care, I used to believe that it was normal to just leave people or force them out when you didn’t see eye to eye. My husband and I have grown together through our different journeys. He is an amazing father to our 6-year-old son, Amani. Amani has shown me what it feels like to have a heart on the outside of my body. I was afraid that I would not know how to be a good mother or wife because I have never seen it, but they have awakened those instincts in me. I may not have known what unconditional love looked like as a child, but I knew what it was supposed to feel like. I let my heart lead and I now have a family of my own to pour into, in the way I would have wanted to be poured into.
THE MARCH FORWARD
Although living a Christ-like experience we are only human and can still hold animosity towards those who have wronged us. When Shalita was asked about this, she took a breath, and with wisdom explained why it was important to forgive in order to grow into who you must become; and more importantly how it affects the future of those around you.
Do you forgive your parents? Both biological and your grandmother and uncle?
SO: Forgiveness was necessary for me to step into the person I am today. I will always be on the journey of “becoming,” but about a year ago, I was stuck and I didn’t know why. I realized that after so many years, I had not forgiven my father, mother, grandmother or uncle and so many others. I told myself I did, but the way I was living my life, making my decisions and attracting negative people and situations told me otherwise. Not only did I have to forgive them but I forgave myself, which was the hardest thing of all.
If there is never another like you, what is your hope for the future of foster care kids?
SO: I want foster children to grow up in a world where there is a universal understanding that they add value and are worthy. My hope for the future is that they see themselves and their greatness through people who have been in their shoes and lead by example. My hope is that they see the world full of opportunities that are available to them instead of a world full of people that mistreat and misunderstand them.
What is next for you. When it is time to remove your “crown”?
SO: I don’t think I will ever remove my crown; I strive to always be present with my power as a “Light Worker” in human form. Although some days its more challenging than others. In everything I do (foster care-related or otherwise) and with every person I meet, I hope even if only for a moment to help them adjust their own crown and to realize that it has always been resting there, gracefully, on their heads all along.
Do you have anything that you want the world to understand about people like you?
SO: It is time for adults who have experienced foster care at some point in their childhood to step forward. We are gifted. We are resilient. We have given so much to our communities and to the world. There are so many of us hiding in plain sight, waiting to bump into someone who can share in our experiences of foster care. We have wanted a safe space to heal and achieve with others that “get it.” Fostering Change Network is it. We are a network of alumni that have overcome the barriers associated with foster care and we are leading Fortune 500 companies. We are celebrities, legislators, community organizers, human service professionals. We are amazing parents to our children. We are not the stigma. To the alumni of foster care reading this I say: Welcome home.
The typical conference for women tends to fall into a familiar format. Lots of meetings are led by strong, expert women who give you a solid three points on a particular issue. Attendees studiously write down notes, trying to take in tidbits that will help them move forward in their roles back at home. For the most part, it’s a one-way interaction — the leader at the podium gives you the information, and you absorb it.
The Selah: Leadership Encounters for Women experiences are different. Sure, you’ll have the traditional panels and probably take a note or two. But the connection and mentorship don’t stop after the intimate workshops and expert panels are over. Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie, who is the 117th elected and consecrated bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, founded the event that is hosted this year in Atlanta, March 27-28, and Dallas, November 19-21. Bishop McKenzie aims to support Christian women leaders by creating an ongoing network of friends and colleagues who help and empower each other by opening doors, providing resources, and offering practical advice.
Urban Faith had a chance to talk to Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie about the Selah experience, how Christian women leaders can lift one another, and who inspires her.
How can women leaders best support each other?
