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Bishop McKenzie Makes a Difference

In her visit to Berea College, Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie shared wisdom, advice and her experiences as the first woman elected as a bishop in the AME Church, the nation's oldest African American denomination.

Bishop McKenzie speaks at convocation.

Accompanied by many members of her church, her husband Stan McKenzie, who serves as Supervisor of Missions, and two presiding elders from Tennessee, McKenzie presented the convocation "A Journey to the Well" as an exploration of leadership, vision and empowerment.

"Do you have the courage to see?" McKenzie asked the convocation audience. "You must shoulder the responsibility to keep your eyes open and do something about what you see."

Known as an "electrifying" preacher, McKenzie used her strong voice and powerful stage presence to challenge her audience, asking them to "dream big and boldly," "stretch out on [their] visions," and "launch out into the deep" – while still maintaining the ability to "rise out of the ashes of failure and try again."

McKenzie offered directives for what students can do to change themselves and the world around them, both now and "on the road ahead." Using humor and current pop culture to connect with today's generation, McKenzie quoted Nelson Mandela and Mother Theresa with the same gravity as lyrics from musical artists Kanye West and Mariah Carey. Students and members of the community were moved to laughter, applause, cheers and the occasional fervent "amen."

"I dare you," said McKenzie, "I 'D'-double-dare you to see, and study, and read, and learn and to ensure that others can do the same; and for God's sake, graduate!"

Although McKenzie's convocation presentation focused on what students can achieve, McKenzie also spoke earlier in the day about what women can achieve at the Women's Studies department's Peanut Butter and Gender luncheon. In her discussion of "Piercing the Stained Glass Ceiling," McKenzie used the smaller setting to discuss groundbreaking black women such as Madam C.J. Walker, Oprah Winfrey and Condoleezza Rice, as well as the "legacy of a difference-maker" and the steps one can take to make a difference.

McKenzie also shared personal anecdotes about her faith, her call, her experiences as a woman pastor and her journey to becoming the first woman bishop in the AME church.

"I walk in my call," said McKenzie. "The bible calls me as a preacher, not a woman preacher." She feels no need to specifically label herself as a woman preacher, because "the moment I walk in they'll see I'm a woman." However, McKenzie emphasized the difference that gender makes in the church.

"The dynamics change when a woman walks in a room," explained McKenzie. Many men in her church had trouble relating to her as their pastor because of her gender. "People relate to you from their own experience."

Despite initial opposition, McKenzie successfully campaigned for the position of bishop and became the first woman to hold that position in the first 213 years of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. She has served as presiding prelate of the 13th Episcopal district, which includes Kentucky and Tennessee, since 2000. In addition to this groundbreaking accomplishment, McKenzie also recently became the president of the Council of Bishops, making her the highest-ranking woman in the predominantly black Methodist denominations.

McKenzie's appearance as the Carter G. Woodson Memorial Convocation was sponsored by Berea College Convocations, the Black Cultural Center and the Campus Christian Center. The program was presented as part of Berea’s celebration of Black History Month. More information about Bishop McKenzie can be found at the links below.

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