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Coffee, advocate for racial equality, dies

SANTA ROSA, Calif. (BP)–Growing up in the 1930s and ’40s in what then was a segregated state, Oklahoma-born James E. Coffee experienced firsthand what it was like to be relegated to the back seat of buses, the balcony of movie theatres and the back door of business establishments.

Those experiences came back in an emotional rush after he was called in 1963 to pastor what then was the 15-member African-American congregation of Community Baptist Church in Santa Rosa, said his wife, Vivian Coffee. The pastorate was a post Coffee held for 47 years until he died April 6 at age 76 after several years of health problems. The church over the years grew into a multicultural congregation of about 400 in Sunday morning worship.

“It was painful to him to see people mistreated because of their color, race or creed,” Vivian Coffee said in a telephone conversation with Baptist Press. “His main thing was God created us all, and we all should be treated the same.”

That’s not how the Santa Rosa community saw it in the late 1940s and early ’50s. The story of the change is the story of James E. Coffee’s influence.

As war-related work waned in the San Francisco Bay Area after World War II, a number of people of African descent moved about 60 miles north to Santa Rosa. There was no established black community or any black churches, but there wasn’t much overt racism either, so they stayed, and they attended an Anglo church. But the church’s leaders didn’t wait long before offering to help the African Americans organize their own congregation.

No problem — until founding pastor Washington Boyce wanted the new church to be part of the Redwood Empire Baptist Association in order to continue reaping the benefit of Southern Baptist educational materials and training. After months of heated discussion and the breaking of a tie vote by the associational moderator, Community Baptist Church of Santa Rosa in the fall of 1951 was welcomed in the association — and by extension, the California Southern Baptist Convention and the national SBC.

When Coffee arrived in 1963, he was surprised and saddened at the town’s — and the churches’ — racial divide, Vivian Coffee said. “He saw what needed to be done,” she said.

“In order to have reconciliation, you have to have acceptance,” Coffee said innumerable times over the next 47 years. “You’ve got to see people as equal, and we don’t have to be the same to be equal.”

During his years at Community Baptist, Coffee led the city and Sonoma County to enthusiastically embrace equality. It is this record that garnered him a 1,500-word obituary in the local newspaper — 10 times the normal length; the headline of an editorial about him in the same day’s paper was: “Minister created change in Santa Rosa one friend at a time.”

The man who in June 1957 in Oakland, Calif., shook the hand of Martin Luther King Jr., led Sonoma County in 1981 to create its first MLK birthday celebration, a community event that continues annually. Next he persuaded county leaders to withdraw all its money invested in South Africa, known for its unequal treatment of blacks and whites.

He started Bridge Builders in 1996, a once-a-month diversity forum that at its peak drew about 100 participants, one of numerous initiatives that reflected a juxtaposition of church and community needs.

“It’s tough,” Coffee said in a 2003 article in Baptist Press. “People don’t want to deal with these things anymore, but time alone is not going to change anything. One of the things I have to work on is that integration was legalized, but what we never had was reconciliation.

“As a pastor, the hardest thing for me to do is not teach but unteach,” Coffee continued in the 2003 interview. “It’s hard to tell someone, ‘Grandma is not right’ or ‘Grandpa.’ We have integration. We passed laws and it helped, but where the real change will take place is when we change one [person] at a time.”

He founded the Rites of Passage Project in 1999 for 14- to 18-year-olds — mostly non-Anglo — in Santa Rosa. During the six-week series, students are immersed in the principles of respect and honor for all people, including themselves.

Another of Coffey’s initiatives: an ongoing Village Project for youngsters under 14.

“In Africa they still have villages,” Coffee said in 2003. “Since we don’t have a village anymore, the closest thing is a church. So we take kids from babies to 13, mentor them, do events, have a community garden. It’s going to take more than just their parents to bring these kids to responsible adulthood.”

Coffee also established Race Equality Week in 2002. In 2004, the annual James E. Coffee Human Rights Awards were started by county leaders.

Coffee, however, while known for all this and more, is best remembered for God’s love, which he lavishly shared — including hugs — with everyone who crossed his path.

“As pastor of Santa Rosa’s Community Baptist Church, Coffee created change one bear hug at a time,” according to the April 7 editorial in the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat. “He raised the county’s awareness of unjust practices from apartheid in South Africa to discrimination on the streets of Santa Rosa.

“But his push for change was often packaged in a message of hope, camaraderie and faithfulness,” the editorial noted.

Coffee was not well-known outside California to people still living because he was focused on doing God’s work locally, several Southern Baptist leaders said.

“Reverend James Coffee was a person, first designed after Christ, and then a person designed after Martin Luther King Jr.,” said Leroy Gainey, J.M. Frost Professor of Educational Leadership at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Mill Valley, Calif., and pastor of First Baptist Church of Vacaville, Calif. “I know of very few people who genuinely loved people at the level that the Reverend James Coffee did.

