Remembering Gordon Cosby (1917-2013)

At 4:15am this morning, Church of the Savior co-founder and life-long servant leader Gordon Cosby died in Washington, D.C. He was 95 years old. Just over a year ago, I had the chance to visit with Gordon at Christ House, a hospice he helped to found for the homeless. I’m glad to share this account of our time together as we celebrate his life today. 

On Columbia Road in DC’s Adam’s Morgan neighborhood, a couple of homeless men sit on park benches in front of a building marked “Christ House.” They are at home here outside a four-storey building named for the Christ who said the birds of the air had nests, but he didn’t have a place to lay his head. When the homeless in DC get cancer or break a bone, they know they have a home here.

Christ House is a ministry of Church of the Savior, a church that started in this neighborhood in the 1940’s. Committed to radical discipleship and social engagement—the “inward journey and the outward journey”—Church of the Savior became well known for holistic mission while most American Christians were still divided between a commitment to the “social gospel” and an emphasis on personal salvation.

By any assessment, the Church of the Savior’s ministry over the past sixty years has had an influence disproportionate to the relatively small size of its membership. In 2008 alone, 800 people found jobs and 325 new housing units were built through its work in Washington, D.C. The founder of Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) and a moderator of the Reformed Church in America have been raised up from among this flock. Progressive evangelical leader Jim Wallis wrote in 1997 that Church of the Savior “has had more influence around the country than any other church I know about.” Like the trees in the book of Revelation that bear fruit in every season, this community of faith has grown into the abundance of divine fertility.

On a bright and cold winter afternoon, I press the buzzer outside the door at Christ House and one of the residents invites me in. On the fourth floor of this residential hospice for the homeless, Church of the Savior’s founder, Gordon Cosby, shares a room with his wife, Mary. At ninety-four, he leans on a walker to cross the hall to a small chapel. “I’ve got an hour and a half,” he says. “How much time do you have?”

I feel like a pilgrim in the ancient Egyptian desert, come to the cell of a living saint to ask for a word. I’ve come with other members of the Rutba House community, and we all introduce ourselves. “What is your community doing?” the abba asks, and I try to explain in a sentence or two. “Is Jesus Christ at the center of your project?” he asks. A simple “yes” is enough. He nods his affirmation. We share a foundation from which to begin.

“What’s important,” Cosby says, “is to know what you don’t know.” He talks about being old and having to meet new doctors all the time. “I have to make sure they know what they don’t know,” he says with a sparkle in his eye. Then he tells a story.

“Several years ago, I was trying to figure out what the next step was for us here at Church of the Savior. Mary and I went on retreat to the Iona community in Scotland, and we had a wonderful time. I was so impressed by our visit that I came home and started reading a book by one of their leaders. I said to myself, ‘This is the book that’s going to tell me what our next step should be.’ When I got half-way through the book, I knew I had the right one. I couldn’t wait to get to the end and have the answer. But when I got to the last page, I still wasn’t sure just what to do. There was an asterix there after the last sentence. I looked to the bottom of the page, and it said, ‘To see more of what this looks like in practice, visit the Church of the Savior in Washington, DC.’”

He laughs out loud at a story he’s no doubt told a thousand times. He’s glad to see us laughing, too. But then he stops, dead serious, and stares us down. “God’s not going to tell someone else what he wants you to do next. Make sure you’re listening for yourselves.”

For his own part, Cosby says that he’s been thinking about Bartimaeus, whom Jesus healed from blindness. “I keep seeing how blind I’ve been,” he says. “I’m asking the Lord to heal my blindness. Here at 94, I want to be healed. I want to see.”

“If you were thirty years younger,” one of our members asks, “what would you do now?” He laughs. “I’d have to be fifty years younger to be where you are,” he says to his middle-aged African-American interlocutor.

Then, once again, he’s dead serious: “I’d pray for the rich. And I’d try to get to know them. I haven’t done enough to tell them the truth. And I haven’t prayed for them.”

Cosby doesn’t know much about this man, but he sees him—sees the story that’s written in his skin, his voice, his eyes. Cosby isn’t only talking about himself. He’s speaking to this one who was asking for his own sake. “You go back to Durham and try to find out who the richest ten people in town are. Start praying for them. Try to get to know a couple of them. Tell them your story. Tell them what Durham looks like to you. Be honest with them. And tell them you need their help.”

The abbas of ancient Egypt didn’t write books, and Cosby has never written one either. But the people who went out in the desert to hear a word all those years ago came back telling everyone who’d listen what they couldn’t forget. And so we have the collections of their wisdom in sayings. And so we pass them on.

