"A deep inner sickness has taken over when we can't feel the suffering of those who are enduring structural violence every hour. We are in the psychological and spiritual condition of Dives who couldn't see Lazarus on his doorstep, with his wounds and sores being licked by the dogs. He went through his whole life, never seeing this person at his doorstep.
"How do we awaken? First, by claiming our sickness. 'God, I'm sick. I can't feel the pain of another human being created in the image of the same ultimate reality that brought me into being.' Something is very wrong with a mother who can't hear the crying of her baby in the night. And something is very wrong with me when I can't hear the crying of the babies and their parents in Iraq and in the Sudan, and when I can't hear the cries of the babies in my city when 49% of them are living in poverty . . . Claiming my sickness is the first part of awakening."
These words are from a sermon by N. Gordon Cosby, the founding minister of The Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C., who died at age 95 on March 20. His passing was much like the rest of his life--inspiring as he prepared us all during his transition: he was at Christ House, a hospice he had helped found for the homeless in Washington with Janelle and Allen Goetcheus--she a doctor who has expanded health services for the poor throughout our nation's capital--and where he had lived himself for the last several years, with his beloved wife and lifelong partner Mary by his side. As his friends noted, it was also early in the morning on the first day of spring--which felt like a fitting time and season for a man who was a genuine prophetic voice calling for church renewal to pass into new life with his wife holding his hands in a beloved community of friends.
Many faith traditions talk about the obligation to see and help the poor, the sick, and the suffering, but The Church of the Saviour, which Gordon and Mary co-founded with a few others in 1947, went far beyond most congregations' traditional notions of "service" with a radical devotion to justice, compassion, sisterhood and brotherhood, and servant leadership. I was spiritually lonely until I stumbled onto the "saints" at Columbia Road who served God and reflected faith through the work of their hands and feet and voices everyday as Matthew 25 enjoins all to do.
Gordon (and he always preferred "Gordon" to "Reverend") first started preaching as a White 15-year-old leading Sunday services for a rural Black congregation near Lynchburg, Virginia. By then he was already close to Mary, his childhood sweetheart, and he later said that even as teenagers the two of them would have serious conversations around her kitchen table about how they could close the gap between the institution of church as they knew it and the church they read about in the New Testament. As a young seminary graduate and Army chaplain during World War II, he quickly realized that instead of taking over a traditional church when he returned home he wanted to start something totally new.
The new church they founded was in what was then one of the poorest neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., and from the beginning it was an interracial community committed to having close, authentic ties both to one another and to the Lazaruses in need on their own doorstep. Members were asked to undertake two journeys: an inward journey to grow in love of God, self, and others, and an outward journey to help mend some part of creation. Today there are more than three dozen ministries in and around Washington, D.C. and more across our nation that have grown from churches and mission groups of The Church of the Saviour. They are providing everything from affordable housing, health care, addiction recovery, and job training and placement to child care and educational enrichment, a senior center (Sarah's Circle), community living with people of varying development abilities, and support for children and families in the foster care system.
Gordon and Mary became my valued prayer partners and rocks when I grew weary. At the Children's Defense Fund's retreat and training center Haley Farm, we created a prayer garden dedicated to Gordon and Mary anchored by a beautiful sculpture of Christ made by their dear friend Jimilu Mason who created many pieces of art to grace many of the Church of the Saviour Ministries on Columbia Road and elsewhere. One of the many ways they show the poor they are loved and respected is by the attention to beauty in the surroundings that serve them. Art and music enrich their lives as well as homey surroundings.
Gordon supported, challenged, and changed everyone who knew him. As Sojourners CEO Jim Wallis, who called Gordon his most important spiritual advisor, said: "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." Like so many others, I am profoundly grateful for the life and example of Gordon Cosby, who helped us learn how to live our faith every hour with great authenticity and integrity.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund and its Action Council whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.