Bishop Joseph Gossman, who died yesterday, was a great friend of the North Carolina Council of Churches. He led the Diocese of Raleigh into full membership in the Council in 1977, when Catholic membership in ecumenical organizations was very unusual. He supported our work for social justice as he believed strongly in Jesus’ call to minister to the least of these AND in the importance of creating systems which lifted people out of poverty and vulnerability. And he believed in doing it ecumenically, with his brothers and sisters in Christ.
For his ministry in these areas, the Council presented him with its Distinguished Service Award in 2006. In informing him of his naming, I noted that the selection committee had mentioned his leadership in bringing the Diocese into the Council; his powerful opposition to the death penalty and to war; and his influential hand in farmworker issues, including the settlement of the Mt.Olive boycott. Council Executive Director Emeritus Collins Kilburn, a long-time ally and friend, presented the award.
Bishop Gossman hired Sr. Evelyn Mattern to create the Diocese’s Office of Peace and Justice, and it was through that position that she came to work for the Council. At the farewell luncheon for Sr. Evelyn almost ten years ago, as she was going back to Philadelphia with terminal cancer, he noted, “When you get a letter from someone complaining about her, you just know they’re wrong!”
I first met Bishop Gossman in the early ‘80s, when I worked for the Baptist State Convention. There was a fledgling organization called the Land Stewardship Council of NC. It was one of the earliest faith-based groups to address care of God’s creation. I went to a planning meeting representing the Convention. Bishop Gossman was there for the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh. I learned a great ecumenical lesson that day. My Baptist upbringing had taught me that congregational polity was always superior to hierarchical polity. In that meeting, we came to the point of deciding how we would finance this pioneering organization for creation care. I explained that, in true Baptist form, I would take a budget request to the Christian Life Council, which would take it to the General Board, which would take it to the annual session of the Baptist State Convention in November. So we wouldn’t know until some six months in the future what our level of funding would be. When it came Bishop Gossman’s time to speak of support, he said simply, “I’m in for $4,000.”
The other story I’d tell about Bishop Gossman was my first meeting with him after becoming Executive Director of the NC Council of Churches. “I’m not sure how to address you,” I said. “May I call you ‘Joe’? My Baptist upbringing does not lead me to address bishops by their first name.” (I could have added that my Baptist upbringing did not lead me to perceive Catholic bishops as fellow Christians, but I had long since been disabused of that notion.) “Why not?” he said, “It’s my name.”
Joe Gossman was a strong friend of ecumenism and of shared ministry for peace and justice. Requiem aeternam – may God grant you eternal rest, Joe.
–George Reed, Executive Director
Information on services for Bishop Gossman will be available on the Diocese of Raleigh website.