Breaking The 'Stained Glass Ceiling'

A victorious Vashti McKenzie returned home to preach at Payne Memorial AME Church in Baltimore on Sunday, clothed in the deep purple and black robe of a bishop, five days after being elected the first woman bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

She stood on the front step of Payne Memorial and pointed to the "seeds" that she has planted during her 10 years as pastor of the inner city congregation.

Where boarded-over buildings once stood, there now sits a church senior center just days away from completion. A few houses further down the street is a community center, where the church runs job training, support for people with HIV and other programs geared toward resurrecting a blighted neighborhood.

"My job was to fill the church, and I did my job," she told an overflowing crowd of 450 often frenzied parishioners. "Now God's got another who's going to come and till the fertile land and take Payne Memorial to the next level."

Bishop McKenzie's service Sunday was one of her last at Payne Memorial. The newly anointed bishop of the 18th Episcopal District in southern Africa, she will leave Baltimore in the fall to take over a territory that encompasses 200 churches and 10,000 people. The 18th District covers Botswana, Mozambique and Lesotho.

She was chosen last Tuesday from 42 other candidates during the AME conference in Cincinnati. She later referred to her election as breaking "the stained glass ceiling."

"I thank God for the sisterdom that stood behind me," McKenzie thundered, during a nearly breathless sermon at the end of the three-hour service Sunday.

Standing beneath a banner that boasted "Payne Memorial gave birth to the first woman bishop of the AME Church," Bishop McKenzie assured parishioners that this period of transition would not affect the life of the church.

"Pastors come and go, but the church stays the same...this is God's church, it's never been my church," she said.

The crowd was dotted with women wearing brilliant red and white, members of the Delta Theta Sigma sorority. McKenzie is the national pastor of the 192,000-strong public service organization, and her grandmother was one of the group's founders.

Parishioners credited Bishop McKenzie with building Payne Memorial's 1,600-strong membership during her ten-year tenure. Many were drawn by her personal touch.

"Every time she preached she would speak to me, it's like someone told her about me," said Bryant Clairborne, who was married by McKenzie in 1994 and brings his four children to church with him every Sunday.

The prospect of losing Bishop McKenzie, while difficult for some, certainly did not signify the end of her relationship with the Baltimore church she helped build.

"It's like sending a kid to college," said Rev. Angelique Mason, who preached alongside McKenzie. "They're not gone, they're just not here."