Most of my role models in the Christian faith are people I know well and have for a long time. My grandparents are examples, as are other family members, former ministers and teachers. Their impact on me was gradual, resulting from numerous conversations and experiences and encounters.
I have a few role models in the faith, however, whose impact on me resulted from their witness and only a few personal exposures. One of them was William Sloane Coffin.
Coffin was long-time university chaplain at Yale and then senior minister of The Riverside Church in New York City for ten years. He was witty, personable, articulate. Coffin is half the inspiration for the “Rev. Sloan” character in Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury comic – a result of Coffin’s ministry and witness when Trudeau was a Yale student.
By no means was Coffin perfect. Early in his life, he was a self-avowed womanizer, and even after entering ministry, his ability to value the leadership of women in the church was a growing edge. Coffin asked forgiveness for both sins. Detractors and those who immaturely attempt to group people as either good or bad, without recognizing the shades of both that exist in us all, like to point to these flaws to discredit Coffin.
Flaws and all, Coffin was a courageous, charismatic and consistent defender of justice and peace who preached an expansive, attractive, compassionate Christianity. His strong message of God’s love reflected the message and priorities of Jesus in the New Testament.
My first conversation with Bill Coffin occurred when I was a student at Lexington Seminary. One of my jobs during seminary was student assistant to the dean and one of my major responsibilities in that job was to coordinate the weekly convocation schedule, which included confirming details with all our speakers, most of whom were out of town.
It was the fall of 1995, not long before Janice and I were to go to Switzerland to study and work. I was rushing to confirm details with speakers for the whole next year in just a few days. One of those speakers was Coffin. I called the number on the contact sheet and the person on the other end answered with a simple “hello.” This surprised me for two reasons: first, the usual response is something such as, “This is William Coffin’s office;” second, the answerer sounded older than most assistants. I hesitantly asked to speak to Rev. Coffin’s assistant. The person said, “Well, she left a long time ago, but you are speaking to Rev. Coffin right now. Should I find someone else?” Then he laughed.
We covered the usual details and then, without pausing, Coffin said, “So tell me about you.” I told him we were on our way to The Ecumenical Institute. He said, “Good. That’s an important place. And since I won’t see you at Lexington, tell me now: once you graduate, what are going to do to make a difference in the world?”
My second conversation with Coffin was not until May of 2004 when I helped organize a national conference of religious leaders in Cleveland, Ohio. We wanted Coffin to speak to the group, but his health was such that his doctors (and wife) would not let him attend. So, in Coffin’s typical spirit of pushing the boundaries, he agreed to join us live by telephone, which we then broadcast over the speaker system for everyone to hear. In the conversation before we went on the air, I thanked Bill for joining us and asked how he was feeling. He said, “Clearly the trick is to die young as late as possible.”
Wednesday of Holy Week, April 12, Bill Coffin died from congestive heart failure.
His heart may have failed physically, but his heart did not fail to speak his faith. It did not fail to put his faith into action. It did not fail to tell the truth.
For that, we are blessed.
Nathan Day Wilson