Rev. Bill Coffin: Prophetic Resistance

Dear Friends,

There have been a few people in the world who have become heroes and teachers for both Phyllis (Rabbi Phyllis Berman,my life-partner) and me through our getting them to know them before we knew each other. One of these few was Rev. Bill Coffin -- William Sloane Coffin.

I got to know him as antiwar activist while he was chaplain at Yale, in the '60s, and I was a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. Phyllis got to know him while he was senior minister of Riverside Church, where the school for adult immigrants and refugees she co-founded in 1981, the Riverside Language Program, was and is housed.

She remembers this poignant moment in the common history of Riverside Church, RLP, and the Haitian Boat People. After her story about Bill, you will find a couple of mine. -- AW

Phyllis writes:

In 1981, there came to RLP a sudden surge of Haitian "boat people" (the term used for the mass boat exodus to the shores of Florida of thousands of people who would soon be applying for political asylum).

They took part in our intensive English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program alongside refugees from the Vietnam war – Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians – and the early Jewish refugees from the Soviet Union.

With many many Haitians arriving in NYC, the federal Department of Education decided to offer programs like ours emergency contracts for teaching English to the Haitians.

Since the Haitians were especially fearful about being asked too many questions, the U.S. DOE agreed that documentation would not be required for them.

In our school, working with hundreds of adults of different races, religions, languages, and cultures was challenging. It sometimes seemed utopian, as people came to see beyond their differences to their similarities as strangers in a strange land, far from family and friends and all that was familiar and comfortable.

But the magic of new understandings and new friendships within the school was not met with the same kind of generous spirit by Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) officials outside. The word soon began to travel among agencies who were working with Haitians that INS officials were making unannounced visits in search of undocumented Haitians, arresting them and those who were aiding them.

As one of the founding directors of RLP, I went to talk with Rev. Bill Coffin, then Senior Minister of the Riverside Church. Together, we made a plan.

If INS agents came to Riverside Church, they would, like all visitors, have to stop at the Security Desk downstairs. The security guards would be instructed to stall the agents at the front desk and call upstairs to our language school.

We would immediately run from class to class on the third and fourth floors of Riverside Church's school building, alerting all our Haitian students to run to the Chapel of the Cross at one end of the third floor.

There, Rev. Coffin and I, not yet ordained as a rabbi but already a leader of Jewish services and rituals, would conduct a spiritual service calling on the protection of the One Whom Bill addressed as "Our Father/ Mother of us all" -- prayers for all those in need of sanctuary.

Bill believed that our students would be safe in the chapel, protected by INS' practice at that time not to remove people from religious services; but he assured me that, if necessary, he would be arrested with me and with some of RLP's Haitian students.

As it turned out, we were spared a visit by INS, and Bill and I didn't go to jail for our convictions that time.

Now, so many years since Bill's vision thundered through Riverside Church (supported by Rev. Eugene Laubach, the Coordinating Minister), --

Now, at a time when Homeland Security is arresting people without cause and Congress is contemplating bills that criminalize those who desire documentation and those who assist them --

Now, when workers and students are being fired and harassed for their participation in marches for a humane immigration policy, I remember with love and sadness the courage and vision of the Rev. William Sloane Coffin.

------- Rabbi Phyllis Berman

And now Arthur's thoughts:

My own strongest memories of Bill Coffin are of a good-humored, often funny, firmly committed defender of justice and peace. When I first met him, I was still a casually Jewish secular radical. Bill's deep rooting in Scripture seemed not surprising for a Christian in a time when Martin Luther King was calling out against not only racism but the Vietnam war; yet I knew few such religiously rooted Jews.

So Coffin was a model-in-waiting whose way of life did not become relevant to me till the days between King's death and the first night of Passover 1968, when Black insurgents filling the streets of Washington DC and the US Army occupying them spoke to my guts and soul: This was Pharaoh's army, and those were a band of rebellious slaves.

I first met the Coffin who prepared me for that burst of God back in the fall of 1967. I was one of half a dozen antiwar activists who stood outside the Department of Justice with hundreds of others who had brought hundreds of draft cards from all over America. We poured these cards into a briefcase. Then we went into the department to meet with one of its high officials.

It was presumably illegal for a man of draftable age (up to at least 35) not to carry a draft card on his person, with his draft status available at any moment on official request. For the thousand or so men who had turned their cards over to us to turn in, that was taking the risk of arrest and trial.

In we went. My colleague Marc Raskin from the Institute for Policy Studies and I had earlier that year written a manifesto, "A Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority," urging support for young men who had decided to resist the draft as a way of resisting the Vietnam War. (See for its text.)

One of our ways of giving that support was for us to join in their illegal action. Thousands of others had signed "A Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority," and with us into DOJ went a few of them -– including Bill Coffin, who had been inspiring resisters in New England.

Our conversation with a Deputy Attorney General ranged from the fiery to the calm. Bill was the calmest -- even gentle, though firm that the truly criminal act was the war and that the Justice Department should be indicting its shapers. When the official refused to "accept" the draft cards, we left them on the table. As we walked out, the FBI swooped in to grab them. (They arranged for our draft boards to order us all for induction into the Army. I had a long confrontation with my board and never got inducted.)

But Raskin and Coffin faced harsher consequences. They were indicted for conspiracy to aid and abet resistance to the draft, along with a young Unitarian, Michael Ferber, a Harvard student; a writer, Mitch Goodman; and –- astounding!! –- America's Grandpa, Dr. Benjamin Spock. (Why I wasn't indicted remained a puzzle for months, until it turned out at trial that certain things I had said in that meeting were misattributed to Marcus.)

So Marc was acquitted. The rest were convicted, and their convictions reversed on appeal because the judge had been remarkably prejudicial in his rulings.

Through it all, Bill remained as he had been at the start: calm, firm, occasionally funny, always profoundly rooted in God's vision of the world. He enjoyed my "conversion" to serious Judaism, and after Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel died, once or twice called me his rabbi – long before I was one.

At Riverside, in 1983, Phyllis' and my separate connections with him flowed together. Bill was tickled by our discovery of each other.

In 1983, Passover included April 4, the anniversary of the death of Dr. King. Bill, together with Cora Weiss, a secular Jewish progressive whom he brought to Riverside to run a disarmament program there, and a new Associate Minister, Rev. Channing Phillips, a Black minister from Washington whose church there had hosted the first Freedom Seder and who in 1968 had been nominated for President by the DC delegation to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, invited me to lead a Shalom Seder at Riverside in memory of King and in celebration of Passover.

As we met to plan that Seder, Bill and I began to talk about the effects of the Reagan Administration on America and the world. Would their version of the world win out? – sped-up nuclear arms race, weaker safety-net for the poor, apocalyptic Christian welcoming of Armageddon –---

Suddenly Bill's voice got strong: "I don't how long it will take," he said, "but I do know this: God is not mocked!"

Perhaps it has taken us this long. I am grateful that Bill lived long enough –- just barely -- to see and hear and taste the gathering of God's winds of change, to hear that two million silent Hispanic Americans had suddenly roared in the streets of America.

That the sanctuary he had promised Phyllis he would give Haitians in his own church in 1981 was being offered by thousands of churches across America, and by the Cardinal Archbishop of Los Angeles.

God is NOT mocked.

Shalom, Arthur