Gordon: A Lasting Impact

On the first day of spring this year an old man died in Washington, D.C. Old men die in the city every day, but this one died in a hospice for the homeless. Ninety-five years of age, he actually was known and respected in many places. But there were no reporters or cameras present at his passing. He slept away quietly with Mary, his wife of seventy years, at his bedside, at home among the formerly homeless.

The Reverend Gordon Cosby was the founding pastor of the capital’s Church of the Saviour. His leadership there was so significant that in 2009 the Washington Post published a front-page tribute to the man. More recently it was said, “He never wrote a book, went on television, talked to presidents, planted more churches, built national movements, or traveled around the world. He just inspired everybody else to do all those things and much more.” And he didn’t want to be called reverend or pastor. Soft-spoken but forceful, he was just Gordon.

Cosby served as a military chaplain in World War II. For his bravery on Utah Beach in the D-day invasion of 1944 he received the Silver Star award. But he returned home convinced that American Christianity had failed to prepare its adherents for life’s greatest challenges. He determined to start a church that would address that failure by being truer to Jesus’ gospel.

From its founding in 1946 the Church of the Saviour became one of the first congregations in segregated Washington to welcome African Americans into membership and also leadership. Women were given unprecedented opportunity to lead in this fellowship of “extraordinarily committed people” which met in a brownstone house in an iffy neighborhood.

Persons seeking membership had to complete two years of rigorous study capped by writing a personal statement of belief and a commitment to tithe. The church purchased a farm for use as a retreat center where urbanites could get in touch with soil and silence. Cosby believed that in contemplation we catch a vision not only of what is, but of what can be. Members therefore were expected to participate in mission groups, each of which strategized on a Spirit-inspired project for healing the wounds of society. As one friend put it, “He was totally focused on figuring out how to make the world more like the kind of world Jesus talked about.”

This approach went public when writer Elizabeth O’Connor, a member of the church, produced Call to Commitment and Journey Inward, Journey Outward. Those titles summed up the ministry of Cosby and the congregation. Their first project was Potter’s House, said to be the nation’s first Christian coffeehouse. It was meant to be a place where sacred and secular, rich and poor could meet. Gordon might be found waiting table or washing dishes.

Next came FLOC (For Love of Children). Its mission: keep together siblings who were in foster care and shut down Junior Village, the municipal “home” for 900 children. My wife was a FLOC volunteer. One afternoon a week she cared for four infants and toddlers so their fulltime Church of the Saviour caregivers could do personal shopping, see the doctor, or get their hair done. It took eight arduous years, but FLOC finally secured the closing of Junior Village.

Today about forty such missions exist in Washington, D.C., because of Gordon Cosby’s leadership. It has been said that he was missional long before being missional was cool. But labels, trends, and honors held no interest for him. He was pursuing Christian commitment, faithfulness, and integrity. And when he died on March 20, tributes to his ministry arrived from leaders such as Tony Campolo, Marian Wright Edelman, Brian McLaren, and Jim Wallis.

On the journey inward Cosby drilled deep to find living water for the marketplace that was his city. On the journey outward he empowered others to offer it in a staggering variety of ways. Some called him a rebel; others, the most influential leader you likely never heard of. In truth he was just Gordon, bringing Jesus where he could in the best way he could.

Photo Courtesy of Church of the Saviour

About the Author
  Jerry Flora, Ph.D.

Dr. Jerry Flora is well-known for teaching with academic vigor and pastoral sensitivity. His genuine care for others is always evident, as he dispenses the gentle encouragement and wisdom of a pastor who has seen many faces and seasons of ministry. Dr. Flora taught for many years at Ashland Theological Seminary and is now Professor Emeritus of Theology & Spiritual Formation.