Cook, Suzan D. Johnson 1957–
Suzan D. Johnson Cook 1957–
From the time she was 13-years-old, Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook knew that she wanted to be a minister. Born on January 28, 1957 in the Bronx, Johnson initially pursued a career in television before entering the ministry. Having revitalized the Mariners’ Temple in lower Manhattan, she then founded the Bronx Christian Fellowship, one of the Bronx’s fastest growing new churches.
Johnson Cook’s strength seems rooted, at least in part, in her strong family background. As she described to Chrisena Coleman of Belle, her family was highly focused and goal-oriented. “I came from a family with southern roots and hard-working parents who provided the best they could, and my brother and I built on that foundation. In our upbringing, you show your appreciation by doing well and that’s what is important. It was the strong foundation that really made a difference…I am the product of an entire village that encouraged me to be the best I could be without comparing myself to others. I received a lot of nurturing in my formative years and adult life. When you are surrounded by achievement, you tend to achieve. When you are surrounded by love, you are loving. I am the totality of many people.” As she further detailed in aninterview with Louisa Kamps of the New; York Post, “The ethic around me was always, ’It may be against all odds, but if the moment’s right, you can do it—no one can shake you.’”
A cornerstone of Cook’s foundation was the Church. During her years at Boston’s Emerson College in the early 1970s, she was greatly influenced by Katie Cannon, a minister who taught at Temple University. Through Cannon’s example, Cook decided to pursue a career in the ministry. While at Emerson College, she focused on studying communications and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in speech in 1976. Drawing on her educational training, Cook worked from 1977 until 1980 as a television producer and on-air host in Boston, Miami, and Washington, DC. She also toured with an African American theatrical group and worked in public relations. It was not until she was a communications consultant with Operations Crossroads Africa in the late 1970s that Cook seriously considered the ministry.
In 1981, Cook began to become more active in church activities. From 1981 until 1983, she assisted the executive
At a Glance …
Born Suzan D. Johnson on January 28, 1957 in New York City. Married to Ronald Cook; children: Samuel David and Christopher Daniel. Education:. Emerson College, Boston, MA, BS, Speech, Cum Laude, 1976; Columbia University Teachers College, New York, MA, 1978; Union Theological Seminary, New York, M, Div., 1983; United Theological Seminary, Dayton, OH, D.Min. , 1990.
Career: Television producer, on-air host, WBZ-Boston, WPLG-Miami, WJLA-Washington, DC, 1977–80; public relations officer, Bronx-Lebanon Hospital Center, Bronx, NY, 1980–81; adjunct professor, New York Theological Seminary, 1988-; domestic policy analyst, The White House, 1993–94; senior pastor, Mariners’ Temple Baptist Church, New York, 1983–96; executive director, Multi-Ethnic Center, New York, 1985-; senior pastor/CEO, Bronx Christian Fellowship, Bronx, NY, 1996-.
Memberships: First vice president, New York Coalition of 100 Black Women, 1996–97; advisory board member, President’s Initiative On Race & Reconciliation, 1997–98.
Selected awards: Woman of Conscience Award, National Council of Women, United Nations, 1989; Martin Luther King Award, CBS TV, 1995; One of top 15 Women in Ministry, Ebony, November 1997; Visionary Leaders Award, SOBRO, 1997.
Addresses: Executive Towers, 1020 Grand Concourse, Suite 6-F, Bronx, NY 10451.
minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metropolitan New York with various projects involving media coverage and development for area churches. She also completed a masters of divinity degree at the Union Theological Seminary in New York. In October of 1983, Cookassumed the senior pastorate at Mariners’ Temple Baptist Church in Manhattan. She also became the first African American woman to be elected to a senior pastorate in the American Baptist Churches in its 200-year history.
At the time Cook inherited the congregation, the church building was dilapidated and membership had dwindled to only 15 people. Most of these people, according to Mark Lowery of Neiusday Magazine, were “authentic ’have-nots’ inone of the world’srichest cities.” As Cook recalled to Ralph Gardner in Cosmopolitan, “I started out with a heavy evangelical campaign, climbing stairs, knockingon doors.” Within six months, membership in the congregation had reached 250 members. By 1994, membership at Mariners’ Temple had blossomed to 1,000 parishioners in what had become one of Manhattan’s fastest growing churches. Cook not only conducted services on Sunday, but also held lunch-hour services each Wednesday for the City Hall-Chinatown business community. These services became known as the “lunch hour of power.” One of Cook’s principal objectives was to give members of her congregation a sense of hope. She believed that education and literacy were the keys to success that would allow her parishioners to control and change their lives. Towards this end, Cook sought to provide her congregation with what Gardner termed a “survival support system,” to which they could turn for everything from tutoring to an after-school snack. She established a home for the mentally disabled and reached out to Manhattan’s politicallypowerful Chinese community. She also directed Black Women in the Ministry, a program sponsored by the New York City Mission Society that was designed to encourage other African American women to pursue the ministry.
