The Apostle

UPDATED 06/15/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 06/15/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT

Retired Alabama physician Robert Cosby has always been more in touch with his heart than his wallet. So when his stock in USAirways took off last year, he attributed his good fortune to more than the bull market. "It was a message from God," he says.

A devout evangelical Presbyterian, Cosby, 52, took the cue and gave away 50,000 shares worth nearly $3.4 million. The recipient: a Christian group of his own founding whose singular objective was to mail a video about Jesus to every one of Alabama's 1.7 million households.

Cosby first saw the movie, Jesus, a 1979 feature based on the Gospel According to Luke, three years ago at a seminar run by the Campus Crusade for Christ. "I thought I had the best evangelistic tool the world had ever seen," says Cosby, who was so inspired he quit his 23-year practice as a general practitioner to devote his energies to disseminating the film. He and a small band of volunteers began with a door-to-door giveaway in Birmingham's inner-city housing projects. Then he upped the ante, using proceeds of the stock sale to buy 1.75 million videos from the Campus Crusade—at more than $2 apiece, plus shipping. It took some 21 tractor-trailers to haul the cassettes from a California manufacturing plant to the Birmingham warehouse from which they were delivered to local post offices and, in turn, to all Alabamans.

Despite opposition from one Birmingham student who offered to erase the cassettes and donate them to schools, Cosby—who lives in a basement apartment in a suburban Birmingham red brick house he shares with his mother, 81, and brother, 40—says after a long career ministering to the body, he had simply decided it was time to start thinking about saving souls. "The physical will eventually die," he says. "But we can salvage the spirit."

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