2006.04.21: April 21, 2006: Headlines: Obituaries: Staff: Training: Common Dreams: Bill Moyers writes: Remembering Bill Coffin
Peace Corps Online:
Peace Corps News:
Peace Corps: Staff:
Peace Corps Staff: Newest Stories:
2006.04.13: April 13, 2006: Headlines: Obituaries: Staff: Training: Washington Post: William Sloane Coffin dies, ran the first training programs for the Peace Corps :
2006.04.21: April 21, 2006: Headlines: Obituaries: Staff: Training: Common Dreams: Bill Moyers writes: Remembering Bill Coffin
Bill Moyers writes: Remembering Bill Coffin
We met once in the early 60s when he was an adviser to the Peace Corps which I had helped to organize and run. He spoke to the staff, inspired us to think of what we were doing as the moral equivalent of war, and told us the story of how as a young captain in the infantry following military orders at the end of World War II. he had been charged with sending back to the Soviet Union thousands of Russian refugees made prisoners by the Germans. Some of them he had deceived into boarding trains that carried them home to sure death at the hands of Stalin. That burden of guilt sat heavily on Bill’s heart for the rest of his life. He wrote about it in his autobiography, and raised it forty years later when we met in the waiting room of the television studio where I was about to interview him. That’s the moment we bonded, two old men by now, sharing our grief that both in different ways had once confused duty with loyalty, and confessing to each other our gratitude that we had lived long enough to atone -- somewhat. “Well,” said Bill, “we needed a lot of time. We had a lot to atone for.”
Bill Moyers writes: Remembering Bill Coffin
Remembering Bill Coffin
by Bill Moyers
The following remarks were delivered by Bill Moyers at the funeral service for William Sloan Coffin on Thursday, April 20, at Riverside Memorial Church in New York City.
There are so many of you out there who should be up here instead of me. You rode with Bill through the Deep South chasing Jim Crow from long impregnable barriers imposed on freedom. You rose with Bill against the Vietnam War, were arrested with him, shared jail with him, and at night in your cells joined in singing the Hallelujah Chorus with him You rallied with him against the horrors of nuclear weapons. You sang with him, laughed with him, drank with him, prayed with him, grieved with him, worshipped and wept with him. Even at this moment when your hearts are breaking at the loss of him, you must be comforted by the balm of those memories. I envy your life-long membership in his beloved community, and I am honored that Randy, his wife, asked me to speak today about the Bill Coffin I knew.
I saw little of him personally until late in his life. We met once in the early 60s when he was an adviser to the Peace Corps which I had helped to organize and run. He spoke to the staff, inspired us to think of what we were doing as the moral equivalent of war, and told us the story of how as a young captain in the infantry following military orders at the end of World War II. he had been charged with sending back to the Soviet Union thousands of Russian refugees made prisoners by the Germans. Some of them he had deceived into boarding trains that carried them home to sure death at the hands of Stalin. That burden of guilt sat heavily on Bill’s heart for the rest of his life. He wrote about it in his autobiography, and raised it forty years later when we met in the waiting room of the television studio where I was about to interview him. That’s the moment we bonded, two old men by now, sharing our grief that both in different ways had once confused duty with loyalty, and confessing to each other our gratitude that we had lived long enough to atone -- somewhat. “Well,” said Bill, “we needed a lot of time. We had a lot to atone for.”
I had called him for the interview after learning the doctors had told him his time was now running out. When he came down from Vermont to the studio here in New York, I qreeted him with the question, “How you doing?” . He threw back his head, his eyes flashed, and with that slurred (from a stroke) but still vibrant voice, he answered: “Well, I am praying the prayer of St. Augustine: Give me chastity and self-restraint….but not yet.”
He taught me more about being a Christian than I learned at seminary.