Cook’s energy and charisma served as a strong motivational force and attracted many new followers to her parish. Carl Flemister, noted in a discussion with Cosmopolitan that, “She allows herself to be a conduit through which the mysterious power of God passes on to other people.” Using a touch of stagecraft to enliven her sermons and blessed with a contagious sense of power, Cook was able to relate well with members of her congregation. As she explained to the New York Post, “Preaching to economic groups that tend to have low-esteem issues, I try to stir up the gifts that are in them. I like to do creative, non-traditional things…I have felt empowered and have empowered other people.” As a fellow minister remarked in Ebony, “She is better than anyone I know in relating the Gospel to the present-day needs of people.”
In 1996, after 13 years as pastor, Cook left her ministry at Mariners’ Temple and decided to start a new congregation in the Bronx. As she explained to David Gonzalez of the New York Times, “I wanted to embrace the community which had produced and nurtured me.” While waiting for a new church building to be constructed, Cook conducted services on Tuesday nights at the Bronx Museum of the Arts and on Thursdays at the Epworth United Methodist Church. Her new congregation, the Bronx Christian Fellowship, dedicated its new church building on March 23, 1997. In addition to its Sunday worship services, the Bronx Christian Fellowship sponsored various inter-generational programs including a lunch-hour bible study, a children’s play date, Sunday school, a men’s fellowship ministry, and an extensive music ministry. “Our ministry,” Cook affirmed in Community News, “reaffirms that God is at the center of our lives and we acknowledge that there is more than an emotional response to faith. When we are strong then our communities can be strong. Bronx Christian Fellowship serves as a catalyst for growth on all levels, spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and social. Faith is best experienced when our mind, bodies, and souls are all spiritually fed.”
As Cook’s return to the Bronx indicated, a belief in a strong community is one of the driving forces in her life. Her Bronx community sustained and nourished her as a child. “I remember the energy of our community,” Cook related to Michael Allen of the Daily News, “as if we were all moving as one wave, not waves clashing against each other. We had a common purpose, a common cause, and we worked toward making it happen…It was a spiritual movement.” Cook noted in a discussion with Lowery in Newsday Magazine that, from the time of slavery “The black preacher has always had the nod to be a public spokesman…. [T]hey must constantly decide whether to act in the best interests of their communities orsell out. If you decide to represent your community, that means everywhere - in the White House, the courthouse and the jailhouse.”
On many levels, Cook’s life has exemplified a commitment to building strong communities. In the fall of 1985, she founded the Multi-Ethnic Center. This after-school program for community youth and their families promotes excellence in education, self-esteem, career/life skills preparation, and the building of neighborhood partnerships. By funneling the boundless energy of children into creative activities like drama and dance, the center has promoted inter-ethnic dialogue within the surrounding community and helped to introduce performing arts into a culturally-deprived area.
In 1990, Mayor David Dinkins appointed Cook as the first female chaplain of the New York City Police Department. As chaplain of the police force, she provided spiritual counseling to all members of the department and their families. Cook was often summoned to the scene of police incidents and was on call for emergencies at all times. She also performed the invocations and benedictions at police department ceremonies and was frequently invited to attend the personal events of department employees and their families. As Cook reflected in a conversation with R.A. Cheryl Acosta of Civilians, serving as a police chaplain drew upon her faith in ways that were different from her traditional ministry. “I find it areal challenge,” she noted, “to translate a spiritual message into a practical one.”
In 1993, Cook was selected to serve as a Fellow on the White House Domestic Policy Council. While in Washington, she worked with an assistant to President Bill Clinton on issues such as violence, homelessness, and community empowerment and also assisted with conference planning and speech writing for the President. She also served with the Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary on Faith Initiatives from 1994 until 1997.
Cook was appointed to a one-year term on President Clinton’s National Advisory Board on Race in 1997. As envisioned by Clinton, the panel would propose policy solutions to heal racial tensions as a necessary step in preparing the country adequately for the twenty-first century. As with many African Americans, Cook was no stranger to racism. When her parents moved to their Bronx neighborhood, they integrated the predominantly Italian and Jewish area. Cook vividly recalled a childhood experience. “I was excited about my first day of school,” she reminisced with William Douglas of Newsday, “and I invited another young lady to sit next to me on the school bus, and she said, ’I can’t sit next to you.’ I said why? ’Because you’re black…my mother said I can’t sit next to one of you.’” This moment, she concluded, “was the beginning of what the rest of my life was going to present…The seeds of racism were already planted.” As she remarked to Gonzalez in the New; York Times, “In the life of every African-American there is a turning point when you recognize there is a difference.”
