read in: 33 min
Ebony S. Muhammad (EM): I originally had 40 questions for your interview, but I knew there was no way I could ask you all of those questions so I narrowed it down. I definitely wanted to first have you, briefly, tell the readers about yourself. Just in case they’re not familiar with you or your ministry.
Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook (DS): I’m Reverend Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook. I’m more affectionately called Dr. Sujay. I was a Senior Pastor for 30 years in New York City, my hometown. I first was a youth pastor at Union Baptist Church in Harlem, then I got called to my first church, Mariners Temple Baptist Church as Senior Pastor. I became the first African American woman in the history of the American Baptist churches to be elected as a Senior Pastor. I was there from1983 to about 1996. We had 15 members when I started; I left with two congregations of over a thousand. We became famous for a lunchtime service I developed which we called, “Lunch Hour Of Power”, which still goes one now. Being in Downtown, New York, all the city workers, the court workers, the government workers were down there.
At lunchtime, on Wednesdays, we’d have 500 people in worship. There was a Lunchtime Choir and they rocked! So from that, we really got “put on the map”. Dave Dinkins was mayor, Lee Brown was the police commissioner, so downtown was just rockin’; it was Soul City. We had such a wonderful experience.
From there, I married and had two children. I went to Harvard University as a president’s administrative Fellow for a year and then I was picked up at the White House as a White House Fellow under Bill Clinton. I was there for a year and ended up staying 7 years in different parts of President Clinton’s administration. Then. I started my own church when I came back to New York. I was pregnant with my second child and I founded Bronx Christian Fellowship, which is the church that I just retired from. I was there 15 years. I just went back to my home community, the Northeast Bronx. I concentrated on building up the lives of the people and so that’s really been my mark; to empower people. I especially want to empower women who are heading households, who are working, who are trying not only to get it together but keep it together. So, now, my books really appeal to the mature woman; the woman who has done it all, but now is about doing it for herself.
EM: Absolutely beautiful. You also talk about the woman in transition too. You mention the mature woman, but you also mentioned those who are going through a transition, whether it’s divorce, economical turn about, or any type of transition that would speak to a woman.
DS: Right. You know we have seasons in life. Just like we have the seasons, fall, winter, spring and summer; we have seasons in life and women have many seasons. Whether it’s child bearing, after a child, losing a child, marriage, post marriage, pre marriage……all of those are new seasons and each demands its own attention. Going from one season to another is what we call transitions and many times, people don’t concentrate on that. They’ll just say, “Oh, this person is breaking down or losing her way”, but that’s not true. T.D. Jakes says you’re between mountains. You are not ON the mountain right now, but you are BETWEEN mountains. So, I don’t use the term ‘you’re in the valley’, you’re in transition. You’re going from one point to another and that’s life. Life 101 has transitions. I’m so glad that it appeals to your audience as well, because I’ve been through the 20’s, the 30’s, the 40’s and I’m now into the early 50’s, so, I’ve seen women who just need some nurturing, who need some time, who need to know that they’re not falling apart. You’re actually having time to put the new pieces together.
EM: Yes ma’am, absolutely. So, with your book, ‘Becoming A Woman Of Destiny: Turning Life’s Trials Into Triumph’, you open up your book with this prayer. A Woman’s Prayer, and I don’t think there was a better way to open up that book than with that prayer. For me, it was not only a declaration of submission to God but to the greatness that He has destined for us, individually and collectively.
DS: May I share that prayer? Is that okay?
DS: It’s called The Woman of Destiny Prayer:
‘God, Thank You for creating me woman. Thank you for teaching me how to give and receive love. Please go before me, to show me the way. Please, go behind me, to push me with your divine touch. Please watch over me, that I may be covered in your unconditional love. Most of all, please give me wisdom to walk the path that you have blazed and ordained for me and to know the difference between right and wrong. I invite you inside me that I may have your anointing. I seek you everywhere that I may know your fullness. Teach me to make wise choices in every area of my life. Surround me with and keep me in the midst of otherwise women. Give me the clarity to share the wisdom I have to impart to women who seek to be wise themselves. Thank you for creating me WOMAN. I am blessed and highly favored. I AM A WOMAN OF DESTINY. I AM MAKING DESTINY DECISIONS. I AM DESTINED FOR GREATNESS. Amen.’
