Pastor, Mentor And Social Activist: Remembering Gordon Cosby Gordon Cosby is perhaps the most influential pastor you've never heard of. His congregation in Washington, D.C., Church of the Saviour, launched more than 40 different nonprofit groups to help the poor and homeless. Cosby died last month at the age of 95.

Pastor, Mentor And Social Activist: Remembering Gordon Cosby

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It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Coming up, Haitian resistance artists who create street sculptures to tell their country's story.

But first, when Reverend 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 died last month at the age of 95 and is remembered not only for his work as a pastor, but his commitment to social change. NPR's Lily Percy has the story.

LILY PERCY, BYLINE: Matthew 25 was one of Gordon Cosby's favorite Bible passages.


PERCY: That's Cosby himself giving a sermon from 1987 titled "Justice."

JIM WALLIS: 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.

PERCY: That's Jim Wallis. He's a prominent Christian writer and evangelical leader, and one of the many pastors that Cosby mentored over his life. Gordon Cosby was born on July 3, 1917 in Lynchburg, Virginia. He was raised Southern Baptist. When Cosby 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.

REBECCA STELLE: 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're 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.

PERCY: Cosby pastored that church for several years before enrolling at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. After graduating from seminary, the country was entering the war, and Cosby enlisted as a chaplain. Cosby was part of the invasion of Normandy on D-Day. He helped pull wounded soldiers to safety and minister to the dying. For his service, he earned a Silver Star for bravery.

WES GRANBERG-MICHAELSON: At Normandy, he buried hundreds of young men, including his best friend.

PERCY: That's Wes Granberg-Michaelson. He knew Gordon Cosby for 45 years.

GRANBERG-MICHAELSON: 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. 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.

PERCY: After his return in 1946, he did. 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, and he turned them all down. Cosby wanted his church to remain small.

GRANBERG-MICHAELSON: 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.

PERCY: So Cosby took his focus away from the church and instead looked at the needs of his city. The ripple effect was powerful. In the span of four decades, dozens of mission groups were formed in the city dedicated to helping the poor.

Forty different mission groups founded by Cosby are still active in D.C. today, including the Potter's House, 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 is an author and former evangelical pastor. And he says that while many evangelical churches don't often survive the death of their founders, Cosby's work is a living testament.

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

PERCY: Gordon Cosby died last month at Christ House, a medical facility for the homeless that he helped found. Lily Percy, NPR News.

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