Mission: Possible The inward-outward journey of Mary and Gordon Cosby. An Interview.
The ministries associated with Washington, D.C.’s Church of the Saviour are so numerous it’s hard to keep track of them. In its 50 years, Church of the Saviour has birthed nine faith communities and a myriad of accompanying missions, some of which we’ve profiled in these pages in the past.
The ministries include Potter’s House, where Jim Wallis conducted this interview, opened as a coffeehouse on Columbia Road NW nearly 40 years ago; right next door is Columbia Road Health Services, a street clinic primarily serving the Latino community. Across the street is Christ House, a 34-bed medical facility for homeless people. Christ House gave birth to Joseph’s House, for men with AIDS, which in turn gave birth to Miriam’s House, for women and children with AIDS. And Kairos House is for people from Christ House who are ready for individual living.
In addition, Jubilee Housing provides housing for low-income people by renovating apartment buildings, and Jubilee Jobs is a training and job placement service. Samaritan Inns, Lazarus House, and Tabitha’s House are a network of extended-term facilities for those recovering from addiction. The Servant Leadership School is modeled after Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s underground seminary, running a full array of discipleship training classes, and is located in the Festival Center. The Ministry of Money provides information and teaching on stewardship issues, including reverse mission trips. Dayspring Farm and Wellspring Retreat Center are located about 30 miles outside of Washington, D.C.
All of this activity-staffed and supported by countless faithful and dedicated people-is inspired by the lives and witness of Mary and Gordon Cosby. We offer this interview as this year’s incarnation focus, for surely they are evidence of God with us. -The Editors
Jim Wallis: As you know, I travel all the time around the country, and I’m always finding people who talk about the Church of the Saviour. It’s inspired and encouraged people, and given them a practical way to try to build church in their community. Yet you’re still a small church by today’s standards. We’ve got megachurches now of 10,000 members. They’re trying to have influence in the world, so they say, and yet this little church, I think, has more influence around the country than any other church I know about. There’s got to be some reason for that.
I want to begin by talking about the two of you, and how this vision for the Church of the Saviour began to emerge and evolve.
Mary Cosby: Gordon and I met when my father was the newly arrived minister of the Rivermont Avenue Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia. I was almost 10 and he was 15. In those days church was the center of life-our social life, our religious life, our recreational life. It was a very natural thing that we grew up together.
In this church there were two children’s organizations under the leadership of the ladies’ missionary society. The little girls met on Sunday afternoons, and they were called the Sunbeams. The little boys-we were always quite separate-were harder to find a leader for. It dawned on some of the women that young Gordon Cosby, he was 15 or 16 at the time, might be able to hold these wild children in hand and give them some missionary education on the side. They anointed him as a leader of the boys, and they were called the Royal Ambassadors.
Gordon recognized immediately that to meet once a month around lemonade and stories of Baptist missionaries as the Sunbeams did was not enough. He knew that they had to meet once a week. Therefore, every Saturday night Gordon and the Royal Ambassadors met in the basement of the church, and before the evening was over they had learned a great missionary truth in Gordon’s own way.
Jim: What happened for you, Gordon, when this new minister and his 10-year-old daughter showed up?
Gordon Cosby: I was attracted to his young daughter, but I felt that she was too young for that to be overt. So I just kept my eye on her until she got to be about 13, and I figured then she was old enough to let some awareness of my interest be shown.
Mary: That was right after the Great Depression. Gordon’s father was a businessman in Lynchburg and had lost what seemed like an enormous amount of money. Gordon was packing for college, his brother was already in college, and the other children were a lot younger. Gordon realized that he couldn’t leave his father.
Gordon: He had what we called a nervous breakdown in those days. When he could not work, I simply went into his real estate, insurance, and savings and loan business. I came to be sort of a salesperson. Everybody humored me because they knew my father was sick. They put up with what I didn’t know, and I sort of faked it. I did that for three to four years.
I went directly to seminary when I was 19 and took a couple of years. Then I felt that it would be important for me to get some college work. So I got a lot of the credits transferred from seminary to college. Then I went back and completed the work at seminary, in Louisville, at Southern Baptist Seminary.
Mary: He graduated from seminary and college at the same time that I graduated from college. And eight days later we married.
Jim: Was the seminary fertile ground for a young man who had, growing inside him, a different kind of vision of church?
