Gordon Cosby is the man partly responsible for my 30-year career as a healthcare chaplain. Few outside a certain circle have ever heard about him or the congregation he co-founded with his wife, Mary, the Church of the Saviour (CofS). But there is a rather wide circle of folks who owe much of who we are to Gordon and Mary.
I left a thriving church youth ministry in Macon, Georgia in 1978 and moved my family to Washington, DC, just so I could be part of what he and Mary started. What they had done drew scores, if not hundreds, to leave home, jobs, and traditional churches behind. So we sold a home in Macon and put all our worldly belongings in a Ryder truck and moved here with our two kids. I worked as a carpenter for a year then for four years directed one of CofS’s ministries trying to create jobs for hard-to-employ people.
Gordon preceded me at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville by maybe 35 years. He served as an army chaplain with a combat unit in the Second World War. Convinced there was a better way to do church he and Mary started a congregation with just a handful people. The guiding principles were few: integrity of membership, commitment to mission, and commitment to prayer and the inner spiritual life.
By 1983, the job with the inner-city ministry was coming to an end and I was facing a time of unemployment. Gordon was approached by Charmaine and Robert Bainum, owners of Fairfax Nursing Center (Virginia), asking him if he could suggest someone to serve as chaplain at their nursing home. Robert knew Gordon through their joint concern for Cambodian refuges in Thailand. Gordon suggested me. I interviewed and got the half-time position. I don’t know if they interviewed anyone else. . . . Gordon was just that respected.
I knew precious little about healthcare. It was on-the-job training. I was ten years out of seminary and out of work. I thought I would give it a try. It turned into being a real call. After six months at half-time I asked if we could make it a full-time position. Turned out I liked it that much. They said yes and I was at the nursing center until 1996 when I moved over to hospice.
“Call.” It’s a big word around Church of the Saviour. It wasn’t so mysterious. What is my passion? What do I really care about? If you could find another person who shared your passion you could announce a call to start a new mission group. I witnessed the birth of many missions to serve the poor in Washington and around the world. Common folk who felt called stepped up to live out that call.
My call to healthcare chaplaincy followed my actually being hired to do the work. Details. But call it has turned out to be. It has been a passion that has broadened to helping all the deaths in this country to be more compassionate. When I introduced my second book, Light in the Shadows, to my colleagues at hospice in 1999, one of social workers commented, “Hank, you really have found your niche.” My immediate response was, “No. My niche found me.”
Sometimes call works that way.
As I sought ways to minister to severely demented patients on our Alzheimer’s unit I am sure Gordon’s influence was with me. He was the embodiment of servant leadership. In the early days of the jobs program at CofS, I worked with a housekeeping crew that cleaned apartments to prepare them to rent. Gordon came to visit us one day at a work site. He found me on my knees cleaning up the filth around a toilet. He laughed and commented, “Bet they never told you about this part of ministry at the Southern Baptist Seminary!” Indeed they didn’t, but I saw Gordon set tables at the Potter’s House coffee house or sit with a drug addict who was sorting out his life.
How could I “reach” the demented nursing home patient? Bible studies didn’t work and they couldn’t track my sermons at chapel. I found playing my guitar and singing the old gospel songs connected. I wasn’t very good but they didn’t seem to care. I also learned to hand feed patients. I would show up on the dementia unit at lunch time and tell the nurse, “I could help feed some people but I don’t want any spitters or chokers.” I am reminded of Jesus words, “Whenever you have done it to the least of these you have done it unto me.” Gordon lived those words.
Jim Wallis of Sojourners wrote, “Gordon Cosby taught us how to live by the Gospel and, in these last years and months, he also showed us how to die. In one of my many visits near the end of his life, Gordon said to me in his deep graveling voice, ‘I am enjoying dying.’ What a Gospel thing to say.”
How would my life have been different if Gordon had not given my name to the Bainums? I may have found my way to the bedsides of the dying. I don’t know. Don’t have to. He did and here I am thirty years later. Thanks Gordon.