DS: I love it. You get a whole ‘nother rhythm, another sense of empowerment to start your day.
EM: I was just about to say that. It is filled with affirmations and that’s definitely the best way to start your day; to affirm it and to affirm yourself.
DS: There were many cultures that used to pray “Thank God I’m not a woman” so I want women to be very comfortable in their skin, in our skin. Just know that we are created this way and it’s a joy. We have the creator inside of us so we start with “thank You for creating me woman”. Not denial but affirmation of who I am.
EM: Yes ma’am. I wanted ask, for those women who may have had different life experiences that may struggling with self love, validation or self affirmation, how does this prayer address these ‘woes’? How can women develop a proper bond with God through this prayer?
DS: Well, the biggest piece, in our transition in life, is to take time with God and for God. To spend time with the Creator Who spent time creating you. The book is centered on Deborah, who was the first, in the Judea Christian understanding of Deborah….she was the first female judge. She was the first female prophetess of Israel and she was a wife. So, she was multi dimensional. She took care of her professional life, she took care of her home life and she took care of her spiritual life. What we have to realize is that we are mind, body and spirit so all of those elements have to be in balance.
So many times, we focus so much on the intellect, “Get your education”, and yes it is important. However, you also have to focus on your body and spending time with your body, also your spirit. Your spirit, which is often the most neglected area, but your spirit is what gives you fuel to be able to fire up and go on through life. So, the emotional life is the important piece that Deborah had. She, number one, took time management seriously. Instead of going city to city, she ruled under the palm tree of Deborah, which she asked people to come to her rather than going from place to place and running herself ragged. The more you run, the more you deplete yourself of energy so she had them come to her. The point of that is, make it work for you in this season of life. Whatever is not working cut it out of your life and whatever is working, make it work for you. Therefore, if you need to cut some of your appointments down, do so.
When I started pastoring, I was at the church for 14 hours, and I never saw the sunshine, one of my friends said, “Cut your load in half”. So, I’d see four people a day instead of eight people a day and just that one simple step started making it work for me. Particularly, when I started having children, because I couldn’t see my own family because I was so busy taking care of everybody else’s family. So, make it work for you. The second thing that Deborah did was she had a devotional life. She spent time with the Creator and in order to make destiny decisions, you have to have time to think and time to pray. Overloaded people fail. When you put too much on your plate and too much on your mind, you make bad decisions or you don’t make the right decisions for your life. So, it’s about taking time. The third thing is to be still. The scripture says, “Be still and know that I am God.” This past summer, I took three months, 90 days, because I’m in transition. I’m between my pastoring and the place where God is leading me. I had 90 days, alone with my family. We love the beach, so we were in a beach town. The scripture, “He leads me beside the still waters and restores my soul”, really became true. I didn’t even realize how much my soul needed restoration because I had poured out, and poured out, and poured out for thirty years. So, in my thirtieth year, I made a decision that I needed some time. I needed time for grieving; I had lost a lot of my family members and support system in the last five years. I needed time with my family, when I was not on the phone or counseling or running to another appointment. I needed time with my Savior and I needed time for myself. And, my goodness, I cannot tell you how ready and ripe I am for whatever the next season holds for me, because I got the rest that I needed.
One definition of recreation is RE CREATION, which means that which we have poured out needs to have time to replenish and if we never take that time, when do we get replenished? One definition of vacation is to VACATE. You have to leave the familiar, whatever has been bogging you down, leave it. They’ve been promoting stay-cation, stay close to home. NO……I understand it’s a rough economy so you don’t have to go very far, but you do have to go. You have to go somewhere, because if you stay in the same place that had entrapped you for all these years, you just leave the summer more bogged down then when you went into it. So my thing is, vacate the premises. A day, a weekend, a month….whatever you can take. Recreation….find things that bring you joy. Take time for devotion and then you can make destiny decisions so that you can get towards your destiny. Everyone has a destiny. Everyone has something that God has designed for them to do. The tragedy is some can’t get there, because they’re so boggled down trying to fulfill other people’s destiny.
