Roots of a Call
As a teenager Gordon Cosby stood on the street corners of Lynchburg, Virginia, passing out the Gospel of St. John and asking permission to speak with passersby about Jesus Christ, while all the time there grew in him doubts that this was the best way to share his excitement about the faith.
When Gordon was fifteen he and an older brother stumbled on a one-room church in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, about four miles from their home. When they discovered that it belonged to a black congregation that had no minister, they offered their services, and were later invited to preach. Gordon gave the trial sermon that first Sunday. When the service was over they were both asked to return.
They preached in that church every Sunday for the next two years, during which time the membership swelled to forty. They were followed in their pastorate by two younger brothers. A first congregation must surely have a larger responsibility than is usually acknowledged for the response to, and care of a young minister. This little mountain church encouraged the gifts of their youthful pastors. They punctuated Gordon’s sermons with their amens and in one way or another let him know that they were hearing what he said. One old man who sat at the end of the second row on the right interrupted each sermon at least once to shout, “Say it again, Brother. Say it again!” In the young preacher grew up a confidence that was never to leave him, a confidence in the power of the Word, and in himself as a proclaimer of that Word.
After high school he went to work in his father’s savings and loan company to be groomed for a place in the business. All of his free time was spent in the activities of the church or at the manse. Around the Campbell’s kitchen table or in the living room where young friends gathered, the talk more often than not turned to the church. These were the hours that excited Gordon and helped him to decide that his father’s business was not for him-that he was to be a minister. Something broke within him, so that later he was to describe call as “a sense of being dealt with by that which is ultimate, of knowing that one was born to this, that one has found one’s place in the scheme of things-in salvation history.”
Then he simply announced to his family that he was going to the seminary. “I did not go the usual route,” he says. “If I had written ahead I don’t think that they would have accepted me. I didn’t have any credentials.” Two years after he began his seminary training at Southem Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, he began his college work at Hampden-Sydney College, not far from Lynchburg. He was never able to put his roots down very deeply in either the seminary or the academic community. During this period he had become the minister of a church in a nearby railroad town, and being the minister to these people was always more absorbing to him. These were also the years that he courted Mary Campbell who had grown up at last and was enrolled in Randolph-Macon College. Despite these diverse activities, in 1942, four and one-half years later, he was graduated magna cum laude from the college and in the same year completed his seminary training and was ordained to the ministry. This was also the year that he and Mary were married.
Mary, beautiful and gracious, had a passion for the church that was like his own. She complemented his shy seriousness, and added to every church occasion the festive note, which was in part her reaction to paper plate suppers in church basements. One man said of The Potter’s House whose decor she had helped to select, “It’s the only place I know where the atmosphere takes care of you.” This is true of all the rooms where she has been. Flowers stand poised in a special way, candles are always lighted and the music playing. One feels received by the room itself.
War Distills Mission
Gordon was serving a congregation outside of Washington, D.C., when he enlisted in the army and was sent overseas as chaplain of the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. In the winter of 1944 in England and later, on the broken terrain of Belgium, he began to work with concepts of ministry that were to be built upon, deepened, and refined over all the years to come. Like every other regimental chaplain, he found himself responsible for the spiritual life of more than three thousand men scattered over great distances and almost always under threat of immediate death. In many other settings he was to reform and restate the questions he began to ask then: How does one build the church in these circumstances? How can one be the church?
Reflecting on those war years Gordon now sees that his situation then was not very different from that of the minister of any congregation made up of men and women who throughout the week are spread out over large geographical areas in widely divergent places of work, many of which are oppressive structures that rob them of their lives without their knowing. How can one person, or even a team ministry, be pastor and prophet to the members of a congregation with whom there is very little possibility of developing any kind of depth relationship?
Perhaps, in a way that might otherwise not have happened, the battlefields of Holland and Belgium drew into sharp focus for Gordon the questions with which every minister in some way struggles if he takes with any seriousness the building of the church. Knowing as he did that he could not minister in depth to even two hundred men in a stationary situation, Gordon was painfully aware of how impossible it would be to meet the desperate needs of thirteen companies in combat. He moved quickly and decisively to bring into being a little church in each of the companies.
First he identified the man in each company who seemed most spiritually mature and, in effect, ordained him to the ministry as the “sky pilot” for his company. He then began a miniature seminary to train these men for the ministry and to help them identify and name an assistant. Around these pairs of men formed small bands who became responsible for the spiritual life of the others in their companies.
These little churches within the companies became known as the Airborne Christian Church, for their congregations were the men who were to be dropped by glider on the world’s battlefields. They were also the forerunners of the early Church of The Saviour fellowship groups which later evolved into mission groups. As often as war allowed, Gordon met with the newly ordained clergy in a training program that included the sharing of their ministries. Here also was the beginning of the design for our own Schools of Christian Living which, in effect, are seminaries for the training of the laity. Before the Airborne Church left the English countryside, it had outgrown its borrowed chapel and moved into a school gymnasium.
Other war experiences began to shape Gordon’s ministry. There was the night that seven men were selected from his regiment to infiltrate the enemy lines, make observations, and feel out enemy strength. They were to leave one hour before midnight, stay until almost daybreak, and return if possible. In all likelihood only three, or two, or one would make it back, but such a mission would provide valuable information for the activities of the whole regiment the following day. In the “terribly long and terribly short” hours before eleven, most of the men came to talk with the young chaplain. They brought pictures of the babies that they had never seen and of their wives and mothers. They left with him trinkets and valuables to send home “in case,” and always they put into his hands the address of someone. They left scribbled notes. One man came to make his commitment to Jesus. He had put it off long enough. When eleven o’clock came they slipped off into the darkness.
