October 23, 2008

Krista's Journal: Witnessing Strength and Beauty

October 23, 2008

I have had Bishop Vashti McKenzie in my sights for years. And I've been wanting to interview her urgently since the presidential primaries. That chapter of the campaign feels like ancient history now. But it threw some large questions into the midst of our public life that the news cycle has largely moved beyond — questions about race, gender, and qualifications of leadership, for example; questions about African American theology and the nature of religious and pastoral authority. Through media magnification of the personalities of Hilary Clinton, Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, Jeremiah Wright, and pastors of other candidates whose sermons have found 15 minutes of fame on YouTube, America's unfinished work on race and gender has left a new trace of emotion in our public life but little resolution or wisdom.

No single person could resolve this in an hour of radio; these are large discussions and ruminations our culture must brave in the years to come. But in just being herself, and in telling something of her story and her theology, Vashti McKenzie embodies them with clarity and grace. Being a woman, being African American, being a leader — these are framing qualities of the creative tension that has been her life. And in and through the tension, in and despite the struggle it has all brought, she is a witness to triumph.The effect of this hour of radio is at once soothing and energizing, even as it provokes thought. I'm grateful for that.

I'm on the road this month — in Los Angeles as our program with Vashti McKenzie is put to bed in our studios in St. Paul. Fittingly, as I write, I'm at a remarkable Women's Conference Maria Shriver has hosted for the past five years as First Lady of California. I moderated a panel on faith. Vashti McKenzie would be right at home here. She says in our interview that she lives for the day when her race and gender "mean nothing" — that what qualifies a person for leadership are her intelligence, her experience, the gifts she brings. As I first heard her speak those words I knew she meant them and has made them real in her life; but as a societal goal they landed in my ears as a distant dream — not unreachable, not impossible, but distant.

At this conference I've gained a new sense of immediate hope and a new vision of how the dream works when it becomes reality. This conference has shone a light on eloquence and dignity embodied in a range of women from Christiane Amanpour to Condoleeza Rice, from Jennifer Lopez to Marion Wright Edelman. Everyone I've experienced here has been much more impressive than their exposure in media has ever made them seem. They've shared the stage with pioneering, legendary feminists such as Billie Jean King and Gloria Steinem and with less famous but no less impressive women who have vitally enriched the world they inhabit. Just as importantly, these women of every ethnicity and race have shared the stage with men — the likes of Warren Buffett, Chris Matthews, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bono. The power of this conference is not simply in its witness to the strength and beauty of women fulfilling their human potential; it is the exhilarating witness of men and women — across boundaries of race and background — fulfilling their human potential together and delighting in that accomplishment in one another.

Being at this conference has also reminded me anew why I spend my days observing, listening and drawing out the insights of the religious and spiritual aspects of life — beyond the headlines of stridency and violence that dominate "religion news." This is the part of life where we plow questions of meaning and purpose, of what it means to be human. This is where we mine the resources the great traditions have carried forward in time, and make them real in ours, towards justice, compassion, human dignity, and healing.

Near the end of my conversation with Vashti McKenzie, she stresses precisely this point. She reflects on how information technology is not just changing the world; it is changing human relationships in ways we have not yet begun to fathom. And she is emboldened in her calling as she also sees that churches and religious communities are among the last places in Western society where we focus together on understanding, building, and analyzing human relationships at an existential and communal level. I hope that you too will be emboldened by her hopeful, healing, yet altogether practical and pragmatic voice in these waning days of a long campaign. And please also take a look at some of my favorite sessions from the Women's Conference. Together these conversations of my recent days equip me to move more powerfully into the many challenges that mark our common present and future.

Recommended Reading

Image of Not Without a Struggle: Leadership Development for African American Women in Ministry
Author: Vashti M. McKenzie
Publisher: United Church Pr (1996)
Binding: Paperback, 134 pages
Image of Strength in the Struggle
Author: Vashti Murphy McKenzie
Publisher: The Pilgrim Press (2001)
Binding: Paperback, 140 pages

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is a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and author of several books, including Not Without A Struggle: Leadership Development for African American Women in Ministry.