Gordon: During the seminary years, I would characterize my thoughts more as dissatisfaction with what was, without any concrete awareness of what should be. In fact, before I went to seminary, I would sit at the kitchen table of Mary’s home and we would talk about what the church should be.
There was a lot of dreaming and a climate that was very open to saying things are not right. There’s a terrible discrepancy between church, the institution as we know it and see it, and what we read about in the New Testament. We talked of how we could begin to close that gap so that there would be integrity between the two. We were doing that in our teen-age years before I went to seminary.
Jim: Where did that come from in both of you?
Gordon: It seems to have been very native, very natural. I was a minister of an African-American church at that time, and had three or four years being the pastor of that little congregation.
Jim: How did a white, Southern Baptist teen-ager become a pastor in an African-American church in the ’40s?
Gordon: I was the leader of this Royal Ambassador group of about 100 kids, and we had to do something to keep them interested. I’m not proud of this now, but every year we had a greased pig contest. We announced it and everybody got excited. I got in the car with a brother of mine to see if we could find a farmer who would lend us a pig for the contest.
Every one of them said, “No, we don’t want our pig treated this way.” So we went further and further on up into Walnut Hollow, and we finally found a guy who said, “I will not lend you my pig. I’ll sell you one.” So we had this little piglet in the trunk of the car, and on the way back we saw an old abandoned building, very ramshackley, one of these little country churches. We stopped to talk with some of the neighbors, and they said they had disbanded the church because they couldn’t afford a minister. I offered to be their minister, and they said they’d try me out. It was just spontaneous. They spruced up the building enough to have a service, and I went up and preached a trial sermon. I think I was 15 at the time.
I had the services there every Sunday until I went to seminary. That did more to form me, I think, than seminary did. These people took me into their homes. They trained me.
Jim: You went out in the country to get a pig and came back with a church. In those days it probably wasn’t very usual for a white Southern Baptist young person lead a black church.
Gordon: It was not usual. And if people had known I was having real social visits in the homes of the people, I don’t think it would have been tolerated. But it was seen as a white person doing mission.
Jim: Did you feel called to be a preacher at 15 or earlier? When did that come to you?
Gordon: I didn’t feel that I was to be a preacher in the professional sense in those days. But as my father got a little better and it looked like he would be able to come back to work, I began to feel that it was probably right for me.
During this period of time a lot of idealism about life was knocked out of me. In one case, I was servicing the insurance policy of a deacon in my church, and the insurance company turned him down because he was overweight. As graciously as I could I told him I could not renew this policy for him.
Well, I’d never heard such profanity in my life. It was a very helpful time of disillusionment for me. I’m glad I had that before I went to seminary, along with the experience of being trained-received, loved, and cared for-by the African-American people.
I reckon I was not expecting seminary to give me the answers, but I just felt it would be helpful to have that training. I did that, and following seminary, Mary and I took a little Baptist pastorate in Arlington, Virginia. We were there for one year, and then I went into the service as a chaplain. I was away for two-and-a-half years, and it was during that period of time that I knew I could not go back to being a minister in the denomination from which I had come.
Here I am in this church, and then I go to Europe with the 101st Airborne, a unit sent to the most intense situations. I’m with men when they’re dying, and they’re totally unprepared. What I had done in the church had very little relationship to this experience of life and death and dying.
It was out of that crucible of two-and-a-half years that gradually I knew I couldn’t go back. I wrote to Mary and told her that we would have to start something new. I didn’t know what it would be, but I could not go back into the system. It just didn’t lend itself to what I saw there.
Mary: Plus you really wouldn’t be wanted. There were two things we used to write about that seemed to be crucial. One was that our new church had to be racially integrated. This is the mid-’40s in the deep South, and we knew that a Baptist church wouldn’t call you if you said that.
The second thing was-and maybe this sounds a little pompous-what we called integrity of membership. During the war years, Gordon learned that whether or not those soldiers had training in mainline churches had very little to do with whether they lived and died well. Their bravery was not related in too many cases to any deep level of faith. We thought it was one thing to turn away from faith in the Lord Jesus, but that it was something else to turn away without knowing you’ve left the Good News behind.
Jim: I’m struck by what you’ve just said. You both knew you were going to have to start something new. There’s a real thing happening here between the two of you.
Mary: It never seemed to be a surprise to either one of us that we had to start fresh. Gordon wrote to me from the middle of battle that he figured out it would take 25 years to preach the gospel to everybody in the world. We had a mind to do that. Our visions were absurd, but they were awfully sweet, weren’t they, Gordon?
