My grandmother was a regular reader and listener to Coffin's sermons. Coffin was instrumental in my own faith journey - that one could be funny, political and smart. After his son died in a car accident, He preached one of the most beautiful sermons I have ever heard. I once sat opposite him during a wedding rehearsal dinner when I was just ordained, which was exhilarating - kind of like being next to a clergy rock star. At the Clergy Leadership Conference, he gave some encouraging words via phone.
MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP)
''Bill's voice was part of a chorus of conscience for a nation dealing with issues of poverty, war, disarmament, racism and bigotry,'' the Rev. Frederick J. Streets, Yale's current chaplain, said Wednesday. ''He distinguished himself by rising above and emerging out of his own background of privilege to speak on behalf of the poor.''
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.''
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 working on issues of peace, nuclear
disarmament, poverty, homelessness and protecting the environment.
He traveled to North Vietnam during the war with that country and to
Iran during the hostage crisis there, bringing harsh criticism from
some quarters. To those who questioned his patriotism, Coffin often
replied that the true patriot is one who maintains ''a lover's
quarrel'' with his country.
Born to a wealthy New York family in 1924, Coffin served in World War II, then resumed study at Yale as a political science student in the late 1940s, but developed an interest in theology and philosophy and enrolled in the Union Theological Seminary.
The outbreak of the Korean War rekindled his interest in fighting communism, and he served three years in the CIA.
He then enrolled in Yale's Divinity School, receiving his bachelor's degree and being ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1956. He spent a year each as chaplain at Phillips Andover Academy and Williams College. At Williams, he became controversial through his activism against fraternities that discriminated against blacks and Jews.
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.