Don’t kill each other off! Women in ministry have been so aware. There are more women in the ministry now than ever before. Some seminaries are 30%, 40%, 50%, 60% women. But when you go out in the field, you still might be the one — or one of two. So you have to be careful that you don’t use that platform to be the queen and, you know, there is only one queen. If you get it, you want to make sure there’s somebody else who is following you. I was elected and the next election cycle two women got in. And then the next election cycle, one woman got in. And we’re right at the door of another election cycle right now, and we hope to get another one. You want to be sure you are helpful to your sister. Sometimes when you’re in business or in congregations, you know the stuff, you know how it works, but you don’t share how it works. “Nobody told me. I had to learn myself. I know what to do. I know what to say. I know who to say it to. So you’re going to have to learn yourself, too.” No! Help a sista out. It’s always tricky. It’s called human relationships, human nature. I think it has limited ministry. We have an opportunity to develop a model of resourcing, of assisting and support that was not in place when we were coming along, which is why I do Selah.
What kind of experience can women expect when they attend Selah?
I want you to be exposed to people who are doing wonderful things, and I want you to be able to talk to them about their stories and how they got there. I want you to see where you can go. I want you to meet people who can open doors for you. I want us to talk honestly with each other about the problems that we have so we can figure out how we can solve some of those problems. I want to put you in front of people who are problem solvers, who you can connect to, who can help you. It’s trying to create a model that will help people get to the next level.
Given this new model of raising leaders, what do you see as the future of the black church?
We are moving into a new season in the 21st century. The way we do church has changed from the way when we started preaching 20-30 years ago. When we started preaching, you had big churches, and then you had megachurches. I think we’re getting to a place where success is not defined by size and real estate. Success is going to be defined by disciple-making and having the people inside impact the outside. Historically, our churches have always been the center of community in the neighborhood. We have anchored neighborhoods that were in trouble and kept people surviving. And I still think there is a role for that to play. But younger and newer generations are looking for other types of experiences. We have seen the growth in online churches and online experiences. So if you want to capture the new and younger generation, you’re going to have to have a dialog about Jesus where you’re having a dialogue about life—beginning that dialogue and discussion where they are talking to each other. We stop looking at technology as a toy and begin to use it as a tool of discipleship, a tool of coaching and mentoring, a tool for sharing the Gospel. Not just repeating scripture, but using it to be able to reach the hearts and minds of people who live online.
Your historic election in the year 2000 represents the first time in the over 200-year history of the AME Church that a woman obtained the level of Episcopal office. Which women who came before you do you admire or who have inspired you along the way?
I think that the first would be my family. The first women in my life who showed me that what I could do was not determined by my gender, but by my gifts were my mother, aunt, and grandmother because all of them were out of the box. They were managers back in the ’30s and ’40s. They were editors and publishers. They were chief editors, marketing directors, and entertainment directors. My family was a publishing family. They did all these things and my grandfather didn’t have any sons to follow him in the business. He had daughters. And so whatever your gift was, that’s what you did. I grew up in that atmosphere.
Cecelia Williams Bryant was the first woman in ministry that I ever heard, and when I heard her, that was the OMG to the third power. She has been a coach and a mentor. In the secular realm, it would be the late Congresswoman Barbara Jordan. I heard her speech before the Democratic National Convention, and I was like transfixed before the TV. She said what needed to be said, and I was like, wow, when I grow up, I want to be just like that. And then years later, when I stood up on the stage at the Democratic National Convention and gave remarks and a prayer, for me, it was full circle.
More than a dozen years ago I was a finalist for a reporting job at a small newspaper. All I needed to do was survive an interview with the top editor. The other editors warned me, saying their boss took perverse pleasure from smashing the hopes of naive reporters. I braced myself as he studied my resume. His lips curled into a sneer.
To be fair, my job history was a tad unusual. I had spent five years in full-time ministry, including three as an evangelical Christian missionary in Kenya. Then there was my master’s degree in theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. There didn’t seem to be a lot of churchgoing, Bible-believing, born-again Christians like me working at daily papers.
The editor scowled and said, “So what makes you think that a Christian can be a good journalist?”
He emphasized “Christian” as if it were some kind of slur.