Through the night Gordon waited and prayed and thought about all that might be taking place. As he listened to the sporadic barking of machine gunfire in the distance, he pondered the pictures of the families at home and hoped that God would comfort them when they got the news. He wondered if one or two would get back, and which ones they would be. And what of those who would die? Would the words that he had said to them have any meaning? Would the men be hindered or helped by those words when they stood in the presence of God?
That night he saw in those seven men Everyman and Everywoman. To none of us is given to know the time or the day, but the fact is … “Maybe today.” What does it mean for the church to be God’s waiting people? Can our waiting be meaningful to others if we are not obedient while we wait? What does it mean to be “radically obedient?”-‘radically committed?” What must our life style be?
It was almost dawn when a lone figure came through the morning mist. Gordon thanked God. And then came another, and yet another-until all seven were back. Such a reunion he had never seen. Their words tumbled over each other, “This is what happened to me.” “Remember the first heavy exchange … ? ” “How did you get by that sentry?” “This is the way it was Seven dead men were alive-together again. There were new possibilities-things could be and happen once more.
That night became for him a parable of the church when she authentically gathers-“A group of people who have known that they were bound over to the power of death stumble on a treasure and that treasure is Christ. Miracle of miracles, doors that were closed open, gates of bronze are broken down. The words spill out as they try to tell one another what happened and how it happened, and of a Presence that was there.”
All through the war the storytelling went on-more often when the men broke open C-rations and sat around eating and talking. Under the circumstances the usual defenses were gone, and quickly their conversations moved to a deeper sharing of themselves. When men are involved intensively in a common danger and do not know whether they will be around the next night, let alone the next week, they move with directness to satisfy the basic human need to be heard and to be known. Even gruff and untutored men listened without judgment and treated with tenderness each other’s stories. Deep bonds of friendship were forged.
“We were drawing easily,” said Gordon, “on the tremendous capacity for intimacy that is in each of us. I think this is why men sometimes romanticize war. We had that sense of community that we all yearn for and which many of these men had never known before and would never know again.” It is not strange that Gordon Cosby has become the minister of a church whose unwritten covenant is that we will be enablers of each other in the telling of our stories.
In retrospect one finds other wartime experiences shaping Gordon’s ministry. As he shared his understanding of Scripture with men from different expressions of the church and they shared with him out of varied experiences, their excitement about faith grew, and they knew once more an unexpected communion with one another. In those incredible moments when bread was broken and Christ stood in their midst, Gordon committed himself to becoming the minister of an unknown church that would be ecumenical in its spirit, in dialogue with all the churches-indeed, with all persons. He began to write home to Mary about the church that would later write into its member’s commitment the words, “I will seek to be loving in all relations with individuals, groups, classes, races, and nations.”
There was another who shared his dream of the church. While his regiment was still in England, he had become friends with Carl Werner, a large, vital and exuberant man, who was excited about what a community might be that took Christianity seriously. In their youthful enthusiasm it seemed to both of them that such a church would surely be empowered by the Spirit and infuse the whole of life. War would end. Men and women would put aside their arms-not because it was good strategy or something laid on their consciences to do, but because there would no longer be any need for weapons.
Wemer wrote home to the girl to whom he was engaged, describing the church and suggesting that when the war was over they go to Washington and help to get it started. She not only wrote back yes, but said that she had a friend who was a potential donor. “Please send a prospectus.” Gordon and Carl began work on it immediately and had the last draft almost completed when the invasion of Normandy began. After the landings were made, the intense fighting gave them no time to meet and plan the church. On the 16th of June, 1944, after days of fighting so fierce that they did not even try to see each other, Gordon picked up the casualty list and Carl Werner’s name leapt out from all the others.
He spent that long and anguished day picking up bodies and loading them onto trucks and then unloading them in a designated field. Literally hundreds were piled in that field when he left with the alcoholic jeep driver for a lonely plain several miles away where he was to bury the dearest friend he had-the man who had befriended with him a vision only dimly seen. In the spiritual biography that he wrote years later he told something of that day:
Powerfully disciplined German Panzer troops were a few miles away, covering the Normandy countryside. With a damp New Testamcnt in my hand opened at I Corinthians 15, save for one wizened alcoholic at my side, I was alone with an impossible dream. I knew the power of envy, a strange envy-the envy of my friend who was experiencing that which was denied to me for a while. I knew the power of the resurrection in the midst of unbearable loneliness and death. From that moment I knew that I could go on alone, if necessary. Faithfulness to what I had seen did not depend upon human support. Those agonizing years were to make me singularly unconcerned with “success.” Also I felt delivered in large measure from the fear of death. I was to be close to it many times during the next months, but its sting had becn removed. The impact of this quality of experiencing is difficult to describe. It is so vivid and real afterwards it is as hard to disbelieve as before it was hard to believe. There is another realm! To touch it is to live. To become immersed in it is the only worthwhile pursuit, to give it to others, the deepest joy.
As the war went on and the 101st Airborne Division moved into Germany, Gordon’s uneasiness about the larger church grew. Always he had felt the discrepancy between what the church proclaimed and what she embodied in her structure and life style. Now he was observing day by day men who had been raised in all the’ structures of the church, and yet were no more men of
faith than those raised outside her life. Under the pressures of fatigue and suffering, removed from law, order, family– the externals that in normal times keep things together for us all-they were confused and unable to detach themselves from the mores of a culture that sanctioned a different morality for war than for peace. It was a lawless morality that was to prevail for months in occupied Germany as though the peace had not been made. Again he was pondering the question of integrity of membership in the Body of Christ. What were the structures of the church that would so nurture men and women in discipleship that Christ would always have first priority in their lives no matter what the circumstances?
