Fairfield native returns home as pastor Al Coffin worked in Afghanistan for two years building houses

Fairfield native Al Coffin is the new pastor at the First United Methodist Church in Fairfield. (Andy Hallman/The Union)
Fairfield native Al Coffin is the new pastor at the First United Methodist Church in Fairfield. (Andy Hallman/The Union)

FAIRFIELD — Al Coffin will deliver his first sermon as pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Fairfield this coming Sunday, July 12.

It will be a coming home party for Coffin, who was born in Fairfield, graduated from Fairfield High School, but spent most of his life moving from state to state and even country to country.

“I was raised in eight different schools in three different states,” Coffin said. The three states were Iowa, Missouri and Oklahoma. Coffin said it’s not an easy question where his “hometown” is because he’s lived so many places, but he usually answers with “Fairfield.” His parents, Patricia and the late Ronald Coffin, graduated from Fairfield High School, too, and the family often returned here to visit relatives.

Coffin spent much of his youth in other towns, but came to Fairfield High School part way through his sophomore year and then finished his high school career here.

Coffin has lived an eventful life that has seen him get married at age 19 and spend 12 years on active duty as a member of the National Guard, including a deployment to Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm in 1991. After being discharged from the service in 1999, Coffin said he spent several years trying to transition to civilian life, often a difficult process that involves trying many different jobs. Coffin tested the waters of management, but learned that managing in the private sector was very different from the military.

In 2002, Coffin joined a Christian relief organization that was building homes in northern Afghanistan. It was just a few months after the United States had invaded the country in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Coffin said the part of Afghanistan where he worked was peaceful, and most of the fighting was in the southern part of the country.

Coffin and his fellow relief workers were tasked with building 5,000 houses in an area that was devastated by an earthquake. He explained that most homes in Afghanistan are built using mud-block, which falls apart easily when it’s shaken, as in an earthquake.

“Just about every building was either knocked down by the earthquake or damaged so badly we couldn’t use it,” he said. “Lots of buildings needed to be rebuilt as fast as possible.”

Coffin helped build not just homes but roads, irrigation canals, wells and rehabilitated a small landing strip. For the first eight months, he lived in a tent. He ate what the locals ate and wore their clothing, too. He had to, because early in his stay, a woman who thought she was doing him a favor by washing his clothes inadvertently destroyed his clothing because she was not used to cleaning synthetic textiles.

Coffin learned some of the local language, too.

Coffin spent two years in Afghanistan and continued his mission work by going to Sri Lanka in early 2005 shortly after the country had suffered a devastating tsunami. He lived in the country for six months, attempting to build temporary structures. He said he was frustrated that he wasn’t able to do more, which he attributes to needing to get permission from so many committees before building.

“I loved the people I met in Sri Lanka, but the government drove me nuts,” he said.

Coffin said he came to the realization that he was just spinning his wheels and that it was finally time to “say yes to God instead of my own desires.”

Coffin said his family attended church occasionally in his youth, but religion did not become a big part of his life until he met his wife, Diane, who he credits for helping him along in his spiritual journey.

“My wife was more religious than I was,” Coffin said. “Even now, I learn something every time we talk.”

While still in Sri Lanka, Coffin applied for the seminary and was accepted at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. His first appointment in 2008 was in Columbus Junction-Columbus City, where he ministered for seven years before being moved to Walcott, Iowa, where he worked for five years.

Coffin said the Methodist Church does not normally send pastors to work in their hometowns, but the church didn’t realize Coffin had a connection to Fairfield until after giving him the assignment. It was just dumb luck that he happened to be assigned to Fairfield.

Coffin said he feels like he’s being reunited with a city he once knew. He hopes to re-connect with his high school classmates and teachers who are still in the area.