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

The Church of the Saviour's philosophy spread through the 1960s and 1970s, especially after the D.C. riots, when members stayed in Adams Morgan and began to invest even more heavily in the neighborhood.

A popular church mission was the Potter's House, a church-run coffeehouse on Columbia Road. Clergy and other faith leaders from across the country began coming to Wellspring, a rural retreat in Germantown where the church's structure and philosophy were taught. A series of books about the church by member Elizabeth O'Connor grew in popularity, and such national magazines as Reader's Digest profiled the church.

But the movement retained its aversion to bigness. In the mid-1970s, the church broke more fully into different groups. And in the late 1990s, Cosby rattled many church members by proposing that they go further: legally become separate entities and eventually dissolve the Church of the Saviour, the umbrella structure.

"He was trying to evoke the next generation of responsibility," said Robert Boulter, who has been on the board of Jubilee Housing for 30 years. The group provides affordable housing in Adams Morgan.

Cosby didn't want the movement to become institutional and frozen by inertia, Boulter said. He wanted younger members to follow their own call. "When people talk about 'church,' it's usually something that started a long time ago, and the essence of what launched it is often gone," he said.

In the meantime, the Adams Morgan neighborhood has gentrified, and some members worry that District residents are focused less on the poor and more on economic striving. Today, Wellspring is primarily rented out as a conference center for other groups, said Tom Hubers, who worked there as a church member for 16 years.

"You worry about it, but we have to have faith that if the Lord wants us to keep going, he will call people. You have to let go sometimes," he said.

Last week, a frail but spirited Cosby was typically serene about the future of the movement he launched six decades ago. He noted that megachurches, now struggling to manage their size, have come to the church for guidance on how to be small. He talked about urging church members to be positive about what is, or what he calls "the is-ness." He talked about trusting God.

"This form is dying, and whatever new form will happen is vague," he said. "We are wary of people who say they already know what that will be."

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