I liked that he spoke his mind, but I was taken aback. I explained what I saw as a natural progression from the ministry to muckraking, pointing out that both are valid ways of serving a higher cause. The Bible endorses telling the truth, without bias. So does journalism. The Bible commands honesty and integrity. In journalism, your reputation is your main calling card with sources and readers.
Obviously, many people have succeeded as reporters without strong religious beliefs. But I told him my faith had made me a better, more determined journalist. He replied with a noncommittal grunt. But I got the job.
My response to that editor is more relevant than ever today. It has become popular for some conservative leaders to argue that people like me don’t exist in America’s newsrooms or that journalism is immoral. Just the other day, a Washington State lawmaker called journalists “dirty, godless, hateful people,” according to The Seattle Times. President Donald Trump seems to take delight in taunting reporters and has referred to members of the media as “lying, disgusting people.”
It’s estimated that about a third of Americans attend a regular church service. From my experience, most newsrooms don’t come close to that. But in 17 years, I’ve never had a colleague suggest that my religious beliefs kept me from hard-nosed reporting. In fact, my convictions give me a foundation to be demanding.
After a few years, I moved on to the Las Vegas Sun. Yes, it occurred to me that God must have a sense of humor, if not irony, if his plan for me involved Sin City. I became a health care reporter and began gathering statistics that showed the local hospitals were not as safe as advertised. The articles we published led to new state laws that favored patients and jolted powerful institutions in Las Vegas.
Journalists, particularly those who do investigative reporting, tend to annoy people in powerful positions. Some people might think that Christians are supposed to be soft and acquiescent rather than muckrakers who hold the powerful to account. But what I do as an investigative reporter is consistent with what the Bible teaches.
The mission statement of ProPublica, my employer, says we want to use the “moral force of investigative journalism to spur reform.” If you go through my work, you may sense a bit of “moral force.”
The Bible teaches that people are made in the image of God and that each human life holds incredible value. So when I learned that medical mistakes are one of the leading causes of death in America, I called attention to the problem.
The Apostle Paul points out that God comforts us so that we can be a comfort to others. So since 2012 I’ve moderated the ProPublica Patient Safety Facebook group, so people who have been harmed by medical care have a place to turn.
Proverbs talks about how hearing only one side of a story can be misleading: “The first to speak in court sounds right — until the cross-examination begins.” At ProPublica and many other journalism outlets, reporters go to great lengths to get all sides of every story.
Another basic tenet of fairness is refusing to accept any gifts, of any amount. Our readers need to trust that our work is untainted by any reward. “Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the innocent,” Deuteronomy says.
Most journalists admit their mistakes and run corrections. This is consistent with biblical teaching about humility.
God didn’t direct the writers of the Bible to avoid controversy. I love how Luke describes his mission in the first few verses of his Gospel: “I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning,” he wrote, “so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”
Luke’s goal was to tell the truth about Jesus, which upset many people. Luke didn’t airbrush the early Christians. He named names. Luke told the story of Judas betraying Jesus. He exposed Peter denying Jesus three times. He verified the facts and then told the truth. If it was good enough for Luke, it’s good enough for me.
The biblical mandate is to tell the truth. But some conservative Christians don’t seem to understand that. I started out in the Christian media and had run-ins with editors because of my interest in reporting about Christian leaders, even if it made them look bad. Administrators recently censored student journalists at Liberty University, a conservative Christian institution, for, in their view, making the school look bad. But God calls us to publish the truth, not propaganda.
The biblical prophets were the moral conscience of God’s people. Today, in a nonreligious sense, journalists are the moral conscience of the wider culture. We live in a fallen world, so there’s no shortage of material.
It takes some sinners a while to repent, and some never do. That means the influential people we expose might criticize us or call us names. They might even think we’re godless. But journalists are called to keep digging until we find the truth — and then proclaim it.
ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom.
