From the Hill to the Harbor


Dr. Sujay

By Marissa Maier

It has been a banner year for Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook. In 2010, the 53-year-old reverend celebrated 30 years in the ministry, the publication of her 10th book “Becoming a Woman of Destiny,” and a nomination as the Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom by the Obama administration.

“I believe I have found my place. This is the place I was preparing for. I have been waiting for this moment and I am ready to seize this moment,” Dr. Johnson Cook, who lives in Sag Harbor, exclaimed in an interview last Sunday.

As she reflected on her impending confirmation with the United States Senate, Dr. Johnson Cook stood amongst a sea of literature, loved ones and acquaintances at BookHampton in Sag Harbor. Donning a crisp white suit, Dr. Johnson Cook, or “Dr. Sujay” as she is affectionately referred to by friends and fans, had wrapped up a reading of her new book.

The thrust of Dr. Johnson Cook’s most recent work, “Becoming a Woman of Destiny,” is charting one’s future — at any stage in life. She advised the crowd, mainly comprised of women, to nurture their intellect, feed their spiritual selves, create a course of action to achieve goals and build a community of supporters. Using the life of the biblical character Deborah as a foundation for the work, Dr. Johnson Cook shared anecdotes from her own life with the crowd.

She revealed that during arduous trips through Africa she sometimes wondered why she was there. As she recently prepared for her Senate confirmation hearings for the ambassadorship, Dr. Johnson Cook understood how these past experiences will inform her work in this new position.

Dr. Johnson Cook’s current status as an acclaimed corporate speaker, spiritual leader to thousands of parishioners and governmental nominee is an unlikely trajectory for an Emerson undergrad who studied acting and longed to appear on screen opposite Denzel Washington. After sharpening her public speaking skills in class and learning the disheartening realities of auditioning after graduation, Dr. Johnson Cook changed course and soon found the ministry.

In her professional life, Dr. Johnson Cook has shattered many glass ceilings. She was the first woman appointed as the Chaplain of the New York City Police Department and she was the first female Baptist minister granted a White House Fellowship. Dr. Johnson Cook later served as a domestic policy advisor to President Bill Clinton.

On June 15, Dr. Johnson Cook was handpicked by President Barack Obama’s administration as the nominee for Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. She shared with the crowd on Sunday that she spent the next six months holed up her home in Sag Harbor prepping for the confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. The hearing was finally held last Wednesday, November 15, before a panel of senators.

Reading from her testimony, Dr. Johnson Cook highlighted her previous experiences abroad: “I have had the opportunity to travel to five continents to engage Muslims, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Protestants, Jews, and practitioners of several other spiritual traditions. I have traveled to Zimbabwe and South Africa to meet with Zulu faith leaders to promote religious freedom and tolerance. I worked with World Vision, in Ruschlikon, Switzerland, in its efforts to combat global poverty. I have also led interfaith delegations to Israel, Jordan and Egypt, and throughout the Caribbean.”

“Each of these experiences has uniquely shaped my approach to interfaith engagement, and has provided lasting touchstones that continue to guide and inspire my commitment to promoting religious freedom globally,” she continued.

If confirmed, Dr. Johnson Cook explained in her testimony that she will work with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the annual International Religious Freedom Report to Congress, which examines the status of religious freedom in 198 countries. In a press statement released in June, Secretary Clinton noted that Dr. Johnson Cook will be the foremost advisor on issues of religious freedom to herself and the President.

On Sunday, Dr. Johnson Cook said she expects to be confirmed by the Senate during the “lame duck” session in roughly a week or when they reconvene at the end of the year.

“Maybe we only get one moment like this in our lives,” Dr. Johnson Cook remarked on Sunday of her nomination. “[It is a shame] to die and not have fulfilled that moment.”