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04.14.10

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Good Man Gone

Remembering Rev. James E. Coffee, who left us too soon

By Lenita Marie Johnson

They say he had a good song. I heard he had a sound. And then he read my letters and read each one out loud. He was tellin' my whole life with his words . . .

—Roberta Flack


Some of us seem to hang around Sonoma County once we land here. It could be the weather, the wine or the country leading to the Pacific. The black folks I've met and those of other hues certainly seem to. There's no doubt in my mind that Rev. James E. Coffee had something to do with why most of us chose to stay, whether we officially became members of his Community Baptist Church or not.

It's no surprise that the sudden death of Rev. Coffee, which seemed to have rocked the community and folks across the globe, is headline news.

It became official Sunday. The new interim pastor at CBC is Rev. Lee Turner. Many knew he was being trained and groomed for a time we all hoped would not come so soon.

Rev. Coffee took me under his parental arm when I landed in Sonoma County. The unexpected news of his death hit me like a tidal wave. One of our leaders who at times seemed larger than life is gone. His death was almost too personal, leaving the community in despair.

At Rev. Coffee's funeral on April 12, I met Robert Dunlap, a Dallas CPA who lived in Santa Rosa years ago. "When I heard the news, I had to be here to say goodbye to my friend," Dunlap said. He shared that, as the grandson of a Baptist preacher, the CBC felt like home. "It's tough losing this great man, but I'm going to do my best to support the new leader, as everyone should."

It was no secret at CBC or among the members of the countless associations that Rev. Coffee participated in that he was in ill health. Yet he always seemed to bounce back. He was resilient, which gave us strength to weather the storms of our own lives. Watching Rev. Coffee reminded me of what I learned as a child: When bad things happen, you pick yourself up, dust yourself off and keep on keepin' on.

This time he didn't bounce back.

Pastor Coffee led the CBC when Sal Rosano was a relatively new police chief. Now retired, Rosano said recently, "We were having skirmishes with groups of black youth in the '70s. Race relations between police and youth nationwide were coming to a head. Everyone knew it. I was looking for help and one day Jim Coffee called me. 'Looks like you need some help. What can I do?' He invited me to sit in the pulpit and talk. I didn't feel it was my place in the pulpit," Rosano said. "We managed to keep something of a lid on it. It would not have happened without Jim. He was a uniter and a great guy. I miss him."

The stories are too many. The usual suspects were at the ceremonies celebrating Rev. Coffee's life during the memorial weekend "to send him home" and support his wife, Vivian Coffee, and the CBC. Married since 1954, they were high school sweethearts in the East Bay. "He was popular with the girls, but I didn't pay him much attention. Oh, he was good-looking, smart, an athlete. But I wasn't into sharing with anyone." Mrs. Coffee told me. "I had to learn to do that much later."

"I've lost my best friend," Carole Ellis said while I helped her up to the front of the church to look at him one last time on Monday. Past principal at Cook and Ursuline, former SRJC Trustee and CBC Trustee, she, like so many others, could barely keep her composure.

It was a quiet beginning when a small group of black men were invited by Pastor Coffee to breakfast meetings at the CBC. Attorney Anthony Wheeldin, past president of what would become the 100 Black Men of Sonoma County, remembers: "He was a man who tried to bring heaven down to earth. Just treat people better was his motto. There was no hype about Rev. Coffee." It was at one of the 100 Black Men's annual dinners that Chief Rosano got his first taste of what life for black folks can be like in Santa Rosa. "It was a very formal event," he remembers. "My wife and I were the only white folks in what seemed like a sea of wonderful, good-looking black people. We were uncomfortable and sure as heck felt 'different,' yet they were so darn welcoming. We had a great time."

I am reminded during conversations I have every day, far too many to share right now, of the impact Rev. Coffee had in the lives of so many. I would ride my bike to Howarth Park when I came here to play tennis and stop at the CBC. His door was always open. He'd smile and say, "Lenita Marie Johnson, sit down and tell me what's happening." I felt like the center of the universe. So many in this community and beyond the man or woman on the street to the so-called power players have so graciously insisted on telling me about the man Rev. Coffee. He was a people person, and I miss him, too.

Lenita Marie Johnson is a writer, broadcast journalist with a background that includes law and wine who misses being on the tennis court.

Open Mic is a weekly feature in the Bohemian. We welcome your contribution. To have your topical essay of 700 words considered for publication, write openmic@bohemian.com.


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