Garry Trudeau, creator of the Doonesbury comic strip, took to the lectern at the recent Yale Divinity School dinner in honor of the public witness and ministry of the Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr. and told a story about a man who considered himself a moth.
The man walked into a doctor’s office and said he needed help. The doctor responded, “Well, I’m a general practitioner. You need to see a psychiatrist.” Whereupon the man replied, “Well, actually I was on my way to see him, but I noticed your light was on.”
Back when he was university chaplain at Yale, this is the way it was with Coffin and the host of students who flocked around him at Battell Chapel, recalled Trudeau. “We were on our way to something else and noticed his light, this astonishing incandescence of a warrior, pulling triple duty in the service of God, country and Yale.” Religious or not, Christian or Jew or otherwise, hundreds of Yale students looked to Coffin for guidance, support and inspiration during his 1958-75 tenure as chaplain. At Yale, the United Church of Christ minister rose to national prominence as a leading anti-war activist, civil rights leader, and outspoken opponent of nuclear armament.
400 “Moths” Return to Coffin Light
There were some 400 of these “moths” in attendance at the April 28-29 celebration in honor of Coffin, suggesting that Coffin’s light has not dimmed—despite age, a debilitating stroke and wheelchair. The celebration included two panel discussions at the Divinity School on activism and ministry as well as the reception and dinner at the University Commons. When he rose to speak at the dinner, Coffin abandoned his wheelchair and orated nonstop for 22 minutes.
In his usual manner, the 80-year-old Coffin sprinkled his remarks with a combination of critique, challenges and healthy doses of humor.
“I believe Christianity is a worldview that undergirds all progressive thought and action,” he said. “The Christian church doesn’t have a social ethic as much as it is a social ethic, called to respond to biblical mandates like truth-telling, confronting injustice and pursuing peace. What is so heart-breaking is that, in a world of pain crying out for change, so many American churches today are basically down to management and therapy.”
Coffin did not let clergy and seminaries off the hook, either: “Clearly, parish clergy could use a little more starch; they are gumption-deficient. But they also need more instruction from their seminaries to face difficult situations that lie ahead.”
Some of those difficult tasks, Coffin said, include the treatment of same-sex couples, pollution, and nuclear proliferation. On issues such as those the mainline church community should be prepared to “take on” the religious right, he said, raising a theme that would be echoed the next day during a panel presentation entitled, The Future of Ministry in the “Prophetic Tradition.”
Religious Right Not Going Away
“The Religious Right is also not going away,” said Coffin. “As Robert Kennedy properly observed, ‘What is dangerous is not that extremists are extreme but that they are intolerant.’ Almost equally dangerous, I would suggest, is the sense of superiority that keeps theologians and biblical scholars from taking on the Falwells of the world because they don’t consider them worthy antagonists.
“I sympathize. The delusional is no longer marginal but has come in from the fringe and occupies the center of power. More people have to speak up than only brave journalists like Bill Moyers or Seymour Hersh.”
At the panel presentation on The Future of Ministry in the “Prophetic Tradition,” Serene Jones, the Titus Street Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School, revisited the question of the religious right. “I have been increasingly amazed at the level of theological illiteracy that marks the Christian right, and I think that needs to be exposed,” she said. “It’s bad theology… I think we need to stop thinking that the liberal church is somehow theologically lost and the Christian right has stepped up to the plate to be theologically bold and switch it around and say there’s actually some substance over here and this is empty. It’s sound bites, but there’s not theological depth to it. It’s easy to take on if you start having to fight theologically.”
A “Liberal Arrogance”
Bishop John Chane of the Episcopal Church Diocese of Washington pointed to what he called “liberal arrogance.” He said, “I think we also have to get rid of this sense of liberal arrogance… It is that arrogance which has permitted those on the extreme right to take over a huge vacuum and to start pulling the strings on the pocket which makes us very nervous and really calls for the church to be responsive at a time when it still believes it can sit back and not challenge people whose theology is veneer thin. We’ve go to get over that.”
Members of the panel, all Yale Divinity School graduates, distinguished between the “religious right”—represented by Jerry Falwell and others—and “progressive” evangelicals when the conversation turned to the possibilities of forging alliances that together might challenge the centrality of the religious right in the public square.
Chane noted that he has worked successfully with Jim Wallis, an evangelical and editor of the socially progressive Sojourners Magazine, on some issues like child tax credits, poverty and the war in Iraq. And Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest and the Harry R. Butman Chair in Religion and Philosophy at Piedmont College in Demorest, Georgia, suggested that a key element will be how churches at the local level treat the growing immigrant population. “To make friends with people of other faiths” should be a top priority for the mainline churches, she suggested.
