Rev. Peter J. Gomes died on February 28, 2011 from a heart attack and brain aneurysm. Gomes had been in deteriorating health since he suffered a stroke in December 2010. He was 68.
Gomes was an internationally influential minister and theologian, Pusey Minister for the (non-denominational) Memorial Church of Harvard University for more than three decades, chair and Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard since 1974, a black and gay rights activist and an openly gay man.
Gomes was also a life-long Republican who gave the benediction at President Ronald Reagan’s second inaugural and delivered the National Cathedral sermon at the inaugural of President George H. W. Bush.
Gomes, with his long and impressive vitae of accomplishments, was also an extraordinary person –- a truly lovely, vibrant, compassionate man. He was warm, open and down-to-earth. He truly loved God; religion wasn’t just his career and vocation, it was his soul.
His erudition was legendary and his ability to articulate the complexities of theology was why his decades-long position at Harvard Divinity School was barely rivaled.
But unlike so many leaders in various religious denominations, Gomes was a purveyor of tolerance and love. He adored people as much as he loved God and that love of fellow men and women was apparent in all his sermons, all his interviews, all his letters and treatises.
He had a deep and impressive voice with a slightly British intonation that made everything he said sound like something one should write down. (His sermons can be streamed on video from the Memorial Church website and also from NPR’s Here and Now program at WBUR, Boston.)
Gomes was an almost mythic character at Harvard, with his bow tie and his clerical robes. An expert in the complicated nuances of early American religion, Gomes was also an expert on the Bible and had written several books about the Bible, including the New York Times bestsellers, The Good Book: Reading the Biblewith Mind and Heart and Sermons: The Book of Wisdom for Daily Living (both from Harper One).
The Good Book was in part an analysis of how the Bible has been used to oppress and marginalize women, Jews, blacks and queers. He also published 11 books of sermons and numerous academic and theological papers.
His biblical interpretation was as controversial in some quarters as it was welcome in others. Gomes noted frequently that the Bible could be manipulated to support almost anything, including slavery and anti-Semitism, sexism and homophobia, but that it should be used solely to support the concept of God as love and never to forgive intolerance.
In 1991, Gomes, who was baptized a Catholic but ordained as a Baptist, came out as a gay man. Gomes, who had long supported gay civil rights issues, gave a speech at Harvard in protest against homophobic articles in a campus magazine.
In the course of the speech he said, “I am a Christian who happens as well to be gay. Those realities, which are irreconcilable to some, are reconciled in me by a loving God.”
There were immediate calls for Gomes resignation — particularly given both his long-time ministry and his role as the chair of Christian Morals. Gomes refused.
Later, in a Washington Post interview, Gomes explained that he intended to maintain his celibacy as a minister, but that acknowledging his own gayness meant he had a new ministry, to spread tolerance and understanding of gay men and lesbians.
Gomes said, “I now have an unambiguous vocation – a mission – to address the religious causes and roots of homophobia,” he declared. “I will devote the rest of my life to addressing the ‘religious case’ against gays.”
Gomes was a descendant of slaves, but having been born in Plymouth, he enjoyed serving as trustee emeritus of the Pilgrim Society and celebrating his hometown’s Mayflower history.
In 2007, discussing his most recent book, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, Gomes said in an NPR interview, “What distressed me was that among people and in a culture which professes tremendous excitement and loyalty to Jesus, there seems to be so very little attention paid to what Jesus actually had to say.”
There was an immediate response to Gomes death from the University. “No one epitomizes all that is good about Harvard more than Peter J. Gomes,” said professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research. For The New Yorker blog, Gates wrote the day after Gomes death, that Gomes “was a large, warm, and mischievous soul, who contained a multitude of identities, each worn with a certain roguish sense of irony.”
President Drew Faust said, “Peter Gomes served Harvard with unparalleled dedication, wisdom, and creativity for more than four decades. He was an original, a teacher in the fullest sense – a scholar, a mentor, one of the great preachers of our generation, and a living symbol of courage and conviction.”
The word unique is as overused as the word heroic, but Gomes was both and his legacy will live on not just at Harvard, but in his remarkable writings and the videos of his sermons. There are many religious leaders who could learn from his courageous example.