11/30/2012 09:48 pm ET Updated Jan 30, 2013

Peter Gomes and Billy Graham: A Holy Love

Peter Gomes was never easy to label. Conservative evangelicals were quick to criticize the firebrand liberalism he occasionally displayed during his long tenure as Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church at Harvard University. And yet a photograph of Billy Graham, hero to evangelicals across the globe, towered above all others on the shelf behind Gomes's stately office desk.

"Rev. Graham is a man of character," Gomes told me, with an easy smile, at the end of a conversation I enjoyed with him not long before he died in February 2011. A sophisticated man with an eye for fashion, Gomes was sporting a pastel bowtie from J. Press.

His high assessment of Rev. Graham stemmed from a terribly difficult period that began when Gomes announced in 1991 that he was "a Christian who happens as well to be gay."

Before 1991, Gomes had remained silent about his sexual orientation in the public square, especially Harvard Yard. But the deep gulf between his public life and private life disappeared the moment he started to read a student magazine that depicted gay life as "immoral," "pitiable" and "bad for society." He knew then that he had to speak out.

But even when he came out as a gay man, he did so reluctantly. "I do not relish discussing my sexuality in the newspapers," he stated. "There's a big badge on me now that says 'homosexual,' and I'm not ashamed of that, but I'm a great deal more than that."

Immediately after he announced his homosexuality, Gomes received about 20 "astonishingly supportive" notes from Harvard colleagues. But several student detractors formed a group called Concerned Christians at Harvard, and with 50 members in their ranks, they held prayer vigils, wrote letters and pamphleteered -- all for the purpose of seeking Gomes's resignation.

It was a low moment for the man who loved Harvard with his heart and mind and soul. Many longtime friends remained silent, too. Even though Gomes had spoken at the inaugurals of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Republican leaders buttoned their lips when asked about Gomes' homosexuality. President Bush's spokesman, Sean Welsh, was invited to comment several times, and his answer remained consistent: "No comment."

Cardinal Law of Boston, now famous for resigning in the wake of the sex abuse scandal that still rocks the Catholic Church, also refused to comment when asked to say a word about Gomes, this in spite of having been a frequent guest at Memorial Church.

Gomes would endure the silent treatment for years to come from some of his old friends, and as I sat with him in his office, it was clear that the memory of deserted friends still stung.

But his deep frown stood in the sharpest of contrasts to the warm smile he beamed when he looked at the photograph of Billy Graham.

Gomes had invited the world's most famous evangelist to speak at Memorial Church several years after the Harvard chaplain had come out. The two were not of one mind about homosexuality, of course. Graham did not believe that a homosexual orientation was the result of God's creativity, and he had long decried any form of sex outside the heterosexual marriage bed.

In some ways, Graham was theologically closer to the Concerned Christians than he was to Gomes. But unlike those student activists, Billy Graham, at the seasoned age of 80, ascended Memorial Church's mahogany pulpit in 1999 and publicly announced that Peter Gomes was his friend and brother in Christ.

Gomes, no doubt, smiled -- and believed.

His favorite poem, after all, was Edwin Markham's best:

He drew a circle that shut me out --
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.