GORDON COSBY was perhaps the most Christian human being I have known. But he would always be the first to raise serious questions about what it meant to be a “Christian” and lived a different life than many of his fellow pastors and church leaders who call themselves Christian. Gordon was happier just calling himself a follower of Jesus. He always told people who wanted to call him “reverend” to just say “Gordon.”
On March 20, Gordon went home into the arms of Jesus. At 95 years of age, he died in hospice at Christ House, a medical living community for the homeless and one of the ministries that grew out of the Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C., which he and his wife, Mary, co-founded in 1946.
Gordon Cosby and the Church of the Saviour were among the most important reasons that Sojourners decided to move 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, he was a pastor and my most important spiritual adviser. Our countless times together provided me more wisdom, care, support, and discernment than I found with anybody else. Never have I felt more prayers for me from anyone, outside my family, than I did from Gordon.
Gordon taught us how to live by the gospel and, in these last years and months, he showed us how to die. In one of my many visits near the end of his life, Gordon said to me in his deep, gravelly voice, “I am enjoying dying.” What a gospel thing to say! From the first time I heard Gordon preach to the last sermon he gave a few years ago, I have never heard the gospel and its meaning more clearly articulated.
The last few years, Gordon was less able to do the things he had done for so many people over so many decades. “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 he was praying for me that much left me with a sense of undergirding and sustenance, even without any food, for all those weeks. His prayers 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.
The evening after his passing, many people packed into The Potter’s House, one of the first Christian “coffeehouses” in the nation, where Gordon had lunch or coffee almost every day over the years, with thousands of people. The stories went on and on that evening, as we all told how Gordon had changed our lives. It was amazing how many people’s vocations he had fundamentally influenced.
Lives of both the poor and the affluent were transformed, pastors founded churches and ministries, marriages kept going, communities formed and new missions started, individuals changed their lives and the world—all because of him. After hearing these stories, one pastor said, “I don’t know how one person could take such a genuine interest in so many people.”
Gordon never needed or wanted to be out front or become a public figure. He could have spoken across the country, and was often invited to do so. But he decided that his vocation was to stay with a relatively small group of people trying to “be the church,” the Church of the Saviour, which has produced more ministries, especially with the poor, than any church I know of. He rarely went on television, and never wrote a book, talked to presidents, built national movements, or traveled around the world. He just inspired others to do all those things and much more. And the world came to him.
While American churches were divided between those that stressed evangelism and those that 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, with Mary alongside him, still loving one another after 70 years of marriage. I felt as if 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, “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 editor-in-chief of Sojourners magazine.