His witness taught me – he preached what he practiced. But his writings taught me, too –Once to Every Man, Living the Truth in a World of Illusion, The Heart is a Little to the Left, Credo, Letters to a Young Doubter, and of course that unforgettable eulogy to his drowned son, Alex, when he called on us to “improve the quality of our suffering.” During my interview with him on PBS I asked him how he had summoned the strength for so powerful a message of suffering and love. He said, “Well, we all do what we know how to do. I went right away to the piano. And I played all the hymns. And I wept and I wept, and I read the poems, like A.E. Houseman – ‘To an Athlete Dying Young.’ Then I realized the folks in Riverside Church had to know whether or not they still had a pastor. So I wrote the sermon. I wanted them to know.”
They knew, Bill, they knew.
This will surprise some of you: Not too long ago Bill told Terry Gross that he would rather not be known as a social activist. The happiest moments of my life, he said, were less in social activism than in the intimate settings of the pastor’s calling – “the moments when you’re doing marriage counseling…or baptizing a baby…or accompanying people who have suffered loss – the moments when people tend to be most human – when they are most vulnerable.”
So he had the pastor’s heart but he he heeded the prophet’s calling. There burned in his soul a sacred rage – that volatile mix of grief and anger and love that produced what his friend, the artist and writer Robert Shetterly, described as “a holy flame.” During my interview with him he said, “When you see uncaring people in high places, everybody should be mad as hell.” If you lessen your anger at the structures of power, he said, you lower your love for the victims of power.
I once heard Lyndon Johnson urge Martin Luther King to hold off on his marching in the south to give the President time to neutralize the old guard in Congress and create a consensus for finally ending institutionalized racism in America. Martin Luther King listened, and then he answered (I paraphrase): Mr. President, the gods of the South will never be appeased. They will never have a change of heart. They will never repent of their sins and come to the altar seeking forgiveness. The time has passed for consensus, the time has come to break the grip of history and change the course of America.” When the discussion was over Dr. King had carried the day. The President of the United States put a long arm on his shoulder and said, “Martin, you go on out there now and make it possible for me to do the right thing.” Lyndon Johnson had seen the light: For him to do the right thing someone had to subpoena the conscience of America and send it marching from the ground up against the citadels of power and privilege.
Like Martin Luther King, Bill Coffin also knew the heart of power is hard; knew it arranged the rules for its own advantage, knew that before justice could roll down like water and righteousness like a flowing river, the dam of oppression, deception and corruption had first to be broken, cracked open by the moral power of people aroused to demand that the right thing be done. “In times of oppression,” he said, “if you don’t translate choices of faith into political choices, you run the danger of washing your hands, like Pilate.” So he aimed his indignation at root causes. “Many of us are eager to respond to injustice,” he said, “without having to confront the causes of it…and that’s why so many business and governmental leaders today are promoting charity. It is desperately needed in an economy whose prosperity is based on growing inequality. First these leaders proclaim themselves experts on matters economic, and prove it by taking the most out of the economy. Then they promote charity as if it were the work of the church, finally telling troubled clergy to shut up and bless the economy as once we blessed the battleship.”
When he came down from Vermont two years ago for that final interview, we talked about how democracy had reached a fork in the road – what Tony Kushner calls one of those moments in history when the fabric of everyday life unravels and there is this unstable dynamism that allows for incredible change in short period of time – when people and the world they are living in can be utterly transformed for good or bad.
Take one fork and the road leads to an America where military power serves empire rather than freedom; where we lose from within what we are trying to defend from without; where fundamentalism and the state scheme to write the rules and regulations; where true believers in the gods of the market turn the law of the jungle into the law of the land; where in the name of patriotism we keep our hand over our heart pledging allegiance to the flag while our leaders pick our pockets and plunder our trust; where elites insulate themselves from the consequences of their own actions; where ”the strong take what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.”
Take the other fork and the road leads to the America whose promise is “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for all Bill Coffin spent his life pointing us down that road. in that direction. There is nothing utopian about it, Bill said; he was an idealist but he was not an ideologue. He said in our interview that we have to keep pressing the socialist questions because they are the questions of justice, but we must be dubious about the socialist answers because while Amos may call for justice to roll down as waters, figuring out the irrigation system is damned hard!
