Obama Admin. Aims For Religious Freedom Worldwide

Rev. Suzan Johnson-Cook was recently sworn in as the Obama administration's Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. Rev. She has been a leading voice of faith in NYC, ministering to the city's police officers to Wall Street financial wizards. Johnson-Cook's new post will take her around the world to monitor the state of religious freedom on an international scale. Host Michel Martin speaks with Johnson-Cook about her duties.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: And now it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith of spirituality. Today we hear from the Reverend Suzan Johnson Cook, who was recently sworn in as the Obama administration's ambassador at large for International Religious Freedom.

Suzan Johnson Cook has been a leading voice of faith in New York City. She founded the Bronx Christian Fellowship Baptist Church in 1996. She's ministered to everybody from members of the New York City Police Department to the financial wizards on Wall Street. Reverend Suzan Johnson Cook's new post will take her out of the Big Apple and around the world to monitor the state of religious freedom.

And when I caught up with her recently, I asked, what exactly were the duties of the ambassador at large for International Religious Freedom.

SUZAN JOHNSON COOK: Well, thank you for asking. In 1998, under President Clinton, the IRF Act, or International Religious Freedom Act, was signed. And it is to report to the secretary of State and the president of the United States monitoring religious freedom all over the world. Promoting religious freedom and really reporting back to the president and the secretary on the state of affairs.

MARTIN: Why did you want to do this job?

COOK: You know, our own Constitution gives people the right to freely believe or not believe. In many places around the world there are people who cannot do that. As a faith leader, particularly as a female coming into it and as an African-American, our own roots here, you know, we're born into religious persecution.

So I think I grew up knowing what it felt like not to be included in. But also being very clear on how you become victorious over that. And so I worked, clearly, with a lot of faith leaders, particularly women around the world, who could not get in some because of their gender, some because of their faith. And, really, that was kind of the birthing of my interest in it. Helping people who could not have a voice begin to have a voice.

And so I began to see that this was part of my life's mission. I come from a political as well as a faith family. I was born into a Christian household. My brother was the first African-American assemblyman in the Bronx, New York, where we lived. And so I grew up with, you know, persons who were in national leadership in our living room having conversations over fried chicken on my mother's table. And so I think it really was the right fit for me. I believe that I was prepared for this moment.

MARTIN: People who follow politics nationally will, I think, remember the president's initiative on race. You know, people look at that and they think, those are well meaning. But what do they really accomplish? And somebody might look at a role like yours and say, well, that's fine. But what can you really accomplish? Particularly given that, let's just put it this way, you know, allies of the United States like Saudi Arabia, don't practice religious freedom in the way that we understand and yet we continue to have political relationships with them.

We have significant economic and trade ties with the People's Republic of China, but they don't practice religious freedom in the way that we consider appropriate. So I think the question many people would ask is what can you really do in a job like that?

COOK: Yeah, let me comment on the first part of it. I think President Clinton, when he started the race initiative, the question was, what kind of America will we be in the 21st century? And what he was putting on the table really was, you know, we're pluralistic now. We're a very diverse nation. And the globe is changing.

As your segment says, faith does matter. And so I think what we're trying to do is have a faith approach to some very real issues that are global. And I think people have not had a hands-on, frontline experience before. And so what they will see now is a face of religious freedom. You're going to see a woman who's on the move. Moving forward strategically, but also with faith and in faith and with a president who cares and a secretary of State who cares.

So I am serving because I believe that there's a connection in the spirit, number one. And I also believe that this is a man who's time - for such a time as this. So I think the two, you know, converge. And I think that's what we do. We can accomplish something with faith and we strategically will have a plan in place which we will announce.

MARTIN: No, I understand that, but I also say that there are strategic and global partners of the United States who don't share the United States' perspective on religious freedom. And so the question I would have is is that is it your intention to elevate the role of religious freedom as part of our international priority?

COOK: The tools are available to me is certainly promote religious freedom, diplomatically - public diplomacy, meaning being in places where, really, I'm the poster child of religious freedom. And to elevate it. Clearly to elevate it. And where there are no allies, they're, on the flip side of it, is that there allies. And so what to begin to do is you work with the allies that we have as partners and then you begin with diplomacy where there are pragmatic openings, begin to sit down and strategically plan to see if there could be partnerships where there have not been in the past.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're having our having our weekly Faith Matters conversation with the Reverend Suzan Johnson Cook. She is now the Obama administration's new ambassador at large for International Religious Freedom.

One of your interesting roles has been as one of the chaplains of the New York City Police Department. And I'm fascinated by this. In the spirit of full disclosure, I do come from a police family. There are, like, six members of my family who are members of the NYPD at some point.

COOK: Yeah, I had some in mine. Totally. And I miss - I was with them for 21 years.

MARTIN: What I was - you were with - that was my question. You were with them for 21 years. And of course you know that the tension between minority communities and the police department has been a long-standing theme, you know, there. And as a person who comes from the Bronx, comes from a minority background, you're African-American and you know that, you know, African-Americans and Latinos have had grievances about that department, feeling that they perhaps are treated roughly and poorly.

Sometimes that their civil rights and their dignity have not always been observed in the quest to, you know, make New York City a safer place. And I'm just interested in how you mediated those roles as both a chaplain of the police department, as a person who spoke the truth of your sometimes beleaguered community. How did you manage that?

COOK: You're kind of taking me to a chapter that's been closed. But what I can say, the village of Harlem actually gave me a sendoff in terms of commending me to Washington and commending me to my new position. The police commissioner came and stayed for the entire time. There's been a relationship for 21 years. I've been over four different commissioners and this one, Police Commissioner Kelly and myself have a relationship.

I think that, you know, Reverend Al Sharpton and I had this conversation once before. You need people from all sides of the world. You need some who are outside, who are the activists. You need some who are inside. When you have a department that's 50,000 people strong, you're going to also have minorities within the department. Everyone needs someone at the table who represents their culture and their concerns.

There have been many times when the mayor, the commissioner have called me in. I know when 9/11 happened - and this is the 10th anniversary year - I was the only pastor down - we were having a lunchtime service down the block from where the World Trade Center stood. And for the next six months following that tragic event, I became a pastor not only for the police department, but for that entire city.

There were 9/11 workers who had been on the phone. Many who look like you or myself who had been on the phone with people as they were calling for help, crying for help and then eventually dying. Nobody was there to minister to them except here I was in that position.

So I think you look at the opportunities that have been open and where you have been placed by God and by the Almighty. And I believe that I filled a void then and I hope that I will fill a void in my new role. And I think we open new chapters and we say, thank God for having me had that chapter in my life. It was a great one. I hope that I will bless the world and I will make a difference.

MARTIN: And how will you know when you have succeeded in this role?

COOK: Well, sometimes history will dictate that, you know. Sometimes we don't get the answers until way down the line. But if I can sleep at night knowing that I have done the best I can for that particular day or for that particular time, then that is a sign for me that I - it is well with my soul.

The prayer that many of us pray as Christians, the part of it is, Lord, give us this day our daily bread. So each day I awake and I ask God to use me for that day in the best way that God kind and that I might make a difference for the people whose lives I touch and who touch mine.

MARTIN: The Reverend Suzan Johnson Cook is the new ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom for the Obama administration. And she was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Ambassador, Reverend Johnson Cook, thank you so much for joining us.

COOK: Thank you. You were kind enough to have me. Thank you so much.

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