Thursday, April 3, 2008

Mourners recall Cofield’s legacy

By Elizabeth Benton
Register Staff
— The church the Rev. Curtis Cofield II built could hardly hold all who came Wednesday to pay their “prince of preachers” last respects.
Mourners filled Immanuel Baptist Church Wednesday morning, spilling from the filled sanctuary and bustling lobby into a basement chapel where the service was simulcast. Ushers rushed to find seats fast enough for the growing crowd.
Cofield died Friday while preparing to travel to a religious conference in Virginia with his wife of 60 years, Elsie Cofield. He was 82.
Cofield served 34 years as pastor of Immanuel Baptist, but his footprint extended far beyond his pulpit and the pews he helped build. Friends, family, clergy and politicians testified for hours Wednesday to the reach of Cofield’s legacy.
Elsie Cofield, with the support of her husband, founded AIDS Interfaith Network, and vowed Wednesday to continue her fight. “I’m going all the way. I’m going to be all right,” she said.
An inseparable “power couple,” the Cofields battled together against hunger and homelessness, opening a homeless shelter once known as the Immanuel Baptist Shelter on Grand Avenue, and a soup kitchen at the church.
“You both have been the heart of compassion,” said New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr.
Soon after arriving in New Haven in 1966, Cofield led Immanuel Baptist’s effort to build the church’s current home on the corner of Chapel and Day streets.
“He refused to listen to critics who said African Americans couldn’t build a multi-million dollar building,” said the Rev. Samuel Ross-Lee, now the pastor of Immanuel Baptist. “Every time his critics threw a brick at him, he caught it and used it to build the building.”
“No greater message did he deliver than the one he lived,” said Cofield’s son, the Rev. Curtis Cofield III. “In the aisles of Shaw’s Supermarket when he said ‘hi’ to you, that was his sermon. When he came to your bedside, that was his sermon.”
Even in death, the pastor continued giving as an organ donor, said Cofield’s daughter, Superior Court Judge Curtissa Cofield.
The elder Cofield knew as a young boy growing up in North Carolina he was destined to preach, yet began his extensive academic career as a pre-med student at North Carolina College in Durham, N.C. He later received degrees from Shaw University, Baltimore College of the Bible, the Virginia Seminary, Columbia University and South Eastern Theological Seminary, building a deep knowledge of the texts he preached.
“He could take a text and squeeze all the juice out of it. When he was finished, that text was like a dry bone,” said the Rev. Robert Perry, pastor of Union Baptist Church in Stamford.
He also passed his personal value of education onto his family and city students, serving on the city’s Board of Education.
“Reverend Cofield counseled our children that school mattered, and we must continue to do so,” said Superintendent of Schools Reginald Mayo, who said he was baptized by Cofield as an adult.
Since Friday, letters have poured in from across the country honoring Cofield and offering support to his family. Letters from North Carolina, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and across Connecticut were read at the funeral.

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