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BY Marissa Maier | Even before September 11, 2001, Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook was accustomed to challenges. At the time, the Baptist minister led a congregation in the Bronx and a popular lunchtime sermon series in the Wall Street area. She tackled issues of tolerance on President William Clinton’s Initiative on Race. She served as the first female chaplain of the New York City Police Department.
Today, as Dr. Cook prepares to move to Washington, D.C. – she was recently confirmed by the Senate to be the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom – she recalls that few of her accomplishments had prepared her for 9/11.
“It was my first experience in trauma response. We had never had war on these shores before,” Dr. Cook said. “It put me into a new gear as a faith leader. Because of the seriousness of the task, I could not stop. I could not break down.”
She remembers that day in a series of mental snapshots. Her recollections depict a world of unimaginable chaos and sorrow. Dr. Cook was dispatched to the debris site by the Police Department at 10 p.m. that evening to console emergency workers.
“I remember it had been a beautiful day that morning. It was an Indian summer and I still had my sandals on. I was walking through what looked like six inches of gray snow,” Dr. Cook recounted. “On the corner of a street there was a fruit cart. It looked suspended in time. The grapes, the oranges and the grapefruits looked like a painting outlined in gray.
“My first visual was looking up [at the wreckage] at a building I knew had been hundreds of stories tall. I saw the flames still burning and it smelled of death,” she continued.
Dr. Cook glimpsed a firefighter sitting down in the street, overcome by fatigue, and was compelled to walk over to him.
“He was Irish and Catholic, but I looked at him and asked ‘do you want to pray?’ and he grabbed me and we prayed together,” she said.
In the following three to four weeks, Dr. Cook spent most of the day at Ground Zero. Occasionally, she was called to the temporary morgues set up on the piers on the West Side to support families identifying a relative. She recalled that most people weren’t examining bodies but only body parts. This new schedule was punctuated by 60 days of consecutive funeral services for members of the Police and Fire Departments.
While her life was consumed by the pain of others, Dr. Cook maintained a calm exterior. “In ministry we say never let them see your expression,” Dr. Cook noted.
Over time, her stoicism begun to crack. One day as she was driving down the Bronx River Parkway, Dr. Cook became overcome with emotion.
“I pulled onto the shoulder and I had my first real cry. I needed a place to exhale,” she remembered.
For Dr. Cook, 9/11 remains a professional and personal turning point. It reenforced her belief in crossing religious boundaries and it illuminated the power of touch in times of crisis.
“It was at that time I began to understand the ministry of presence when you say nothing but offer your presence. Whether it was the hug I gave a family down at police headquarters [where a loved one was missing] or the embrace I gave that Irish firefighter,” Dr. Cook noted.
She witnessed the restorative power of physical contact at the first lunchtime sermon she delivered at the John Street United Methodist Church. These weekly masses were dubbed “Wonderful Wall Street Wednesdays.” The church was a few blocks from where the World Trade Center towers had stood.
Her congregation reconvened on Sept. 19, 2001. While her parish didn’t directly lose any members, many of her churchgoers were traumatized. Dr. Cook noted that some recalled stories of running out of their office buildings to see bodies falling from the sky.
“The John Street church became a sanctuary. At the first service after 9/11, everyone’s eyes were the size of silver dollars,” Dr. Cook recalled. “Everyone wanted a hug and we prayed together.”
“I have seen the power of touch,” she continued. “For every phase of my life from pastoring in the Bronx and as I prepare to go to Washington, I question, ‘have I touched someone today and have I made a difference?’”
Dr. Cook has returned to Ground Zero each September 11th for the past nine years. She prays with the families who still cry in mourning. As a newly appointed ambassador under the Department of State, her leadership will decide whether she attends the 10th anniversary of 9/11, which President Obama is slated to observe in New York City.
“I don’t know what the tenth will be like,” Dr. Cook noted. “If I am needed and if the State Department wants me to participate, I will be there.”