Vashti Murphy McKenzie

OGDEN — As a child, she sat silently listening as her grandparents and their friends spoke of racism, civil rights, marches and protests. Looking across the dinner table each Sunday afternoon, the guest list included the 20th century's most high-profile black leaders: Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Jesse Jackson.

Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie remembered listening to their conversations and wondering, "Why and how do you do what you do?" Those questions — and thinking about the answers — shaped her own life and outlook, and the impact lingers to this day, she told a group gathered Tuesday at Weber State University. The address was part of the school's celebration of Black History Month.

Now serving as the first female bishop ever elected in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Bishop McKenzie oversees the operation of the church worldwide, noting that her life has been influenced by the legacy of leadership in her own ancestry and in the civil rights leaders she was able to observe up close.

"The best leaders are those who suffer the most over their decisions but still retain the ability to be decisive," she said to a chorus of acclamation from the audience. "The best leaders are those who know something has grabbed ahold of them. They know what they stand for, and not what others tell them to stand for.

"Leadership in my family is not an option. It's the rule, not the exception."

Her great-grandfather founded Baltimore's first black newspaper in 1892 as the foundation for one of the largest chains of black papers in the country in the waning years of the 19th century, when poverty and racism were the norm for blacks. The publications survived at a time when "less than one half of 1 percent of African-Americans could read," she said. "He wanted to have a business where all 10 of his children could work, and no one would call him by his first name."

She said as a toddler, her first word after "mama" and "papa" was probably "deadline," as she spent her days after school at the paper, learning everything from how to roll newspapers to setting hot type to laying out pages and doing research in the newspaper's library. At 16, she earned $25 a week writing a teen column, "enough to put gas in my car and buy the material to make my own outfits."

Her first adult job was as a city desk reporter at the Afro-American, learning that her grandfather and her parents expected the lessons she'd absorbed as a child would be put to use, not because of her gender or race, but because she had the talents and skills to do the job.

She earned a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland, as well as a master's degree from Howard University and a doctorate of divinity from United Theological Seminary.

"I am a product of public city schools, of colored school #9, who was bused across town at 6 a.m., who only read at a third-grade reading level in fifth grade, whose high school counselor told my parents, 'You ought to send her to trade school, she will not go to college."'

As one of only six black students to graduate from her high school, she went on to college and graduated with honors.

Society may expect less of blacks, trying to designate how far or high they can rise, but those who expect more of themselves will move beyond any social ceiling, she said.

"Being a woman with courage doesn't mean you are without fear. Courage is simply fear that has said its prayers."

Telling how her track-coach father expected her to clear the bar at a greater height than her fellow athletes, she asked him once why he didn't protest when they set the initial bar higher for her than for others. "Your potential was greater than your problem, and your problem brought out your potential," he told her.

Acting on such defining moments will determine one's life course and set the stage for accomplishment beyond what others expect. Those who do achieve great things must remember that "we stand on the shoulders of giants" who paved the way for today's successes, and the church has a crucial role to play in continuing social causes, she said.

An African Methodist Episcopal pastor from Topeka, Kan., was among those who filed the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, which paved the way for public school integration and the civil rights movement. AME members participated in civil rights marches, are working to help eliminate ethnic cleansing in Sudan and counseling with government leaders to establish democratic principles in Liberia.

Bishop McKenzie challenged her audience to "become personally involved in the solutions for our times. ... We must be determined to retrieve a sense of values in modern living.

"I challenge you to go out of your way and help somebody else. ... Will you fight for somebody else's rights? Follow your conscience even if it's a minority report? Stand in the gap, not just for those that are like you, but for somebody that has done you wrong? Will you keep loving folk until they get it right?"

E-mail: [email protected]