For two and a half years he and Mary had written back and forth to each other their dreams for the unnamed church, continuing by mail the conversation begun so long before around a kitchen table. Somewhere in their writing they begin to feel that it would be much easier to fulfill their dream outside the denominational framework. For one thing, their church would have to be interracial and, for another, it would have to be free to experiment with new structures. Few churches of the 1940’s allowed for either.
Building a Community
Fired by the vision of speaking a wondrous gospel through all the land, Gordon came home to begin The Church of The Saviour. He and Mary, together with Elizabeth-Anne, Mary’s sister, who was in training at Garfield Hospital in Washington, D.C., began holding an evening vespers service for the nurses-one of their flat efforts to let others know that they were “a church.”
The School of Christian Living opened with one student, a slow, conservative and unlettered lad whom they had known in Madison Heights, Virginia. Billy had no idea of what he was getting into when he moved to the Washington area and looked up his old friends. Ernest Campbell, at that time the minister of a church in Alexandria, made the living room of his house available as a classroom. For six months Gordon met with Billy to teach him doctrine, Christian growth, and Bible, meantime they struggled to determine what gift he might exercise on behalf of the new church. At long last they enthusiastically decided that it was running the mimeograph machine. Thereafter Gordon taught him as they worked together on mimeographing. When the year was over Billy was transferred by his employer to Iowa, leaving Gordon to wonder whether that first tone recruit might not have effected his own transfer in order to be free of involvement in an enterprise that was always slightly bewildering. In any case, Billy’s departure did not lessen the ardor of his instructor, who remained firmly convinced that the school, or “little seminary,” was essential training ground if the church was to have an inward life and move with any force in the world.
That year with Billy was in its way typical of Gordon Cosby’s ministry. He had issued a call to church and the Lord had sent one person; so he treated that uncomplicated youth as though the whole future of the church depended on him. In time he was to believe even more deeply in ordinary persons who, in turn, were to believe more deeply in themselves. This is probably why the community that has come into being under his leadership gives so little attention to credentials-a fact which is at first disappointing to those who come presenting degrees and programs to help us out of the trouble we are forever in. In all the years that I have been in this community no one has ever asked me which college I attended, although ministers from other places inquire about this as well as about my theological training. I have to tell them that I did not make it very often to grade school, but that I put in four hard years in high school. When they indicate that this is very fine, I am never sure whether they are trying to communicate acceptance of me, or whether their attitude implies a widespread conviction that our educational institutions are failing to provide the training needed to conduct our affairs and build community-always a work of art. If we are to build the church we must each day learn things we were never taught.
Paradoxically, this community which takes so little notice of degrees gives inordinate attention to education. Five classes are still required for membership in the church: Old Testament, New Testament, Doctrine, Christian Growth and Ethics. In addition, in every eleven-week semester a half-dozen other classes dealing with some aspect of the inward-outward journey are offered. They vary in content and focus, and range all the way from “discovery of self” to journalizing and contemplation. Classes are taught by those whose call and gifts identify them as teachers. They arc always persons well-informed in a subject they have pursued because of an absorbing interest. We have discovered that people usually communicate well the subjects that have stirred something deep within themselves. The Usual student-teacher relationship seldom prevails. Most of the classes are conducted in the manner of a seminar with each student presenting findings from the application of the week’s assignment in the living out of his or her fife.
Completion of two eleven-week classes in the school is a requirement for internship in one of the small groups. The fact that the five classes required for full membership take approximately two years always gives rise to the question, “How do you manage to find people who will go to school for that long a time?” The answer is that we do not try. The students who move through the school each year do not stop to consider that the classes are required for membership. They are not there to meet standards, but because it is a stimulating place to be. Most of us who have been in the membership for any length of time return to the school now and then for a new course that is being offered, or to review in our more “informed state” an old class.
When a person has had the equivalent of the subject matter covered in any one of the required courses, and if his small group concurs, we will waive the requirement for that class. The request, however, is seldom made. In the beginning we rather automatically gave special dispensation to ministers who came to be with us. After all, we reasoned, a person who has been to seminary and preached in a church would not need classes in New and Old Testament. We changed our attitude, however, when these same people later complained that they felt robbed-as though they had missed out on something intangible but essential for their belonging to the whole.
In the early days theology was taught and learned while the work of introducing prospective members to the community went on. The school assumed a more formal structure only as the church grew. One of the most powerful supporters was Mother Anne Campbell who was teaching a Bible class at her husband’s large, conventional Baptist church. She talked so enthusiastically about the church that was getting underway that, with her encouragement, several good Baptists ventured over into the new fold, and then they, in turn, lured a few more. Elizabeth-Anne was also issuing frequent calls at Garfield Hospital, while Gordon shared his life and dream with every likely and unlikely soul that crossed his path. The street evangelist of Lynchburg now had as his mission field the unchurched of the nation’s capital. Evcn so, at the end of the year the whole congregation numbered only nine.
Struggle for Integrity
These nine were bound together by a covenant written by Gordon’s brother, Peter Cosby, and printed on a small blue card that each member was to sign and carry. Included were such high and lofty statements as, “I unreservedly and with abandon commit my life and destiny to Christ, promising to give him a practical priority in all the affairs of life.” Through the years only a rare person ever questioned his or her capacity to fulfill the covenant. On the back of the card, however, were printed the disciplines that translated into specific and concrete terms the community’s understanding of what what covenant meant. Over these more prosaic, more explicit statements there was to be a falling away of would-be members who felt some of the sayings to be too hard.
The founding members, often petitioned to change them, could never bring themselves to do it. They had hammered out those disciplines in order to become the kind of community they envisioned. The disciplines also embodied their understanding of the nature of the church. They had included a discipline of praying because they understood the church of Jesus Christ to be a praying people. They had covenanted to meditate on Scripture every day because the church is a people informed and instructed by the word of God. They had agreed to give proportionately beginning at ten percent of their gross income because this was essential if they were to have a thrust into the world that would be exciting to them as well as to others. It early became evident that to reduce any one discipline was to reduce them all, for each individual struggled at a different point. One person who had difficulty with a set time of prayer would find the tithing concept quite acceptable, while another found the prayer discipline easy but the parting with money an unspeakable hardship.
