If during your tenure as a student at Harvard you did not encounter the Reverend Peter J. Gomes, you did not have the quintessential Harvard experience.
For undergraduates, if they were paying attention, Gomes bookended their four-year experience at Harvard with his welcoming remarks during orientation and his baccalaureate address at graduation.
In between those years, undergraduates had ample opportunities to partake in Gomes' weekly teas at Sparks House, the university's parsonage, to hear his rich melodic baritone voice most Sunday mornings preaching at Memorial Church in the Yard, or to enroll in his popular courses -- Religion 42: "The Christian Bible and its Interpretation," during which I had the privilege to be his head teaching fellow for several years, and Religion 1513: "History of Harvard and its Presidents."
During the wee hours of the morning this past Tuesday, March 1, I received a phone call from a reporter at WBUR. The voice on the other end said, "Hello and good morning Rev. Monroe. I would like to speak with you before our 8 a.m. 'Morning Edition' show about the passing of Rev. Gomes. I'm very sorry if you're not aware of his passing. I want to talk with you about his legacy and impact in your life and Harvard's." I dropped the phone in despair.
For forty-two years Gomes had been a fixture at Harvard. As an ordained Baptist minister, Gomes was the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at the School of Divinity and the Pusey Minister of Memorial Church, joining the faculty in 1974 and overseeing Memorial Church for thirty-five years.
As a proud Republican who offered prayers at the inaugurations of Presidents George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, Gomes became a Democrat when his former student, Deval Patrick, won as Massachusetts' first black governor, and offered prayers at Deval's first inauguration in 2007.
Taunted by his grade school peers as "Peter the Repeater" for being held back in the second grade, Gomes became an internationally known preacher, scholar, and theologian with a bachelor's degree from Bates College, a master's of divinity degree from Harvard, a bevy of honorary doctorates from around the world, and the Gomes Lectureship at the University of Cambridge in England named after him.
Noted for his activism to rebut biblical literalism and fundamentalism -- especially on gay issues -- Gomes' 1996 tome "The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart" stayed on the best-seller list for years. In refuting the Sodom and Gomorrah narrative (Genesis 19:1-29), one of the most quoted scriptures to argue for compulsory heterosexuality and queer bashing, Gomes wrote, "To suggest that Sodom and Gomorrah is about homosexual sex is an analysis of about as much worth as suggesting that the story of Jonah and the whale is a treatise on fishing."
As a native son of Plymouth, Gomes' primary interests were in early American religions, church music, Britain, and Elizabethan Puritanism. He served as president of the Pilgrim Society, and chairman of the town's anticipated 2020 celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrim's landing in Plymouth.
"I know I'm African-American, not Anglo-Saxon, and the Pilgrims were Anglo-Saxons, and so in theory I should feel this great divide, but I didn't feel that great divide, I thought they were just the first citizens of the town I lived in and I should find out about them, and I claimed them," Gomes told "The New Yorker."
Gomes became an accidental gay advocate. As a matter of fact, the "New York Times" reported, "While much of his later life was occupied by scholarly questions of the Bible and homosexuality, he came to abhor the label 'gay minister.'"
But in 1991 Gomes came out of the closet as a pre-emptive strike against a rabidly conservative Christian student group on campus whose magazine hurled homophobic diatribes against us lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer students that also wanted to remove Gomes from his position as the University minister.
"I now have an unambiguous vocation -- a mission -- to address the religious causes and roots of homophobia," he told "The Washington Post" months later. "I will devote the rest of my life to addressing the 'religious case' against gays."
In taking on former Secretary of State Colin Powell's military ban on LGBTQ servicemembers, Gomes wrote in his essay, "Black Christians and Homosexuality: The Pathology of a Permitted Prejudice," that Powell's concern that gay Americans in the military would "destroy unit cohesion," and thus compromise military capability, is a fallacious argument that he should know is reminiscent of the military's long history of racist arguments that he, too, had once endured.
Gomes' passing has sent seismic shock waves throughout Harvard, Massachusetts and around the world.
When Tom Lang heard of Gomes' death, he wrote to "Bay Windows," stating, "Peter Gomes was a very dear friend. My husband and I have known him for 25 years. We actually were the first legal same-sex marriage that Peter performed back on May 17, 2004. He always checked in to make sure that his 'married' flock was still together -- that was very important to him."
I'll miss Peter. We all will who have had the pleasure to encounter him.