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Wednesday, July 25, 2018

SIMILAR LIVES-With Wm. Sloane Coffin [W, 7-25-18]


In the process of sorting, I came across my partly-read copy of William Sloane Coffin’s Credo. As one does with most things sorted, rather than passing it on, I began to read it again.

When he died in 2006, he was the same age I am now. As I reread him, I realize that Coffin and I led very similar lives across our equal number of years.

He was a city child of wealth and privilege. I am a farm kid who grew up on Aid to Dependent Children.

He was the grandson of Henry Sloane Coffin, the most famous clergyman of his generation, Moderator [Head Honcho] of The Presbyterian Church in the USA and President of Union Seminary in NYC. I am the grandson of Arthur Harrison McFarland, who took a correspondence course to learn to be a stationary engineer in a coal mine [1] and Elmer Pond, a coal miner who advocated for safer conditions in mines and was killed in a mine cave-in.

He did private schooling—Phillips Academy. I went to public school in a southern Indiana county that is known as “the Mississippi of the North.”

He studied music at Yale, where he was a member of Skull & Bones, with a boy who later was President of the US, George H.W. Bush. I studied history at a “Godless state university,” where I was on the Residence Scholarship Plan, for first generation students who could not afford college otherwise, with a boy who was later President of a Lions Club.

He studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger to be a concert pianist. I was second bassoon to Carolyn Waller in the high school band.

He was fluent in French and Russian. He learned Russian while in the army in WWII and was an interpreter for General Patton. I was in ROTC in college and got a C in French.

He was a CIA agent, trying to persuade Russians to subvert the Soviet Union. I was a Reds fan and tried to persuade people to abandon the St. Louis Cardinals.

He went to Yale Divinity School and at 33 was appointed Chaplain at Yale University, their youngest ever, only 2 years after ordination, at a university known for producing business and world and national leaders. I got thrown out of seminary in Dallas and finished at a commuter school for “preacher boys.” Two years after ordination, I was also in campus ministry, in a town in the Midwest named Normal, at a college known for producing elementary teachers.

He was so well known he became a character in the Doonesbury cartoon strip. I read Doonesbury.

He married 3 times, the first time to Eva Rubinstein, a ballerina and daughter of pianist Arthur Rubinstein. His first two marriages ended in divorce. I married once, to a steelworker’s [2] daughter from Gary, Indiana, a Home Ec teacher, and that marriage is in its 60th year.

He became the minister at NYC’s iconic Riverside Church, made famous by Harry Emerson Fosdick. I became the minister at UMC’s only church in Arcola, a town with a smaller population than any one block of Riverside Drive.

He hung out with Martin Luther King, and Desmond Tutu, and Nelson Mandela. I hung out with Bill Jones, and Bob Butts, and Rebecca Ninke.

He was the creator of pithy statements. “I love the recklessness of faith. First you leap, and then you grow wings.” I retold long stories. “There was a man who had two sons…”

He left wealth and privilege and status to advocate for peace, and justice for the oppressed. I left poverty and anonymity to advocate for peace and justice for the oppressed. As I said, we led very similar lives.


1] Since Grandpa Mac finished his career in a paper mill, he was also a stationery engineer.

2] Earl “Tank” Karr almost had an 8th grade education. He did not do 8th grade commencement in Monon, IN, though. He told Helen it was because he had been smoking in the outhouse. She found out later that it was because he shot the weathervane off the school building. That brought him to the attention of the Remington Company. They wanted him to demonstrate the accuracy of their rifles. He was a home boy, though, and did not want to go on the road, so…

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