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01/18/2010: A1: PC: Rev. James Coffee.

Rev. James Coffee dies in Sebastopol at age 76

The Rev. James E. Coffee, the love-charged and magnetic Sonoma County titan who endeavored for nearly 50 years to build a more caring community and crumble the walls that divide people, died Tuesday at age 76.

Coffee was pastor of Santa Rosa's multi-cultural Community Baptist Church, which under his direction became a center for the exploration of ways to make the city a better and more inclusive place. In his greater role he served the county as a moral compass and its most passionate advocate of genuine acceptance of all people as equals.

Coffee counseled and befriended some of the county's most powerful and wealthy residents and he welcomed into his church many who have nothing. He liked to say that at Community Baptist Church, even a giraffe had better expect a hug.

The former college football player struggled for a decade or more with heart trouble and obesity, and he'd come through several health crises. Shortness of breath and a spike in his blood pressure forced an admission to Kaiser Medical Center on March 3.

A week later he was transferred to Sebastopol's Apple Valley Rehabilitation for therapy to build back his strength. He was doing well at the rehab facility and was scheduled to be sent home today.

His wife of 56 years, Vivian, who worked as his administrative secretary at the church, spent Monday evening with him watching the NCAA basketball championship game. The reverend was a great sports fan.

"We were for Butler," Vivian Coffee said. She said her husband enjoyed the game, though at one point he seemed uncomfortable and she asked him if he was OK.

"He looked at me and smiled and said, &‘I'm tired of being of being tired.'" As Vivian left to drive back to Santa Rosa shortly after 8:30 p.m., she recalled, "The last thing he told me was &‘I love you, Baby,' and I said, &‘I love you, too.'"

Vivian said staffers at Apple Valley Rehab told her that at 6:15 a.m. Tuesday an employee drew blood from her husband as he slept, then returned at about 7 to find that he had died.

As word of his death spread Tuesday, many people were struck by the fact that Coffee and Hugh Codding, another Sonoma County community giant, had died within days of one another. Codding died Saturday at age 92.

"The loss of both of them in a week is sobering," said Doug Bosco, the Santa Rosa attorney and former congressman.

"They were both absolute titans to our community," Bosco said. "The mold was thrown away."

Santa Rosa Mayor Susan Gorin received the news of Coffee's passing as she was still mourning Jim Wilkinson, the community activist and retired diplomat who died last Thursday.

"Losing three community leaders within a matter of days is very difficult - each with a long list of accomplishments spanning decades," Gorin said. "We rejoice in having such diverse, caring community members."

At the rehab hospital on Sunday, Coffee was saddened to read of the death of Codding. The developer was a longtime friend who'd become a benefactor of Community Baptist after a 1985 suspected arson fire destroyed much of the congregation's original church, located in the South Park neighborhood.

In March 2004, Codding and his wife and fellow church supporter, Connie, were present in a packed Vineyard Creek Hotel banquet room when Coffee received one of the honors he appreciated most.

Social Advocates for Youth thanked him for his consistent efforts on behalf of equality and compassion by announcing it would name its new shelter for runaway youth the Coffee House.

The minister, who was never at a loss for words, told the crowd of nearly 500 that he was still alive largely because of his cardiologists, and that he'd decided he didn't want to be buried after he died.

Scanning the room for Codding, he said he wanted his ashes scattered at Coddingtown Mall so that his wife, Vivian, "will come visit me at least every weekend."

Later in 2004, Coffee welcomed Martin King III to town. Coffee had met his father, the slain Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., during the 1956 bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., and was honored that the younger King had come to Santa Rosa for a special occasion.

He gave the keynote at a banquet at which the Sonoma County Human Rights Commission presented its inaugural Rev. James E. Coffee Human Rights Awards to five county residents. King III praised Coffee for staying true for decades to the struggle for equality and human rights.

Coffee grew up in a segregated town in Oklahoma and moved to Alameda after he lost both of his parents while still in his early teens. The first time he came to Santa Rosa - in 1953 - he was on the Contra Costa College football team and played against Santa Rosa Junior College.

He was working as an apprentice minister in Oakland and nearing the completion of his studies at Golden Gate Baptist Seminary in Mill Valley when, in 1962, he received an invitation to visit Santa Rosa's Community Baptist Church. The all-African American church needed a new minister.

Coffee returned to Santa Rosa for the first time since the SRJC football game and visited the church. "At that time I didn't feel it was a place for me," he recalled in a 1988 interview.

But in 1963 the congregation of about 15 members - Santa Rosa had few African American residents then - invited him again to become their pastor, and that time he accepted. He and Vivian commuted to the church from the East Bay until they moved to Santa Rosa in 1977.

Many Sonoma County residents outside of the church became aware of Coffee in 1981, the year he, educator and fellow civil-rights activist Carole Ellis and peace advocate Mary Moore created the county's first Martin Luther King Jr. birthday celebration, a community event that continues today.

Several years later, Coffee took a lead role also in persuading the Sonoma County supervisors to withdraw all county money invested in South Africa, then officially segregated by the policy of apartheid.

Coffee believed it was not coincidental that in September 1985 his church on Grand Avenue in the South Park neighborhood was badly damaged in a fire. "We think we were targeted" because of the stand against apartheid, he said in an interview earlier this year.

A great outpouring of community support following the fire allowed Community Baptist to repair the church and later purchase a larger building on Sonoma Avenue. The church today has about 500 active members from many cultural backgrounds and hosts frequent activities aimed at encouraging people to challenge their prejudices.

"My fondest memories are the &‘Guess Who's Coming to Dinner' events, which gave people opportunities to meet and talk with other members of our community," said Gorin.

Coffee was a founder of the city's Race Equality Week activities and created Rites of Passage 11 years ago with friend and congregation member Shirley Gordon. The academy teaches teens, most of them minorities, essential life skills and encourages them to believe they are capable of college and great contributions to the world.

Gordon, who visited with Coffee at the rehab center on Sunday, said it's heartbreaking that he will not be at the graduation for the current Rites of Passage class on April 25.

"We'll do something special to recognize him," she said. Coffee did what he did "not just for the African American community but for the greater community," she said.

Coffee was a leader in the city's pastoral association and he was active for years in Kiwanis and Rotary clubs, the Salvation Army and other organizations. Earlier this year he invited two renowned Mississippi gospel groups to a performance at the church that generated $5,000 for Haiti earthquake relief.

"What a superb citizen of this community," said Tom Farrell, a longtime friend and fellow advocate for the disabled and disenfranchised. "He did so many things that nobody knew anything about."

Coffee's associate pastor and nephew, Lee Turner, visited with him on Sunday and believes that his mentor "just got sick and tired of being in pain."

Coffee said earlier this year that he did what he could do to encourage people to knock down the barriers and love each other.

"That's what I would like to be remembered for," he said. "I did all I could with what I had."

In addition to his wife, he is survived by three children, three grandchildren and one great-grandson.

He also has left behind an untold number of starfish pins that he gave out along with the story of the young boy who walked along a beach littered for miles with starfish stranded by a storm.

As Coffee recounted the story, the lad was returning starfish to the water when a man told him that with so many starfish beached, he couldn't possibly make a difference. At that, the boy placed another starfish in the water and said, "I made a difference for that one."

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