  • Judith K. Barr

    The work of Gordon Cosby and Christ House changed my life. Thank you for this well-written tribute to him.

  • Loretta F Ross

    Thank you so much. We are all so blessed by this man and those whose lives he touched.

  • Rod

    Hi Jonathan. Someone tweeted your blog. It is good to remember Gordon Cosby! Thanks. One of my first stops when I came east was at a Church of the Savior sponsored meeting. I had been deeply inlfuenced by his book: Handbook for Mission Groups. I’m still working out aspects of what he taught me.

  • Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

    grateful for these tributes to a man whose life clearly touched many.

  • George Cresswell

    Thank you for this beautiful tribute. Gordon Cosby blessed me ever year of my 64-year life. His example leads to ever deepening commitment to those who need Christ the most. I thank God for Gordon’s presence, even now!!

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  • Brantley Gasaway

    Thanks for this story, Jonathan. I always enjoyed reading his contributions to the Post-American and old Sojourners issues.

  • Aeren Martinez

    Thank you for this wonderful tribute. I lived in DC for a while and I was touched by the simple truth in Gordon’s words. I wrote to friends at Seekers Church early this morning my reflections on Gordon.

    I met Gordon for the first time at a fundraiser for Family Place back in 2004 or 5 as he gave a wonderful testimony to Anne Barnett who was being honored for her work at Family Place. The thing that struck
    me most and has stayed with me all these years was when he spoke of how easy we all fall into the trap of believing that the things that are around us are ours. Ours for the taking, ours for the using, ours
    for the keeping. This mentally of mine, mine, mine must be broken. We are only caretakers of this world, it does not “belong” to us. The ability to work and earn a living does not mean you are entitled to
    keep all you earn. It means you have the ability and responsibility to do for those who can not work.

    Gordon’s words struck a cord in me and have stayed with me. As I saw him living his life in DC I was in awe of him and yet I suspect if I ever said that to him he’d say don’t be in awe, just do something. I’ve been trying to live into that thought ever since.

  • Norm

    My grandfather Bill Price, who was also part of the Church, spoke of him often and fondly. Clearly Gordon had a profound effect on him, as he did on so many other people.

  • Matthew

    I had no idea that this ministry even existed. Once again your blogspot has taught me something :-)!

  • Steve

    A truly amazing minister with such a heart and so many gifts, and an amazing family whose brothers Bev and PG in Lynchburg, VA were also doing amazing ministry. Gordon will be missed here. But so many seeds he has planted that God keeps raising up.

  • Chris Simes

    I went to a “come and see” weekend at the Church of the Saviour in late 1999. My church was looking at a new way to do mission, and we went to learn of their “mission group model” and how they did “servant leadership” (Jesus-centered, not the business-school junk that ended up taking over that phase). The things I learned have guided my journey ever since.

    After we had toured the many multi-million dollar ministries this little 200-member church had spawned, all centered around the very poor in DC, Gordon came to speak to the group that evening. He looked at us all, silently but kindly, for several moments before speaking. Then he said “You are very brave for coming here today. It is very difficult to follow Christ in America today, and it takes great courage.” He was right as rain, and I always thought of him as a prophet- but a warm, grandfatherly prophet with a spine of steel. Well done, good servant. There was one hell of a party in heaven when he rolled in!

  • Meade Jones

    Thank you Jonathan for your blog post. Those reading it will also enjoy this blog post by and insider, Ellen Painter Dollar who was with me a member at Potter’s House Church during the 90′s

    While I left for a couple of years, I came back intentionally to raise my children in this rich, diverse, spiritually expansive environment nurtured by the community known to most as the Church of the Saviour but to many of us as organic, messy, crossing lines of denomination, race, class, mental abilities, age, political party (though we have lost many a Republican over the last decade)

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    Thanksgiving abounds for Gordon and Mary Cosby!
    Anyone who’s knows them is rich indeed.

  • Mary Lee Barker

    Thanks be to God for Gordon and Mary! In 1964, at 32, my first class was with Gordon. “Listen to your dreams. Follow each one with a real commitment and you will find God’s Way for you.” Tears for Gordon’s passing, gratitude for his life, his hope and faith. Gratitude for his imprint on my life.
    Thank you for this fine article which makes visible the reality of his 95 year old presence.

  • cliff booker

    God Bless Gordon,
    A man who truly talked the talk and walked the walk …….with GOD !

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