He believed in democracy. There is no simpler way to put it. He believed democracy was the only way to assure that the rewards of a free society would be shared with everyone, and not just elites at the top. That last time we talked he told me how much he had liked the story he had heard Joseph Campbell tell me in our series on “The Power of Myth” – the story of the fellow who turns the corner and sees a brawl in the middle of the block. He runs right for it, shouting: “Is this a private fight, or can anyone get in it?”
Bill saw democracy as everyone’s fight. He’d be in the middle of the fork in the road right now, his coat off, his sleeves rolled up, his hand raised – pointing us to the action. And his message would be the same today as then: Sign up, jump in, fight on.”
Someone sidled up to me the other night at another gathering where Bill’s death was discussed. This person said, “He was no saint, you know.” I wanted to answer: “You’re kidding?” We knew, alright. Saints flourish in a mythic world. Bill Coffin flourished here, in the cracked common clay of an earthly and earthy life. He liked it here. Even as he was trying to cooperate gracefully with the inevitability of death, he was also coaching Paul Newman to play the preacher in the film version of Marilynn Robinson’s novel Gilead. He enjoyed nothing more than wine and song at his home with Randy and friends. And he never lost his conviction that a better world is possible if we fight hard enough. At a dinner in his honor in Washington he had reminded us that “the world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love.” But as we left he winked at me and said, “Give’em hell.”
Faith, he once said, “is being seized by love.” Seized he was, in everlasting arms. “You know,” he told me in that interview, “I lost a son. And people will say, ‘Well, when you die, Bill, Alex will come forth and bring you through the pearly gates.’ Well, that’s a nice thought, and I welcome it. But I don’t need to believe that. All I need to know is, God will be there. And our lives go from God, in God, to God again. Hallelujah, you know? That should be enough.”
Well, he’s there now. But we are still here. I hear his voice in my heart: “Don’t tarry long in mourning. Organize.”
When this story was posted in April 2006, this was on the front page of PCOL:
Peace Corps Online The Independent News Forum serving Returned Peace Corps Volunteers
| The Peace Corps Library|
The Peace Corps Library is now available online with over 40,000 index entries in 500 categories. Looking for a Returned Volunteer? Check our RPCV Directory. New: Sign up to receive PCOL Magazine, our free Monthly Magazine by email. Like to keep up with Peace Corps news as it happens? Sign up to recieve a daily summary of Peace Corps stories from around the world.
| PCOL readership increases 100%|
Monthly readership on "Peace Corps Online" has increased in the past twelve months to 350,000 visitors - over eleven thousand every day - a 100% increase since this time last year. Thanks again, RPCVs and Friends of the Peace Corps, for making PCOL your source of information for the Peace Corps community. And thanks for supporting the Peace Corps Library and History of the Peace Corps. Stay tuned, the best is yet to come.
| History of the Peace Corps|
PCOL is proud to announce that Phase One of the "History of the Peace Corps" is now available online. This installment includes over 5,000 pages of primary source documents from the archives of the Peace Corps including every issue of "Peace Corps News," "Peace Corps Times," "Peace Corps Volunteer," "Action Update," and every annual report of the Peace Corps to Congress since 1961. "Ask Not" is an ongoing project. Read how you can help.
| PC announces new program in Cambodia|
Director Vasquez and Cambodia's Deputy Chief of Mission Meng Eang Nay announced a historic new partnership between the Peace Corps and the Kingdom of Cambodia that will bring volunteers to this Southeast Asian country for the first time. Under King Norodom Sihamoni and Prime Minister Hun Sen, Cambodia has welcomed new partnerships with the U.S. government and other U.S. organizations.
