Tribute: Robert Dilday

Gordon Cosby, pioneering Christian activist and founder of Church of the Saviour, dies at 95

By Robert Dilday, Religious Herald

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

WASHINGTON — Gordon Cosby, the founder of the Church of the Saviour in Washington and a pioneering Christian activist whose ministry foreshadowed both the missional and emergent church movements, died March 20 at 95.

Cosby died at Christ House, which provides medical care to Washington’s homeless — one of several ministries initiated by the Church of Saviour, which Cosby and his wife, Mary, started with seven other members in 1947.

Born in Lynchburg, Va., Cosby grew up attending Rivermont Avenue Baptist Church there and at 15 met his wife when her father, Ernest Campbell, became the church’s pastor. The same year he began preaching to a black congregation in a one-room church outside of town, and four years later enrolled at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

In 1942, seminary completed, Cosby enlisted in the army and served as a chaplain in Europe for the remainder of World War II. He returned, he later told the Washington Post, “feeling that denomination and race were artificial constructs and that people should live in regular life as they would in war — willing to lay down their lives for their neighbors, viewing their faith as an urgent tool to change the world.”

That faith perspective launched the Church of the Saviour in Washington’s Adams Morgan neighborhood. He remained there until he retired in 2009.

According to the church’s web site, Cosby interpreted the call to discipleship as an integration of two journeys: an inward journey of growth in love of God, self and others, and an outward journey to mend creation. Inspired by that vision, the congregation quietly fueled what the Post called a revolution in faith-based activism with an array of ministries for its inner-city neighborhood.

After 1994 the Church of the Saviour became a “scattered community” of nine congregations, each independently structure but sharing common values — including a commitment to “integrity of membership,” which helps members “choose whether or not they still are called to the challenges and joys of this way of journeying with Jesus and Jesus’ friends,” the web site says.

The membership process includes participating in a mission group and classes in the church’s School of Christian Living, as well as joining the community in worship. Annually, after a period of intentional discernment, all members renew — or withdraw — their covenantal membership.

Just before his 90th birthday, Cosby told a group of students from Baylor University’s School of Social Work that Christians must maintain a keen awareness of the situations in their communities.

“We want to care about the people Jesus cared about, the least of these, and give them a chance,” he said. “Say we are Christians, and Jesus taught us to pray that God would bring to earth that which is in heaven. What do we want to see when we claim this as a city of love based on what God is doing? What would it look like if the Kingdom comes on earth as in heaven?”

Funeral arrangements for Cosby are pending, but a spokesperson for Potter’s House Church, one of the Church of the Saviour’s communities, said a memorial service will be scheduled after Easter.

Robert Dilday ( is managing editor of the Religious Herald.