The reverend Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook can be heard at her church in the Bronx, at her "Wall Street Wednesday" services, and on book tours and speaking engagements around the country. But how did she get to be one of the most prominent pastors in New York? She’s the subject of this week’s One on 1 with Budd Mishkin.
“Someone opened the door for me,” says Cook. “My job is to open the doors for others, so that every generation of my people doesn't have to start at the beginning."
When doors open for the reverend Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook, she doesn't walk through them — she runs through them.
She’s been that way ever since she was a kid, when she left the comfort of her Grand Concourse neighborhood to attend Riverdale Country Day School.
“There are times where you feel like, I really am in a different place, but that’s what a leader is,” says Cook. “An emerging leader is always going to be in a different place. You're going to always feel sort of out of the norm.”
She is known as Dr. Sujay.
Here message can be heard at the Bronx Fellowship Christian Church, where she is senior pastor. It can be heard on tour. She's the author of nine books. It's heard by religious and corporate groups all over the country. And it's heard every Wednesday at lunch hour for much of the year in a place not known for its spirituality: Wall Street.
"New York's a tough town and the Wall Street area is probably even tougher,” says Cook. “And so by Wednesday people are sagging and they're lagging, and this is their jump start for the rest of their week."
"Wall Street Wednesdays" is but one of the firsts on her resume. She was the first black woman to be named pastor in the Baptist Church; the first woman Baptist minister to serve as a White House fellow; and the first woman appointed chaplain of the New York City Police Department, for 17 years working as a bridge between the African American community and the NYPD.
“There are uncomfortable moments on both sides. You know, sometimes I'm in the community and they're like why are you still there? And then sometimes in the Police Department, you're like I don't want to be isolated from my community. So you don't always have to make a choice. You can be the bridge."
Dr. Sujay says she is comfortable being surrounded by predominantly male clergy.
She credits her childhood ability to play basketball with the guys in the neighborhood.
“I was as tall as them, I always looked them in the eye and I could dribble and I could shoot. And so I learned the game, and I learned the rules of the game, which in sports are transferable to life,” says Cook. “And I think that was a real healthy beginning for me.”
She worked in the Clinton White House, first as a fellow and later as the only religious leader appointed to the president's initiative on race.
"I finally stood in the middle of the White House lawn — the front door — and there was this ahah! moment that said, my parents had to use an outhouse and here I am walking in the front door of the White House,” recalls Cook.
Her base has always been in New York City, but increasingly the reverend is taking her oratory on the road.
Her national profile was on display in 2006 when she gave the opening prayer at the funeral of Coretta Scott King.
Reverend Cook was there not only as pastor, but also as friend of the daughter of Dr. and Mrs. King who herself died last year — Yolanda King.
“She grabbed me and started crying said, ÎI didn't get to grieve my Daddy, but I have to grieve my Mom,’ and I said, ÎYes.’ You know? ÎGive yourself permission. Yes!’ And so I held her and she just cried as long as she needed to cry and for me to be able to be the one whose shoulder she could lean on was the moment,” says Cook.
When Cook was running for junior class president at the almost all white Riverdale Country Day School, she got some advice from her grandmother that has continued to serve her well.
"You stand on the very things that you've been prepared for, and you go there and you let them see the best of you. And so don't diminish yourself,” says Cook.
Her father ran a security business; her mother was a teacher. They sacrificed to send their daughter out of the neighborhood to private school, where Dr. Sujay says the students were predominantly white, Jewish and wealthy.
"There were many times where we clashed, because they did not understand my culture nor did I feel many of them were trying to learn who I was,” says Cook. “I remember one day a girl putting her hair in my Afro and saying, ÎOh, it’s Brillo,’ and I'm like, ÎThis is my hair of which I am proud."
But by tenth grade, she says, she got it. The world was opening, especially when she was given the opportunity to spend a semester in Spain.
"My parents didn't even have their own passports at that point, but what they saw was an opportunity for me to go,” says Cook. “So I negotiated my own passport right at the Bronx County Courthouse five blocks from where I lived."
She attended Emerson College in Boston, where she discovered her oratory skills and resolved to use them in her work. After college a trip to Africa intensified her spiritual feelings.
Initially, she was a television news producer, but along the way she took courses at local seminaries. After five years in the news business, she was ready to chart a new course.
"So here I am with this college degree and I say I want to be a minister and everyone was like, but you’re at ABC and those days I was making $70,000 — one of two black producers nationally,” says Cook. “’You sure you want to do this?’ I'm saying, ÎThis is my call.’”
In 1983, she took that calling to the Mariner's Temple Baptist Church near City Hall. On the first Sunday, 15 people showed up.
“I used the things that I knew how to do: drama, speaking, politics, door-to-door, my personality in terms of networking,” says Cook. “I went to the park benches where the guys were drinking wine and they would put it away and say the reverend is coming. I would say, ÎCome to church Sunday.’ ÎI can't come!’ ÎCome to church Sunday.’"
She built up Mariner’s Temple, took a year off to study and teach at Harvard, served as a White House fellow in the Clinton administration and in 1996 joined the Bronx Christian Fellowship Church.
The reverend now lives with her husband and two sons in Riverdale. She says having some distance between the community you serve and the community where you live is a must.
“When you're in an inner city community, it is a fatiguing role and it can be 24 hours, seven days a week,” says Cook. “When I began my first pastorate, I was single, 26 years old. I didn't have any office hour boundaries and I would work 14- to 16-hour days just as I did when I was in the television world. And what happened is in my seventh year I burnt out."
Dr. Sujay says she's experienced both racism and sexism, and that sexism is stronger in America.
She recalled the male pastors who cheered her election as president of the Ministers Conference.
“We came off stage and the guys wanted to go without me. It was such an abrupt like, ÎYou're going to go in the car with the wives, and we're going to go hang out with the famous bishop who was in town,’” says Cook. “And I was like, ÎWait a second we were at the table together. You told me I was in the frat, the fraternity.’"
The reverend Dr. Cook says her increased prominence has never gotten in the way of her spirituality, and she doesn't question her faith.
"Sometimes, you say, you know, God are you going to respond soon? Because there are moments of silence, but as you mature in the faith, you also realize that even in the silent moments, God is still speaking and there's a lesson for you even in those tough times,” says Cook. “And so I don't view struggle as anymore, as a depression time, I see every difficulty as a new opportunity."
— Budd Mishkin