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William Sloane Coffin: controversial, yes,
but a hero to a generation of faith leaders

NCC's Faithful America is collecting personal memories of Bill Coffin to share with his widow, Virginia "Randy" Coffin.  To send a "Dear Bill" message, click here.
Read a sampling of your letters to Bill.
See also:  Tributes by Dr. Joseph C. Hough, Jr., President, Union Theological Seminary, and  Dr. Samuel Kobia, General Secretary, World Council of Churches.

Services for Dr. Coffin will be 4 p.m. Thursday, April 20, at The Riverside Church, 120th Street and
     Riverside Drive in New York.

New York, April 12, 2006 -- The Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr., who died today at 81, "was no ordinary man and he leaves no ordinary hole," said the general secretary of the National Council of Churches USA.

"To my generation, he was a hero," said the Rev. Dr. Bob Edgar tonight.

Recalling Coffin's assertion to his former Yale student and Watergate conspirator Jeb Stuart Magruder that he had "lost his moral compass," Edgar said, "That is what Bill Coffin was for many of us: our moral compass."

Edgar recalled Coffin's long career as a civil rights leader, peace activist, pastor and ecumenist.

From 1977 to 1987, Coffin was pastor of The Riverside Church in Manhattan. The church is directly across the street from The Interchurch Center that houses the National Council of Churches New York office, and Coffin was pastor and friend to many NCC staff. In 1979, when U.S. embassy personnel were taken hostage by radical students in Iran, Coffin and NCC President M. William Howard led a delegation to Teheran to conduct Christmas services for the hostages.

"Bill never lost an opportunity to witness for peace," Edgar said.

The full text of Edgar's statement follows:

William Sloane Coffin Jr. was no ordinary man and he leaves no ordinary hole. He was full of mystifying contrasts that made him endlessly fascinating and difficult to describe. He was a CIA agent who became an international peace activist. He was a scion of old money, but he made his life with the ordinary. He was a legendary liberal but a life-long friend of George H.W. Bush. He could be righteously angry at injustice or war mongering, but masked it behind a Cheshire cat grin. He could be prophetically stern, but riotously funny. He could intone profound theological insights, but sweeten them with his working class New York accent.  

To my generation, Bill Coffin was a hero. When he was chaplain of Yale University in the sixties, he organized freedom rides in the South and by 1967 was leading students in civil disobedience against the Vietnam War. When one of his students – the future pastor, Jeb Stuart Magruder – became entangled in Watergate, Bill told him he had lost his moral compass. That is what Bill Coffin was for many of us: our moral compass. He once said, “God loves you the way you are, but he knows you can do better.” 

Bill never lost an opportunity to witness for peace. In 1979, during the Iran hostage crisis, he and National Council of Churches President M. William Howard led an NCC delegation to Iran to bring Christmas worship to the U.S. hostages.  

He was pastor of Riverside Church from 1977 to 1987. People who worshipped at Riverside in those years say his most memorable sermon may have been the Sunday after his son was killed in an automobile accident. He rejected the notion that his son’s death, or any other tragedy, was God’s will. “God,” he said, “is crying, too.” When Bill left Riverside, it was to become president of SANE/FREEZE (now Peace Action), the largest peace and justice organization in the United States. 

Bill Coffin led a full and remarkable life, and he would not want us to think of his death as premature or tragic. But that doesn’t make it any easier to think of a world without him. We can allow ourselves a few tears. And we remember, in our grief, Bill’s assurance that God is crying, too.

To listen to an interview of Coffin originally broadcast on PBS' Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, click this link:  The full-length version of the interview is at this link:

Other tributes to William Sloane Coffin:

Dr. Joseph C. Hough, Jr., President of Union Theological Seminary, New York:

Today, April 12, 2006, William Sloane Coffin died, and the Union community will be saddened at the loss of this remarkable Christian leader. I have no words to express adequately my own sense of loss. Bill Coffin was one of my closest and most cherished friends. Nothing was ever better than an evening with Bill and Randy Coffin in their home, and Heidi and I have been fortunate to enjoy many of those evenings, especially in recent years. In those precious times, we shared friendship strong enough to speak honestly, love unreservedly, and with it all to fill our shared moments with laughter.