Forging such alliances, though, would be difficult on the denominational level, panelists predicted. “In my denomination, I get criticized for messing with the evangelicals, and I think we’re still not sure whether we want to dance with one another,” Chane reported. Dwight Andrews, a noted preacher and musician who currently serves as pastor of First Congregational Church in Atlanta, wondered aloud, “I’m not quite sure what the new coalitions would look like because one of the things hat has happened in the 60s and 70s is really the rise of the megachurches. They are kind of completely disconnected from denominational conversations.”
Coffin Scholarship Fund Launched
The two-day celebration of the Coffin ministry had a practical purpose as well—to announce the launching of an endowed scholarship fund at Yale Divinity School that will carry on the Coffin legacy of ministry deeply engaged in the political and social questions of the day.
Christopher Sawyer, an Atlanta attorney and chair of the Yale Divinity School Board of Advisors, announced creation of The William Sloane Coffin, Jr. Scholarship Fund at the dinner, following several musical selections by Noel Paul Stookey and Peter Yarrow—of Peter, Paul and Mary—and Coffin’s son David, a professional musician.
“Prophetic leadership,” “passion for justice” and “critical theological interpretations of the contemporary social and political scene,” reflecting the Coffin style, are characteristics that will be sought in Yale Divinity School students who are named Coffin Scholars. The fund has an endowment goal of $1 million and was initiated by former students who were deeply influenced by Coffin’s ministry. Many of those students were among the guests present at the dinner and panel presentations.
Coffin as Pastor
While Coffin’s role as an activist is well known, many of the comments at the celebration underscored another, less visible side of Coffin—the more personal and pastoral aspect of his ministry.
David L. Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU), worked with Coffin for a decade while serving as general secretary of Dwight Hall, Yale’s umbrella organization for social service organizations, and as a member of the Yale Religious Ministry.
Warren recalled at the banquet how Coffin defended the Dwight Hall students when one Yale professor described it as “a spawning ground of undesirables.” But behind public scenes like that was a quieter defender of the faith. “Many in this room will know Bill Coffin as a personal pastor,” noted Warren, recalling how Coffin would “listen with his attention riveted on you.”
Elizabeth Stookey, speaking at the worship service, said that, having known Coffin, she “feels more serene, grateful for god’s gift of life.” He taught her to cherish moments of solitude, when “the world slows down and God is there… It is in these moments that I am most grateful for God’s serene gift of life.”
And Siobhán Garrigan, assistant professor of liturgical studies and assistant dean of the chapel, said she was an ocean away, in Ireland, when she first heard about Coffin through a friend. Something terrible had happened in Ireland, she recalled at the worship service, and she had asked herself the question, “Where was God in this atrocity?” Her friend told her about Coffin’s exploration of similar questions in America, and that, she explained, lead her to an appreciation of the “unexpected power of the broken-hearted.”
One Yale student who was—quite literally—in Trudeau’s words, “on (his) way to something else” when he stumbled across Coffin in the fall of 1965 was Yale football legend Calvin Hill. He was normally on his way to the gym, or to a classroom. But a few weeks into his first few weeks in New Haven Hill was feeling somewhat down on himself. “I decided to wander across the Yale campus to a beautiful building called ‘Battell Chapel,’” Hill told the banqueters in a talk called “Bill the Pastor.” “It was there I heard Bill Coffin for the first time.”
Coffin’s impact on Hill was immediate and great, and he became a Battell Chapel deacon and reader of bedtime stories for the Coffin children. “I didn’t want to be like (professional football hero) Jim Brown,” said Hill. “I wanted to be like Bill Coffin.”
Another of the “moths” was James Ponet, a Jewish undergraduate in the mid-1960s who is now the Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish Chaplain at Yale and the Executive Director of the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale.
“The (Coffin) legacy is mythic, “said Ponet, speaking during the first panel on Faith and Activism: The Legacy of the ’60s Generation. ” It needs to be recovered. The legacy is hard to communicate. You were my rebbe. I went to church regularly because in your presence I felt I was in the presence of the conscience of the nation.
“We were challenged by you, to put our lives on the line. Battell was filled, and religious life was inescapable. It was the center of reality for many of us. I can’t convey that to students today, that for the first time I understood what a biblical prophet was.”