MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
And these are the words of activist and minister William Sloane Coffin. “I believe that God calls each of us to be a co-creator, to help make the crooked straight and the rough places plain.” William Sloane Coffin died today at the age of 81. He became well-known during the Vietnam War when he was chaplain at Yale University.
Perhaps most famously, he took part in a draft card turn-in protest and wound up in court with Dr. Benjamin Spock, among others. On WHYY's Fresh Air, in 1986, Coffin was asked about his anti-war protest and what he felt was appropriate.
Reverend WILLIAM SLOANE COFFIN (Activist): My question would always be, is this going to stop the war? Is this going to be effective? Are you doing this to make yourself feel better or are you doing this to improve the situation? One has to avoid the politics of self-indulgence, self-pity, which isn't always easy when you get in these situations.
NORRIS: Michael Ferber is a professor of English at the University of New Hampshire. He was a friend of William Sloane Coffin.
Mr. MICHAEL FERBER (University of New Hampshire): In the fall of 1967, there were quite a few young men my age, in our early 20s or late teens, who were of course against the war and against the draft. And we felt we had to do something more serious. And the idea was that we would actually turn in our draft cards as protest and to invite being indicted and sent to prison in the spirit of Martin Luther King's notion of fill the jails.
And Bill Coffin, whom I had not yet met, was then chaplain at Yale and he was very moved by this idea that was coming from the young men. He came up to Boston in the fall of '67 and preached a sermon in the Arlington Street Church where I also spoke and where 200 of us turned in our draft cards to him and to other ministers and priests. And then I carried the bag of draft cards to Washington and then cards came in from all over the country.
The end of that week, Coffin and Dr. Spock and several others carried them all inside the Justice Department building and turned them over to the Attorney General's office.
NORRIS: You know, your fellow defendants in that draft card case, did he realize in that moment that with the attention on him that he really had a national, really an international audience? Did he use that as a moment to influence people beyond the courtroom?
Mr. FERBER: Well, I think he did. For one, well, I always thought that he was the greatest white preacher in America. And I've thought that long since. But he had a way of communicating to people who might otherwise not listen to scruffy students like me, because Bill came from, you know, a Yankee blueblood family, a Republican family, he had gone to Yale, he was, had served in the Army and in the CIA.
And he knew all kinds of people in Washington. So we had a kind of insider connection as well as a moral authority as a preacher that I think no one else of his persuasion had.
NORRIS: Is there a particular sermon you remember? Yes, I mean, I've been to several, but there was one I remember, I think it was his last Easter sermon. Easter is of course coming up. At Batel Chapel in Yale and he began the way many sermons on Easter begin, with a kind of dark, bleak note, how the world has many, many problems and it's not at all clear we're gonna solve them and so on.
And he began slowly to sort of look for rays of hope, little groups doing good things, whether they're Christian or non-Christian, the world, you know, might have this group or that working on justice or peace. Began to sound more and more hopeful.
And just as he reached the climax, which I remember was, “And so, bloom, frozen Christians. The world lies all before you.” At that very moment, and I'm not making this up, the sun shone for the first time through the stained glass windows behind him as if he'd had a telephone line to God telling him when to come in. I was in tears at that and I'm a Unitarian.
NORRIS: Professor Ferber, thanks so much for speaking to us. Michael Ferber is a professor of English at the University of New Hampshire. He was speaking to us about his friend, the Reverend William Sloane Coffin, who died today.
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