Yale University

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Reflections on Bill Coffin

Wally Winter

August 29, 2013

Category: Philosophy and Religion > Belief Systems

In grade school I remember reading in Ripley's Believe it Or Not that the shortest novel ever written consisted of the following two-word passage: "Coughin'.  Coffin." That entry came to mind when I arrived at Yale and was introduced to the irrepressible Rev. William Sloan Coffin, Jr. 

When we Quakers hear a person say something that resonates as true, we like to say that he or she "speaks to my condition." Bill Coffin was no Quaker (although many of his Nantucket Coffin ancestors probably were), but he spoke to my condition consistently during our four years at Yale and thereafter when he presided as senior minister at the Riverside Church in NYC and later as president of SANE/Freeze (now Peace Action). For me (though I know this view was not shared by a number of my classmates), Coffin spoke truth to power on civil rights, the Vietnam war, anti-Semitism, social justice, gay rights, the nuclear arms race, and human-caused degradation of the planet.

It wasn't just Coffin's views and actions during the 60's, 70's, and 80's that moved and motivated me. It was also his prayers, delivered like rolling thunder from the pulpit with his clipped New York City accent. Those prayers were often more memorable than his sermons. I asked him once in the early 1980's, when he came to Elgin IL to speak at a SANE/Freeze rally, how he put together those cadenced conversations with God on our behalf.

He answered that he spent a lot of time preparing those prayers and that their apparent spontaneity was an illusion. I was not the only one who remembered his prayers. When Al Sharp '65, founder of a progressive organization called Protestants for the Common Good, organized a huge 75th birthday party in Chicago for Coffin, he solicited me and others to underwrite a pamphlet with excerpts from Coffin's prayers which was distributed to each of the 600 or so attendees.

As I reviewed the pamphlet recently, I came upon an excerpt of Coffin's parting prayer delivered to our class on June 15, 1964. It is vintage Coffin: "…Let Thy special blessing, O Father, be upon these students whom we are assembled here to honor. May their future days be fairer even than this fair day. May they remember to heed the voice of truth heeded here; remember also that popularity is but glory's small change, and that if greatness be not unconscious, it is little or naught. May they not duck the difficult, skirt the uncomfortable, and rationalize the unacceptable. May they feel the aches and pains of lives whose well-being will be entrusted to them. And may the complexity of issues only serve their zeal to deal with them. So, with lives freed from cant, with minds nimble and hearts high, may they become all they were created capable of being. O God, hear our commencement prayer; deny them peace but give them glory. Amen."

Finally, Coffin was prescient about the environmental challenges to the planet posed by unrestrained, fossil-fueled economic growth, although the enormity and urgency of the problem was only beginning to be recognized during most of his ministry. If he were alive today, I have no doubt that he would have joined Gus Speth and me in the civil-disobedience action in front of the White House in 2011 to pressure President Obama to nix the Keystone pipeline.

Coffin helped to make me a person of faith and an activist for a sustainable planet.

Thanks, Bill.