Activist D.C. Church Embraces Transition in Name of Its Mission

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Church of the Saviour was never a conventional church. It has no pews, no Sunday school, not even a Christmas service. Instead, for 60 years this small, unusual group based in Northwest Washington has quietly fueled a revolution in faith-based activism.

Thousands of people are served by dozens of organizations started by the church, part of the intense social justice work mandatory for members. One of its programs found jobs for 800 people last year. Another provided 325 units of affordable housing. There's Columbia Road Health Services. Christ House medical services for the homeless. Miriam's House for women with AIDS. And on and on.

But now the grass-roots orientation that has animated the church for decades might lead it to disband. The church always has favored small groups over large and has been wary of entrenched institutions. So as it loses two of its own bedrocks -- its founder and its longtime headquarters -- and opts, for now, not to replace either, the church is asking itself questions about its very existence.

The answers could well determine the future direction of the church's vast social justice network.

The uncertainty set the tone Dec. 28 as Gordon Cosby, 91, the group's visionary founder, gave his final sermon at the church's stately headquarters, at 2025 Massachusetts Ave. NW, which the group has decided to sell.

"Today, everything is so quiet," he told about 70 church members seated on simple wooden folding chairs. "Even the loquacious ones are quiet."

Since the late 1940s, Cosby has preached every Sunday morning at what members call "2025." The gathering has taken on a special significance as Cosby has pressed for the church to break into small faith "communities" with their own social justice goals and worship services, an unorthodox structure the church believes leads to more creativity, intimacy and accountability.

Increasingly, the Sunday sermons and the stone mansion in Dupont Circle were among the few things the group's members had in common. But as the movement became less centralized, the building seemed less necessary, and Cosby over the years made clear his preaching was coming to an end.

The umbrella organization will move its offices to a smaller space to shepherd group projects and events, but there are no plans for a new, shared worship service or for someone to fill Cosby's role.

Things will change, but it's not clear how. Will the faith communities ultimately become totally separate? Will another leader appear? Will the mission groups remain faith-driven, or will secular nonprofit people eventually take them over?

"We always say things shouldn't be maintained just for the sake of history, but this is our biggest transition yet," said Terry Flood, who joined the church in 1960 and is the director of Jubilee Jobs, one of the church's employment programs.

In fact, the church has about the same number of members it has always had, fewer than 200. Its ever-expanding ministries continue, and the rise of such service-oriented leaders as Barack Obama and Rick Warren suggests wider embrace of its basic philosophy: A commitment to serious, inward contemplation as well as ambitious social justice work. No spectators. Action over institution.

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