The small fellowship was very early confronted with temptation from within their company. Their incomes were all meager. Elizabeth-Anne made $20 a month. Frank Cresswell was an intern doctor holding his young family together on $120 a month. Gordon was working part-time for a small Baptist church so that he would be free to spend the rest of his time with the new church. All were hampered financially-except for one member who, substantially employed, lent an air of financial respectability. He was the one who questioned the concept of “corporate disciplines” and “corporate responsibility. ” It was then that the little group began to be aware of the costliness of its call. They had to examine at a new level their definition of church as a voluntary community with a clearly defined life style. They talked for hours and hours, confronted and questioned their own motivations and convictions, and named aloud their fears of destroying the delicate fabric of the fellowship in the name of building it. There was no short cut through the painful work of coming face to face with the knowledge that treasured friends whose call and commitment led them by a different path would have to be allowed to leave.
Perhaps the experience of those weeks instructed the little community to write into its constitution the principle of annual recommitment. They agreed that during the third week of each October, having reflected on the commitment they had previously made, they would, if they could, again sign the membership book. Then, on Sunday they would stand and say together the covenant beginning, “I come today to renew my commitment to this local expression of the church …”
October came to be known as the month of “recommitment blues,” a term that gives some hint of the work going on in our lives. Gordon Cosby was to say that this concept, perhaps more than any other, was the one destined to be the most helpful in retaining integrity of membership. It was, and still is, a time for raising into fuller consciousness the high call of God in Christ, and our commitment to live out that call in one particular segment of his church. We had structured into our lives a period of self-examination against the backdrop of the covenant we had made and the disciplines we had pledged ourselves to keep. Sometimes, when October came we were made aware that we had become lukewarm, were in the process of drifting away, and were in need of help.
Occasionally a person discovered that she or he really “Wanted out” but was fearful of abandoning the community or of being abandoned by the community. However, moving out of membership at recommitment time rarely meant moving out of the church. Often a person has taken this step and then rejoined after an interval that can be very long or very short. Rather than a sign of defection, withdrawal from the membership is often a sign of health-a time when a person takes the distance needed for seeing again the choices that exist for renewing old covenants or making new ones. At the same time, the principle of annual recommitment offers recurring assurance that the members, in freedom, have bound themselves together under a covenant that not only describes who they are but also will help them in their journeying to where they want to be.
The community’s first purchase was an old rooming house complete with housekeeper and several roomers who stayed on and were caught up in the contagious exuberance of the new occupants. The previous residents helped with the painting and cast their lot with the odd but captivating band of newcomers. The question then was: Would there be money enough to buy the paint to carry on the next day’s work? That question still comes up as paint is needed for the restoration of apartments in the inner city. We know now that the community being born then was always to smell slightly of turpentine and have paint on its shoes. For more reasons than one, one of its missions bears the appropriate name of Jubilee Housing.
In those days we were blissfully ignorant of the houses for which we were to be the agents of transformation. Only a few years went by before the first quarters were obviously inadequate, and we acquired a twenty-three-room house and began again to scrub, scrape and paint. This old Victorian mansion still remains the headquarters and place of worship for the whole community. The corporate indebtedness was huge. We were then about thirty-two persons, probably twenty of whom were employed, and we owed about one hundred thousand dollars. Our distinction at that time was that we probably had the highest per capita indebtedness of any church in the country.
The work of renovation on the new building was scarcely completed when the group further increased its indebtedness by the purchase of 176 acres of land in the country. The membership had grown to thirty-six, and there were another fifty or sixty persons taking classes. Again there was a farmhouse to restore and the Lodge of the Carpenter to build. The large living room, kitchen, and dining room made it possible for eighteen persons to make day-long retreat. As we became more involved in the outward journey, it became more essential to give equal attention to the inward journey, and we began to think about weekend retreats that would give us more time in the silence. finally, we built behind the Lodge overnight facilities for eighteen retreatants. Each room has a single bed, a washbasin, a desk, two chairs, and a lamp. All the windows look out on woodland.
As we grew in our understanding of silence, we gave more emphasis to the contemplative life. When we become too busy, Dayspring is always there as a reminder that there is no true creativity apart from contemplation.
Struggle for Mission
The mission of the community now became the primary issue. The gifts of teaching had been identified, and basic classes were offered every semester. Church members met in small fellowship groups committed to worship, tithing, prayer, study, and corporate outreach. Not one of them, however, was able to agree on what its outreach would be. We sat in our little groups and discussed it week after week, but all our prayer, imagining, and investigation produced nothing which caught the common soul. We were slow to recognize that the very diversity of gifts made it impossible to find a corporate mission. One person would say, “Let’s have a street music group.” The next person would reply, “I’m tone deaf.’ Someone would suggest working with alcoholics, and another person would answer, “Not for me.” The exploration went on and on, and it seemed there was always someone to put out the fire in another.
Somewhere in the midst of it all it became clear that there was only one way to solve our dilemma. If the church was to find servant structures, the small groups had to be formed around focused and defined missions with each mission also committed to an inward journey of prayer, worship and study. This concept seems very simple to us now, but in those carry days there were no models and no guidelines, nor was there any confirmation of that toward which we struggled. Just about that time we came across what seemed like a very promising book. The writer was describing the very things we were committed to; more than that, he promised to offer help before he was done. Chapter followed chapter with no yielding of secrets. The pages were running out when the writer suggested that those wanting to pursue the matter further turn to the appendix. There one was advised to write to The Church of The Saviour in Washington, DC!
