Mary Campbell Cosby, cofounder of the Church of the Saviour movement she launched with her husband and partner Rev. N. Gordon Cosby in the 1940s, died this week in Washington, D.C. She was 93 years old.
News of her passing spread quickly on July 3. Kayla McClurg sent an email to family and friends saying, “I am writing to let you know that our dear Mary Cosby passed away very gently and suddenly this afternoon at Christ House.”
Both Gordon and Mary Cosby were influential in the life of Sojourners community and ministries. When the early Sojourners community decided to leave Chicago in the mid-1970s, they migrated to Washington, D.C., in large part because of the presence of Mary and Gordon Cosby and the community they’d founded at Church of the Saviour.
“Gordon and Mary and Church of the Saviour were one of the most important reasons that Sojourners decided to come to Washington in 1975,” said Jim Wallis, co-founder of Sojourners. “And we have been spiritually intertwined ever since. For Sojourners, Gordon and Mary were mentors, elders, inspirers, supporters, encouragers, and challengers.”
I took several classes with Mary Cosby. She was funny, cut-to-the-quick deep, gracious, steeped in Southern hospitality — and let nothing slide by. In 2009, I asked if I could interview her on the theme of “forgiveness.”
With a twinkle in her eye, she replied: “I wouldn’t say that I am at all qualified on the topic of forgiveness.”
“Learning how to forgive should get easier the older you get,” she said. “And I think it does. Because I think sometimes you do an act of the will before you ever feel it. The older I get I think it’s important to do things as an act of the will and let the feelings come later. But if you are drowned in feelings all the time then you are just an emotional bundle and that doesn’t do a lot of good for anybody.
“Forgiveness is probably the basic thing that Christians need to learn. I think parents need to learn it from their children and children need to learn it from their parents. All of them need to learn it from each other. And all of us need to learn it from each other. I think some of the great pains in churches has been a lack of forgiveness among members who are committed to forgiveness and who talk about it and who accept Jesus’ forgiveness but hold grudges themselves.”
According to McClurg, Mary Cosby had been experiencing weakness the past few days. On July 3, however, she “insisted” on going to worship in the morning as usual. “Although tired in the afternoon and starting to have difficulty talking,” said McClurg, “we thought maybe she just needed to rest. When I stopped in about 1 p.m., we sang hymns, prayed and spoke of Gordon. Someone earlier had said, ‘Gordon will be right there ready to meet you,’ to which she whispered, ‘He'd better be!’”
McClurg reported speaking to Mary Cosby on July 2. “We talked about the usual subjects,” she said, “the richness of her life and all the people she has loved. When someone was asking her if she had any pain, she said no. She looked over at me and said, ‘You know, they forget that I am 93!’”
Church of the Saviour has created dozens of nonprofit organizations, including many well-known groups that serve the poor in Northwest Washington. They include Jubilee Housing, which provides affordable housing; Potter’s House bookstore in Adams Morgan; Christ House, a medical facility for the homeless; For the Love of Children tutoring; Sitar Arts Center; and many others.
Mary and Gordon both lived at Christ House on Columbia Road in their elder years. Gordon Cosby died on March 20, 2013. Mary Cosby died at Christ House on July 3 (on what would have been her husband’s 99th birthday). Details for services are not yet set.
So with her sense of humor and great dignity intact, Mary Cosby has made the grand transition.