Gordon Cosby, the legendary founder of the Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C., whose 60-year ministry inspired and instructed countless others, including the Memphis School of Servant Leadership and Caritas Village, early this morning. He was 95.
Cosby, who has spent the past few months in hospice care, died quietly in the presence of his wife, Mary. Church associates sent this email today to Cosby’s extended family of faith:
It is with great joy, as well as sadness, that we convey to you the word that at 4:15 this morning–on the first day of spring–our beloved brother in Christ, Gordon Cosby, quietly slipped into the fullness of God’s Realm. Mary was sleeping beside him and continues to be a pillar of spiritual strength.
Our hearts are full.
This evening those of us who are able and wish to do so are welcome to drop by the Potter’s House–just to share love with each other and to thank God for giving us such a one as Gordon. An informal time of sharing will begin at 6:30 p.m.
The actual memorial service will be held sometime after Easter, and we will let you know as soon as those details become clear.
Your presence and love are deeply felt during these extraordinary days.
With grateful hearts,
Kayla and Becca
In a 1997 interview with Gordon and Mary Cosby, progressive evangelical leader Jim Wallis wrote that Church of the Saviour “has had more influence around the country than any other church I know about.”
Gordon and Mary Cosby — who met when he was 15 and she was 10 — founded Church of the Savior, an ecumenical Christian community, with seven other people in 1947.
“From the beginning, church members sought to embody Christ in intentional and sacrificial ways, welcoming radical diversity and calling all to be ministers through the generous sacrifice of time, energy and resources,” its says on the church’s website.
“Interpreting the call to discipleship as the integration of two journeys in community–an inward journey to grow in love of God, self and others and an outward journey to help mend some part of creation–the church became the catalyst for numerous helping ministries primarily in Adams Morgan, a neighborhood two miles north of the White House.”
In 1994, Church of the Savior became a group of “scattered communities,” in effect nine congregations each focused on a particular mission.
“We want to care about the people Jesus cared about, the least of these, and give them a chance,” Gordon Cosby said in an interview five years ago at Baylor University. “Say we are Christians, and Jesus taught us to pray that God would bring to earth that which is in heaven. What do we want to see when we claim this as a city of love based on what God is doing?
What would it look like if the Kingdom comes on earth as in heaven?”
In the church’s early years, there was talked of starting a “people’s seminary” modeled after Dietrich Bonhoerrer’s “underground seminary.” The idea was to develop urban ministry leaders. In the fall of 1986, the first “servant leadership” class was offered at Christ House, a medical recovery center for the homeless.
The Church of the Savior’s School of Christian Living inspired similar schools across the country, including one in Memphis, which was started in 1997 by an ecumenical group of lay and clergy leaders. The school offers about eight free classes each semester. Hundreds of people from dozens of congregations have participated.
“In 1999, I was introduced to the concept of Servant Leadership,” said Dr. Andre Johnson, professor at Memphis Theological Seminary and founding pastor of Gifts of Life Ministries. “It was a concept that fascinated me back then as it still does today. Part of that introduction was also hearing and eventually meeting Gordon Cosby, who served as pastor of the Church of the Savior. What fascinated me about this was that while the church of the Savior never had at any one time more than 200 members, through mission groups, it was directly responsible for many ministries that literally helped transformed the Adams Morgan Neighborhood in Washington DC. When I visited and began to hear the stories, I soon discovered that Gordon grounded his ministry in the inward and outward journeys; principles that I learned from servant leadership.
“Thus, when it was time for us to plant our church in 2002, we build it on these principles. We have been working and developing this idea of a called centered, mission group oriented, servant leadership church since then and I have shared this with other students at Memphis Theological Seminary with immersion trips to Washington. On our last visit to Washington, we did have an opportunity to speak with Gordon Cosby in one of the ministries started out of the church of the Savior; the Potter’s House, a coffee shop and restaurant He encouraged us to continue to listen and learn from those on the margins and to take them seriously. He had to cut our conversation short because he was on his way, at 95 years of age, to a mission group meeting; dreaming of new possibilities.
“Gordon Cosby is an inspiration, innovator, instructor, but most of all servant, who listened, learned and loved. He will be sorely missed. ”
Here are some excerpts from Washington Post’s religion reporter Michelle Boorstein’s profile of Cosby in January 2005, a few days after he delivered his final sermon.
“Thousands of people are served by dozens of organizations started by the church, part of the intense social justice work mandatory for members. One of its programs found jobs for 800 people last year. Another provided 325 units of affordable housing. There’s Columbia Road Health Services. Christ House medical services for the homeless. Miriam’s House for women with AIDS. And on and on.
“Cosby, who has been preaching since he was a 15-year-old in Lynchburg (Va.), was raised Southern Baptist in southern Virginia. He went into the seminary and then became an Army chaplain in Europe in World War II, an experience that reshaped his faith perspective. He said he came back feeling that denomination and race were artificial constructs and that people should live in regular life as they would in war–willing to lay down their lives for their neighbors, viewing their faith as an urgent tool to change the world.
“He and his wife, Mary, began to craft an unusual church structure: Members had to commit to an inward journey of daily quiet prayer, meditation and courses on Christianity as well as an outward journey of social justice work. People would be held accountable by working in small groups.
“Cosby has pressed for the church to break into small faith “communities” with their own social justice goals and worship services, an unorthodox structure the church believes leads to more creativity, intimacy and accountability.