Jim: How did you begin to develop your new vision?
Gordon: Really, Jim, when we’re honest, we just did not know what it would be. We felt it might be a big church that would offer a vision, which would be wonderful. We read an article by John D. Rockefeller Jr. on the ecumenical movement and his participation in building Riverside Church in New York City, and we went up to talk with an associate of his. We felt this would give us good background and maybe the financial support we needed.
In effect, his associate told us that Mr. Rockefeller doesn’t like failure. If you take his money, he’s going to take control. I thought it was pretty good that he was honest with us.
He also said he normally engages only in international projects, and you’re talking about being local. So he said no to us. I think that was one of the best things that ever happened to us. We were crestfallen at the time, but it began to eliminate some of the grandiose thinking about bigness. Then Mary and I went up to Union Seminary for summer school. This was the first year I’d gotten back.
Mary: We took the summer to sit at the feet of the giants: Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, Paul Sherer. George Buttrick was in the city at the time.
Gordon thought it was well for him to test his own motives, and so someone at the seminary put him in touch with this psychiatrist, a Dr. Bone. His name was always interesting to me. Dr. Bone interviewed Gordon and said, “Do you think you have an inner childhood subconscious rebellion against the Southern Baptists, and you want to do this way-out thing in order to rebel against your past?” Gordon said, “Well, Dr. Bone, if it was subconscious, I guess I wouldn’t know, would I?” And we proceeded to make our plans.
Gordon: Mary’s father had been called to the First Baptist Church in Alexandria. That’s the thing that gave us a base in this area. The next step was we thought we needed a building somewhere in Washington. One of the only people with us, Bob Knapp, had been an investment counselor on Wall Street. We asked him if he would be treasurer of the building fund. He asked, “How much do you have in your fund?”
Mary: Gordon would say, “I don’t want you to worry about it. It’ll be just fine.” Finally Gordon told him, “My grandmother has given $37.” That was the building fund for our first building. Then we saw the little building on 19th Street.
Gordon: People cashed in their life insurance policies and what have you to get the down payment of $5,000. In 1947, we began to gather for our worship and for a formation program called the School of Christian Living.
Mary: The building on 19th Street was so pretty it was like a poem. My mother painted landscape murals in the panels. It was a ratty old house but it was a pretty house. By the time we finished with it, it was lovely with a beautiful little chapel.
Gordon: She decorated so beautifully. She brought her artistic gifts to it. All the places we’ve had have been aesthestically beautiful. Mary’s mother was an artist and brought that beauty.
Jim: Is that important? Why?
Gordon: It’s very important. God is beauty, and truth, and goodness. Often we neglect the beauty dimension of it. We emphasize the truth and goodness or love. Beauty feeds the human spirit.
Mary: Beauty and welcome. I wrote in my journal once that I had decided that Southern breeding and the Holy Spirit look alike at first. (Of course, my heritage is all deep Southern.) Then as time goes on, it’s very clear one has eternal dimensions that the other doesn’t. But when you are an evangelist and you want people to come into your church, the breeding, or beauty, will hold them until the Holy Spirit takes hold.
Gordon: It was primarily by word of mouth that people came. If they were serious, they came into the School of Christian Living. One by one, a person would make a commitment. When we divided up into our different faith communities in 1976, because we felt that we were getting too large to hold it all together, we were probably about 120 members.
Jim: So the first real insight was that formation, training, was essential. That’s become the Servant Leadership School, with nine different schools across the country inspired by this model. Another thing you’re known for is the whole mission group idea.
Gordon: That came very early in the game. But before that we formed what we called cell groups or growth groups. The cell groups were picked up from the Wesley movement. We felt that if we could nurture people in small groups they would then be able to move into mission. We found that never happened. Not that it seldom happened, it never happened.
Jim: Why doesn’t it work?
Gordon: Temperamentally, most people are either given to the inward journey but don’t want to be bothered with the outward work and getting their hands dirty with the poor; or they want to get out there with the poor and they don’t have time for the inward life-they’re just going to get the world fixed. We said both. To me that is one of the most important things we’ve done.
Anybody can have a prayer group, a group to study scriptures, therapy groups, anything they want to. We’ve had hundreds of them through the years. That’s all right. We welcome it. But the membership structure is based on a person being called to the inward life and the outward journey in the same group. These are not groups just to strengthen each person in his or her individual mission, but in a corporate mission.
