‘The City’s Pastor’: Answering the Call to Minister on 9/11
By Laura J. Bagby
CBN.com Sr. Producer
--“Chaplain Johnson, we need all the chaplains to report to headquarters.”
It was the phone call she had been expecting all day. It was just a matter of time.
At 10:30 p.m. an exhausted Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook, the only female chaplain on the NYPD, arose from bed and reported to her command. It was 9/11, a day that would forever be punctuated in her mind.
“We never saw New York crumble until 9/11,” she said. “New York has had a confidence – some people would even say arrogance – it’s like nothing will ever hit us because we are the most powerful city in the world. And then 9/11 happened, and it was like the rug was pulled from under us.”
Arriving at Ground Zero that night, Dr. Cook witnessed the grim ramifications of a world gone awry.
“Seeing it looked like a Hollywood set, like the King Kong movie where he had destroyed the building and you see the fires still burning,” she said. “We were walking through four inches of it looks like gray snow, and it was ash.... The reality was, we were walking through incinerated people.”
Despite the initial shock of the horror she saw, Cook, affectionately known as “Dr. Sujay,” quickly donned her pastoral counselor mantle and pushed her own feelings of grief to the back of her mind in order to comfort those who had lost loved ones.
“The mind is a fragile instrument, but it is also a protective one,” said Cook. “It goes into kind of denial. You know that it is happening, but you know what you also have to do because you are the caregiver. For those days, you go into a mode of ‘I have got to help.’”
Fortunately, Cook’s family was fine. Her husband and their two sons were safe at home, and her mother, though visibly shaken, was unharmed, allowing Cook to minister to those in need. And minister she did.
Working 16-18 hour days for the first few months after the tragedy was exhausting, but Cook, who is also a senior pastor at the Believers Christian Fellowship in New York City, would recall the words her brother spoke to her, “If there ever was a time when the city needed you to be a pastor, this is the time.”
Ironically, that Tuesday night and the next two consecutive evenings, Cook was planning on starting a revival at her church in New York City, bringing in a guest evangelist from the Bahamas to kick it off. She had advertised the special meetings in advance, so on the night of 9/11, Cook headed down to her church to see who would show up. The church was burgeoning.
“People didn’t have a way to express what was going on, so the church became like that Scripture says, a refuge in a time of trouble,” she explained. “People had a mass cry together. They were able to vent for the first time. Their pastor was there, their shepherd was there. We were safe.”
One of the members of Cook’s congregation, still covered in ash, explained how he had walked from the World Trade Center earlier that day. This new believer was on the train and had planned on getting off at a certain point. But the Lord told him to read the Psalms, so the man did and stayed on the train. His life was spared because he obeyed the Holy Spirit. He was even able to minister to those who were walking on the streets with a message of God’s sovereignty.
“It is in the sharing of stories, especially for believers, that we find our faith,” Cook remarked.
The following Wednesday, Cook began a Wall Street service right down the block from the World Trade Center. Traveling from the Bronx every day where she lived to the end of Manhattan took Cook about two to three hours out of her regular workday. There were moments when she wondered if the effort was worth it.
Noted Cook, “Sometimes on that subway, I would be like, ‘God, why am I doing this?’ But that Wednesday when everybody came in, their eyes were so wide open with fear, and when they left, they were calm and consoled. And God said, ‘This is why I had you do this. Your ministry does have a meaning.’"
Later, Cook added, " All the years of tedious labor where you wonder if this is ever going to mean anything, in one moment it did. It meant a lot to a lot of people.”
Between attending many city revival services through her church and daily protestant and interfaith worship services through the New York City Police Department, attending funeral services for city workers, and ministering to 911 operators who were beginning to feel the effects of trauma, Cook was stretched beyond her limits. Not only was she trying to take care of an entire city, but she was also trying to take care of a dying mother. It was simply too much to bear.
A month after the tragedy, Cook was driving back from a worship service when her emotions finally surfaced. “I pulled over to the side of the road, and I was like, ‘I can’t take it anymore.’ That is when it snapped, kind of kicked in that I had been through loss, grief. I cried uncontrollably for maybe half an hour. I couldn’t even get back on the highway.”
Who ministers to the minister? Who offers care to the caregiver? Who encourages the encourager? Counseling people during massive loss can takes its toll, but fortunately Cook revealed that she had four pastoral fathers across the United States – two in Los Angeles, one in Baltimore, and one in Virginia Beach – whom she could call anytime, be vulnerable with, and get spiritual refreshment from when she needed it. “I had a lot on my plate, but it was those persons who I could call and cry and crash,” she said.
Now that it’s five years later, what is Cook up to? When I spoke to her, she had already been on a professional sabbatical for about three weeks, hoping to reconnect again with God and her own humanity. “What I am finding now,” Cook told me, “is that I am grieving not just 9/11, but I am actually grieving my mother’s loss. I didn’t take the time that I necessarily think I should have at the time she died.” I daresay there might be others like her.
And the people of New York City, will they need to grieve again?
Said Cook, “With the fifth anniversary being a big deal, memory kicks in again. Is it closed and the wound healed? With the human emotion, you don’t know.”
Time will tell. In the meantime, Cook has written a new book, Live Like You're Blessed, that gives a message of hope for those now living the “new normal” of a post-9/11 world.
“Now that you have been spared and God has blessed your life to be alive, how do you live like you are blessed?” asked Cook. “No matter what adversities you had, nothing is worse than what we saw on 9/11. How do we get back on track, pull it together, forgive people who have been harmful to us and have hurt us, and move one? It sounds like an easy formula, but it is the only way to live.”
The word blessed is an acronym, with each letter standing for an important action principle to follow in order to rebuild hope and wholeness. Here, Cook explains each letter in her own words:
“B” is for balance –We are mind, body, and spirit. We have put a lot of attention on the mind and the body in life, but now we must also give attention to the spirit.
“L” is for love –Love of God first and then love of yourself. There is a strong emphasis on love care, doing things that matter to you and that matter to God.
“E” is having the energy for the assignment – I believe everyone has an assignment and a season; some are blessed to have more than one, but you have at least one in life and that is why you are spared. You have to have the energy to do it, so whatever it takes, whether that is exercising, sleeping well, eating well, the things that will keep your energy up for God.
The first “S” is for spirit – That is who we live and move and have our being in.
The second “S” is for success – We measure our success by Christ’s standards, not by the world’s.
The second “E” is for encouragement – Keep in the midst of encouraging people who will keep you focused on your journey who you want to be around and who want to be around you and to also be an encourager. One of the biggest things we saw during 9/11 was that people became depressed and really stressed out, so you have to be an encourager and also be in an encouraging environment with people who will nurture you and not beat you down.
“D” is for devotion – Keep your devotional life as a priority. If that means getting up an hour early and spending time with God so that you can go out and face what we have to face, the 9/11s of the world, then have the devotional time, because you can’t make it separated from God.
“My prayer for people is that they will make the time they need for themselves, because we are really not good for others unless we think for ourselves,” Cook concluded. “I thank God that I was a vessel that He felt He could use in a time of crisis. I hope that He knows that He can use me this time.”
Related Story: Only Female Chaplain on NYPD Shares 9/11 Experience
Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook, affectionately called “Dr Sujay,” served as a domestic policy advisor under President Clinton and was the first woman to be elected president of the Hampton University Ministers’ Conference, which represents all the historically African American denominations. She is currently a senior pastor at the Believers Christian Fellowship in New York City, author of Live Like You're Blessed , and the only female chaplain on the New York Police Department.