Coffin: An Old Voice in a New Setting

Times Staff Writer

It was a hot night, ending one of several days in which the air refused to budge, and the meeting of the local chapter of SANE/Freeze was slow to come to order. The 20 or so wilted people gathered in the community room of an apartment building in Hollywood last week mixed themselves instant coffee, spread out notices of other meetings and events, and waited for the Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr. to arrive.

In he came, looking rumpled and slightly paunchy, shirt open at the throat and sleeves rolled up. He appeared undaunted by the heat, however, and, with a friendly grin in place, strode across the room relaxed and affable, clapping back at the people who stood to applaud him.

“It’s neat,” he told the group, “to get a chance to see what’s going on.” For many in that room, it was, in return, a chance to meet the legend, and their new national president.


Coffin became a household word during the ‘60s, when as chaplain at Yale he became a civil rights and anti-Vietnam War activist, joining freedom rides, marching in the South, collecting draft cards with Dr. Benjamin Spock, speaking out and getting arrested over and over again.

He was in the national news again during Christmas, 1979, when he was one of three clergymen permitted by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini to visit the American hostages in Tehran, an experience he describes as “Kafkaesque.”

His Concerns, Causes

When he left his 18-year term at Yale University for New York City’s Riverside Church in 1977, he took his concerns and causes with him, helping to transform the once predominantly wealthy and white congregation into an ethnically and economically diverse one concerned with working for peace and social-justice issues such as disarmament, homelessness, the sanctuary movement, AIDS and poverty.

Last July, saying the timing in history was right, Coffin announced that he would step down as senior minister of the Manhattan church at the end of this year to head SANE/Freeze, the new peace organization formed by the merger of two national organizations, the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy and the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign.

In creating the position of president, over that of the co-directors of the newly merged groups, the SANE/Freeze directors’ board announced it was looking for someone to “articulate the vision.”

If there is one thing Bill Coffin can do, it is articulate the vision. And shape it. It is not without reason that he calls his new job with the secular organization “a full-time peace and justice ministry.”


Coffin, 63, does not discuss peace separately from social justice. While the peace movement in general is increasingly making that connection, the degree to which Coffin does may not please the conservatives, or purists, within the peace movement who are concerned that linking it with other issues will dissipate it.

“It will be interesting to see if they stay,” Chris Brown, regional chair of SANE/Freeze, said privately of such members after last week’s meeting.

Coffin is a patrician-born New Yorker whose childhood included the right schools and addresses in Manhattan’s upper East Side, Carmel, and Paris. His family founded the W.&J.; Sloane furniture business; his father was president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; his Uncle Henry was president of Union Theological Seminary.

Coffin himself took a circuitous route to Union, and later, Yale Divinity School, considering first a career as a concert pianist, and, later, diplomacy. He was an Army liaison officer to the French and Soviet armies during World War II, and during the Korean War was a CIA officer in West Germany, training anti-communist Russians for work within the Soviet Union.

Finally, he said only half-jokingly last week, he lost the battle to stay out of the ministry. World War II had raised too many of the right questions.

A friendly, witty man full of exuberant hellos for those he knows, he is far from a glad-hander or one overly familiar with strangers. He does not presume a first-name basis.


‘But God Will Not Be Mocked’

What he sees in the ‘80s is a climate for change, but a climate that compares to the ‘20s: “Enemy No. 1 was Bolshevism. The Red scare was real big then. Coolidge sent the Marines to Nicaragua to protect that country from Bolshevism coming in from the north, Mexico. The free market was the great ally of progress. There was the Teapot Dome scandal in New York. Politicians were looting the place. There was flamboyant luxury living cheek by jowl with scandalous poverty.

“But God will not be mocked,” Coffin said. “We’re about to get our economic comeuppance, and people will once again be ready for a new deal.”

He says it all out of the side of his mouth in a broad accent. Plain talk, maybe, but it is plain talk that often comes out of the side of his mouth in French, Russian, Spanish and Latin. He frequently quotes and paraphrases, always with attribution, Plato, Lord Acton, Ike, J.F.K., Reinhold Niebuhr, Jessie Jackson, Ralph Abernathy, Karl Marx, Huey Long.

