Members of the Church of the Savior, a Washington ecumenical church that is celebrating its 40th anniversary, do not often meet in one group as they did yesterday at a daylong event in Germantown.
"Maybe once in 40 years," said cofounder Mary Cosby, wife of the Rev. Gordon Cosby, founding pastor of the activist church, with headquarters at 2025 Massachusetts Ave. NW.
The church philosophy focuses instead on individual leadership and initiative within small communities and missions, which have created their own far-reaching projects to help the city's needy with housing, jobs and health care.
Small in numbers -- with about 130 members -- the church has had a strong impact in the city, particularly in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood that became its core service area in the 1960s.
Its projects have included the acclaimed Jubilee Housing group, which with the help of developer James Rouse began buying apartment buildings in the Adams-Morgan area in the 1970s, renovated them and maintained them as low-income housing. The group now owns nine apartment buildings in the area, Mary Cosby said.
Another of the church's six decentralized "communities" runs the Potter's House, a coffeehouse and bookstore at 1658 Columbia Rd. NW, where worship services and lectures are held.
Also on Columbia Road NW are the Christ House, a respite shelter for homeless men recovering from ailments, and the Columbia Road Health Services clinic, which serves low-income families. Jubilee Jobs, an outgrowth of the housing project, helps people in the area find and prepare for jobs.
As Mary Cosby explained it, each mission evolved from another. "When you get people housing, you realize they have no jobs; so you get them jobs, and then you realize they have no health care," she said. The cycle completes itself when those seeking health care are homeless.
As a result, one of the latest missions has worked on creating Samaritan Inns to house homeless people while using the church's other programs to help them find jobs and get permanent housing.
Other church members work on international projects, sheltering refugees from Central America or traveling to Calcutta to work with Mother Teresa.
The church also owns and operates a farm and retreat center in Germantown called Dayspring, where yesterday's celebration was held. The event included a service and potluck lunch, followed by a play performed by children in the church community and a sharing time where members related memories and anecdotes about the church.
The church's small numbers may stem from the high degree of commitment expected from each of the members. Prospective members prepare with religion classes for two years. They are expected to start contributing 10 percent of their income to the church, the traditional tithe, and increase their contributions from there.
Gordon Cosby said that church membership requires a "deep spiritual hunger" and a serious and time-consuming commitment that is not lightly made. Preparation for membership is intended to "nurture" people until they form their own dreams and visions and lead others toward them. Only then does the church help create a structure to effect the mission, he said.
If mission leaders drop out, their projects are not continued, and if groups get too large they are broken up into smaller units, because that results in more energy and innovation, the church believes.
In the same vein, Cosby does not predict what the future holds. "You simply let the future unfold," he said. "As people come along and say 'I'm called to this,' it happens."