The Common Good

Gordon Cosby: Teaching Us How to Live and How to Die

Gordon Cosby was perhaps the most Christian human being I have ever known. But he would always be the first to raise serious questions about what it meant to be a “Christian” and lived a very different kind of life than many of his fellow pastors and church leaders who call themselves Christian. Gordon was always happier just calling himself a follower of Jesus. He always told people who wanted to call him “Reverend” to just say “Gordon.”

Gordon and Mary Cosby talk with Sojourners' Jim Wallis at Potter's House in D.C.
Gordon and Mary Cosby talk with Sojourners' Jim Wallis at Potter's House in D.C. Sojourners file photo.

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At 4:15 Wednesday morning, Gordon went home into the arms of Jesus. At 94 years of age, he died in hospice at Christ House, a medical living community for the homeless, and one of the myriad of ministries formed by the Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C., which Gordon and Mary Cosby founded in 1950.

Gordon Cosby and the Church of the Saviour were one of the most important reasons that Sojourners decided to come to Washington in 1975. And we have been spiritually intertwined ever since. For Sojourners, Gordon was a mentor, elder, inspirer, supporter, encourager, challenger, and retreat leader. For me, personally, he was a pastor and my most important spiritual advisor and director. Our countless times together provided me more wisdom, care, support, discernment, and direction than I ever found with anybody else. And never have I felt more prayers for me from anyone than I did from Gordon Cosby, especially in the closing years of his life.

Gordon Cosby taught us how to live by the Gospel and, in these last years and months, he also showed us how to die. In one of my many visits near the end of his life, Gordon said to me in his deep graveling voice, “I am enjoying dying.” What a Gospel thing to say. From the first time I heard Gordon preach, to the last sermon he did a few years ago, I have never heard the Gospel and its meaning more clearly articulated than from Gordon Cosby.

Well into his nineties, and living in Christ House with the homeless men he always served, Gordon was less able to continue to do the all things he had done all day, every day, for so many people and over so many years. “All I can really do is pray now,” Gordon said to me, “but I have so much time now to pray!” 

During a long Lenten fast a few of us undertook in 2011 to draw national attention to the vulnerability of the poor in Washington’s budget debates, Gordon told me he had constructed a special “Jesus Prayer” for my fasting and prayed it 100 times a day! Knowing that Gordon Cosby was praying for me that many times each day left me with such a sense of undergirding and sustenance, even without any food, for all those weeks. His prayers literally lifted me.

And when it came to fundamental questions about the vocation of Sojourners — or my own vocation — there was never anyone I wanted to talk with more than Gordon. Last night, as so many people packed into the Potter’s House, the first Christian “coffeehouse” in the nation where Gordon had lunch or coffee every day with literally thousands of people; it was absolutely amazing how many people’s vocations Gordon Cosby had fundamentally impacted. The stories went on and on.

Transformed lives of both the poor and the affluent because of him, pastors founding churches and ministries because of him, marriages kept going because of him, communities forming and new missions starting because of him, individuals changing both their lives and the world because of him. A pastor said how disappointed he was to tell Gordon that their new little church had only 15 people to start. “Wow,” replied Gordon, “Fifteen people is amazing!”

Another pastor told his story of how Gordon had inspired and sustained him in forming a church for the homeless in the suburbs of Washington. “Gordon took such a genuine interest in me,” he said. But looking around the room and having listened to all the other stories of just the people who had gathered quickly on the night of Gordon’s death, the pastor then said, “I don’t know how one person could take such a genuine interest in so many people!’

Gordon Cosby never needed or wanted to be out front or become a famous public figure. He could have spoken across the country, and was often invited to do so. But he instead decided that his own vocation was to stay with a relatively small group of people trying to “be the church” in Washington, D.C.: the Church of the Saviour, which has produced more missions and ministries, especially with the poor, than any church I know of anywhere in the country — even the huge mega-churches who capture all the fame. He never wrote a book, went on television, talked to presidents, planted more churches, built national movements, or traveled around the world. He just inspired everybody else to do all those things and much more. And the world came to him.

Last night we all gathered to tell stories about how Gordon had changed our lives: the poor and middle class; the former alcoholics and the former wealthy (both because of Jesus); clergy and ministry leaders; founders of projects that have touched the lives of thousands; activists and contemplatives; political players in Washington, D.C.; those with southern American accents and those with African accents; blacks and whites who found themselves in a church together in a city where that didn’t happen in 1950, when the Church of the Saviour was born. All said, in different ways, that Gordon always asked them about how their “spiritual life” was going.

While American churches were divided between those who stressed evangelism and those who focused on social action, the Church of the Saviour spoke of “the inward and outward journey” of deepening our lives in Christ and then letting Christ take us out into the world on one creative mission after another.

I was blessed to be at Gordon’s bedside the night before he died and with Mary alongside him — still loving one another after 70 years of marriage. I felt like I was standing there with countless thousands of people who would want to say how much Gordon loved them and how much they loved this man of God. As one person said last night, “You knew he loved like Christ, and he made you want to love like Christ too.”

Gordon was suffering no pain when he died. He just made the decision to rest in peace — the peace of Christ. Thanks be to God for the life of Gordon Cosby. 

Jim Wallis is CEO of Sojourners. His forthcoming book, On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good, is set to release in April. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

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