Vashti Murphy McKenzie, the first woman to be named bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, will kick off Black History Month with a discussion Feb. 1 at UMSL.

Vashti Murphy McKenzie says she grew up a “church child,” singing in the choir and attending Bible camp. So it’s not a stretch to think she might end up in the ministry. But she took some interesting turns before she landed in one of the most prominent pulpits in the land.

McKenzie, the first woman to be named bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, will kick off Black History Month Feb. 1 at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. McKenzie will speak at 6:30 p.m. in the J.C. Penney Auditorium on “Ordinary Women, Extraordinary Accomplishments,” the theme of this year’s Black History Month events. Wednesday’s event is free and open to the public.

Born in 1947, the daughter of a distinguished Baltimore family, McKenzie was set to follow in the steps of her great-grandfather, John Murphy, founder of Baltimore’s Afro American newspaper. But she fell in love with Stan McKenzie, who played basketball for the Baltimore Bullets, and she dropped out of college in the mid-1960s to marry him. She moved to Phoenix when McKenzie was traded. She eventually returned to Baltimore, finished a degree in journalism and began working in the media and as a fashion model. In her late 30s, the mother of three got a new calling and returned to college to earn two divinity degrees.

Her 1990 assignment to the historic Payne Memorial AME Church in Baltimore as the first woman pastor stirred some controversy in the historic church. But the dynamic minister persevered greatly increasing the church’s membership and opening its doors to the wider community. She turned a dying neighborhood into a thriving one gaining national attention. Ten years later she was named the first woman bishop of the AME church. In 2005, she became the first woman president of the church’s Council of Bishops.

In 2009 she was appointed by President Barack Obama to the advisory council of the White House Office of Faith Based Initiatives and Neighborhood Partnerships.

McKenzie is widely recognized as an expert on the theological and historical struggles of black women in the church. She is the author of numerous books including “Not Without a Struggle: Leadership Development for African American Women in Ministry.”

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Maureen Zegel

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