Until now, the closest event to a religious service hosted on the heralded stage may have been the funeral for James Brown. “It was inevitable that church would come to the Apollo,” said Nina Flowers, a spokeswoman for the Apollo.
To Dr. Cook, it is the season for change.
“It’s an idea whose time has come, just like our new president,” she said.
Known to many as Dr. Sujay, Dr. Cook was the first woman appointed chaplain of the New York City Police Department, the only religious leader appointed to President Bill Clinton’s Initiative on Race and the first black woman to be elected a senior pastor in the 200-year history of the American Baptist Church.
“She’s on the cutting edge of prophetic ministry,” the Rev. Johnnie G. McCann of St. Luke’s Baptist Church of Harlem told a congregation at the John Street United Methodist Church on Wednesday, where Dr. Cook has led “Wonderful Wall Street Wednesdays” services since 2001.
Her ministry combined an energetic punch and an elegant poise. At a recent Wall Street Wednesday service, chords trickled from the piano, the choir broke into another refrain, and syncopated claps from the crowd broke free of cadence as they swelled into a clamor, roaring through Dr. Cook’s encouragement: “We need to turn our 401(k)’s into 401(j)’s!” she said, with an emphasis on the “j,” for Jesus.
“People need spiritual translation — other than the King James Bible — that applies to their realities,” said Dr. Cook, who was an adviser to President-elect Barack Obama’s campaign. “Twenty-first century ministry has to have the same ‘change’ and relevancy that Obama’s campaign had. Both our finances and our faith need revival.”
To that end, Dr. Cook will host her hourlong services with no dress codes and no liturgical expectations in the Apollo, a celebrated New York landmark that has survived hardships of all kinds, including the 1968 riots and its own bankruptcy.
“Let us thank Dr. Sujay for bringing God into the Apollo Theater,” said Representative Charles B. Rangel, addressing the crowd on Sunday. “Although these are hard economic times, we have hope and prayer to keep us on.”
In the last five years, Harlem has seen a surge of private investment from firms like A.I.G. and Lehman Brothers, but the recent recession has had a serious impact, affecting even the Apollo’s long-running Amateur Night, a program that, while not in jeopardy, is currently sponsored in part by the failed Washington Mutual bank. And the tightening credit market has wounded brownstone makeovers in the neighborhood and small business openings along 125th Street.
The services on Sunday were a way for Harlem to help itself; some of the proceeds went to the Multi-Ethnic Youth Center, which is run by the Bronx Christian Fellowship Baptist Church, where Dr. Cook is the pastor. Future services will be offered free on Sundays at 11 a.m. through the spring at the theater on West 125th Street.