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.
"It's the most missionally engaged congregation I've ever come into contact with," said Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, a former member who is now general secretary of the Protestant denomination the Reformed Church in America.
Members include the founder of the mega-ministry Fellowship of Christian Athletes and national religious leaders. Former members have launched service organizations from Seattle to Texas.
Progressive evangelical leader Jim Wallis wrote in 1997 that the Church of the Saviour "has had more influence around the country than any other church I know about."
But Cosby and others spoke this week about their frustration in failing to make their church more diverse -- a struggle shared by many faith groups. Members tend to be white and middle-aged or older. As Cosby and 2025 fade into the background, the future of the movement is unclear. But that might be where the Church of the Saviour is most comfortable.
The church's culture barely allows for uncertainty or even death to be seen as bad things. There is a trust in divine destiny, a belief that if people are called to continue the church and its offshoots, so be it.
In his final sermon, Cosby urged his followers to make real "the beyond," which he described as the world outside of what is merely observed. The term was also a metaphor, he said, for thinking about the future of the church. What people think the beyond is determines how they act, he said.
Telling a story about his initial hesitancy to assist a needy stranger who telephoned him at home for help on Christmas, Cosby was characteristically humble, self-deprecating.
"We've got to move from believing so deeply to doing," he preached. "We've got to keep in mind the discrepancy between belief and embodiment."
Cosby has already moved on, a few years ago starting several small spiritual support groups made up of a calculated mix of people of different races, economic backgrounds and those coming out of incarceration. After decades of bringing white, middle- and upper-class people into neighborhoods around Columbia Road and Adams Morgan to serve the poor and lecturing to seminarians and faith leaders, Cosby has concluded that societal change might go in the other direction.
"We thought change should come from the top, but it turns out the bottom might be the top," he said in an interview. The groups, he said, are "closer to what I think God loves than any I've ever been to."
That's saying something for Cosby, who has been preaching since he was a 15-year-old in Lynchburg. Raised Southern Baptist, he went into the seminary and then became an Army chaplain in Europe in World War II, an experience that reshaped his faith perspective. He said he came back feeling that denomination and race were artificial constructs and that people should live in regular life as they would in war--willing to lay down their lives for their neighbors, viewing their faith as an urgent tool to change the world.
He and his wife, Mary, began to craft an unusual church structure: Members had to commit to an inward journey of daily quiet prayer, meditation and courses on Christianity as well as an outward journey of social justice work. People would be held accountable by working in small groups.
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."