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William Sloane Coffin, 81; CIA agent became beacon of antiwar movement

MONTPELIER, Vt. -- The Rev. William Sloane Coffin, a former Yale University chaplain known for his peace activism during the Vietnam War and his continuing work for social justice, died yesterday at his home in rural Strafford. He was 81.

Rev. Coffin had been suffering from congestive heart failure and had been under the care of a hospice, said his daughter, Amy.

''He was out in the sun. Everybody was talking and then he was gone," Amy Coffin said. ''Physically he was pretty debilitated but spiritually he was not."

Rev. Coffin gained prominence in the 1960s as an outspoken advocate for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. He joined a group of civil rights activists known as the ''freedom riders" and he was arrested several times at demonstrations against segregation.

He became a leader of the group Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam, which engaged in civil disobedience, including offering sanctuary in churches and synagogues to draft resisters.

He often spoke of having a lifelong ''lover's quarrel" with America.

''Bill's voice was part of a chorus of conscience for a nation dealing with issues of poverty, war, disarmament, racism, and bigotry," said the Rev. Frederick J. Streets, current chaplain of Yale University Divinity School. ''He distinguished himself by rising above and emerging out of his own background of privilege to speak on behalf of the poor.

''He had the voice of an orator, the language of a poet, the spirit of a pastor, and the conviction of a prophet," Streets said.

Rev. Coffin was the middle of three children born into privilege as the son of a wealthy New York City furniture dealer. As a teenager and aspiring concert pianist, he studied with the famed Nadia Boulanger in Paris.

He went to Yale as a music student, but left in 1942 to join the US Army.

An assignment at the end of World War II helped shape both his resolve and his ideals in the antiwar campaign a quarter century later. A lieutenant who was able to speak Russian, he was ordered to help organize a ploy that led to the repatriation of anti-Stalinist Russian soldiers back to their country, where they were sure to either be killed or sent to labor camps.

''It was one of the worst things of my life," he told The Boston Globe in 2004. ''Why didn't I tell [the Russian soldiers] what was going to happen?"

After a pause, he answered his own question: ''Because I was a good soldier."

He continued. ''Subsequently, it has been very easy for me to disobey a law or an order concerning life and death. You can't say 'I'm following orders.' That's a reason, but no excuse."

After leaving the service as a captain in 1947, Rev. Coffin went back to Yale as a political science student, but developed an interest in theology and philosophy. In 1949, he enrolled in the Union Theological Seminary, but the outbreak of the Korean War rekindled his interest in fighting communism. In 1950 he joined the CIA -- he said later he wanted to work against Stalin in recompense for his failure to intervene in the repatriation of the Russian soldiers.

Rev. Coffin left the intelligence service three years later and enrolled in Yale's Divinity School, receiving his bachelor's degree and being ordained a United Church of Christ minister in 1956.

After ordination, Rev. Coffin married Eva Rubinstein, the daughter of pianist Arthur Rubinstein. During their courtship, the pianist told him he was not sure whether he wanted a Billy Graham in his family. Rev. Coffin replied he was unsure whether he wanted a Liberace in his.

The couple divorced in the late 1960s and he married Harriet Gibney.

Rev. Coffin spent a year each as chaplain at Phillips Andover Academy and Williams College in Western Massachusetts. He became chaplain at Yale in 1958.

His antiwar activities included leading a rally at the Arlington Street Church in Boston in 1967 that included the collection and destruction of about 1,000 draft cards. He was arrested and convicted on charges of conspiracy to aid draft resisters, which were overturned on appeal.

In awarding Rev. Coffin an honorary doctorate in 2002, Yale said, ''You changed the shape of college chaplaincy and inspired a generation of young people to challenge injustice.

''You urged, in the civil rights and antiwar movements, adherence to the highest moral principles."

Rev. Coffin said his advocacy for the downtrodden was born of faith.

''What this country needs, what I think God wants us to do, is not practice piecemeal charity but engage in wholesale justice," Rev. Coffin said in a PBS interview in 2004. ''Justice is at the heart of religious faith. When we see Christ empowering the poor, scorning the powerful, healing the world's hurts, we are seeing transparently the power of God at work."

Rev. Coffin was immortalized in the ''Doonesbury" comic strip when its creator, Garry Trudeau, blended his character with that of a Trudeau roommate who became a priest, dubbing the fictitious clergyman ''Rev. Sloan."

Rev. Coffin continued his activism after leaving Yale in 1976 and moving on to become minister of the Riverside Church in New York City. There he broadened his agenda to working on issues of peace, nuclear disarmament, poverty, homelessness, and protecting the environment. He was criticized by some in the congregation as too attentive to his social agenda, at the expense of pastoral work and management of the church.

He retired from Riverside in 1987 to Strafford, Vt., but continued traveling the country lecturing on human rights issues, the arms race, and the environment.

Long an outspoken supporter of gay and lesbian rights, Rev. Coffin delivered an address on that issue on the Strafford village green in 2000, five months after Vermont passed a law allowing for civil unions of same-sex couples.

Addressing his remarks to US Catholic bishops, who oppose broadening gay and lesbian rights, Rev. Coffin emphasized, as he had so often throughout his career, the loving rather than the punitive side of Christian faith.

''For Christians, the problem is not how to reconcile homosexuality with scriptural passages that condemn it," he said, ''but how to reconcile the rejection and punishment of homosexuals with the love of Christ."

One of Rev. Coffin's longtime friends, Boston University historian and activist Howard Zinn, said he'll miss Rev. Coffin's humor. He recalled a speech in which Rev. Coffin spoke to a group of students about what to do after graduation.

''He said, 'Remember this: Even if you win the rat race, you're still a rat,' " Zinn said.

For all of his grappling with weighty issues, Rev. Coffin maintained a cheerful demeanor. ''Hope arouses, as nothing else can arouse, a passion for the possible," he once said.

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