Gordon Cosby still feels that the churches, in their quest for structures that nurture life in people, must know that they are venturing into new territory, and that the resources for their exploration rest in the tremendous untapped potential of their own people. The difficulty is that we so often lack confidence in ourselves and in our companions and search for the answers in some other place.
The decision to abandon the small fellowship groups in order to form mission groups was again a tearing one. For one thing it meant parting with those with whom we had shared the very depths of ourselves, and with whom we had deep bonds. Secondly, some of us were not at all convinced it was essential; and thirdly, there was really no place to go. When it came right down to it, we had never taken seriously our own responsibility to hear call and to issue it. At one point it seemed that we were all milling around in a kind of anguished confusion, as of Egypt though we, too, had been brought out pt to die in the wilderness.
In the midst of the confusion Gordon walked with the sureness of one headed for a far better place. He stopped to reason, comfort and confront, but there was no question as to the direction in which he was set. Furthermore, it seemed not to disturb him that some felt torn up and anxious. To him it was a highly creative time-all a part of breaking up camp and moving toward the Lord who waited outside the camp. “To be a disciple,” he explained, “is to share in the life of which the Cross is the culmination. In the evolution of an individual, there is an inner work to be done, and that is always costly.” In his preaching and in his conversation he was reminding his own little band that the call of God was a call to create a new kind of community that would be distinguished by its humanness. It would be so human that those in it would do whatever was needed so that everyone in the world might be free. He was reissuing the call to which we had first made response. Later he was to tell the moderators of newly formed mission groups, “A time comes in the life of every group when it loses sight of its goals and must choose them again. Your job will be to sound again the call, to be the bearer of the vision-articulating it in your own life and helping others to see it.”
Waiting for Call
To help us through our impasse we formed classes in Christian Vocation. In these classes we were taking a deeper and longer look at the whole matter of call as having to do with the transcendent-the being grasped by that which is greater than we. We began with the basic assumption of the New Testament that there was no way to be the church except by the call of Christ, and that there were a number of dimensions to this call:
First, to a relationship with the Father as intimate as the one which Christ knew.
Second, to be persons in community with others responding to the same call, surrendering something of our authority that we might have a shared life and bring into existence a new community where the nature of the relationships would be such that each person would be called fully into being.
Third, to an inward developments call to change. We were to overcome those obstacles in ourselves which held us back and kept us from growing into the full stature of Christ. The call of Christ was a call to die to the old self in order to become the new creation.
Fourth, and not last, the call was to move out-to discover where we were to lay down our lives-to take up the stance of the suffering servant, and make witness to the power of Jesus Christ’s work in us.
The class dealt primarily with the fourth dimension. If the church is a sent people, where was Christ sending each of us? To what segment of the world’s need were we to make response? We began each session by sitting for an hour in silence, feeling that if any word was being addressed to us we had more opportunity of hearing it in the stillness of our own souls. Part of the work of the hour was to center deeply enough in ourselves to be in touch with our most central wish. Somehow we had then, and have now, the conviction that our wishes lie very close to “who we are” and what we are to be doing, and that to be in communion with them is to have a sense of being dealt with by the One -,who is Other.
We discovered in this class that too many of us had taken up our work without any sense of being called to it. “Vocation,” Gordon said, “has the element of faithfulness to your own inner being. You are enhanced by what you do. Your own awareness converges with some need out yonder and intersects with it in such a way that you have the sense that you were born to this.” Jesus said, “I must be about my Father’s business.”* He knew. His knowing was an inner one.
When the time of silence was over we timidly put forward any intimations of direction that had come to us. We were so uncertain and so consumed by misgiving that the question was inevitable: “Is not one’s call often shot through with self-doubt?”
We decided that doubt is a dimension that oftentimes is there, and that there is a time to move on in spite of it. In fact, we agreed that if anyone were too dogmatic about call, he or she needed to question it because there is always the possibility of acting out of some compulsive need rather than genuine call. Frequently along with the Call comes the feeling that one is not up to it. There is a sense of unworthiness in relationship to what one sees. “Who am I to be called to bring into existence anything so significant? Surely there are other people more qualified to do it.” This is what Moses felt. He was forever protesting that Yahweh could choose someone better equipped for the job, someone who talked more convincingly than he did. Jeremiah said flatly that he was too young, even going to the extreme in that declaration, “‘I am only a child.’ But the Lord said, ‘Do not call yourself a child; for you shall go to whatever people I send you and say whatever I tell you to say.”‘* All of us resist in some way the new thing into which we are drawn that demands a whole new dimension of creativity on our part. We do not want to be responsible in this way. “It may be,” says Gordon, “that if a person responds too eagerly, he is not seeing the whole picture and is not aware of the problems of implementation, so that he goes into it with large areas of unconsciousness.”
Despite our expectancy and all the assurance and encouragement we gave to each other, no one was addressed by a Voice, which is the real meaning of having a vocation. Perhaps it was because we were too disbelieving, or too unpracticed in the process in which we were engaged, or perhaps we were too literal in our understanding of call-expecting somehow that God was going to descend out of heaven and summon us as we sat with heads bowed. Actually call was to come to most of us through the ordinary events of life, which were to be extraordinary events because we brought to them a new quality of asking and listening.
In the spring of that long year Gordon and Mary made what might have been a routine trip to a church in New England where Gordon gave the Lenten address. They found the atmosphere in the church cold and the congregation unbending, and they left with a feeling of wanting to put that whole, dark church far behind them. They drove for a long distance, before they stopped at a country inn and were given the last available room, which happened to be above the tavern. The noises from that tavern drifted up to them and disturbed their sleeping, but somewhere in the night Gordon thought, “Christ would be more at home in that tavern than back in the church we just left.”
