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Admirers Pay Tribute to Activist Minister

Former Yale chaplain William Sloane Coffin is remembered for his activism and humor.

April 21, 2006|From the Associated Press

NEW YORK — The Rev. William Sloane Coffin, a former Yale University chaplain who campaigned for civil rights and against the Vietnam War, was remembered during his funeral Thursday as an eloquent speaker with a yearning for justice and a keen sense of humor.

"He believed the long and great struggle of America was the struggle to ensure that the rewards of a free society went to everybody and not just to the top," journalist Bill Moyers told the packed crowd at the Riverside Church, where Coffin once served as a senior minister.

Coffin gained prominence in the 1960s for his social justice work. He joined the civil rights activist group the Freedom Riders and was arrested several times during demonstrations. He also was a leader of Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam, a group that engaged in civil disobedience, including offering draft resisters sanctuary in churches and synagogues.

Coffin died last week in Strafford, Vt., after suffering from congestive heart failure and being placed in the care of a hospice. He was 81.

Moyers, who interviewed Coffin for PBS after he'd learned he was dying, said Coffin told him then that he was saying the prayer of St. Augustine: "Give me chastity and self-restraint, but not yet."

Coffin's son said Thursday that it wasn't always easy having such an active father, but that over the years the family learned to share him.

"If three days before Christmas he called to say that he was spending Christmas with the hostages in Iran, what could I do, get mad?" David Coffin asked.

Coffin attended Union Theological Seminary in New York before getting a bachelor's degree at Yale Divinity School. He was ordained a minister in the United Church of Christ in 1956 and became Yale's chaplain in 1958.

He continued his activism after leaving Yale in 1976 and becoming minister of the Riverside Church in Manhattan.

In 1987, Coffin retired to Strafford, but continued traveling the country to lecture on human rights, the arms race and the environment.

At the end of Thursday's service, pallbearers carried out his body in a simple pine casket bearing white lilies and a folded American flag. His body will be cremated, and his ashes will be taken to Vermont.

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