He was at it non-stop last week, disturbing the social conscience, making the connections between the issues, first at the SANE/Freeze meeting and, later, in the Claremont/Pomona area where Cal Poly Pomona and Claremont Colleges jointly brought him to inaugurate their Jerry Voorhis Distinguished Visitor Program (in memory of the late congressman from the area).

At the meeting in Hollywood, he responded affably but firmly to a discussion about the propriety of Nicaragua-related banners at an anti-nuke rally.

“There’s a mind-set at work here,” Coffin said, calling the mind-set that encourages the arms race the same as the one that believes in intervention in Vietnam and Nicaragua. “We have to oppose the interventionist mind-set.”


Wants Membership Doubled

Once he is fully on the job, he said, he’ll spend 20% of his time in Washington, overseeing the merger and brokering between the two organizations and 80% of his time on the road, speaking to the troops, and to the unconverted, making media appearances, fund raising. He wants to increase the SANE/Freeze membership, possibly double it, and said churches, synagogues and campuses were “naturals” for him.

His trip to the Pomona and San Gabriel valleys seemed to bear him out. At Cal Poly Pomona and the Claremont Colleges, he frequently mentioned that he thought students on campus were finally bored with being bored.

He had a favorite line that describes to him the recent climate among careerist students on so many campuses, the type who go to law school with the goal of working for “Airedale, Airedale, Whippet and Pug.” It came to him, he said, from a Unitarian Southern mother-in-law of a Faulknerian scholar with little social conscience, who in talking to Coffin dismissed her son-in-law by saying, “He was born conservative and he never had an important experience.”

Coffin called on faculty to get students moving, telling one group the greatest problem on campus to confront with students was not sex and drugs but a challenge: “Now that we’ve got this knowledge, what the hell are we going to do with it?”

Later, at Pilgrim Place in Claremont, a community of retired clerical and secular Christian workers, he assured those gathered that while he was leaving the church, Riverside, he was not leaving the churches. Rather, he wanted them to join him.

Disarmament and Development

The crowd, which included many old friends, applauded him warmly. One of them, Fred Stoerker, thanked him publicly, acknowledging the pitch for SANE/Freeze, saying, “You are beloved . . . . Of course we’ll join you, Bill.”


As he defines it, the SANE/Freeze they join him in is a “disarmament and development” organization, concerned with peace and social justice issues.

SANE/Freeze is out to halt the arms race, but ultimately Coffin said, it has to have the abolition of war as its goal. If “the old Hebrew imperative, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ has any meaning,” he said, it had to mean banning the production, possession and use of nuclear weapons.

But besides working for the elimination of all nuclear weapons, the organization will be dedicated to disarmament and will get to work immediately, he said, on the question of conventional weapons. If for no other reason, he said, conventional weapons cost too much. SANE/Freeze is working for a reordering of economic priorities and a conversion from a military to a civilian economy.

He frequently warns against confusing justice with charity, and commented at one point, “Have you noticed, if you feed the poor, you’re considered a saint, but it you start asking why they’re poor, you’re considered a Marxist.”

That brings him close to the heart of a particular concern of his. As he told a group of senior citizens at Claremont, “Black and white people aren’t working together anymore and the peace movement is a shining white example of that.”

The peace movement has got to get integrated, he said repeatedly. For those who don’t know how to do it, he had some simple suggestions: Meet in a black church. Put a black speaker on the program.


Beyond that, he had some pragmatic, philosophical and political observations. He told of a black friend of his in Harlem who once agreed with him that the dying in a nuclear holocaust was a terrible thought.

“But,” Coffin said the man went on, “suppose we stop making those weapons. Then where will you white folks be? After World War II was over, the money didn’t come into Harlem. After Korea, it didn’t come into Harlem. After Vietnam, it didn’t come. And when you stop the arms race, the money is still not coming into Harlem.”

Telling them that poor people and minorities often make the connection between the arms race and hunger better than anyone else, Coffin said: “I’ve found that unless you get on everybody’s agenda, they’re not going to get on yours.”