Below is Kayla’s obituary, posted 3/23/23 on the inwardoutward.org site. Thanks, Kayla. (Photo: Gordon preaching his last sermon at Church of the Savior, Jan 6, 2009. Kevin Clark, Washington Post.)
Rev. N. Gordon Cosby, beloved founder and minister of The Church of the Saviour, and bold catalyst for many non-profit ministry organizations in the District of Columbia, died on March 20, 2013, at the age of 95. Particularly noted for 65 years of prophetic preaching and teaching, calling people of faith to greater dedication and fuller embodiment of God’s vision for the world, Gordon was a man of courage, humility and wisdom, who lived a simple yet profound life dedicated to the active pursuit of God’s realm “on earth as it is in heaven.”
As a chaplain in the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division in World War II, Gordon participated in the D-Day invasion at Utah Beach in 1944. He earned a Silver Star for bravery in assisting wounded men in the face of heavy fire. Serving alongside soldiers whom he found to be poorly equipped spiritually to face imminent death, he became convinced of the futility of war and the need for the church to better prepare people for life’s greatest challenges. During the war he sensed that he was being called as a minister to interpret and practice a more radical expression of the gospel, and to help create structures for people to be on both a journey inward with God and others and a journey outward into the life of the world.
Together he and his wife, Mary Campbell Cosby, dreamed of forming an ecumenical church of highly committed people who would be empowered to become reconciling agents in the world. Beginning informally in 1946, nine people made a first statement of formal commitment in 1947, and the church was legally incorporated in 1953.
The Church of the Saviour became one of the first churches in the District of Columbia to welcome an interracial membership. In 1953, Catherine Marshall, author and spouse of Senate Chaplain Peter Marshall, wrote about the church in the Reader’s Digest. This article, along with books authored by church member Elizabeth O’Connor, thrust Gordon and his small congregation into the spotlight. The church soon became a pilgrimage site for people of faith who were seeking to be more authentically engaged in society and who longed for the renewal of church life.
In 1953, the church purchased a farm in Germantown, Maryland, and in 1956 built a retreat lodge there, inviting people into periods of silence on the land. “The one journey that ultimately matters,” Gordon wrote, “is the journey into the place of stillness deep within one’s self. To reach that place is to be at home; to fail to reach it is to be forever restless. In contemplation we catch a vision of not only what is, but what can be. Contrary to what we have thought, contemplatives are the great doers.”
In 1960, following Gordon’s insight and guidance, the church founded the Potter’s House, believed to be the country’s first Christian coffeehouse, as a place of meeting between sacred and secular, rich and poor. When the church was being the church, Gordon believed, it would not remain in a cocoon of safety but would place itself on the front lines of society’s battles, offering itself as a sacrificial gift to the world. In 1965, after answering the call to join the landmark Civil Rights March on Selma, Alabama, led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Gordon inspired church members toward increased solidarity with Dr. King by seeking justice for the disenfranchised of Washington, focusing on children, housing, health care and jobs.
Gordon’s preaching and organizing, including acts of civil disobedience, inspired the church’s 100 members to form small mission groups to tackle areas of need in the city. One of the first mission groups was integral to the struggle to close the degrading children’s institution called Junior Village and find foster homes for the 900 children housed there. Out of this effort The Church of the Saviour started its first non-profit ministry in 1965—For Love of Children—dedicated to foster care and education, which eventually secured the closing of Junior Village in 1973.
In 1968, when Dr. King was assassinated and riots broke out along the 14th Street corridor, the Potter’s House remained open and became a place to listen and strategize for the development of other non-profit ministries that would respond to the needs of a hurting city. Some of the ministry organizations that emerged from the inspiration of Gordon’s preaching and action include: Jubilee Housing (1973), providing quality housing for more than 700 low-income persons, as well as youth and family services; Ministry of Money/now Faith and Money Network (1976), helping to transform people’s relationship with money; the Family Place (1979)—and more recently, Jubilee JumpStart (2009)—both serving young children; Jubilee Jobs (1981), now having helped more than 22,000 people find entry-level work; Sarah’s Circle (1983), offering comprehensive services for low-income seniors; Christ House (1985), a residential medical respite and community for homeless men and women; Samaritan Inns (1985), a housing and recovery community in eight residences; Academy of Hope (1985), educating adults for literacy and GED preparation; the Festival Center (1989), home to the Servant Leadership School; Sitar Arts Center (2000), arts immersion for under-served youth; and many others.
Gordon continued to work and strategize until his final days, primarily with Jubilee Jobs; Becoming Church, whose focus is on starting new churches; and Life Asset Financial Center, a financial learning center and credit union now in formation. He was an active founding member of the Church of Christ, Right Now, and its mission group called Strength to Love (after a well-known phrase of Dr. King’s) which companions persons returning from incarceration.
While the church he built became well known to many in the country, it has remained a relatively small group of extraordinarily committed people. In 1995 the church scattered into small independent faith communities, nine of which today carry the moniker of The Church of the Saviour: Bread of Life, Dayspring, Eighth Day, Festival, Friends of Jesus, Jubilee, New Community, Potter’s House and Seekers.
In 1983, Gordon was named Washingtonian of the Year by Washingtonian Magazine, but generally he declined invitations to receive honors, seeing himself simply as a servant of the gospel as he understood it. In a 2006 sermon, Gordon said, “The central question of my life is this: What did Jesus intend for his followers to be in the centuries following his earthly life? It is not ridiculous to expect God to use us now, in the 21st century, to eliminate global poverty, to cast out the demons of greed and fear, racism and militarism, to help us get on with the task of becoming human. When we are ready, God is more than ready.”
Gordon believed, and modeled in his own life, that there is no “retirement” for workers in the kingdom of God, at least not until the vision of a world that works for everyone has been realized. Even with increasing physical diminishment, Gordon continued to serve the community—counseling and encouraging, bearing one another’s pain, praying, learning to give and receive love.
Born in Lynchburg, Virginia, on July 3, 1917, to Peter Guerrant Cosby, Jr. and Kathleen Gordon Cosby, Gordon was the brother of P.G., Jack, Ida Gordon and Beverly. He is survived by his wife of more than 70 years, the community’s dearly loved Mary Campbell Cosby, as well as his soon-to-be 100-year-old brother P.G., of Lynchburg, Virginia, his sister Ida Gordon Poole, of Sarasota, Florida, a foster son, Michael Murphy, a number of nieces and nephews and countless friends and spiritual offspring.
On March 20, 2013, Gordon Cosby died peacefully at home in the community of Christ House, where he and Mary were lovingly welcomed three years ago and where Mary continues to reside.
A memorial celebration will be held on Saturday, April 6, 2013, at Foundry United Methodist Church, 1500 16th St. NW in Washington. In lieu of flowers, memorial gifts may be designated for any Church of the Saviour affiliated church or ministry and sent in care of The Church of the Saviour at 1640 Columbia Road NW, Washington, DC 20009. Written reflections about the impact of Gordon Cosby’s life are welcomed and may be sent to the same address or firstname.lastname@example.org.
In a 1989 sermon Gordon said, “Faith is trusting the flow and reveling in the view and being carried beyond all existing boundaries. Faith is being excited about the final destination, even when the destination is mystery. When Jesus says, ‘Believe in God, believe also in me,’ he is saying, Get into the stream with us. It is a stream of pure grace and mercy. Go into its depths and find us there.”