Our History

David Hilfiker

September 24, 2017
Texts: Acts 2:44-46; Acts 4:32-37

This won't be a sermon, exactly.  Rather, it's the third in a series of teachings from the Servant Leaders mission group about who we are as a community.

One way of understanding the Bible is as history: the history of the People of God.  This history is

  • sometimes surprising,
  • sometimes miraculous,
  • sometimes apocryphal,
  • sometimes inspiring,
  • sometimes boring,
  • sometimes exaggerated,
  • sometimes disappointing … but
  • it's always our history, and it offers important insights into who were are as a people now.

This morning, I'd like to talk about another history … our history of the Church of the Saviour and the Eighth Day faith community.  Some of you know it better than I; some of you hardly at all.  But together we can mine it for any clues as to who we are today and where we might be heading.

The origin story of the Church of the Saviour is a bit dramatic.  Gordon Cosby was a chaplain during the Second World War.  On the night before the D-Day invasion, Gordon visited the troops in his charge.  They knew that many of them would die the next day.  How were they feeling about it? he asked.  How had they prepared?  Were they ready for whatever happened tomorrow?  Of course, virtually all were scared, but what stood out for Gordon was that even the men he knew to be devoutly Christian were, in fact, no more prepared to die than the others.  Gordon understood Christianity to be a way of life and death and resurrection. Why were his Christian troops no more prepared than any others?

Gordon came away believing that for too many Christians, their religion was just that, only a religion, a formal place of belonging: something for Sunday morning but nothing that formed their lives.  He wrote to his fiancé Mary Campbell and together they dreamed of a new church that would transform the lives of its members and prepare them to give those lives to Christ. 

At the center of that preparation were the Christian practices, composing an outward journey and an inward journey.  Others would attend the church, but for covenant members, the journey outward was mission, movement into the pain of the world, along with proportional giving beginning with a 10% tithe.  The journey inward was a commitment to silence and to a relationship with God: prayer, Scripture study, journaling, meditation, and study.  We tend to forget that Gordon didn't claim that these particular practices were the necessary practices of faithful Christians; rather, they were the disciplines that this community had chosen because they found them useful in their journey inward.  What was important was not so much the particular disciplines but the conscious commitment to daily practices that led to Christian growth, what Gordon called "integrity of membership." 

  Gordon was wise enough about human beings to know that commitment was one thing, but day-to-day follow-up was something else.  How many New Year's resolutions do we keep?  Without accountability, it's just too easy to slide away from even what we've chosen for ourselves.

For some people "accountability" is a dirty word.  Apparently, in some churches, "accountability" means hounding you, disciplining you or even shaming you into the practices expected of members.  In Church of the Saviour, however, accountability is a relationship with another person helping us on the path that we've chosen.  It's a regular (often weekly) check-in with another person about our spiritual lives in general, one part of which is the role of the disciplines.  It's specifically not to blame or shame one another into compliance but to remind ourselves regularly that this is what we as members have chosen to do in order to deepen our relationships with God. 

Several years ago here at Eighth Day, we instituted community membership, which differs from covenant membership mostly in the non-specificity of the disciplines.  Covenant members follow the practices I mentioned before.  Community members, too, are accountable to another person, but that accountability is to identify and support the specific practices that help them in their spiritual lives.  A regular daily practice is important, but it may differ from one person to another.  If it really doesn't help, find another.  But knowing that we'll be reporting regularly helps us keep on the track we're committed to. 

Initially Church of the Saviour structured small groups that met around personal sharing and other elements of the inward journey.  The hope was that out of the small groups would come a common outward journey.  But usually everybody seemed to have different ideas about what would be the best mission.  So the church decided the inward journey groups should actually form around the mission.  A person called to a mission "sounds their call" (as they referred to it) within the community and encourages others to join them in that mission.  It's corporate  mission, so only if two or more commit to the call can a mission group form to continue the inward journey together.

Part of the inward journey is regular silent retreats.  In 1954, three young women were commissioned to find a rural location for a retreat center.  They found a farm (which was, in fact, like the apostle Paul's conversion, "on the road to Damascus") and they tried to negotiate a price with the owner.  But he waved them off and called Gordon, saying that he wanted to negotiate with a person of responsibility, by which he obviously meant male and older.  Gordon answered: They are the people of responsibility; negotiate with them or no one.  So Dayspring was born.  During the 1950s, the church community spent many of its weekends together on the land, with their children, fixing things up and doing the work themselves building the Lodge of the Carpenter, where we still hold our silent retreats.

From the very beginning, the Church of the Saviour was committed to racial equality, which was no small thing in segregated Washington.  Verna Dozier was an African American who became a spiritual director; Esther Dorsey managed the Potter's House; Thelma Jones was a founding member of Eighth Day; and there were others.  Church of the Saviour was also politically active.  Gordon went down with other pastors to march with Martin Luther King in Selma.  Fred and others were at the 1963 March on Washington. 

The story goes that on a trip home from speaking at a church in New England, Gordon and Mary stayed overnight at an inn.  Listening to all the talking, joking, laughing, and music in the pub downstairs, they realized how much more life there was in such a place when compared to the church they'd just visited.  That was the inspiration for the Potter's House coffee house, a "church in the market place" that would draw in a variety of people--some churched, some un-churched­--for evenings of coffee, food, and conversation.  A different mission group each evening served as staff but always available for conversation.  Reputedly the Potter's House, founded in 1960, was the first church coffee house in the country.

Several things in this early history might be instructive for us.

