Bill Coffin died on Tuesday, April 12, 2006. And the mode of his passing was so very right: in the middle of the holiest week on the Christian calendar, basking in the sunshine in the backyard of his home in Strafford, Vermont, surrounded by family and friends. His body had finally relented to the congestive heart failure he had battled for years, but his soul was now enlarged to greet and embrace other great souls of the ages.
In my experience of exemplars, few better embodied that challenging ideal set forth by William Edwin Orchard, “And when the day goes hard, [and] cowards steal from the field, … may our place be found where the fight is fiercest.”
William Sloane Coffin, Jr. was “to the manor born” in New York City, yet the arc of his life would lead him, willingly and gladly, to encounter all manner of human existence in a journey of enthralling contrasts. He trained as a concert pianist, and he volunteered for military service in two wars. He worked for the Central Intelligence Agency on Russian affairs, and he sat at the feet of the world’s greatest theologians as he prepared for the vocation of ministry. He became chaplain at Yale University, and he expressed the height of his homiletical powers as pastor of Riverside Church. He helped to galvanize awareness of the civil rights struggle as one of eleven Freedom Riders who ventured to Montgomery, Alabama, and he wrote, mused and prayed in his final home in rural Vermont. Yes, Coffin’s was a life of enthralling contrasts.
In his expression of opinions and his public ministries, he was no stranger to controversy, and yet his warmth, charm and basic positive regard for all persons would eventually earn him respect even from those who didn’t share one iota of his positions.
Warren Goldstein’s superb biographical account of Coffin’s life get’s it just right, as he assesses Coffin’s preaching and integrity as being prophetic and inspiring, and always in touch with his times over the full course of his 40-year ministerial career, Coffin was both frustrated and energized by “a ‘holy impatience’” with anything that did not comport with God’s great love for all people.
Poet Edward Arlington Robinson once described the human enterprise as “a kind of spiritual kindergarten in which millions of befuddled infants are trying to spell God with the wrong blocks.” Throughout his public ministry, Bill Coffin led countless persons, both willing and unwilling infants and oldsters, to spell “God” with more of the right blocks:
** at Yale University with his prophetic witness to students, faculty, administrators, alums, and the nation as a whole;
** at Riverside Church, with his daring vision and powerful preaching, beginning in the gorgeous Gotham of New York City, but always going beyond to a wider congregation;
** in his championing of the causes of the poor, the powerless, and the nuclear freeze movement, with that inimitable luster of leadership he lent so generously.
Indeed, Coffin was always priming countless folks to participate in a more humane, a more faithful “spelling bee.”
The author of seven books, the most recent ones being the award-winning Credo and Letters to a Young Doubter, Coffin came to embody the most noble elements of the Judeo-Christian tradition, always and ever bearing in his demeanor an effusive graciousness.
In my encounters with Bill Coffin, he consistently manifested a signal virtue: an exemplary capacity to share his compassionate, caring heart with others, on real terms and in real time. In short, he cared. He cared about people. He cared about people who cared. He cared about people who cared about others who cared about them.
And how can anyone who knew him, read his books, or heard him speak ever forget his wondrous ways with words? In the estimation of many, one of the most powerful sermons he ever preached occurred on Sunday January 23rd, 1983, while he was serving as the senior pastor of Riverside Church. In “Alex’s Death” he eulogized his son Alex with his usual rhetorical flair for just the right words at just the right time, declaring that even though his son had “beat [him] to the grave,” all of God’s children “are under the Mercy.”
Bill Coffin is now under the Mercy in a new, unfathomably full dimension. So may we all be, as we recollect his life and give thanks to God for his legacy.
– Bob Hill
© 2016, Robert Lee Hill
[LIFE’S TOO SHORT FOR ANYTHING BUT LOVE (Woodneath Press, 2015) is available widely and locally at Rainy Day Books and any Mid-Continent Library location.]