EM: Yes ma’am. Thank you. You mentioned Deborah. I was going to bring up how you referred to her through the entire book and you made this absolutely profound point in saying that she was commissioned by God. By me being taught to look up every word, even if you think you know what it means, I looked up the word commissioned and it means to be ordered to do something. So, when your Maker, your Creator, orders you to do something, you are obligated to submit to that. That is what He put in you to do. So, I think that in order for us to uncover our purpose, we must go to the Creator, because He’s the only one that’s qualified. We go to other people…..our mom, our boyfriend, our husband……people who are not qualified (to advise us) because they don’t know our inner makings like God does.
DS: Say that!!! I could have interviewed you for my book. He’s the only one that’s qualified. The One who commissions you is the only One Who knows what your mission is and how you can get there. You have to spend time with the CommissionER. Everyone has an assignment, a mandate, an order, on their lives. Some are fortunate enough to get more than one, but you have to fulfill at least one before you are given a new one. My thing is, to be able to get to that commission and to know that you’re there.
One of my mentors is Dr. James Forbes, the Pastor Emeritus of the Riverside Church in New York. He was my teacher from the day I entered seminary, and he still like my teacher/mentor. He has a sermon about when Jesus was going to the temple and he found the place where it was written what his commission was. He didn’t find it until Luke and the commission was given 2,000 years before he even came. I’ve found the place and what you ought to do is find the place. Find what your commission is. I am at a point now, and it took 53 years to get there, but, I’ve found my place. Everything that’s happened in my life…..the trials, the transitions, the triumphs, all were leading to this particular moment. When you find that place, you sleep well, you eat well, and you rest well. I am so clearly connected to my Commissioner that I know that everything, even in the time that it is taking, is being worked out on my behalf. So, if it’s not moving as fast as you’d like, then that’s on you. But, the Commissioner and I are connected and I am so at peace, because I know when the time comes, it will be right. I needed to get some things together and the place where I’m going needed to get some things together so when we connect, it would be right. We call that a Kyros moment. Just like Barack Obama becoming President. Three years ago, everyone in the world was like….he’s the underdog, all the polls had him on the bottom, he hasn’t been in the Senate long enough, but God was lining all things up. Even during the criticism, he became the first African American President at the right time, the right place. Nelson Mandela, the same thing. He’s in prison for 27 years and people are like, “When is he going to get out?” He comes out and becomes the President of the very country that put him in prison. That ‘s a Kyros moment, and I think that everyone who is commissioned has to know when that moment arrives and you have to be in touch with your Commissioner for that to happen.
EM: Yes ma’am. That brings me to the next point. Sometimes we put up barriers to make that connection, and you mentioned that the most important thing to remember about the practice of prayer is that we don’t have to go through anyone to connect to God. You mentioned how people would come to you or go to their ministers and ask them to pray for them when, in fact, we have that direct connection ourselves. I think that we rob ourselves of finding or discovering our purpose or our destiny when we rely on other people to do that for us.
DS: Very well said. We have created a dependant society. The whole mentality about welfare…..it was written, years ago that welfare was going to be one of the worst things that would happen for our community, and people criticized it but it was. Generations have become dependent on this check and it began to break down families. I pastor to welfare families and their mentality had gone welfare. When the system was coming around to check the houses, they had to get rid of the men in the house, and the whole thing was designed for dependency on the system. We can’t be dependent on anything.
I’ve raised my children to be independent. I have a 10th grader and a freshman in college who can make decisions, who know how to manage their money, who know how to manage their time and most of all, who know God. I introduced them to God at a very early age. My sister is going on the road this week and I’m like, you connect with God. I used to start in the morning and pray for the whole car and the whole family and then they got to the point when they were about 7 or 8 and they were like, “I want to pray this morning”. So, before school, one of them would pray. What you said is so important; that we not be dependent on any person to take us to God but that we have the direct access to God ourselves.
EM: Yes Ma’am. I wanted to talk to you or have you describe those four pillars that go hand in hand with that. You talk about the spirituality being less emphasized on but you have intelligence, spirituality, action and community. In reading the book, it seems as if each of these has equal importance and if even one of them is lacking then they won’t be as strong as they should be.
DS: Exactly. The four pillars are necessary in life and they are things that need to be in balance.
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