  • The Church of the Saviour is about personal transformation. 
  • Such transformation requires specific practices with regular accountability to another person; it's too easy to slide away when things get rough.
  • Both an inner spiritual life and an outer practical commitment are essential to such growth.  Inward and outward journeys inspire one another, and the spiritual life is incomplete without both.  Later on, we recognized community as the third leg of the stool that keeps us stable.
  • We try to live not through cultural norms but through a commitment to follow Jesus.  African Americans were part of the church from the beginning.  The three young women were given complete authority to buy Dayspring, not exactly the norm at the time.  Action for racial and social justice has been an integral part of our history.
  • Christian education is central.  Five core courses were required for membership, and the School of Christian Living was an essential part of the church.  But the school's classes were not only for new members; covenant members also attended both required and optional courses.  They were bubbling, life-giving times.

One of the first major Church of the Saviour projects was to take on the District bureaucracy in the ultimately successful effort to shut down Junior Village, the poorly-run city orphanage.  Under Fred Taylor's leadership, multiple mission groups formed to take on different tasks.  Eventually other church communities were brought in and many people became long-term foster parents for individual children.  Although it's not always been easy or straightforward, the church has never shied away from politically difficult issues.

Early on, a young member, Elizabeth O'Connor, wrote the book Call to Commitment, followed by a number of other books about the church.  These books became well-known in the national religious community, inspiring people from across the country to visit, and sometimes stay, specifically to join the church.  That was Marja and my reason for moving to Washington in 1983.  We wanted to be part of this exciting community. 

In 1974 Gordon decided that--at a little over one hundred members--the church was too big to have only one pastor, and the body should move into the New Land, splitting into six separate, smaller communities.  This was not a popular decision among everyone and some even left the community.  One of the poorly kept secrets of the church, however, is that Gordon could at crucial times be very convincing but also something of an autocrat.  Eighth Day came into being in 1976.

From the very beginning, the Church of the Saviour acted upon the New Testament understanding of "the priesthood of all believers."  By committing themselves to the covenant, members were considered ordained ...  eligible, for instance, to officiate at weddings.  Eighth Day, however, went a little further with the priesthood of all believers.  We chose deliberately not to have a pastor at all.  Worship leaders and teachers rotate, drawn from the church body.  One of the most important parts for me personally, is that we each serve each other communion.  Especially in a church of such diversity, receiving communion from others is often for me a deep spiritual experience.

When Marja and I moved here, Eighth Day was well-known for its energy, youthfulness, music and the members' emphasis on playing together.  We've always been one of the larger of the nine communities. 

There have been a number of significant transitions at Church of the Saviour and Eighth Day since our founding.  For instance, the 70s and 80s were a time of large mission formation: Jubilee Housing, Jubilee Jobs, Academy of Hope, Christ House, Joseph's House, Sarah's Circle and many others.  But I can think of no similar mission since 1990 that has come out of Eighth Day (Bethany came more out of Jubilee Church).  Many of our missions now focus on our life together as a church: New Creation mission group, Worship, and Servant Leaders.

Obviously, we've become an older church.  Those young, energetic people of the late 70s are forty years older now.  Significantly, not a single covenant member here has come to Church of the Saviour in over two decades.  One of the unresolved questions is: Why does our covenant membership comprise only such long-time Church of the Saviour people?  Should we do anything about it; if so, what?

One possible answer is that the covenant-member disciplines do not speak to new people, anymore.  It's helpful to recognize that for the first half of its life, the Church of the Saviour was a national church, drawing its members from across the country, people attracted by the special commitment.  We're now a local church with a much smaller pool of people to draw from.  Is it realistic to expect we'll find from the local area enough people who want the same level of time and energy commitment we used to find from the national pool? 

Perhaps. Several years ago, we introduced the category of "community membership."  The basic difference between covenant and community membership is that community members don't need to commit to the pre-determined practices.  Rather, they work with another person to identify the practices that bring them deeper into the spiritual life.  They then commit themselves to accountability relationships with another person.  That change--that invites people into different sets of disciplines--has more than doubled the size of our total membership.  But is having two "levels" of membership consistent with our commitment to the priesthood of all believers?  We haven't yet resolved the issue.

In recent years, Eighth Day has had to deal with the issue of diversity and institutional racism.  It hasn't been easy for us, and members of the congregation still see certain things differently from one another.  But we all agree that we want to be open and welcoming to differences in race, age, intellectual capacities, economic status, and formal education.  Exactly what "open and welcoming" means, however, is not yet completely clear.  But the struggle continues, clearly within the Church of the Saviour tradition. 

The church has been a faithful and powerful body.  The task for Eighth Day now, I think, is to learn from our history but not get trapped by it.  Remembering Gordon's limited respect for traditions--even those he began--may be helpful here.  For instance, when Gordon pushed the community into the New Land, ending the church as people knew it, he was refusing to be trapped by the success of their past structure.  Again, in the 1990s, Gordon founded the Church of Christ Right Now, which had no worship service at all but was a gathering based on the structure of Alcoholics Anonymous.  Minimal respect for tradition has been a characteristic of Eighth Day, too.  We ditched having a pastor but maintained the priesthood of all believers.  We changed communion radically so that each of us "priests" serves one another.  In creating community membership, we maintained accountability for practices that brought us closer to God, but allowed individuals to choose for themselves what worked for them.  We've become more conscious and deliberate about welcoming the vulnerable into full participation.  And so on.

So, what are our next steps?  What do we let go of?  What do we build upon?  We have a powerful tradition. But none of us wants to be bound by it.  I'd suggest that over the next weeks and months, perhaps especially at the Camp Meeting in two weeks, we engage one another, one-on-one or in small groups, to seek our way forward.  Perhaps the most important part of our tradition is our willingness to embrace change.  That's one tradition I suggest we keep.