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The Gospel According to Sujay


By the time Johnson Cook confessed her call to Ollie Wells, Katie Cannon already had become the first black woman to earn a doctorate from Union Theological Seminary and ordination in the Presbyterian Church. Her achievement only threw the obstacles into greater relief. In the traditions of the black church, a revered woman might lead the Usher Board or the Home Missionary Society or even be extolled as a "mother of the church." But a black woman who wanted to actually lead a congregation had little choice but to open her own storefront church. Though the major black denominations had few formal restrictions on women in the ministry -- Baptists let every member church ordain whomever it found worthy, and the African Methodist Episcopals explicitly allowed female ordination -- in practice, the pulpit was a man's place and the pew was a woman's. So when Suzan Johnson Cook broke the news to her family that she was changing careers, her mother, Dorothy, a practical woman, asked across the dishes, "Are you sure this is what you want to do?"

Midway through a dreary, drizzlyMonday afternoon, during what should be one of the few lulls of Holy Week, Johnson Cook joins the crowd of 80 finding seats in Harlem's venerable Convent Avenue Baptist Church. Here amid the elegant brownstones of Sugar Hill, in a sanctuary replete with hand-carved altar rails and light fixtures styled on antique gas lamps, gather the clerical elite who form the regional Baptist Ministers' Conference. Until the mid-nineties, its constitution barred women, and even at this recent session Johnson Cook is the only female pastor.

Nothing in her manner, though, suggests the slightest discomfort. In the church lobby, she chats with Jacques DeGraff, a friend of her older brother's who is a veteran political consultant as well as an aspiring preacher. She lines him up for a couple of sermons at Bronx Christian Fellowship, planting the idea that he might collaborate in the television ministry she is developing. A fellow preacher, meanwhile, asks Johnson Cook to participate in the conference's program for Martin Luther King Day in 2001.

"That is the Baptist golf course," she says as she leaves. "A lot of the sisters don't understand it's not just about being invited to this pulpit or that conference. It's these informal things. And I'm in the loop."

"The black middle class is a different definition of unchurched," says Johnson Cook.

Her journey into the loop began in December 1980, when Wells licensed her as a minister, the first step toward ordination. Nine months later, she entered Union Theological Seminary, and as James Forbes, the celebrated minister of Riverside Church, taught her the eloquent art of homiletics, Wells appointed her youth minister. When he ordained Johnson Cook on March 6, 1982, halfway through her seminary studies, he did so under the aegis not of the black National Baptist Convention but of the overwhelmingly white American Baptist Churches of Metropolitan New York/USA -- which black congregations join primarily for its pension benefits and publishing house.

One year later the mariners' Temple invited Johnson to become interim pastor. On the surface, the position looked impressive. Founded in 1795, Mariners' was the oldest Baptist church in New York and had been led by 25 consecutive men. But within the imposing pillars, Johnson discovered on her first Sunday in the pulpit, fifteen worshippers languished in a sanctuary built for 1,100. The annual heating bill alone, some $40,000, exceeded the church's income. Deep inside Chinatown, Mariners' was a black church in a neighborhood without blacks. Week after week, Johnson Cook watched male preachers deliver their audition sermons for the pastor's job -- and quickly head for the door.

"They'd say, 'Girl, this is not me. You can have it if you want it,' " she recalls. "But I refused to think of Mariners' as a defeated place. I wasn't going there just to close it down." The impediments, she soon discovered, very much included her gender. One minister refused to baptize candidates in the same font Johnson Cook had used. Another had her preach at his church -- and pad out his own paltry congregation with her adherents -- only to follow her sermon with a denunciation of female ordination.

Using the skills she had acquired in Charles's campaign for the Assembly, Johnson Cook went door-to-door with a handful of loyalists in the Lower East Side's housing projects, spreading the word of her ministry. Within six months, she had lifted membership to 150 and won full-time appointment in a unanimous vote, making her the first black woman to be a senior pastor in the American Baptist denomination. The area may not have been home to many blacks, but plenty of middle-class people like her parents worked in the neighborhood's government offices. Sujay inaugurated the "Lunch Hour of Power," a worship service every Wednesday at noon that was equal parts theology, sing-along, and motivational lecture. By 1990, it was drawing 500 regulars, a number equal to her Sunday congregation, and inspiring similar services by such renowned black ministers as Johnny Ray Youngblood of Saint Paul Community Baptist Church in Brooklyn. (The service is now held nearby, at the John Street United Methodist Church.)

