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Years ago when I was trying to figure out how to be a faithful and effective pastor in the city where I served at the time, I traveled to Washington, D.C., more than once to spend an hour or two talking to Gordon Cosby, who died this week.
Many of us did. We were young and middle-aged pastors trying to figure out how our congregations could make a real impact on the poverty that surrounded us in our cities. We were trying to figure out how our congregations’ religious lives could be spiritually profound, intellectually credible, and engaged effectively in ministries of compassion and justice, like the Church of the Savior that Gordon and his wife Mary had begun in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington when it was one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city.
We came to learn from Gordon but we also hoped to be infused with some of his determination and passion as we struggled not to be overwhelmed by what often felt like hopeless situations in our urban neighborhoods.
In all the years that Gordon and the Church of the Savior have been an inspiration and sign of hope for me and many others, I have never once heard Gordon referred to as reverend, an honorific the rest of us seem unable to avoid. I don’t know if this is because he eschewed the term or because people just sensed that Gordon was different from most of the rest of us. It is not just that he did not care about the officious and purely ceremonial aspects of institutional religion; he did not have time or space in his life for any of it. He was totally focused on figuring out how to make the world more like the kind of world Jesus talked about.
Gordon was absolutely Christian. He was focused on Jesus and sought to live deeply in Christ. I once asked him if his intense focus on Christ did not get in the way of interfaith conversation and respect. He told me that it was his experience that those who went most deeply into their own religion’s truths seemed to understand each other and communicate with each other best. He was profoundly and distinctively Christian without an ounce of parochialism.
Under Gordon’s leadership, the Church of the Savior birthed numerous ministries and nonprofit organizations. One web page lists 39 independent ministries still functioning that were begun out of the Church of the Savior. Something about Gordon’s passion, his willingness to take risks, his determination to do something rather than nothing about the wrongs of our society, his always wanting to figure out how to do it more effectively and in more Christ-like ways, his doggedness to get past symptoms to the heart of the matter – all this inspired others to step out and give themselves wholeheartedly to the passion calling them.
Just as important as the services organizations like Christ House, Jubilee Housing, Jubilee Jobs, the Servant Leadership School, and all the others provide, is what happened to the lives of the people of the Church of the Savior who left behind successful and sometimes lucrative careers to give themselves to lives of sacrifice and service on behalf of a vision of a just and compassionate city. Sometimes the Church of the Savior under Gordon’s leadership seemed to me the Protestant equivalent of a Catholic religious order.
Others have said that Gordon and the Church of the Savior have had a greater impact on the Protestant church in America over the past 50 years than any other institution or movement. Gordon probably never really got the credit he deserved for the impact he and the Church of the Savior have had.
Gordon just did not seem to care about credit. His concentration was totally upon applying the truth of Christ to conquer and heal poverty, racism, addiction and disease.
A decade ago when I became the pastor of a congregation here in Washington strongly influenced by Gordon’s passion for mission, I thought I might spend more time with Gordon. In the rush of life, we did not connect as much as I had hoped. The several times our paths crossed he talked about his last great passion: an effort to bring together a community of poor and affluent persons who would so live together that they would become a true community without paternalism or distinction. As always, he was seeking to get to the very heart of all that causes and sustains injustice and division.
In a time when Christians tend to be categorized as evangelical or progressive, conservative or liberal, Gordon could not easily be labelled. He was a passionate follower of Jesus. Years ago when I was visiting with Gordon, he said, with some amusement, that he had come to the conclusion that not all of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus are following the same Jesus. Some of us are following different Jesuses, he said, as though in saying it he had surprised himself.
I want to be a follower of Gordon’s Jesus.
Dean Snyder is Senior Pastor at Foundry United Methodist Church.