A hush fell over the sun-washed sanctuary of Payne Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore last Sunday when the new pastor was introduced. The pastor was a tall woman, wearing a simple black robe.
The appointment of a woman pastor, the Rev. Vashti M. McKenzie, is a first for the old-line, historic church of about 440 members. It is another breakthrough in many ways for the oldest black denomination in the country.
"It was shocking to some people," said District AME Bishop H. Hartford Brookins, who appointed McKenzie, a married mother of three, to lead the congregation after the recent death of the Rev. Howard L. Camper. "They found it rather revolutionary that this would occur."
For years, the African Methodist Episcopal Church has appointed women as pastors. But woman pastors mostly have held subservient positions -- assistant pastors, staff workers or heading small, out-of-the way churches, according to religious leaders.
McKenzie heads a major front-line AME church that is considered "a plum" by preachers. The church was founded in July 1897, and has been pastored by a succession of respected men.
Payne Memorial's newest pastor is a former broadcaster who has pastored two small churches in rural Maryland and one in Baltimore.
Last week, the pastor was still fumbling for the right keys leading to the many rooms in the cavernous, modernistic church on Madison Avenue in northwest Baltimore.
A slender woman, wearing a blue business suit draped by an African kente cloth, McKenzie paused in the sanctuary, a vast room carpeted in royal blue and brightened by a vaulted ceiling of skylights.
McKenzie said she felt a bit nervous last Sunday as she faced the congregation in the new $1.6 million church. Chairs were added to accommodate the curious, overflow crowd. She said she heard their whispers and met their stares, but she said she also felt strong.
"I knew when I was standing at the pulpit that I wasn't standing by myself," McKenzie said. "I was standing for everyone who was called to preach and called to pastor, previously and in the future. I stood there holding their hopes and dreams."
There were 20,730 women clergy in 1986, double the number of women in the ministry a decade before, according to the most recent survey by the National Council of Churches. Among an estimated 19,000 AME ministers, 500 women are registered as ministers in the church, said the Rev. Lillian Frier Webb, president of the denomination's Commission on Women in the Ministry.
Several women are pastors of smaller AME churches in Washington and Baltimore, but women lead five major churches in the country, including one in Gaithersburg and another in Los Angeles, according to Webb.
The AME church has a smoother path to the pulpit for women than most black religious bodies. Black Baptist pastors, for instance, ordain women to the ministry, but some pastors have then been asked to withdraw from old-guard ministerial conferences that do not accept the practice of ordaining women.
McKenzie's appointment is a signal to women that more opportunities are available to black women in the AME ministry, said Wardell Payne, research director of Howard University Divinity School.
"The best pulpits are not offered to female pastors," said the research director. "Payne Memorial represents a church that is very strong in the metropolitan area and one of the sought-after pulpits."
Brookins, the presiding bishop of the District, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina, said he selected McKenzie because she was the most qualified for the job.
The bishop said the only critics of his decision have been male pastors, who chided him because of the scarcity of large churches available for pastoring.
"I wanted to show if a person was qualified, that sex does not make a difference," Brookins said.
McKenzie said she wants time for her appointment to sink in before she starts new programs at the church. The pastor, who is married to an independent personnel consultant, grew up in the neighborhood where she now preaches. It is a tumbledown neighborhood not too different from other inner-city neighborhoods.
But in the low-income apartment complexes, brownstones and the nearby public school, the pastor sees opportunities for spiritual growth. She sees the potential for a day-care center, a hot line for the homeless and programs for the hungry, drug addicts, pregnant mothers and the unemployed.
McKenzie said other people recognized her call to ministry before she did herself. She was looking forward to a career in broadcast journalism after graduating from the University of Maryland at College Park in 1978.
She did an announcing stint with the syndicated televison show, "PM Magazine." But it was as a program director at WYCB-AM, a gospel music station in Washington, that she felt the urge to do more. She organized Christian volunteers in Washington to help people in need. They sponsored health fairs, gathered clothing for the poor and started a 24-hour crisis hot line.
McKenzie preached her trial sermon nine years ago at Bethel AME Church in Baltimore, the church in which she grew up. With that sermon, she began the four-year process to ordination, and received a master of divinity degree from Howard University in 1985.
"You find your priority is helping people get closer to the Lord," said the new pastor, beaming a smile. "This is the pathway to holiness. This is what turns your lights on in the morning.
"The Lord lets you know in no uncertain terms, 'I have called you to do it and there are no other options.' "