(HOST) Memorial Day traditionally honors those who dedicated their lives to military service, but this year commentator Tom Slayton is reflecting on the fact that there are many ways to serve.
(SLAYTON) Among those I’m remembering as Memorial Day approaches is a man who died peacefully earlier this year, a man I met only in the twilight of his life but who made a deep impression on me even so.
I interviewed the Reverend William Sloan Coffin – Bill, as he preferred to be called – at his home in Strafford on a sunny August day a couple of years ago. He was 80 years old, and he knew then that his heart was failing. Yet he was serene, glad to talk about his life and impending death, secure in his religious faith.
“I don’t know what is ahead,” he told me that day. “Only Who is ahead.”
We sat on his porch as late-summer sunlight filtered through the maple leaves over us and made softly shifting patterns on the porch floor. Across the way, the chaste white presence of the Strafford Town House anchored the town green.
“Always in Vermont,” Bill Coffin said, “you are helped by the amazing beauty that is here.”
To the very end of his life, Coffin remained a strong social critic. He has been called “an American prophet,” and “the greatest public preacher of our time.” But the man I talked with that sunny August day nearly two years ago was not a firebrand or an idealogue. He was a man of deep faith who was courageous enough to act on that faith, right up until the end of his life.
At the heart of his long and varied activism was a religious vision that saw the message of Jesus as demanding allegiance to the twin causes of justice and peace. The Biblical core of Coffin’s belief was evident that afternoon, when I asked him what he would hope for America in the 21st century: “I would say, with the prophet Amos, ‘Let justice roll down like mighty waters,'” he declared.
He was dismayed by what he called “our current misadventure in Iraq,” as well as many of the tendencies of contemporary American society. He maintained that it was his duty as a Christian minister to speak out on the evils of our times. In some ways, Coffin’s opposition to the Iraq War mirrored the strong opposition he mounted 40 years ago to the War in Vietnam and was a seamless part of a life spent advocating for peace and social justice.
People who knew Bill Coffin better than I have said that he had an enormous influence on the public life of America in the 20th Century. For years, he was a leader in the Civil Rights movement and the peace movement. Right up until the end, he continued to write and speak against militarism, injustice and poverty.
We spent a pleasant couple of hours talking and then it was time for me to go. I drove down from the hills of Strafford with the memory of a strong and brilliant man who faced death – as he had faced other implacable foes – with complete equanimity.
And I suppose that’s the reason I’m thinking about him this Memorial day. He showed what a life of courage and commitment can accomplish.
Tom Slayton is the editor of Vermont Life magazine.