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Rev. William Sloane Coffin's crusade carries on at Riverside

By Curtis J. SitomerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 2, 1983

New York

Crisp fall winds assault the fading foliage on Riverside Drive. A glittering Hudson is backdropped by New Jersey's imposing Palisades. On the New York side sits a magnificent cathedral - the Riverside Church - where, historically, sermons of peace and light have echoed the strains of religious freedom on which this nation was founded.

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But such grandeur belies a black and Hispanic ghetto that knows hunger and poverty and crime. New York's Upper West Side, long a symbol of white middle-class affluence, now carries a logo of minority despair. Harlem-spawned homicide and drug-dealing splash across Broadway making this a high-risk area.

Spanning these two worlds of the pastoral and poor is one of the nation's most unorthodox and controversial clergymen: William Sloane Coffin, senior minister at Riverside Church.

The Rev. Mr. Coffin, an ordained Presbyterian, has been preaching a sermon of social activism and political reform for more than two decades, first as chaplain at Yale University, and for the past eight years here on the banks of the Hudson.

Today, as yesterday when he marched with ''Freedom Riders'' in the South and struck piercing chords against Vietnam and the draft, Bill Coffin is still fighting the ''Establishment'' with words from the pulpit and movement among the masses.

But now the police confrontations, the arrests for civil disobedience, and the bitter exchanges with more traditional defenders of the faith that marked his early career have faded into the background. In some quarters, the graying but still zestful, let-it-all-hang-out clergyman remains a ''heretic'' and ''communist sympathizer.'' However, even his most vitriolic detractors have lowered their voices.

Coffin himself doesn't seem to mind being out of the political spotlight. But he objects to being considered ''mellowed.'' His interpetation of Christianity is still intertwined with confrontation. He insists that, over the years, he has become ''more impatient and more compassionate.''

The clergyman's ''impatience'' these days centers around two themes: nuclear disarmament and sharing the wealth.

Coffin has two deep concerns about Americans' attitudes toward nuclear war: One is that the whole idea is so awesome, people don't really think they can do anything about it - hence they are apathetic. The other involves ''power.''

''The one thing we Americans are not about to give up is power,'' he says. ''And I'm afraid the devil is seducing us to seek status through power.''

''Instead of the devil we should be heeding the Psalmist: 'The war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save,' '' he counsels.

''Instead of escalating the arms race, we should be doing everything we possibly can to slow, stop, and reverse it. This is the meat-and-potatoes issue of our day, and it is on the plate of every Christian'' is Coffin's most potent antinuclear message from the pulpit.

If some view the minister's disarmament stance as rebellious, his ideas about economic and social equality would fall into the revolutionary category. Coffin doesn't particularly like the word ''revolutionary,'' especially when it refers to him. Almost defensively, he quotes President John F. Kennedy: ''Those who make peaceful evolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.''

Coffin heartily supports human rights movements in Central America. Last year , he was a key contributor to a conference on Nicaragua whose theme was ''Saying No to Reagan's Wars.''

Sometimes accused of being ''soft'' on communism or playing directly into the hands of America's antagonists, Coffin responds: ''It must be understood that communists don't make revolutions. Bad governments make revolution. . . . The Gospel has more to do with most Latin American revolutions than Marxism does.''

As a Christian, Coffin says he is committed to ''bloodless'' revolutions. ''It's up to the church to keep these confrontations nonviolent and motivated by love of the good rather than hatred of evil,'' he explains.