Cook ultimately agreed to serve on the President’s race board because she fervently believed that race relations was the most critical issue facing America. While she readily admitted that she did not think the panel would be capable of erasing centuries of fear and distrust, she did believe that its formation would be, according to Gonzalez, “a sign that the time has come to begin talking about issues glossed over by others who feel that civil rights is just a lesson in a history class and that affirmative action has run its course.” As Cook explained to Douglas in Newsday, she hoped that “a healing process will happen out of our pain and growth.” Moreover, she firmly believed that the clergy needed to play a critical role in this transformation.
“If the faith community is going to ever be a transforming agent in this society,” Cook was quoted as saying in the Boston Globe, “we’ve got to get beyond that 11 o’clock service and the church’s four walls and go places that aren’t comfortable.” As the board concluded its work, Cook pushed for a permanent race council. Such a body, she stressed to Ann Scales of the Boston Globe, “would bring sustaining power to race matters and make it harder for future presidents to disband the panel without being accused of abandoning the goal of racial harmony.”
Cook founded Sujay Ministries, an audio and video ministry designed to meet the needs of urban professionals and the youth. In 1994 she also established JONCO Productions, which is designed to promote Cook’s oral, video, and written motivational works and concepts. Cook has also published five books in her efforts to reach a larger audience. Realizing that her female parishioners had needs that were often not specifically addressed in her general sermons, Cook compiled Sister to Sister: Devotions for and from African-American Women, a varied collection of real-life tales, in 1995. “There’s always been the tradition of African-American oral story telling,” Cook told Kamps, “and my hope is that women can see themselves in the other women’s stories and find strength from that.”
Cook further expanded upon this theme in Sister Strength, which was released in 1998. This collection addressed relevant issues confronting women, including spousal abuse, aging, self-esteem, survival in corporate America, marriage and parenting, grief, stress, spiritual renewal, positive thinking, and self-reliance. As the trade review mentioned, “Connecting faith to real-life issues, Sister Strength celebrates the human spirit and a woman’s ability to find joy in spite of pain, faith in the midst of uncertainty, and hope that overcomes despair. A devotional for and from African-American women that will encourage all women to fulfill their God-given calling in life.” Not content to rest on her laurels, Cook declared to Yvonne Delaney of the Amsterdam News that” [m]y goal is to continue using my God-given gift to motivate women to believe that they are queens and that they can do and have anything by putting their talents and resources to good use. I want to raise the level of women’s consciousness and take them to a higher level in the next millennium.”
Cook is a strong, committed woman who is devoted to issues of race, religion, and community. Motivation and empowerment are the common themes that cohesively bind her efforts together. She is perceived as a leader both within the lay and religious communities, and some believe that she may eventually run for elected office. As she related in Belle, “I am a confident, courageous and capable woman. I have committed my life to a mission of seeking justice for people. I am seeking to bring out the best in people so they will soar to their highest. I am a pastor, urban practitioner, civil rights activist, wife, mother, daughter, author and public speaker. I am one who believes I’ve been blessed by God in order to be a blessing to others. I seek to use my gift in places that will honor and affirm God and other people. I am constantly growing, achieving and evaluating my life.” Cook will certainly continue to inspire all those whom she touches to do the same.
Wise Women Bearing Gifts: Joys & Struggles of their Faith, Judson, 1988.
Preaching in Two Voices: Sermons On the Women in Jesus’Life, Judson, 1992.
Sister to Sister: Devotions for and from African-American Women, Judson, 1995.
Too Blessed To Be Stressed: Words of Wisdom for Women on the Move, Nelson, 1998.
Sister Strength: A Collection of Devotions for and from African-American Women, Nelson, 1998.
Amsterdam News, December 24–30, 1998.
Belle, Winter 1998, pp. 63, 72.
Boston Globe, May 21, 1998. p. A9; June 19, 1998, p. A3.
Carillon, November/December 1998.
Civilians, Vol. 61, Issue 5, 1998, p. 10.
Community News, March 24-April 6, 1997.
Cosmopolitan, December 1987, p. 243.
Courier-Journal, June 2, 1998, pp. B1, 5.
Daily News, June 29, 1996, p. 16; July 13, 1997; April 5, 1998, p. 11.
Ebony, March 1996; November 1997, pp. 102–9; May 1998.
Essence, July 1994, p. 44.
Heart and Soul, July/August 1998, p. 70.
Jet, June 30, 1997, p. 38.
Newsday, November 18, 1990; July 13, 1997, p. A8.
New Voice of New York, January 21–27, 1999.
New York Post, February 6, 1996, p. 33.
New York Times, June 21, 1997, p. A23.
Upscale, December/January 1999.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the Between Sisters Web Site, JONCO Productions Press Releases, the United States Information Agency Web Site, and the White House Web Site.
—Lisa S. Weitzman
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