New freedom fighter
Suzan Johnson Cook waits Congress' nod to champion religion
The Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook has been nominated by President Obama as ambassador for religious rights. (Courtesy, Suzan Johnson Cook / October 18, 2010)
I did this profile on Sujay, as she likes to be called, last October. Well, the U.S. State Department announced that she was sworn in today (May 16) as its Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom.
"Ambassador Johnson Cook will serve as a principal advisor on religious freedom to the Secretary of State and to the President, and she will head the Office of International Religious Freedom in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor," according to the announcement.
-- Jim Davis
The Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook has been a minister, a motivational speaker, an interchurch leader and a quiet religious feminist.
She thinks she's ready for the next step -- ambassador at large for religious freedom -- a job for which she's been nominated by President Obama.
"This is the moment I've been prepared for," Cook says at a recent conference for women leaders in Fort Lauderdale. "I bring a passion for understanding what it feels like to be on the other side. And for people's right to express their faith, or not."
If confirmed, Cook will be the first woman to hold the position since Congress created it in 1998. The appointment would be the latest in a series of accomplishments over her 53 years, including two pastorates and a professorship at a seminary.
Sujay, as she's often nicknamed, gave her views at the recent Wisdom Women Worldwide / Women in Ministry International Conference at the Marriott Harbor Beach Hotel in Fort Lauderdale. The four-day conference gathered about 100 ministers and other leaders in their middle years and later, to network and discuss issues like purpose and destiny.
It's a concept she learned from her own life, one she digested for her new book "Becoming a Woman of Destiny: Turning Life's Trials into Triumphs."
"You may have more days behind you than before you," Cook says. "Your husband may be dead or divorced, and your children grown and moved away. So you have a destiny decision, on what to do with the rest of your life."
Her bid for the ambassadorship is the latest in a string of accomplishments. She started as a youth pastor at the Union Baptist Church in Harlem "at a time when women were almost like lepers," she recalls.
She was the first African American woman pastor in the 200-year-old American Baptist Churches, as she pastored the Mariners' Temple Baptist Church in New York, founded by seafarers in 1795. She founded the Bronx Christian Fellowship, serving there from 1996 to 2009. She also taught at the New York Theological Seminary from 1988-1996.
In 2002, Cook became the first female president of the Hampton University Ministers' Conference, a century-old association of 12,000 ministers. Her four-year term opened doors in several venues, including around the Caribbean.
Along the way, she founded the Wisdom Worldwide Center and continues as its president. She also has been a chaplain with the New York Police Department since 1990. Her work drew the attention of the Clinton White House, which made her the only faith leader in the seven-member President's Initiative on Race. She also developed faith-based initiatives for the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
For Obama, Cook took part in the National Day of Prayer on his first day in office. She also serves with his National African American Clergy Faith Advisory Team.
Although she states much of her case in secular terms, at bottom she believes freedom is a spiritual issue.
"God wants people to be free and at peace," Johnson says. "Ultimately, you have to see it as a call and commission to do God's work."
Since Obama announced her nomination on June 15, Cook has drawn some criticism for her lack of experience in the fields of religious freedom and international diplomacy. She counters that her Hampton experience and speaking engagements have given her contacts in several countries.
Cook argues further that African Americans like herself are familiar with the deprivation of rights.
"Our whole faith tradition was birthed out of persecution," she says. "So much persecution over faith worldwide has been against persons of color."
If confirmed, Cook will advise Obama and Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, on spiritual freedoms around the world. She'll also keep the topic in the public ear through speeches and appearances, both in the United States and elsewhere.
Because the U.S. Senate hasn't yet held a hearing on her confirmation, she is reluctant to discuss specific matters, such as the abortive "Burn a Koran Day" and the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" proposed for New York.
She does say she believes religious freedom is growing, despite the pessimistic view from some.
"Just that it's being discussed is important," Cook says. "Before the mosque and Burn a Koran Day, a lot of people hadn't even heard the term 'religious freedom.' "
But she holds no illusions about the job she's requesting.
"I'll have my work cut out for me. I think the ambassador for religious freedom will never be without a job."
James D. Davis can be reached at 954-356-4730 or firstname.lastname@example.org.