Religion

She's ready for role as ambassador-at-large

Suzan Johnson Cook is busy closing several doors in New York City, in preparation of opening one colossal door to the world.

Almost a year after being nominated by President Obama to serve as ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom, she was finally confirmed by the Senate in April and will be sworn in this month.

She's the first woman and person of African-American descent to be named to this position.

"It's amazing, and I feel so honored to be nominated by the president and confirmed," Cook said after giving her final sermon at John Street Methodist Church, a few blocks from New York City's ground zero Wednesday.

Such a busy pastor, described by the New York Times as a cross between Billy Graham and Oprah, it was rather impressive she was so accessible to the Hutchinson News. But that revealed a quality that will serve her well traveling the globe promoting religious freedom. Cook is open to all people and every experience, large or small.

Just as she befriended this reporter 17 years ago when she was a White House Fellow in Washington, D.C., she remains open to everyone — those who might propel her career forward and the little guy, like me.

Cook says her best qualifications for the job are the right blend of faith and politics. She knows what it feels like to be a minority, to be left out, and she's sensitive to that. She has broken barriers as a female pastor, as the first woman and first African-American to serve as chaplain to the New York City Police Department. She has served the department since 1990 and was on the front lines helping on Sept. 11, 2001.

"They are like family to me," she said of the police officers she has worked with over the years. And it's hard to say goodbye. Just as it's hard to say goodbye to her parishioners at Bronx Christian Fellowship Church, and the John Street Church, where she hosted Wonderful Wall Street Wednesdays.

"I'm ending one tenure to begin a new tenure," she said.

The challenge ahead is huge. She will serve as principal adviser to Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on global religious issues in a world filled with religious strife. Challenges might include offering hope to hundreds of Egyptians, many of them Coptic Christians, who were demonstrating in the streets of Cairo on Monday to protest Muslim-Christian clashes that left 12 dead and a church burned. While Cook can't comment on any current issues until she is sworn in, she feels confident she will be able to promote religious tolerance around the globe.

"I am deeply honored by the trust that President Obama and Secretary Clinton have placed in me to serve our nation in advancing the right to freedom of religion abroad," she said. "I am similarly persuaded in my mind, heart and soul that religious freedom is a birthright of all people everywhere; a foundation of civil society, a key to international security, and it must always be a pillar of U.S. foreign policy."

With complete focus and seriousness, she prays for world peace as ambassador-at-large. The position was created in 1998 under the Clinton administration as part of the International Religious Freedom Act, which provides that the secretary of state, with the assistance of the ambassador-at-large, will report information on human rights with respect to matters involving international religious freedom. Previous ambassadors were Robert Seiple and John Hanford, a nephew of Elizabeth Hanford Dole.

Meanwhile, Cook believes all her life has prepared her for this moment.

"I have been blessed," Cook said.

"Now I am ready to go out and bless the world."

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