This is the seventh in a series celebrating Kwanzaa, a nonreligious holiday celebrating African-American heritage, pride, community, family and culture. Each day we profile a person or family who exemplifies one of Kwanzaa’s seven guiding principles.

SHEILA COOK had been on the fast track in her Bell System job in Michigan but, she says, “that wasn’t to be. I was guided very gently and not so gently.” God was telling her, “I wanted you to do more, I want you to do this.’ When everything came together, I couldn’t argue.”

Imani or faith is the last Kwanzaa principle, and one that Cook had to have a lot of when God guided her into the ministry. It was, she says, “a gradual process of studying in the ministry to improve my life and the life of my children.”

Although her children, “four by birth, one by spirit,” are fully grown now, Cook continues the work she started more than 10 years ago. She has been a pastor at the Unity Church of Richmond since she moved from her previous Minneapolis congregation just two months before the Loma Prieta earthquake struck. Staying in the East Bay after that temblor, Cook notes, required another act of faith, but she stuck it out.

Part of her holiday sermons have included speaking about the principles of Kwanzaa. Cook first became acquainted with the holiday by reading newspaper articles about it when she was living in Detroit during the ’70s. While she appreciated its noncommercial aspect, she didn’t pursue the subject until she began her ministry work in a Minneapolis church. Someone in the congregation had invited her to a Kwanzaa celebration, as a means to meet more of the African-American community.

“It was really a family-oriented activity, and that impressed me a great deal,” Cook recalls. After moving to Richmond, Cook met a fellow pastor who conducted Kwanzaa ceremonies. “That was the first time I had seen it done at a church,” she says. “But the principles fit, the spiritual principles. I thought it was a nice idea.”

Cook liked it so much that she helped organize the shared Kwanzaa celebration among the local churches; each church would take a day and speak about its theme. While this year there is no rotation, the shared celebration will likely resume next year.

The path she has followed has brought her great joy. “Ninety-nine percent of the time I love it, the other one percent I like it.” That doesn’t mean the process didn’t involve questioning her role in the church. “Why am I in the ministry?'” she asked herself.

The answer came from having unshakable faith. That trust doesn’t preclude the active responsibility of listening to God and follow his guidance. What it does mean, to Cook, is trusting in the goodness and love of her creator.

“For me, it means that I don’t have to do this alone, that I’m never alone,” she says. “Out of that love, the best is going to happen for me and everyone else.”

Today, Cook will speak about imani in her sermon. The principle cuts across ideologies, and she feels it’s an important message for people to hear this first day of the new year. Besides, Cook laughs, “I’m a wonderful person to start the year with.”

The principles

of Kwanzaa

Sunday: Unity

Monday: Self-determination

Tuesday: Collective work and responsibility

Wednesday: Cooperative economics

Thursday: Purpose

Thursday: Creativity

Saturday: Faith

Series Name: Celebrating Kwanzaa Series