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The Gospel According to Sujay


"I have to determine which voice I'll listen to," Johnson Cook acknowledges. "I wrestle with that all the time. But it's got to be God's voice for me. It can't be pastoring or. It's got to be pastoring and. I decided to leave Washington because staying there would've isolated me. What makes me me is being able to touch my people."

When the 8 a.m. worship service begins, Johnson Cook, now clad in a white robe with kenté-cloth piping and holding the pulpit microphone, asks the 200 worshippers before her the same question she'd posed earlier to her church cabinet. And they, too, know just what to answer. They carry Bibles with favorite verses highlighted in yellow marker, Bibles so well-used they are held together with packing tape. Fully at ease, an athlete's swagger in her step, she runs the service by turns as concert, revival, town meeting, and stand-up comedy routine, an appropriate combination for a minister whose influences run from the Rev. Floyd Flake to the talk-show host Rosie O'Donnell. She leads a rousing version of "I Love You in the Love of the Lord" with the voice that once earned her a spot in the Apollo Theater's Amateur Night.

And when she lays into her sermon -- tilting her head, clasping a microphone in one hand and kneading the air with the other -- the service grows mesmerizingly personal as she considers the 23rd Psalm, the Lord's Prayer. Johnson Cook makes it speak to a middle-class black congregation that knows its own kinds of struggles and yet feels a sort of survivor's guilt in taking pleasure from success. Just back from a family vacation at Disney World, she wants to reassure them that a little bit of the "health-and-wealth gospel" can coexist with the prophetic vision of social justice.

"Got to get the kids up," she preaches, morphing effortlessly into one of the middle-class moms sitting in front of her, her voice now clipped and impatient. "Get 'em fed and dressed and off to school. Got stuff to deal with at work. Got to pick up the kids from school. Got to have energy for the husband. So I'm pooped." She pauses, letting the image penetrate, letting her listeners see themselves in her words. Then her voice softens from rasp to fleece. "The Lord is a soul-restorer. The Lord speaks to us by the still waters. Do you know recreation is restoration? Do you know 48 hours ago I was in Typhoon Lagoon in a raft?" She lets the laughter subside, then adds, "I'm glad to know the soul-restorer."

"My whole theological understanding of Jesus is that His ministry was holistic," she explains later, "that it was about mind, body, and spirit. Many times, faith traditions have focused just on the spirit. But what happens after Sunday is that people have to face the realities -- their bodies, their minds. So yes, my ministry does concentrate on black health and wealth. We can't just talk about what we're going to have as a people. We must achieve it. So wherever God can find a place for me and my resources, I'm there -- whether it's the White House or a local congregation. I've been humbled by the opportunities God has given me, but I've also been prepared."

After the sermon, with one wor-ship service done and another soon to begin, Johnson Cook sees a favorite mem-ber in the receiving line and asks, "What you havin' for dinner?"

"Turkey wings," the woman replies with a warmth implying an invitation.

"That's good," Reverend Johnson Cook says, at ease as any man with one of the perks of the pastoring life. "I had ribs yesterday."

Sunday meant not merely church but churches during Johnson Cook's childhood. She and her older brother Charles started with Bible school and a worship service in the Eastchester Presbyterian Church near their home in the Bronx. Then they took the No. 5 train to Harlem for the 11 a.m. service at Rendall Presbyterian, where their mother belonged. Finally, they walked the ten blocks to 145th Street for worship at their father's church, Union Baptist.

The itinerary reflected the centrality of Christianity to Sujay's life, along with the influence of two parents who were in disparate ways both self-made. Wilbert T. Johnson had left Virginia in the early thirties at age 15 to support his orphaned nephews, ultimately finding his way to Harlem and a job as one of New York's first black trolley-car operators. By the time Sujay was growing up, he had opened a security-guard company in the family's basement, serving clients from salsa ballrooms to Catholic-church bazaars. Dorothy Cuthbertson, fourteen years Wilbert's junior, earned two master's degrees when it was rare enough for a black woman to attend college, and embarked on a 22-year career teaching at P.S. 194 in Harlem.

The family ethos, Johnson Cook recalls, centered on success: "You've got to achieve. Your homework has got to be impeccable. And you're not going to break a verb at the dinner table. No 'ain't.' " Both Johnson children skipped grades in school. As teenagers, both worked in the family business, he in payroll, she keeping the ledgers. Charles got into Dartmouth just as Sujay was beginning junior high at the elite Riverdale Country Day School.

Such upward mobility had its price. The Johnson family integrated its neighborhood off Gun Hill Road in 1959, and typically, there were snubs from schoolmates and the condescension of teachers who deemed Sujay incapable of handling a class trip to Spain and urged her to find a job after high school rather than tax her talents with a college education.

"I was strengthened by the struggle," she recalls of that time. "It tempered me. Know racism when you see it, identify it clearly, but be able to handle it when it comes. And that's important. A leader can't always respond by emotion. My payback came by achieving." She became fluent in Spanish, ultimately studying in Valencia for a semester. At 16 she entered Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, and later transferred to Emerson in Boston, where she graduated cum laude in 1976 with a degree in speech. She earned a master's in educational technology from Teachers College at Columbia, and by age 21 had cut her teeth in politics, helping her brother win election to the State Assembly, and begun her own career as a television producer on stations in Boston, Washington, and Miami.

But one day in the early eighties, she telephoned her family's pastor at Union Baptist, the Reverend Ollie B. Wells Sr. She had to meet with him on her next trip north from Miami. Night after night, she told him, she could hear God's call, like Samuel in the Bible being awakened three times by the Almighty's summons to be a prophet. "It's this insatiable desire to serve God," she remembers now, "the feeling of being chosen that you can't escape. It's nonstop."

"She was frightened," Wells recalls. "It was an area where women weren't accepted, and she just didn't know if she could put everything on the line. I told her to go back to Miami and pray on it. And if your faith is real, you've gotta do what Peter did. Which is step out onto the water."

Sujay had often spent summers during childhood with her aunt Martha Porcher, who worked as an assistant to the pres-ident of Barber-Scotia College in Concord, North Carolina. The summer Johnson Cook was 13, there was another houseguest, a Barber-Scotia student named Katie Cannon, who had decided to pursue the ministry. Sujay peppered her with questions. What's a call like? How do you get ordained? And it occurred to her that in all those Sundays of churchgoing, she had rarely seen a black woman as a minister.

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