The Rev. Alvin Herring speaks during a demonstration calling for increased funding for public schools, Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
For the Rev. Alvin Herring, executive director of the congregation-based organizing network Faith in Action, wearing a clerical collar is about more than appearances. It prepares him for the task of making social change.
“I consider this my uniform,” Herring said, gesturing toward his white-collar as he addressed the crowd at the Vote Common Good summit in Des Moines, Iowa, earlier this month. “When I’m ready to go to work or go to war, I put this on.”
Specifically, Herring, a pastor from California, says he and his organization are gearing up for work and war — metaphorically speaking — ahead of the 2020 election. Through partnerships with groups such as VCG and a series of organizing initiatives, Herring and Faith in Action — one of the largest faith-based liberal-leaning groups in the country — are hoping to prove that people of faith can make an impact come Election Day.
Or, as Herring later told Religion News Service: “The progressive community has to get it straight: Faith matters.”
Faith in Action, previously known as PICO National Network, is hardly new to the art of national organizing. The multifaith, multiracial group boasts 45 member organizations spread across 200 cities and towns in 25 states. Each organization claims the membership of multiple worship communities of various sizes dedicated to advocating for certain policies and legislation.
The group tries to avoid political labels, but Herring acknowledged in an interview with RNS that the positions his group advocates for often lean away from the current Republican Party.
“Our everyday work is about fighting for immigrant justice,” he said. “Our everyday work is about returning to citizens the right to vote and the right of personhood. … Our everyday work is with young people who are saddled under the significant and heavy weight of education debt and a lack of economic mobility.”
Faith in Action has mustered robust campaigns in the past. Recent efforts include rallying faith groups behind prison reform in California and equitable funding for public education in Pennsylvania. They often tie their campaigns to bigger elections: According to Herring, Faith in Action teams contacted roughly 800,000 voters ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.
But this year they’re hoping to ramp up efforts to maximize their impact. For example, Faith in Action is now pushing to have 1 million conversations with voters before November.
The group has also forged partnerships with national-level organizations that Herring described as being part of an “ecosystem” of change. This includes the W.K. Kellogg Foundation — where Herring previously worked as the director for racial equity and community engagement — which in turn partners with the NAACP, Urban League, UnidosUS, National Congress of American Indians, Demos, Advancement Project, Race Forward and the Asian and Pacific Islander American Health Forum.
A Faith in Action spokesperson described the partnership as designed to “promote racial equity, advance racial healing and ensure that all children, families and communities have genuine opportunities to reach their full potential.”
Faith in Action also has a separate relationship with VCG, a new group led by progressive evangelical Christians that helps train Democratic candidates to engage with faith and offers outreach to liberal-leaning religious voters. The two organizations have entered into a formal memorandum of understanding, allowing VCG to benefit from Faith in Action’s network of worship communities.
VCG executive director Doug Pagitt told the crowd in Des Moines that Faith in Action will bolster his organization’s ongoing bus tour across the country.
“Oftentimes, when we go into a state or a city, we will tie into that (Faith in Action) network,” Pagitt said. “It’s a great gift.”
But Herring argued the real goal is to effect local politics. Instead of focusing solely on the presidential election, he said, Faith in Action plans to target sheriff’s races across the country — particularly in the South — because the position is “one of the most powerful” when it comes to impacting the lives of marginalized communities. They hope their member communities will push for candidates who will institute more liberal approaches to policing, incarceration and gun violence.
Faith in Action is also launching a “Setting the Captives Free” initiative — a reference to the Book of Exodus — that strives to push back against policies such as voter ID laws that Herring argued disproportionately disenfranchise people of color.
Organizers plan to discuss these and other issues at Faith in Action’s National Faith Forum Feb. 12-14. According to the event flier, leaders will gather in Las Vegas to discuss strategy, unveil a “People’s Platform” and dialogue with 2020 candidates and their policy staffs.
