The National Catholic Review

It was the beginning of the fall academic term in1974. I was meeting for a reading course with my doctoral adviser, Margaret Farley, R.S.M. At the end of the session, she said to me, “Bill Coffin has been meeting with the undergraduates about world hunger. I think you ought to go down to Dwight Hall and see what’s going on. He would like to have some help.” Little did I know that the Yale chaplain was looking for an understudy. It is the fate of ethicists, certainly of Sister Margaret and myself, that we are regularly overcommitted. Multitasking is a professional hazard. All sorts of people have problems they want help thinking through, and others have good causes they want you to join. As soon as I arrived at Yale the previous September, Colin Williams, the dean of the Divinity School, asked me to negotiate for Woodstock College, the premier Jesuit theologate that had just been slated to be closed, to move much of its faculty and its renowned library to New Haven. After those talks failed, Margaret and Colin approached me about being a rapporteur for a meeting of a project run by Yale and the Aspen Institute.

 

No sooner had I submitted my report on the meeting than Dean Williams asked me to manage a new Yale-Aspen project on value and scarcity (The Limits to Growth had appeared the previous year). The program brought together faculty members from a number of schools in the university. Williams told me, “The only way you can do this is be a dean to the deans.”

So when Margaret asked me to drop in on the hunger group, I thought to myself, “This is all I need, another involvement.” Jesuit provincial superiors were already commenting on how I tended to be stretched thin. But the next week, I went to the meeting of the Yale Hunger Action Project at Dwight Hall.

At the center of this talented group was the Rev. William Sloan Coffin, the famous or, depending on your politics, notorious antiwar preacher, who had been tried along with the baby doctor, Benjamin Spock, for conspiracy to counsel draft evasion.

Coffin had drawn together a cadre of talented undergraduates. His lieutenant was Bob Tate, then a divinity student doing his internship with the chaplaincy and now an Episcopal priest. Stefan Presser was a junior, who had taken a leave in his second year to organize a program on student rights in Brooklyn public schools. For many years, Stefan has led the American Civil Liberties Union in Philadelphia. Lori Kornblum was a freshman and a graduate of Beverly Hills High. Not at all like the television alumni of “90210,” she was the best community organizer I have ever known. The last I heard, she was a mother and lawyer in Milwaukee. Eleanor LeCain was a tall, vivacious Boston redhead who was likewise a dynamic activist. After college, Eleanor volunteered with the World Bank in Tanzania, and then trekked to South Africa, crossing Rhodesia during its civil war.

Coffin was the magnet that brought the group together, the motivator who stirred the students to do great things. The Hunger Action Project was a beehive of activity and a model for other colleges. Soon it was coordinating the Northeast Hunger Action Alliance, a coalition of college hunger groups.

When I reflect on Bill Coffin’s ministry, I think “charisma.” He had a booming voice. One might mistake it for a preacher’s tone, but it was all Bill. With the voice went a way with words, gifts that made him a natural leader. He exuded a sort of gruff charm, an enthusiasm that like a tide swept everything before it and a joie de vivre that made him a pleasure to be with. Though he was a striking presence, he did not overawe. His liturgical style was informal, yet the ecumenical prayer services he led were among the most prayerful liturgies I have ever participated in.

In the spring of 1975, Bill called the leadership of the Hunger Action Project together at his office. He explained that he was taking a sabbatical the following year to write his autobiography, Once to Everyman: A Memoir, and the group would need to choose a new leader. I was selected as, I supposed, he and Sister Margaret had conspired months before. In 1977, I left Yale with my dissertation incomplete, no doubt because of my many activities, but also because of an eye condition that took two more years to diagnose and treat. Every now and then, Bill would call, asking how I was and particularly how my eyes were doing.

When news came on April 12 that Bill had died at age 81, I was sad. But like many others, I am sure, I felt privileged to have known him and to have shared for a few short years in his ministry, “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.”

 

Drew Christiansen, S.J., is editor in chief of America.

Comments

Miriam Ward, R.S.M. | 2/23/2007 - 4:40pm
In his reflections on the Rev. William Sloan Coffin, Drew Christiansen, S.J., (Of Many Things, 5/22) fills in some wonderful personal data on this great prophet of our age. My contact with Sloan Coffin was limited to two occasions, and each time I felt his warmth and humor, and experienced something of the charisma so poignantly described by Father Christiansen.

Invited to give a workshop at a United Church of Christ annual conference, I was ushered into the church sanctuary with William Sloan Coffin, the keynote speaker. As we waited for the audience to settle in, my discomfort was evident. Who was I to share the stage with this great man! Immediately, he reached out to me in quiet humor to make me feel comfortable. That simple gesture will not be forgotten.

On Feb. 15, 2003, at the Vermont State Capitol steps in Montpelier, we met again, he as keynote speaker, and I as a small-time peace activist. Somehow they got Bill’s wheelchair through the snow. Bill greeted me as though we had been lifelong friends. Thousands braved the frigid temperature to protest going to war in Iraq. Because Bill had suffered a stroke, his words were slurred, but his message against war was profound.

Finally, on April 22, 2006, people from many walks of life and faith backgrounds gathered at the little church in Strafford, Vt., to say goodbye. For three hours in word and song, the overflow crowd memorialized William Sloan Coffin. A hero is gone, but his spirit lives on.

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