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Scholars to receive William Sloan Coffin Awards for moral leadership


BERKELEY – The first Berkeley William Sloan Coffin Jr. Awards recognizing moral leadership tied to the University of California, Berkeley, community will be bestowed on UC Berkeley scholars Robert N. Bellah and Nancy Scheper-Hughes in a ceremony on Monday, April 12.

Coffin, a chaplain at Yale University, was an activist in the civil rights and peace movements, and was a vocal critic of the Vietnam War and nuclear arms race. He died a year ago at the age of 81.

Bellah is UC Berkeley’s Elliott Professor Emeritus of Sociology and an authority on religion. As an undergraduate, he belonged to the Communist Party and gained notoriety when he refused to identify other party members when called before the Army-McCarthy Committee in the 1950s. As a result of his action, Bellah was denied a teaching post at Harvard University (where he had earned his M.A. and Ph.D.), and subsequently taught for two years at McGill University’s Institute for Islamic Studies in Canada. After McCarthy died, Bellah was offered a lecturer’s job at Harvard. He came to UC Berkeley in 1967.

He headed a team of sociologists and anthropologists who wrote about “civil religion” in the book “Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life” (1985). He traces his social concern to the Hebrew tradition as well as to the New Testament.

Bellah received the National Humanities Medal from President Clinton in 2001 in recognition of his efforts to illuminate the importance of community in American society.

Scheper-Hughes, a UC Berkeley professor of medical anthropology, and self-described “militant anthropologist,” is known for her extreme field research and her trenchant writings on the violence of everyday life, including mother love and child death in the shantytowns of Brazil, schizophrenia in rural Ireland, AIDS and human rights in Cuba, death squads’ extermination of street kids in Brazil, the politics of violence and reconciliation in South Africa, and child sexual abuse, celibacy and the Catholic Church.

Her life as a committed activist began in the early 1960s when she lived and worked in a large favela, or shantytown, in Northeast Brazil, followed by almost two years in rural Wilcox County, Ala., and in Selma, Ala., working as a civil rights worker with a focus on hunger and malnutrition among black tenant farmers.

As a professor at UC Berkeley, she was an early member of the Berkeley Catholic Worker movement and participated in bringing the Peoples’ Cafe into People’s Park to provide the needy with hot breakfasts and homemade soups and stews.

A follower of the late activist Father Bill O’Donnell, she participates each year in Good Friday demonstrations against the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory weapons’ research and has been arrested there several times.

Scheper-Hughes also is a co-founder and director of Organs Watch, a medical human rights project that explores the social and economic context of organ transplantation, with a focus on the human rights implications of the desperate, worldwide search for human organs. She advises the World Health Organization on issues relating to medical human rights abuses concerning global organ and tissue transplantation.

The Berkeley Sloan Coffin Awards will be presented in a “Passion for the Possible” ceremony at 5:15 p.m., Monday, April 12, at the First Congregational Church of Berkeley, 2345 Channing Way. The program is free and open to the public.

The committee that made the selections includes UC Berkeley faculty from many faiths, campus staff and students, and First Congregational Church of Berkeley leaders.

Additional Sloan Coffin awards also are handed out by the Yale Divinity School.


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