I would say that’s the most crucial structure we discovered, but it took us two or three years to find out that the cell groups did not know how to make the transition to mission. We prayed until we got tired of praying, until I’m sure God got tired of hearing us. Finally, we just cancelled all of our groups as of a certain date. We started again around this new understanding.
So since the early ’50s, we’ve focused on this business of call, which is to say, “This is God’s call. I’ve got to do this.” We’re totally committed to the inner life, the life of prayer and worship, of deepening our capacity to love, working with the blockages of love, journaling, and retreats. All of that goes under the heading of the inward life. And with that comes a real, worthy, challenging mission in the world.
You’ve got to have some structure for continual deepening. You have to be accountable somewhere.
Jim: On the one hand, the inward-outward balance seems so obvious, logical, and necessary, just as you said. On the other hand, very, very few people are really committed to it. How did that emerge among you?
Mary: Almost immediately after we began in our new building at 2025 Massachusetts Avenue [in Washington, D.C.], Dorothy Devers came into Gordon’s study, put a check for $1,310 on his desk, and said, “That is for a retreat farm.” He said, “What are you talking about? We don’t have a retreat farm fund. We just bought a building, we owe $100,000, and we don’t have 15 members. What do you mean, a retreat farm fund?”
She said, “Well, you have said, and we all agreed, that we need a place to pray, a retreat.” He said, “Of course we do, but this is not the time, Dorothy.”
Gordon: One distinction we had at that time was in having the highest per capita indebtedness of any church in the world.
Mary: She had lost her husband in the war, so she was a widow, had just bought a house, and had brought her mother down from Pennsylvania to look after her daughter. When Gordon asked her where she had gotten the money, she said, “If you have to know, this is my retirement up to this time from my job. I will leave it here and you can do with it what you like, but this is for the retreat farm fund.”
Within the week a young couple put a check for $750 on Gordon’s desk without knowing what Dorothy had done. She had been Gordon’s first secretary and he was just out of the Air Force and wanting to go to seminary. They said, “This is a check for the retreat farm fund.” Gordon said we don’t have a retreat farm fund.
Gordon: They said, “You do now.”
Mary: With that kind of sacrificial giving, what can you do but start a retreat farm fund? It ended up with Dayspring.
Gordon: We bought the land for Dayspring in ’53, just three years after we got 2025 Massachusetts Avenue. We felt the need. When you are in touch with your roots and operating out of that level, you are given corporate wisdom. The problem is staying in touch with it.
Mary: Particularly when the missions get exciting.
Gordon: The toughest thing in the world is being church-not doing what we think the work of church is, but being church, belonging to one another. “That they may be made perfectly one” was the deepest longing of Jesus, and, well, look at us. The emphasis always begins to shift to the vision, to the program, and we get away from the essence.
I went to a seminary recently to speak, and I was surprised to find as much excitement and enthusiasm as I have seen in a place for a long time-all around the megachurch movement, working with the Willow Creek model and so forth. The upshot of it was that we were presenting different models of doing church. They were good interpreters of that model, and they were respectful and willing to hear me. But I don’t think I got any converts.
The calls are pretty fundamentally different, and they’ve got to be faced as different. They have to be respected, but I think what we’re talking about is much closer to the biblical conception of church than a model that doesn’t confront the culture, doesn’t present an alternative consciousness, and doesn’t oppose the system. If you’ve got a group that calls itself church, Christian church, and doesn’t oppose and confront the culture, I don’t think you have a New Testament church no matter how much you respect the people.
Jim: You first thought what you were doing would be very big and reach the whole world, and it turned out smaller. The difference between these two models is not just big and small, it’s relationship to the culture.
Gordon: “The gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and few that be who find it.” Not that you keep it small for the sake of smallness.
I think it’s that we start missions, they get big and successful, but we neglect the essence from which they originally emerged. New visions are described and pursued, but they are removed from what Richard Rohr calls the “founding myth,” the essence from which they originated. For us as Christians, this has to do with the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Jim: Fifty years later, what does it mean for you to get back to that founding myth?
Gordon: Acting as if we’re just learning it, just beginning to implement it again. Not assuming that’s where we are because we’re not there in many instances. When the going gets rough, we find we’ve not internalized it. We are not living out of the Lordship of Christ. We have not been crucified with Christ. We are following our addictions to the culture. And on and on. These principles are as valid as they were when we first discovered them, when we were first given them.
Sojourners November 1997