This week, Dorothy McKinney fulfilled a childhood dream.

McKinney's father was a preacher who helped raise money to send missionaries to Africa and knew a few of them personally. "When the missionaries came back, then my dad would make a big deal over them," she recalled. "They were heralded for their achievements and their pioneering and their stories were always real exciting to me--I thought I'd like to do that."

In a few months, she will. This week McKinney, at 51, became a Presbyterian minister, ordained an evangelist in ceremonies Sunday at her church in Northeast Washington, and left for three months of dialect study and other training in England, the first leg of a journey to Africa.

If the wait for this moment, the "highlight" of her life, has been long, it has not been without accomplishment. McKinney, a scientist, activist, consultant, editor and now, theologian, led the drive that established the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) supplemental food program in the District; helped found the Capital Area Community Food Bank, a warehouse for soup kitchens here; was a chemist at the National Institutes of Health; and graduated this spring from Howard University's Divinity School with the highest grade-point average in her class.

Sponsored by the Vocation Agency of the United Presbyterian Church-U.S.A., McKinney will take a three-year post as study secretary at the ecumenical Institute of Church and Society in Ibadan, Nigeria, focusing on nutrition and education needs.

She expects the job to be somewhat akin to the one she just left here at the United Planning Organization, the vehicle for her WIC, food bank and other hunger relief projects. But ministry is a "way to bring everything together," she said, combining interests and broadening aid.

"The end of hunger in itself is not enough," she said. "What do you do with that person that will enable a sense of identity? What happens to the value system? Is self-help a part of it? And rarely can we address that in community development. We're so busy with just delivery of service. You're meeting a need and then you exit and you leave behind this whole area" that McKinney hopes to explore in Africa.

It's a long way from her hometown of Tillar, Ark., consisting, she said, of a "general store and a bank," and from her father's church in nearby Pine Bluff, but those early years were good preparation for her new post with an ecumenical team.

Born into an AME Zion family, McKinney was 12 when her father became a Baptist. Later, she studied Catholicism. Her grandfather, a former slave who lived to be 93, championed the agnostic view in many a lively debate, preventing, she said, any "imbalance" in her upbringing and teaching her to question and to think.

She became a Presbyterian upon moving to the District in 1956, when she and her husband "went church shopping," she said. At the time, "I was not choosing a denomination" but joining a congregation where the music, ceremony and fellowship would benefit her children. She later found herself in agreement with the church tenets. McKinney, who is now divorced, has four children and three grandchildren.

McKinney pursued her master's degree in theology in a similar, seemingly indirect way. She entered Howard University part time in 1972 originally to study African and church art, but her interest in the ministry as a career was rekindled when she heard a guest sermon at her church by Dr. Leon Wright, a professor at the school of divinity. McKinney switched to theology studies, taking classes for five years at night and on weekends, with Wright as her mentor.

Of that early, influential sermon, she said: "For the first time since I heard my dad I actually listened to every word."

The Rev. Dorothy McKinney may be far from home, but she's actually come full circle.