“Rev. Coffee will always be known as a lover and server of people,” Gainey continued. “This stood out most about him. [He also was] one of the last of a dying breed of church growth leaders, preachers, lovers, and civil rights activists. We’ll miss him, but his legacy is so rich — in how to carry out life like Christ — that we have no excuse but to press on toward the goal of Christ. This is what the Rev. Coffee would want us to do.”

Fermin Whittaker, executive director of the California Southern Baptist Convention, said he arrived in California to pastor First Bilingual Baptist Church in Pico Rivera a year after Coffee arrived in Santa Rosa, several hours north. The men met at the state convention’s annual meeting and other events, and became friends.

“James was a wonderful pastor, a fine spiritual pastor to his church,” Whittaker said. “All the years he has been there, he has had a solid, solid ministry. He was deeply committed to His Lord and his family, and he also had a great desire to see that people who are involved in ministry succeed. He was always an encourager to me, always with uplifting conversation.

“Most of all, he had a heart passion for reaching people and telling them about Jesus,” Whittaker said. “He also had a great spiritual power in dealing with transformational change.”

Community Baptist Church is a historically significant church for Southern Baptists. It was one of two churches that worshipped in an African American context to be the first black churches — in 1951 — to join the Southern Baptist Convention at least since the 1860s.

When Coffee was called as pastor in 1963, however, it was not this fact that drove his commitment to racial reconciliation, but rather, listening in 1957 to Martin Luther King Jr. speak in Oakland. “That spurred him on the quest of equality for all,” Vivian Coffee said. “He saw how Martin Luther King Jr. and his group were fighting for equality, and he felt the same way.”

Coffee used Matthew 28:19-20, among other Scriptures, to link his commitment to reaching people with the Gospel with his quest to do all he could for equality, his wife said.

“God said we should go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature, and he said if you’re going to do that, you have to show them the same thing Christ showed him: love,” Vivian Coffee said.

While the former college football player’s burly hugs made people feel they were somebody of significance, God used his pastoral heart just as often to the church, according to several pages of an online condolence book.

“Whenever a problem seemed unsolvable, folks knew that the best person to talk with was Rev. Coffee. He helped people hear their better angel. So much progress has been made in Santa Rosa due to Rev. Coffee’s humor, compassion and commitment to justice for all.” — Brien and Kathy Farrell, Santa Rosa, who also wrote of his prayers and help for their daughter, though they were members of another church.

“He was one in a million. He blessed everyone he met. The love of the Lord radiated from him. He will be remembered around the world.” — Dean and Geri Durbin, Willits, Calif.

“Because of Rev. Coffee, I too am like the star fish on the beach. He made a difference to me.” — B Smith, Santa Rosa. The starfish illustration was one Coffee used often. He voices it on a video for the James E. Coffee Teen Shelter, named in his honor by city and county leaders when it opened in 2004. The video can be viewed on youtube.

“The love-charged and magnetic Sonoma County titan [Coffee] endeavored for nearly 50 years to build a more caring community and crumble the walls that divide people,” according to an April 7 article by Chris Smith in the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat.

“James E. Coffee was our example as to how African American churches should be as Southern Baptists,” said E.W. McCall Sr., who started and pastored St. Stephen Baptist Church in La Puente, Calif., for 37 years until he retired earlier this decade. Coffee was “a trail blazer, a great pastor and servant of God. We, the whole of Christendom, will miss this man of God.” McCall said.

Tom Kelly, retired director of African American work for the California Southern Baptist Convention, said Coffee had worked with him in starting and bringing several African-American churches into the California convention. Today, about 425 CSBC churches worship in an African-American context.

“We fought those [equality] battles in the earlier days,” Kelly said. “He was God’s chosen man for the time, for black Southern Baptist work. He was very wise and a dynamic speaker.”

Coffee said earlier this year that he did what he could do to encourage people to knock down the barriers and love each other, and nowhere is that more evident than at Community Baptist, said his wife Vivian.

“He’d tell us, ‘If a giraffe walks through that door, you have to ask him to bend down so you can hug his neck,'” Vivian Coffee said. “Over the years, they’ve learned…. Everybody is free to come and worship. His main thing was, God created us all and we all should be treated the same.”

In addition to his high school sweetheart and wife of 56 years, Vivian, Coffee is survived by two daughters, Yvette Campbell and Shirley Gardner, and one son, James E. Coffee Jr.

Funeral services were scheduled for Monday, April 12, at Community Baptist Church in Santa Rosa. A citywide memorial service is being planned.
Karen L. Willoughby is managing editor of the Baptist Message, newsjournal for the Louisiana Baptist Convention.