William Sloane Coffin, a former Yale University chaplain
known for his peace activism during the Vietnam War, his
continuing work for social justice, and his outspoken
support for gay and lesbian rights, died
Wednesday at his home in rural Strafford, Vt. He was 81.
Coffin had been suffering from congestive heart
failure and had been under the care of a hospice, said
his daughter, Amy Coffin.
"He was out in the sun. Everybody was talking,
and then he was gone," Amy Coffin said. "Physically he
was pretty debilitated, but spiritually he was not."
Coffin was immortalized in the Doonesbury
comic strip when its creator, Garry Trudeau, blended his
character with that of a Trudeau roommate who became a
priest, dubbing the fictitious clergyman "Rev. Sloan."
Coffin gained prominence in the 1960s as an
outspoken advocate for civil rights and against the
Vietnam war. He joined a group of civil rights
activists known as the Freedom Riders and was arrested
several times at demonstrations protesting segregation.
He became a leader of the group Clergy and Laity
Concerned About Vietnam, which engaged in civil
disobedience, including offering sanctuary in churches
and synagogues to draft resisters. He often spoke of having
a lifelong "lover's quarrel" with the United States.
"Bill's voice was part of a chorus of conscience
for a nation dealing with issues of poverty, war,
disarmament, racism, and bigotry," said the Reverend
Frederick J. Streets, current chaplain of Yale University
Divinity School. "He distinguished himself by rising above
and emerging out of his own background of privilege to
speak on behalf of the poor. He had the voice of an
orator, the language of a poet, the spirit of a
pastor, and the conviction of a prophet."
Coffin was the middle of three children born
into privilege as the son of a wealthy New York City
furniture dealer. As a teenager and aspiring concert
pianist, he studied with the famed Nadia Boulanger in Paris.
He went to Yale as a music student but left in
1942 to join the U.S. Army. He served until 1947,
moving into military intelligence and attaining the
rank of captain.
He went back to Yale as a political science
student in the late 1940s but developed an interest in
theology and philosophy. In 1949 he enrolled in the
Union Theological Seminary, but the outbreak of the Korean
War rekindled his interest in fighting communism.
In 1950 he joined the CIA. He said later he
wanted to work against Stalin in recompense for his
failure to intervene in the repatriation of Russian soldiers.
Coffin left the intelligence service three years
later and enrolled in Yale's Divinity School,
receiving his bachelor's degree. A United Church of
Christ minister since 1956, he spent a year each as chaplain
at Phillips Andover Academy and Williams College. He
became chaplain at Yale in 1958.
In awarding Coffin an honorary doctorate in
2002, Yale praised its former chaplain, saying, "You
changed the shape of college chaplaincy and inspired a
generation of young people to challenge injustice. You
urged, in the civil rights and antiwar movements,
adherence to the highest moral principles."
Coffin said his advocacy for the downtrodden was
born of faith. "What this country needs, what I think
God wants us to do, is not practice piecemeal charity
but engage in wholesale justice," Coffin said in a PBS
interview in 2004. "Justice is at the heart of religious
faith. When we see Christ empowering the poor,
scorning the powerful, healing the world's hurts, we
are seeing transparently the power of God at work."
He continued his activism after leaving Yale in
1976 and moving on to become minister of the Riverside
Church in New York City. There he broadened his agenda
to work on issues of peace, nuclear disarmament,
poverty, homelessness, and protecting the environment.
He was criticized by some in the congregation as
too attentive to his social agenda at the expense of
pastoral work and management of the church. He retired
from Riverside in 1987 to Strafford but continued
traveling the country lecturing on human rights issues, the
arms race, and the environment.
Long an outspoken supporter of gay and lesbian
rights, Coffin delivered an address on that issue on
the Strafford village green in November 2000, five
months after Vermont passed a law allowing for civil unions
between same-sex couples, granting them many of the
rights and responsibilities of marriage.
Addressing his remarks to U.S. Catholic bishops,
who oppose broadening gay and lesbian rights, Coffin
emphasized, as he had so often throughout his career,
the loving rather than the punitive side of Christian faith.
"For Christians, the problem is not how to reconcile
homosexuality with scriptural passages that condemn
it," he said, "but how to reconcile the rejection and
punishment of homosexuals with the love of Christ."
Coffin's longtime friend, historian and activist
Howard Zinn, said he'll miss Coffin's humor. He
recalled a speech in which Coffin spoke to a group of
students about what to do after graduation. "He said,
'Remember this: Even if you win the rat race, you're still a
rat,'" Zinn said.
For all of his grappling with weighty issues,
Coffin maintained a cheerful demeanor. "Hope arouses,
as nothing else can arouse, a passion for the
possible," Coffin said, according to Simpson's
Contemporary Quotations. (AP)