It’s unclear how well Faith in Action’s approach will work. Despite its size, the group’s hyperlocalized structure can make progress difficult to track, and Herring did not offer many specifics as to how the campaigns will be implemented at the local level.
But he said he is confident the efforts will have some impact on the lives of everyday Americans, a shift he hopes will send a message to more secular-minded liberals.
“I would say one other thing to the progressive community: It will have to come off the fence,” he told RNS. “It can’t have a deep aversion for faith on the right and a lack of commitment for faith in other places. It’s not enough to decry those who stand with an administration that is literally trying to suck the lives out of everyday working people, and yet say nothing about those hardworking men and women of faith who are every day in the streets, every day in the soup kitchens, every day in clothes pantries, every day in the voting booth — voting their faith principles and their faith guidelines.”
Some years ago, as he was concluding his sermon, my pastor asked us in the audience to take that Sunday’s message out into the world and “do life together.”
My pastor’s call was a reminder that we do not walk this human journey in isolation. We do so as members of communities created around our faiths, our hometowns, our families — and our schools.
The most powerful of those communities are created through daily actions that show care and develop connection. Not all blood relatives are family, and not all students and educators are, either, though it’s something I hear teachers say all the time.
It seems to me that whether teachers and students are family depends on the extent to which they’re “doing life together.”
I’ve thought a lot about this as a former teacher in Camden City. When I was teaching there, my students saw me in Camden City. I got my hair cut in Camden, I went to church in Camden, I ate at restaurants in Camden, and I worked with high school students in Camden during the summers. It didn’t hurt that I was from Camden, too. A student may have seen me at the barbershop in East Camden or pulling up at my grandmother’s house in Whitman Park.
While it’s true that my students saw other teachers at the mall or the movie theater, those spots are in the suburbs. It’s not the same as being on the home turf of your students.
That’s not to say that strong bonds between educators and students don’t happen within the walls of a school. Nor do strong bonds develop just because a student sees a teacher patronizing an eatery or attending a church service in the municipality where they live. I am not naïve.
But deeper connections happen between educators and students when they do life together. For teachers who teach Black and Latinx students in low-income communities, doing life together means making a connection with the community where you teach students. Doing life together means more than just going to work to teach Black and Latinx children.
This kind of connection is often misunderstood. Early in my teaching career, some teachers sought my advice on how to strengthen their relationships with students. Others were clearly jealous of my relationships with students. I got the sense that they thought my relationships were stronger than theirs because I am Black, and they are not.
What they didn’t understand was my Blackness didn’t earn me blind loyalty from Black students. My Black skin at the front of a classroom may have elicited good feelings from students on the first day of school, but those feelings would have dissipated if I could not teach, if I was unfamiliar with my content, and if I did not treat students with respect.
I could teach. I was familiar with my content. I treated students with respect. And I also was doing life with them, in Camden. That’s something any teacher can do.
What that looks like is home visits to share good news about students. It looks like attending a city council meeting to advocate on behalf of your students on an issue affecting them and their families. It is also supporting Black- and Latinx-owned restaurants, bookstores, pharmacies, bakeries, and corner bodegas. It’s volunteering in the community where you work. It’s bringing your family to the community you work to see fireworks on the Fourth of July or to watch the lighting of the municipal Christmas tree.
Doing life together isn’t meant to be taxing on the mind, body, and spirit. But it does sometimes require you to step outside your comfort zone and become vulnerable.
For White teachers who work with students from cities like Camden, it requires that you sometimes choose to become a minority in a world where a similar experience is all too familiar to your students and their families. That experience is a lesson in and of itself. And that’s what doing life is all about — learning to live together as brothers and sisters, rather than perish together as fools.
Rann Miller is the director of the 21st Century Community Learning Center, an after-school program in New Jersey. He also served as a school administrator in Camden and taught high school social studies for six years. He publishes an education blog called the Urban Education Mixtape. You can follow him on Twitter @UrbanEdDJ.