Pastor, Mentor And Social Activist: Remembering Gordon Cosby

  • The Rev. Gordon Cosby died on March 20 at the age of 95.
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    The Rev. Gordon Cosby died on March 20 at the age of 95.
    Courtesy of Church of the Saviour
  • Cosby walks with a friend in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C., in this undated photograph.
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    Cosby walks with a friend in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C., in this undated photograph.
    Courtesy of Church of the Saviour
  • Cosby served as a chaplain in the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division in World War II.
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    Cosby served as a chaplain in the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division in World War II.
    Courtesy of Church of the Saviour
  • Cosby leads the troops of the 101st Airborne Division in a worship service on Christmas in Bastogne, Belgium, in 1944.
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    Cosby leads the troops of the 101st Airborne Division in a worship service on Christmas in Bastogne, Belgium, in 1944.
    Courtesy of Church of the Saviour

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When the Rev. Gordon Cosby founded Church of the Saviour in the late 1940s, it was one of the first interracial churches in the still-segregated District of Columbia. Cosby, who died last month at the age of 95, is remembered not only for his work as a pastor, but also for his commitment to social change.

"Many people have never heard of him, but he shaped the vocations of so many of us that he shaped the church more than any pastor of his generation," says Jim Wallis, a prominent Christian writer and evangelical leader, and one of the many pastors whom Cosby mentored over his life.

Cosby was born in Lynchburg, Va., and raised Southern Baptist. When he was 16, he and his brother, P.G., were walking through the African-American part of town and came upon a small church.

Rebecca Stelle, one of Cosby's colleagues and closest friends, recounts the story:

"And they said, 'We don't have a pastor right now.' And so he and his brother said, 'Well, if you want, we'll be your pastor.' And they were kind of skeptical. They were like, 'You know, you're a 16-year-old white boy, we're not sure how we feel about that.' And he said, 'Well, why don't you give me one shot at it and we'll see how it goes.' So they said, 'OK, you can preach this Sunday.' "

Cosby pastored that church for several years before enrolling at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

After he graduated from seminary, the country was entering the war, so Cosby enlisted as a chaplain.

Cosby was part of the invasion of Normandy on D-Day. He helped pull wounded soldiers to safety and ministered to the dying.

For his service he earned a Silver Star for bravery.

"At Normandy, he buried hundreds of young men, including his best friend," says Wes Granberg-Michaelson, who knew Cosby for 45 years.

"As he dealt with young men who were facing death, he realized how poorly equipped they were to deal with the questions of life and death and how poor their faith had prepared them," Granberg-Michaelson says. "And it was that experience that convinced him to — if he survived the war — come back to the states and he would start a church that would have the ability to form faith deeply."

After his return in 1946, he did just that.

The Church of the Saviour was one of the first places of interracial worship in the city. One of the tenets of membership in the church was a commitment to service in the community. Members were required to work with the homeless at shelters and at the church-run hospice and medical clinic.

As his reputation grew, Cosby got invitations to speak from all across the country. He turned them all down; Cosby wanted his church to remain small.

"What Gordon understood is that the model of church that he was setting forth — it wasn't going to survive if the church simply got larger and larger and larger," Granberg-Michaelson says.

So Cosby took his focus away from the church and instead looked at the needs of his city.

The ripple effect was so powerful that in the span of four decades, dozens of mission groups dedicated to helping the poor were formed in the city.

Forty different mission groups founded by Cosby are still active in D.C. today, including The Potter's House, which is believed to be the country's first Christian coffeehouse. And Cosby inspired people across the country to start their own churches and mission groups.

Brian McLaren, an author and former evangelical pastor, says that while many evangelical churches don't often survive the death of their founders, Cosby's work is a living testament.

"The deeper and broader legacy will be his indirect legacy on the people who were captivated by his holy unrest," McLaren says. "That he just could never be satisfied that the church was fulfilling its potential and that the Christian faith was fulfilling its potential."

Gordon Cosby died at Christ House, a medical facility for the homeless that he helped found.

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