Remembering Gordon Cosby
March 21, 2013 By Ellen Painter Dollar, patheos
Word came to me this morning that Gordon Cosby, who founded the D.C.-based Church of the Saviour in the 1940s with his wife Mary, has died at age 95.
The Church of the Saviour was the first Christian community I found that took both Jesus and social justice seriously, emphasizing both the “inward journey” (prayer, fostering a relationship with God, taking Jesus’s identity and ministry as Son of God seriously) and the “outward journey” (sacrificial ministry with the marginalized, particularly in the inner city, asking hard questions about wealth, poverty, and how we are to live).
The Church of the Saviour is not really one church. It started that way, but because intimate community was always an emphasis, eventually the church began breaking into smaller worshiping communities. A congregation of 50 people, in C of S terms, was huge. I worshiped for nine years at the Potter’s House Church, which met on Wednesday evenings at, you guessed it, the Potter’s House—a coffee shop, book store, and gathering place on Columbia Road in D.C.’s vibrant Adams Morgan neighborhood. At the time I was there, Potter’s House was one of the church’s larger communities. We had 20-25 members, and a congregation of 40 or 50 at each service. Membership in C of S communities is a big deal. You take a number of classes, which takes a couple of years, and then agree to a set of disciplines, including a tithe and an hour a day spent in prayer/meditation/study. There are no clergy; everyone who signs on as a member is ordained.
My time at the Potter’s House changed my life and set the course for a faith that incorporates an evangelical emphasis on fostering a relationship with God through Jesus Christ and a more mainline/emergent emphasis on ministry with those who are on the margins and a constant assessing of one’s life (What is my relationship with money? Stuff? Work? Family? Neighbors? The poor? And what needs to change to bring me closer to God’s vision of the kingdom?). I drank in the emphasis on discerning one’s call, or vocation. In a Christian Growth class I took toward membership, I remember saying, “I know I love writing. I know I love New England. I know I am supposed to have children.” Wouldn’t you know? Here I am, living in Connecticut, a mother of three, a writer. The Potter’s House Church set me on that path by helping me recognize those callings. At the Potter’s House, I frequently wrote original liturgies—a passion I have several times attempted to translate to my current life as an Episcopalian, with mixed success. Episcopalians don’t always groove on people messing with their liturgies.
I also met my husband Daniel at the Potter’s House, and a core of lifelong friends. We have all gone on to other places and other faith communities, most of us landing in either the Roman Catholic Church or another mainline denomination. But the bonds are still there. The people I worshiped with at the Potter’s House will always be my people.
I didn’t know Gordon all that well. One of the C of S’s many quirks is that husbands and wives often belong to separate worshiping communities, based on a sense of where God is calling each person. Gordon’s wife, Mary, was a member of the Potter’s House Church, while Gordon worshiped elsewhere. So I knew Mary well, with her gentle Southern accent, likening the Bible’s rules and prohibitions and warnings to the signs that precede a bridge on the highway: “Bridges freeze before roadways.” Note, she remarked, that the signs aren’t telling you not to drive over the bridge. They’re just telling you the way things are, and you can decide whether to incorporate that information into your driving behavior or go sailing over the edge. The Bible is like that, she used to say. It tells us how things are. We are free to do as we wish, but as we’re flying off the edge toward a fiery crash, God has every right to say, “I told you so.”
And as you’re tumbling through space, Mary would add, “At least you know you are loved.”
At the time, Gordon and Mary lived in a sprawling, shabby-genteel home down the road from George Washington’s Mount Vernon. I spent many evenings there sharing potluck dinners and talking church and theology. Those were some of the few times I got to hear directly from Gordon. I would also occasionally go hear him preach at the Church of the Saviour’s headquarters on Massachusetts Avenue. Daniel and I still, when we’re talking about some decision to be made, will raise a fist, shake it side to side and say in a gravelly Gordon voice, “We’ve got to wrestle with it.” Wrestling with God, with the Bible, with how we are to live in this world of rich and poor, of political and economic and so many other divisions. Wrestling with how we are to be salt and light in a dark yet grace-filled world.
Today I am giving thanks for the communities that came to life thanks to Gordon and Mary’s vision, for his years and years of wrestling, and for the knowledge that his wrestling days are over. Rest in peace, brother Gordon.