The Reverend Suzan Johnson Cook felt awed enough just being in the Cabinet Room. In eight months as a White House fellow, eight months of nearly daily meetings in the West Wing, only once before had she been summoned to a meeting of President Clinton's top appointees. They were settling into square-back armchairs at a 22-foot mahogany table, amid busts of Washington and Franklin, oils of Jefferson and Lincoln, the brass-and-walnut clock from Harry S. Truman's presidential yacht. Just then Henry Cisneros, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, burst into the room, cast his gaze at her -- child of the Bronx, the tomboy still known by the nickname Sujay, the homegirl whose favorite exclamation is "Dag!" -- and declared, "You're the perfect one."
Cisneros had been mulling a plan to enlist religious congregations in the battles against gangs and weapons in hud's housing projects. Johnson Cook, he believed, was the ideal choice to be the assistant secretary who would link the federal government to the pulpits. She had built up her own Manhattan church, the Mariners' Temple, from barely a dozen congregants to a thousand. She knew how to reach the black middle class. She was already in Washington, with four months left on her term as a fellow. She was, recalls Cisneros, now president and COO of the Spanish-language television network Univision, "dramatic, magnetic, intelligent."
For Johnson Cook, the offer couldn't have been better timed. She had instantly taken to life in Washington, staying in the same high-rise as Attorney General Janet Reno, bumping into her neighbor Congressman Joseph Kennedy by the elevator bank, representing the president before the National Baptist Convention, the very same black church body that had never invited her to its annual meeting as a pastor. "It was the joint," she would say later of that day in 1994 in Washington, her voice hushed and wistful. "I had the juice all around me."
But her mind turned to the Book of Matthew, to the verses about Jesus in the wilderness being offered by Satan all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them . . . if thou wilt fall down and worship me. Henry Cisneros hardly qualified as Satan, but Johnson Cook was indeed being tempted by the things of this world. And like her Savior, she rejected them. When the fellowship ended, she returned to her church. Part of the decision, to be sure, had to do with rejoining her husband, Ronald, in New York. Part of it had to do with her sense of obligation to Mariners' Temple. But much of it had to do with neither. "There's no price tag you can put on the mission," she explains. "You start on it, and you keep going until you're released by God."
Jesus' ministry was holistic, Johnson Cook says. "It was about mind, body, and spirit."
"What day is this?" Johnson Cook demands of the twenty men and women arrayed before her in a circle of folding chairs.
"This is the day the Lord had made," they answer in unison.
It is, to be precise, 6:55 a.m. on Sunday, April 2, more than an hour before she will begin the first of two worship services at her newest church, the Bronx Christian Fellowship, which the congregation bought two months ago for $600,000. A fieldstone building with slate roof and oak doors on wrought-iron hinges, it looks better suited to an English hamlet of thatch-roof cottages than to an urban village of brick duplexes and five-story apartments pressed between the Bronx River Parkway and the No. 2 El's trestle.
Here in the basement, Johnson Cook has gathered her leadership team, the lay volunteers who staff the church's programs for dance and music and youth, who teach in its Sunday school and manage its finances, who this past week swept out the stucco sanctuary and this linoleum-tiled social hall. She stands before them in a lime-green sweater suit, her hair set in a pert pageboy, her ankle ringed by a delicate gold chain, her five-foot-ten frame otherwise suitable for an NBA power forward.
She strides to a wall adorned with a canvas banner declaring A NEW BEGINNING IN THE BRONX and an oak-tag outline of the morning's lesson, prominently featuring the words TARGET: BLACK PROFS AND FAMILIES. Some of those professionals are sitting on the chairs in front of her -- chemist James T. Jones Jr., Housing Authority site manager Venice Kendall, court officer Yvette Knighton Stevenson. They are the hidden backbone of the black community, the likes of whom Johnson Cook has brought into the fold over nearly twenty years of ministry. Now she checks their answers to a homework question: "What is your Christian job description?" After they have finished speaking of being prayerful and loyal, faithful and reliable, Johnson Cook fills in the blank herself.
"When you think you've arrived, you're arrogant," she says, punching the air with a felt-tip marker for emphasis. "Everyone can grow. Everyone can get to the next level. You've got to get to the level where He needs you. Not your boss. Not the Stock Exchange. When I was at the White House, I thought I was supposed to be one of them Washington yuppies. But the Lord said, 'You are my pastor.' "
Six years after leaving Washington, Suzan Johnson Cook at 43 has achieved a singular national prominence in a career composed of one improbable choice after another: entering a ministry deeply resistant to women as pastors; spurning the status of the White House and, earlier, of a Harvard deanship, to stay with a black church in the unlikely setting of Chinatown; and then, most stunning of all by clerical standards, leaving that booming congregation to start all over again with a dozen faithful and a rented chapel in the Bronx Christian Fellowship. The dedication of the 300-family church this month marks the latest accomplishment of a minister who may just be the most important woman in that legendary institution, the black church.
Johnson Cook has led neither the first nor the largest church headed by a black woman; she has not championed a feminist theology and in certain ways has resisted it. Yet her combination of political contacts, pulpit eloquence, experience as a TV producer, and acceptance by the church's old-boy network makes her a formidable figure. She has been a police chaplain, a member of President Clinton's initiative on race, and the first woman officer in the Hampton University Ministers' Conference, the major annual meeting of black church leaders. She's written or edited five books, ranging from motivational essays to a serious theological consideration of the New Testament's women. Her burden, as much as her blessing, is the surfeit of talents competing for her attention.