The Reverend Peter Gomes, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at the School of Divinity and the Pusey Minister of Memorial Church, has died at age 68. I am so sad to hear it.
I was a lecturer at Harvard from 1994-98 and, during those years, spent many Sundays at the Memorial Church. It’s an intimidating New England building, white, beautiful and austere, anchoring a side of Harvard Yard. To me, a young lecturer on the fringes of Harvard and on the fringes of Christianity, it took a lot of courage to even cross the threshold.
When Rev. Gomes was preaching, it was worth it to find the courage. He was the first and best minister at delivering sermons that made you think about the ethical world of the Bible, compare it to our ethical world, and then want to go back into that world, determined to make it better. I never judge ministers against his standard—none could meet it—but I always brighten a bit when I’m in a church and the minister gives a sermon that enacts the process of intelligence working on a great text.
What first got me to the church was not Gomes himself but my friend Janet Legro, his junior minister (after years of ministry, she’s now teaching in a Quaker school in Virginia). Part of her job was to line up a daily homily for morning prayers. She asked me if I would do one.
I balked. I told her that I wasn’t sure if I believed in God. I told her that I had never been confirmed. I told her I hadn’t read the Bible.
That doesn’t matter, Anne, look, there are 12 weeks in the semester and I need to find sixty people each semester, no repeats, to give a five minute meditation on a passage from the Bible. If you say yes, I only need to find 59 more.
Of course, I said yes. And, in saying yes, I found that I really should go to the church once or twice, and in going to the church once or twice, I found Rev. Gomes and I went many, many more times.
Many have been saying this all day in remembrance, I’m sure, but I will repeat that he was a great, charismatic man. Wholly his own person and one of those wonderful Ivy League originals who exudes intelligence, kindness, and confidence all at once. He was a short man but a great man with a huge, charismatic presence and a beautiful, booming voice. The obituary mentions James Earl Jones and that seems right. He was formal and even a little vain of his clerical robes and a profoundly New England, even Harvardian type. Though I have never met anyone like Rev. Gomes, he seemed to fit in to Harvard completely and the fact that this openly gay, African-American minister from Plymouth, MA seemed to fit in perfectly made me feel a lot happier about God and Harvard.
And my homily? It became an essay here.