The next morning he and Mary had breakfast in a small restaurant across the street from the inn, and there again the friendliness and warmth made him think, “Christ would be more at home in this restaurant than in the church.” They went home to tell the class in Christian Vocation that a way should be found to take the church to the restaurants of the city. Out of the discussion that followed emerged the idea of a coffee house and, in the naming of it, call was heard. Gordon and Mary and several others knew that they were called. Some felt that it was not for them, but encouraged the sounding of the call in the larger congregation. Twelve people responded, and the mission was under way.
When The Potter’s House finally opened a year later we had been joined by others, and with everyone working two and sometimes three times a week we were able to keep open on six nights. The disciplines for members and intern members were decided upon and within a few months there were eight or ten people to staff each of the nights and thus each night had its own mission group. Here we were to develop and expand the concept of gift-evoking that has become so central to our life. People who had not been able to understand what a coffee house had to do with the church caught the idea the moment they went through the doors. The Potter’s House, on that ghetto street, remains a sign of hope; “its own excuse for being.”
In the meantime others began to hear call and to issue call, and new missions were born. Three were committed to keeping strong the home base and equipping us for ministry. The first of these was the Retreat Mission group , which had among its responsibilities deepening the community’s life of prayer and the nurturing of the the mission groups in the whole concept of retreat. Then there was the group that had as its concern the children of the church. Another group took on the responsibility of the School of Christian Living, incorporating into that structure the whole concept of mission as it was being developed. Our sermons, classes, and conferences were all concerned with helping others to hear call and discern gifts. We found ourselves so often asking, “What is it that you want to do now that you are six?” “What would you like to do now that you are fifty and the children are away and you have the new gift of time” “What do you want to do now that you are eighty, and have the resources of a whole lifetime to bring to every work?”
“What would you like to do?” is a question we still ask indiscriminately-of the very young and the very old, of poor and rich, oppressed and oppressors, and then we listen very carefully and take with utmost seriousness what a person says.
As more people began to hear call, more missions came into being. These calls were first explored in the small community of one’s close friends, and later in the larger community. We began to know that it can be painful to have one’s vision tested by people who are not friendly to it, or who ask what seem to be unimportant questions. We soon discovered, however, that the corporate input forced us to refine and sharpen our thinking and enlarge the dream. In the end we worked out a procedure requiring every mission to be confirmed by the Church Council. This never meant to us that everyone had to be enthusiastic about every call.
Oftentimes we have had to be willing to let another move even when we have large reservations. Our learning to do this with a certain degree of ease, probably more than any other factor, accounts for the proliferation of mission groups in the community of The Church of The Saviour. This does not mean that we easily deal with anxiety, angry feelings and ego needs. Some have learned slowly to reason with unreasonable fears, and for them the pain has been very great. Others have discovered that there is nothing lonelier in all the world than to live in the midst of those who know community and to feel in one’s own heart estranged, or to be at the center of a gift-evoking group where there is no one to receive what one has to give, and from time to time some of us find ourselves in those desolate stretches of land. Always, too, we have found it incredibly hard to hold to the concept of the inward and outward journeys. We early discovered that not many persons want them both. Weighted heavily on one side or the other, most of us struggle intensely to keep these two dimensions in any kind of creative tension in our individual and our corporate lives.
A Mission Is Defined
Every mission group has known not only its beginning excitement and small triumphs but its extremely difficult times. For The Pottcr’s House one such time came in the spring of 1965. Having freely released a number of its people to follow other calls and to join new missions, it found itself understaffed. This made The Potter’s House groups especially vulnerable to the arguments of those who wanted to help staff it without subscribing to all the disciplines or participating in the School of Christian Living. We were too often won to thinking that not everyone can travel the same path, and that some people were just too individualistic to subscribe to our recommendations. So we began to make exceptions, which we still do, but the exceptions became the norm, and the whole character of the evenings began to change. Fortunately, it didn’t work very well. Group members were inconsistent in their attendance, and when they did come they ceased to find what had attracted them in the first place. Even the customers dropped away, and the receipts went down and put the whole enterprise in the red.
One weekday afternoon The Potter’s House Council, made up of one member from each of the groups, met and accepted what was an astounding and risky recommendation. What Gordon in essence proposed was that we agree to close The Potter’s House, that all persons then staffing it be released from their commitment, and that on the following Sunday a new call be issued, re-forming The Potter’s House around highly disciplined groups.
“What if enough people do not respond?” we asked. “At least now we can keep it open, and try to work out something.”
“I think that would be a mistake,” Gordon replied. “If we do not make the issue sharp enough, it will have no teeth in it.”
“But,” someone said, “it is going to stir up a lot of feeling and anxiety.”
Gordon thought that just might be a good thing. He felt that we had let the whole matter drift into the present state and that, although we had voiced concerns before, we had not dealt with them.
I can remember that afternoon: his lounging in the chair in a characteristic way, enjoying our surprise, and by his very attitude injecting expectancy and challenge into a meeting that was shrouded in gloom when it started. Before long we were caught up in what he was proposing, though I vividly recall thinking at the time, “We would never have come to this on our own,” and wondering what made him so much freer and more trusting than most people seemed to be.
The answer may lie in what he said to a friend who asked him a question he is often asked, “What do you think the future of the church is?” He replied, “I have never had a helpful answer to that question. Have no idea. I do not know what the judgments of God are or what will be the breakthroughs of God’s power.” Then he stopped for a long pause and added, “I do not need the church to have a visible or successful future in order for me to feel safe as a person. I’m glad to leave it to God’s sovereignty. It is his church-not mine.”
