Gordon Cosby’s Jesus

Years ago when I was trying to figure out how to be a faithful and effective pastor in the city … Continued

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.

About

  • JMTDC

    A great servant, a humble man, a tremendously helpful presence in DC and beyond. I’m very grateful that the Lord got ahold of Gordon Cosby in this life and that Gordon took the Lord so seriously. My condolences to his wife, the Church of the Saviour community, and all of us.

  • Daavviidd

    I’ve often wondered how many truly enlightened, Christ-like, or Bodhisattva-like people are wandering amongst us, without most of us ever knowing. I believe Gordon Cosby was one of those – transcending religiosity and self…truly living a life to serve others. He will be missed.

  • cgorman1428

    FYI–Church of the Saviour, not Savior

Read More Articles

Valle Header Art
My Life Depended on the Very Act of Writing

How I was saved by writing about God and cancer.

shutterstock_188545496
Sociologist: Religion Can Predict Sexual Behavior

“Religion and sex are tracking each other like never before,” says sociologist Mark Regnerus.

5783999789_9d06e5d7df_b
The Internet Is Not Killing Religion. So What Is?

Why is religion in decline in the modern world? And what can save it?

river dusk
Cleaner, Lighter, Closer

What’s a fella got to do to be baptized?

shutterstock_188022491
Magical Thinking and the Canonization of Two Popes

Why Pope Francis is canonizing two popes for all of the world wide web to see.

987_00
An Ayatollah’s Gift to Baha’is, Iran’s Largest Religious Minority

An ayatollah offers a beautiful symbolic gesture against a backdrop of violent persecution.

Screenshot 2014-04-23 11.40.54
Atheists Bad, Christians Good: A Review of “God’s Not Dead”

A smug Christian movie about smug atheists leads to an inevitable happy ending.

shutterstock_134310734
Ten Ways to Make Your Church Autism-Friendly

The author of the Church of England’s autism guidelines shares advice any church can follow.

Pile_of_trash_2
Pope Francis: Stop the Culture of Waste

What is the human cost of our tendency to throw away?

chapel door
“Sometimes You Find Something Quiet and Holy”: A New York Story

In a hidden, underground sanctuary, we were all together for a few minutes in this sweet and holy mystery.

shutterstock_178468880
Mary Magdalene, the Closest Friend of Jesus

She’s been ignored, dismissed, and misunderstood. But the story of Easter makes it clear that Mary was Jesus’ most faithful friend.

sunset-hair
From Passover to Easter: Why I’m Grateful to be Jewish, Christian, and Alive

Passover with friends. Easter with family. It’s almost enough to make you believe in God.

colbert
Top 10 Reasons We’re Glad A Catholic Colbert Is Taking Over Letterman’s “Late Show”

How might we love Stephen Colbert as the “Late Show” host? Let us count the ways.

emptytomb
God’s Not Dead? Why the Good News Is Better than That

The resurrection of Jesus is not a matter of private faith — it’s a proclamation for the whole world.

shutterstock_186795503
The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

egg.jpg
Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.