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Panel Considers 'Your Truth, My Truth, The Truth'

The Rev. William Sloan Coffin

On Thursday, June 30, esteemed clergyman and social activist William Sloane Coffin joined leaders of New York City's ecumenical, political, business and arts communities in a special dialogue at Synod Hall at The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. Rev. Coffin is a former Freedom Rider, Yale University chaplain and senior minister of The Riverside Church. For more than 40 years, he has spoken with prophetic zeal on matters of war and peace, social justice and religious faith.

The dialogue was inspired by the painting exhibition, "Americans Who Tell the Truth," which is on display at Low Library on Columbia's Morningside campus and at The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine through July 27. The paintings portray the likenesses and words of people who have been outspoken about the cause of justice and fairness in American society.

In opening remarks, three interfaith ecumenical leaders spoke about truth in their communities.Imam Izak-El M. Pasha of Masjid Malcolm Shabazz spoke about Rev. Coffin's embrace of all religions for the truth they speak about humanity. Next, Rabbi Rachel Cowan, director of the Jewish Institute for Spirituality, talked about the meaning of life as embodied in the Hebrew letters that spell the word. In a sardonically humorous -- but telling -– subsequent moment Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes, Jr., of The Riverside Church, who will follow in Rev. Coffin's footsteps as a leader of Riverside Church, suggested that Rev. Coffin is the person who would mount an exhibit to take on people who don't tell the truth.

The breakfast conversation was sponsored by Community Works in association with the Harlem Arts Alliance, as well as The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine and Columbia University.

(Back Row) Right Rev. James Kowalski, Voza Rivers, Lucille McKeon (CEO, Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement), Ganilah Shabazz (a daughter of Malcolm X), Actor Paul Newman, Artist Robert Shetterly. (Table) Marcia Sells (CU), Barbara Horowitz, Rev. William Sloane Coffin

Barbara Horowitz, president and founder of Community Works, spoke of her deep connection to Rev. Coffin, which dated back from her childhood, and of her awe as a young girl of his daring and deeply humanistic stances. Horowitz explained that the title of the event, "Your Truth, My Truth, The Truth," is a quote from the play Tierno Bokar, which examines tolerance and truth-telling. This awarding-winning play about a legendary Sufi mystic had its New York premier in early 2005 as part of the Columbia University Arts Initiative in partnership with the Harlem Arts Alliance and Barnard College, where it was staged.

Also contributing to the morning dialogue were Voza Rivers, chair of the Harlem Arts Alliance; moderator of the discussion, Rev. Dr. James A. Kowlaski of The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine; and host Cliff Frazier of the New York Metropolitan Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Non-Violence.

Following those remarks,Rev. Coffin spoke about the "truth-tellers' " courage as people of conscience, fighting to speak for love and against injustice. Rev. Coffin then engaged his audience in a spirited and widely ranging discussion about religion and the contemporary world. He began by examining how Christians (and society in general) can reconcile hope with the tragedies and strife happening in the world today. He described the essence of Christianity as being equal parts hope and love.

Rev. Coffin went on to rebuff of those who would attempt to justify hateful speech and extreme conduct by referencing isolated portions of the Bible -— portions that are often selectively quoted and often interpreted out-of-context.

True to his outspoken reputation, Rev. Coffin observed that certain U.S. government leaders who spout Christian homilies were violating basic Christian values in their blindness to see and help the poor. He mused on the current fervor pitting science versus religion, observing that in his view, the two disciplines have never been incompatible, because science asks "How?" and religion asks "Why?" In the ensuing discussion, Rev. Coffin explored themes that are fully realized in his latest book, Letters to a Young Doubter .

One surprise guest attending the standing room only event was the esteemed actor/activist/philanthropist Paul Newman, a friend of the Rev. Coffin.

You may view the complete dialogue at http://www.columbia.edu/cu/news/media/05/366_Truthcmprsd/ .

About “Americans Who Tell the Truth” Artist Robert Shetterly’s painting exhibition honors America’s “truth-tellers.” Shetterly merged Rev. Coffin’s image and words into a unique painting, which is but one of more than 100 he has completed in the series. Rev. Coffin’s portrait appears alongside many other important Americans, such as W.E.B. DuBois, Sojourner Truth and Bill Moyers. To learn more about the exhibit see the article at http://www.columbia.edu/cu/news/05/06/americans_tell_truth.html.

"Americans Who Tell the Truth" is on exhibition at Low Libraryand the Cathedral of Church of St. John the Divine through July 27. Gallery hours are Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

"Truth-tellers" on exhibit at Low Library include:

Muhammad Ali, William Sloane Coffin, Ossie Davis,

W.E.B. DuBois, Dwight Eisenhower, Amy Goodman,

Fannie Lou Hamer, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston,

Hellen Keller, Dorothea Lange, Lewis Lapham, Bill Moyers,

Paul Robeson, Frank Serpico, Sojourner Truth, Walt Whitman,

Judy Wicks, Malcolm X, Howard Zinn

"Truth-tellers" on exhibit at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine ( Amsterdam Ave. at 110 th St.) include:

Susan B. Anthony, James Baldwin, Wendell Berry

Cesar Chavez, Shirley Chisholm, Frederick Douglass

Marian Wright Edelman, Ralph Ellison, Chief Joseph

Jonathan Kozol, Martin Luther King, Jr.

Arthur Miller, Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt

Mark Twain, Harriet Tubman.

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Published: Jul 21, 2005
Last modified: Jul 21, 2005

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