Bill was one of God's chosen prophets. He was a great patriot who loved his country too much to leave it alone. His early and strong leadership in the struggle against segregation and discrimination on the basis of race; his pivotal role in organizing opposition against the war in Vietnam; and his continuing personal investment and national leadership in the campaign to abolish nuclear weapons from an increasingly dangerous world place him among the most important Christian leaders in American history. He strode with giant footsteps across this nation in extraordinarily turbulent times, and his voice cried out for justice and peace, a justice and peace that in his mind flowed directly from his deep and abiding personal faith in the God made known to him in Jesus Christ.

That deep faith was the foundation for his preaching. He was among the most effective and memorable of all of American preachers. No one preached better! From his pulpits in Battell Chapel at Yale, the Riverside Church in New York, and hundreds of pulpits all over the nation came extraordinarily powerful sermons-- sermons that moved hearts, changed minds, and called us all to change the world. He preached with passion and an inimitable style. And in recent years, Bill wrote of his faith and hope reaching out thousands of Americans with the same power and conviction that always characterized his preaching. I especially loved Letters to a Young Doubter in which Bill's profoundly pastoral side reached out to all of us.

Bill is dead, but I shall rely on the precious gifts of memory to continue to live my history with him. Recollection, like anticipation, is as much a part of the fabric of our lives as the present moment. In some ways it is richer and allows for a generous and loving selectivity. And memories, unlike anticipation, do not disappoint us. That is why the unwelcome intrusion of death into life never is the final act. Death is but the transition from the creation of new personal history to a time of enjoyment of a cherished history that is now done. So that is how it is for me in this day of sorrow and loss.

Rev. Dr. Samuel Kobia, General Secretary, World Council of Churches

I write to express my sympathy at the loss of William Sloane Coffin, who will be profoundly missed by many of us throughout the world.  

The Rev. Dr William Sloane Coffin, Jr., who died yesterday in the United States, was one of the 20th century’s great Christian pastors and activists for peace and justice. His life reflected an understanding of ministry that he once described in these words: “Every minister is given two roles, the prophetic and the priestly.” And so he sought racial reconciliation through civil rights legislation, saw himself during the cold war years as “very anti-Soviet, but very pro-Russian”, conducted a “lover’s quarrel” with his own country’s foreign and nuclear policies, opened the eyes of students, parishioners and readers to the demands of the gospel on every aspect of life. So, too, he taught that “the greatest danger each of us faces comes not from our enemies, but from our enmity”.  

Dr Coffin was aware of the World Council of Churches from before its inception in 1948. His uncle Henry Sloane Coffin, then president of Union Theological Seminary in New York City, was one of the founding intellects behind the Council and a guiding influence in the establishment of its Ecumenical Institute for graduate study in Bossey, Switzerland. His theological mentors, Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr, led him to view God’s calling in a framework that transcended national, cultural and denominational boundaries. William Sloane Coffin would continue these traditions in ecumenical circles through his years as chaplain of Yale University, pastor of Riverside Church in New York and leader of movements including the civil rights struggle, anti-war protest and the lobby for a nuclear freeze. His voice was one that we heard clearly, and heeded.  

He was arrested several times in the pursuit of social righteousness. On one of these occasions, while demonstrating for the desegregation of an amusement park in Baltimore on July 4, 1963, he was one of nine US religious leaders taken into custody. Arrested in company with Coffin that day was Eugene Carson Blake, another minister of the United Presbyterian Church in the USA. Less than three years later, Gene Blake would become the second general secretary of the World Council of Churches. They remained friends and confidants to the end of Blake’s life. In fact, William Sloane Coffin has been greatly admired by every one of the WCC’s general secretaries.  

On behalf of the ecumenical fellowship represented by the World Council of Churches, I offer thanks to God for the life, faith and courage of William Sloane Coffin. Many of us who knew him only slightly, or through his writings, or by report, join in prayer with those close friends and family members who are experiencing sorrow at his death. May the hope of the resurrection to eternal life, found at the heart of this Easter season, be with us and reassure us of God's abiding love.

Contact NCC News: Daniel Webster, 212-870-2252.


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