| Peace Corps suspends program in Bangladesh|
Peace Corps Director Gaddi H. Vasquez announced the suspension of the Peace Corps program in Bangladesh on March 15. The safety and security of volunteers is the number one priority of the Peace Corps. Therefore, all Peace Corps volunteers serving in Bangladesh have safely left the country. More than 280 Peace Corps volunteers have served in Bangladesh since the program opened in November 1998. Latest: What other newspapers say.
| Invitee re-assigned after inflammatory remarks|
The Peace Corps has pulled the invitation to Derek Volkart to join the Morocco Training Program and offered him a position in the Pacific instead after officials read an article in which he stated that his decision to join the Peace Corps was in "response to our current fascist government." RPCV Lew Nash says that "If Derek Volkart spoke his mind as freely in Morocco about the Moroccan monarchy it could cause major problems for himself and other Peace Corps volunteers." Latest: Volkart reverses stance, takes new assignment in Paraguay.
| March 1, 1961: Keeping Kennedy's Promise|
On March 1, 1961, President John F. Kennedy issues Executive Order #10924, establishing the Peace Corps as a new agency: "Life in the Peace Corps will not be easy. There will be no salary and allowances will be at a level sufficient only to maintain health and meet basic needs. Men and women will be expected to work and live alongside the nationals of the country in which they are stationed--doing the same work, eating the same food, talking the same language. But if the life will not be easy, it will be rich and satisfying. For every young American who participates in the Peace Corps--who works in a foreign land--will know that he or she is sharing in the great common task of bringing to man that decent way of life which is the foundation of freedom and a condition of peace. "
| Paid Vacations in the Third World?|
Retired diplomat Peter Rice has written a letter to the Wall Street Journal stating that Peace Corps "is really just a U.S. government program for paid vacations in the Third World." Director Vasquez has responded that "the small stipend volunteers receive during their two years of service is more than returned in the understanding fostered in communities throughout the world and here at home." What do RPCVs think?
| RPCV admits to abuse while in Peace Corps|
Timothy Ronald Obert has pleaded guilty to sexually abusing a minor in Costa Rica while serving there as a Peace Corps volunteer. "The Peace Corps has a zero tolerance policy for misconduct that violates the law or standards of conduct established by the Peace Corps," said Peace Corps Director Gaddi H. Vasquez. Could inadequate screening have been partly to blame? Mr. Obert's resume, which he had submitted to the Peace Corps in support of his application to become a Peace Corps Volunteer, showed that he had repeatedly sought and obtained positions working with underprivileged children. Read what RPCVs have to say about this case.
| Why blurring the lines puts PCVs in danger|
When the National Call to Service legislation was amended to include Peace Corps in December of 2002, this country had not yet invaded Iraq and was not in prolonged military engagement in the Middle East, as it is now. Read the story of how one volunteer spent three years in captivity from 1976 to 1980 as the hostage of a insurrection group in Colombia in Joanne Marie Roll's op-ed on why this legislation may put soldier/PCVs in the same kind of danger. Latest: Read the ongoing dialog on the subject.
| Friends of the Peace Corps 170,000 strong|
170,000 is a very special number for the RPCV community - it's the number of Volunteers who have served in the Peace Corps since 1961. It's also a number that is very special to us because March is the first month since our founding in January, 2001 that our readership has exceeded 170,000. And while we know that not everyone who comes to this site is an RPCV, they are all "Friends of the Peace Corps." Thanks everybody for making PCOL your source of news for the Returned Volunteer community.
Read the stories and leave your comments.
Some postings on Peace Corps Online are provided to the individual members of this group without permission of the copyright owner for the non-profit purposes of criticism, comment, education, scholarship, and research under the "Fair Use" provisions of U.S. Government copyright laws and they may not be distributed further without permission of the copyright owner. Peace Corps Online does not vouch for the accuracy of the content of the postings, which is the sole responsibility of the copyright holder.
Story Source: Common Dreams
This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; Obituaries; Staff; Training