Indeed, Youngblood gave her what she considered the ultimate nod of acceptance. "Sujay," he told her while both were studying in the same doctoral program in the late eighties, "you're part of the frat." The daughter and sister of strong black men -- and, since 1991, the wife of one -- she had met the black church's most concrete measure of achievement. The same credential plainly mattered to the Clinton administration when it chose Johnson Cook first as a White House fellow and then as one of just seven members of the president's Initiative on Race and Reconciliation.

At the same time, Johnson Cook served black women less as a crusader than as a role model. She mentored younger ministers, including her successor at Mariners' Temple. She delivered, by her own reckoning, the majority of her sermons on biblical women, from the warrior and prophetess Deborah to the New Testament's Anna, a widow who waited until she was 84 to see the Messiah arrive.

In the five books she wrote or edited, Johnson Cook particularly addressed black women in the middle class and the professions. She is president of the New York Coalition of 100 Black Women, a sort of modern version of what W.E.B. DuBois famously called the "Talented Tenth." Her collection of devotions, Sister Strength, included a section on "Surviving in Corporate America." Asked to name the most influential book she's read, model turned restaurateur Barbara Smith cites Johnson Cook's Too Blessed to Be Stressed, a thoughtful autobiography hiding behind a self-help title.

"I want women to take advantage of whatever crack the door has been opened," Johnson Cook says. "And when you do that, you have no time for whining. You're too busy doing."

Still, the so-called stained-glass ceiling often restricts black women to the smallest congregations; those who lead larger churches typically have had to build them. The question about Suzan Johnson Cook, says the Reverend Delores Carpenter, a professor at Howard University who has researched the subject extensively, is why, given her track record, none of the populous megachurches have called her. It's the rare inquiry that makes Johnson Cook bristle. She is equally bothered by the suggestion that her ministry, precisely because she is so eclectically talented, lacks the focus on a particular cause that has made Flake a national figure in school vouchers and Youngblood one in community organizing.

"It's not a matter of being all over the place," she says of her calling. "Jesus was a multitasker." She sees affluent blacks drifting away from church, and away from the inner-city neighborhoods that desperately need their expertise and example.

"The black middle class is a different definition of unchurched," she says. "My generation was born to parents who migrated from the rural South and went through the civil-rights movements. And a lot of us left the traditions that got them over. We didn't raise our children with a connection to church. It was 'country.' It reminded us of the past. It took away Sundays, when now we're invited to play golf or tennis. But if you can excite the professionals, the people with resources, that's how real change can occur."

Johnson Cook's program for Bronx Christian Fellowship is duly diverse. She is using her fluency in Spanish to draw Hispanic worshippers who have tended to be culturally and denominationally outside the black church. Her career-training programs, including one for the Internet economy, have already won a $100,000 grant from USA Networks.

The Bronx pulpit also lets Johnson Cook stay close to home and family, in the same Grand Concourse high-rise as her mother. After nearly a lifetime in this city, she can still stroll up 145th Street in Harlem, near her mother's old school and her father's old church, and be hailed as Wilbert's or Dorothy's daughter. She juggles her schedule around her older son's baseball games. She met her husband, a community-development director at Convent Avenue Baptist Church, when both were making a Lenten fast, and Ron's own intimate understanding of the church makes him a vital sounding board.

So on Monday afternoon of Holy Week, Johnson Cook leaves the Baptist Ministers' Conference shortly before four o'clock to head for her Toyota sport utility vehicle, its floor and seats covered by a tennis racket, a Grover doll, a tangerine, and other detritus of domesticity. She will pick up her older son, 7-year-old Samuel, at an Episcopal school in Morningside Heights and take him to join his brother Christopher, 5, at a birthday party in a craft store on the Upper West Side. In the school bathroom, she hastily changes from the conservative skirt she very deliberately wore to the ministers' conference into casual pants.

In her personal balancing act as much as in her public ministry, Sujay practices patience as a "strategy for the long run.

"We trust God to bring good things to pass," she adds. "We bring a quiet strength. What Martin Luther King said about knowing that we as a people will get into the Promised Land -- that's the theology that carries us over. When I get the nod from God, nothing will stop me from going forth on that mission. The scripture that sustains me is Matthew 5:16: to be light in the midst of darkness."


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