The call that Gordon issued that Sunday morning was to a more rigorous and disciplined inward journey than any of the small groups had corporately adopted. The time that we set aside each day to work on the disciplines was increased from a minimum of thirty minutes to fifty minutes. Three new disciplines were added to those that the membership kept: daily writing in a journal, a report of accountability to be made each week to the group’s spiritual director, and a weekly day of fast. The day of fast has become an optional discipline, but most of the members now keep a journal on some consistent basis and write a weekly report for the group’s spiritual director.
The call sounded by Gordon that Sunday came as good news to many, and The Potter’s House entered into a whole new era of creativity. This was the year that the riots had been contained in the surrounding streets only by the threatening presence of a large police force. The groans of the oppressed were heard everywhere, and The Potter’s House became the seedbed of new missions.
It was now open during the day, and it was also opening every morning to give a hot breakfast to forty neighborhood schoolchildren, pending the time the local school could expand its program. We bought a small house in the neighborhood and initiated a program for senior citizens that included a hot midday meal. Bit by bit we were being freed from old ways and customs. We had once claimed Thanksgiving and Christmas days for ourselves and closed the doors to a lonely city. Somewhere along the way we began serving Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners for all who would come. Many of our families gathered up their own children and arrived bearing armloads of food as well. Poor and rich, black and white, well and sick, young and old were there, and there was always enough for all who came.
The Covenant is Questioned
Our grappling with the disciplines was not over. So many ministers look at the structures we have arrived at and, with no idea of the pain involved, feel that it would be so much easier to start out fresh and call a new congregation into existence around a different understanding of church. They feel that in their own denominations a tremendous pressure is exerted to increase the number of members. “Being the church,” said one young minister, “means doing something to bring more people in. Success is not measured in faithfulness but in how many names are on the rolls.”
To fight for integrity of membership within existing structures is certainly extraordinarily difficult, but there is hardly any path that frees one from that struggle. In all of us something powerful is at work which seeks to remake the new concepts into the old. “Community” can quickly be changed into “conformity,” and “call” into “duty.” I like in Exodus the statement that says, “God did not guide them by the road … that was the shortest; for he said, ‘The people may change their minds when they see war between them, and turn back to Egypt.”‘* It is so easy to turn back when conflict without or warring factions thin threaten our peace.
And then there is the old monastic cycle: devotion produces discipline, discipline produces abundance, and abundance destroys discipline. The cycle moves inexorably on and tremendous effort is required to break its pattern when we come to the place where discipline is sliding.
Our own time of terrible crisis came in October of 1969. On the third Sunday of that month, for the first time in the twenty-two years of the church’s history no one stood up to make his or her commitment. We did not follow the tradition of annually renewing our covenant because the fourth discipline, “Be a vital contributing member of one of the confirmed groups, normally on corporate mission,” was in question.
We had had difficulty with this discipline before. In the spring of 1965 we had held a meeting of the members in which three persons presented the differing viewpoints. After several weeks of discussion, the fourth discipline was confirmed; exceptions, however, would be made for illness and for those who wanted to meet together to deal concretely and creatively with their everyday vocations as mission in the world. No effort was made to cover every possible exception since it was emphasized that flexibility and openness to the guidance of the Holy Spirit would always be the primary emphases in any decision, and that we could never insist On simple adherence to the law.
We thought then that the matter had been settled, but four years later when we looked one day at our mission group rolls we had to face the fact that one-fourth of our members were in no group at all. Again, we came together to look at the painful matter of our division. Once more we gave over our congregational meetings to careful consideration of the fourth discipline. Recommitment Sunday was postponed Until we arrived at a decision as to exactly what our commitment was to be.
The question was whether a part or all of the congregation would normally be on mission in membership structures which include the inward and outward dimension. It was obvious that there was a real difference in judgment at this point. Some felt that the inward-outward structure of the mission groups defined the church as a servant people called into existence to be the community for others. Many contended that this was too narrow a definition and that one was often better able to live out one’s servanthood in individual mission. To this the cry came back, “Where then is the place of accountability? Where does one grapple with one’s own darkness and gifts, struggle with being a person in depth relationship with others? Where does the church embody in her structures what she proclaims from her pulpit?” The reply came: “We could contain both emphases and let those who wanted the corporate dimension be in mission groups, and let the others live on a more individualistic basis.”
Gordon said decisively that he did not believe that we could contain both viewpoints under the same organizational and institutional roof without seriously blunting and ultimately losing that which has been our peculiar vision. He further said that he did not believe additional dialogue would serve any constructive purpose. He reminded us that we were not at the beginning of the process, but at the end of one which had been going on for four years. He said that he felt that the question was not one of further defining our differences, but the more one of deciding what we were to do about our differences. “How do we free those with different calls to be faithful to those calls?”
When the long weeks of anguish were over, the fourth discipline was again reaffirmed. At least a half-dozen persons did not make their recommitment that day in late March. Some remain close and dear friends who continue to follow a costly and radical obedience to the Word, as they hear it, and one can only affirm that the for any of us is to do the will of God and humbly to pray the prayer of Thomas Merton, “I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.” , Every religion and every denomination is founded on division defined in disciplines that enable a people to move toward that which they see. Most of these disciplines make our own look shabby, but somewhere along the way they have been abandoned. They remain in the books , but are not taken with any seriousness. My guess is that our own experience gives glimpses of what may have happened. Because we do not want to exclude anyone, we bend to everyone’s wish and in the end have no style of life which is noticeably different from that of any other grouping of people. We give no one anything to be up against. We have been transformed by the world-not by the secular outside us but by the secular within us, that part that believes so fervently that something can be had for nothing and that we should not have to choose.
What we did at that important juncture in our life was to face the importance of structurally implementing a description of “Who we are.” “Verbal assent,” said Gordon, “can mean little. The implementing structures are crucial.” We ended up by saying that the members of the church would live out their lives in small groups on corporate mission. To drop out of a mission group would literally be to drop out of membership in the church. The Council as the governing body of the church was reorganized as a “Mission Council,” comprised of two representatives from each confirmed mission group, who served in rotating order for a period of a year. Representatives reported to their groups what transpired in Council meetings. Any decisions made were binding on the whole membership. When the Council determined that an issue was of such nature as to require confirmation by the total membership, a general congregational meeting was called.
Economics and Mission
After those days call was more often heard. Each year one or two new missions were launched. A common practice was to give our Christmas and Easter offerings to the newest of them, so that it would have seed money. Most of the missions were eventually able to support their own work. However, when the annual budget was planned, the individual groups, having carefully considered their needs, presented them to the budget committee.
Our mission group structures are tougher and more durable because they have had to cope with the financial dimension. A group responsible for its own finance is not likely to close shop for the summer or to show laxity in ways that it might if someone else were footing the bill. Furthermore, when the money is ours we relate to the whole sphere of economics in a way that would not otherwise happen. This became increasingly evident as our missions in the inner city placed us in the midst of the poor. We returned to our homes at night feeling less easy with our own life styles.
Our dis-ease was intensified in the fateful year of 1968 when rioting in our streets tore veils from our eyes, and !et us see in searing ways some of the misery of the oppressed. We looked differently at the boarded-up apartment building a few doors from The Potter’s House and all of the decaying firetrap apartments and row houses in neighboring streets where the poor lived in crowded, miserable rooms, existing in what one reporter called “Dickensian squalor.”
As we came to see more clearly the faces of those submerged in the crushing poverty of our own city, it became obvious that only those engaged in the struggles of the poor were going to be able to speak to them any message of God’s reign. Around the tables of The Potter’s House the conversation often turned to what we might do. The group which staffed The Potter’s House on Thursday night began to give their attention to the massive problem of inadequate housing. They began to talk about purchasing an apartment house in the street behind The Potter’s House and working with the tenants to upgrade it without raising the rents. In those days the foundations were laid for Jubilee Housing and for missions in education, health care and job placement that would come into being in the neighboring streets. When spring came the members of the new Jubilee mission group made the down payment on what would be the first of nine slum buildings that it would purchase and renovate in the years to come. Workshops in paperhanging, glass cutting, and plastering were scheduled, and people who never in a million years would have seen the inside of a slum apartment were engaged in the renovation of one.
Everyone’s Gift Counts
Once a group came into existence, we struggled with naming the gifts of the members. The naming of call and the identification of gifts were soon extended to those touched by the mission. We asked Mrs. Henry, who was in our dinner program for the aged, “What would you like to do?”
“Nothing,” she replied. “Nothing is what I want to do. For forty years I left home at 6:00 in the morning and traveled by streetcar and bus so that I could get to my place of work and have breakfast on the table by 7:30. I cooked three meals a day for that family, did their washing and cleaning, and reared their children. When I finished their dishes at night I went home and had to do for my own family. No, I don’t plan to do nothing but sit, and sit, and sit. I never want to work again.”
We learned then that evoking the gifts of those who live in the inner city asked something different of us. Mrs. Henry would not easily believe that her gifts of mind and spirit were needed in the liberation movement. Like so many thousands of the urban poor, she had left her rural home as a young person to pursue the promise of work and a better life in the city. She no longer believed in much of anything. She did not think about salvation for herself or for anyone else. Vast numbers of the poor, however, had another attitude. They had a growing consciousness of their right to participate in the working out of their own destiny, and were forcefully, sometimes angrily, presenting their claims. Others, deprived of opportunity for creativity, initiative, and space in which to move and rest, experienced rage, apathy, or despair.
If the listening to call and the exercising of gifts were unfamiliar concepts in our middle-class congregations, they were stranger still to those in the inner city where choice so seldom exists. And yet, the calls to which we then responded were not issued from the pulpit. They were sounded by the oppressed on the streets of the city, in tenement buildings and rat-infested alleys. By their very presence the poor were asking that we do more than ” sit, and sit, and sit.” “Hear, you who have ears to hear, what the Spirit says to the churches!”* ‘Rev. 2:1 1, NEB.
In our small church community the mission groups began to multiply. They were structures that Gordon Cosby had helped to form and that were, in turn, forming him. Although his life was given to working with all the small groups, he was a member of only one, subject to its covenant, under the authority of those whose gifts had been confirmed, his heart and mind enlarged and stretched by commitment to the few. He was sometimes advised that his ministry would be increased if he divided his time equally among all the groups, but he remained unconvinced. He believed too passionately that strong leadership existed within all the groups. He was, however, and still is available to any group as guide and counselor. Sometimes he is called in at points of crisis to be a reconciler. More often he counsels a group in the early stages of its formation when members are defining their strategy,
The mission structure gave us a people to companion us in our individual freedom movement. Everyone struggles to break away from the oppressive inner structures that make us all prisoners of one kind or another. We need a people to journey with us out of our own .,Egypt into the broad land that is promised to all who believe in Him. “The Son will make you free.” The expression of our own freedom will, in the end, be the only credible statement that each of us makes on freedom. Some will be freed for work in ghettos, others to strive for justice in county jails, in halls of government, ,,on boards of industry, or in the writing of a poem.
Arts and Mission
One mission made up of artists was called The Alabaster Jar. Those who labored out of guilt or to satisfy some inner Pharaoh asked what all the “entertainment” had to do with mission and the liberation movement. “After all, we, too, could do a little writing or painting if we didn’t have the poor so much with us.” . While it is true that not many artists have made profound statements on social issues, the reason may be that we have not allowed them to live in the midst of the people of the God of the freedom movement. It is so much easier to believe in what one can see, and anyway, who really can know what an artist does with all his or her time? Moreover, artists forsake themselves for fear they are betraying the community