Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

R. I. P. Peter J. Gomes (1942-2011)

  Sorry for the absence, Gentle Readers.  I have been deeply involved in trying to stop Republican governors from union-busting in WI, OH, IN, NJ, & FL.  I’ve also been ill and am preparing for out of town company.  The series on 100 Baptist pacifists will return shortly.

Yesterday, I heard the sad news that Rev. Peter J. Gomes (22 May 1942-28 Feb. 2011) had passed away Sunday from complications arising from a stroke.  He was relatively young at 68.  I had met him twice at conferences involving churches and peacemaking, but mostly knew him through his writing. Sadly, I never heard him preach–and Gomes had a reputation globally as one of the great preachers of the gospel.

I like people who do not easily fit stereotypes and Gomes was no cookie-cutter African-American preacher.  An American Baptist minister, Gomes was an accomplished pianist with a deep love for classical music.  He was also an amateur historian focused on the Pilgrims of Massachusetts Bay Colony, serving as past president and trustee of The Pilgrim Society.  The stereotype of an African-American Baptist minister is that he is a staunch activist in the Democratic Party, but Gomes was a prominent (if atypical) Republican–participating in the inaugurations of both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. (However, he avoided the inauguration of George W. Bush and was deeply critical of that administration.)

Gomes’ entire ministerial career cut his own unique path and broke all molds.  Born in Boston to Peter L. and Orissa White Gomes, Rev. Gomes was proud of his identity as a New England Yankee.  A very bright student in the Plymouth, MA  public schools, he earned his A.B. at Bates College (Lewiston, ME), a prestigious New England liberal arts college that had been founded by a group of Free Will Baptists who were ardent abolitionists. Bates had long ago relinquished it’s Christian heritage, but not its radical voice for social justice, nor its deep concern for classical education.  From there, Gomes went to Harvard Divinity School (S.T.B., 1968) and was ordained an American Baptist pastor in 1968 by First Baptist Church, Plymouth, MA. 

Gomes began his career as Instructor of History and Director of the Freshman Experimental Program at the Tuskee Institute in Alabama (now Tuskeegee University), where he also served as organist and choirmaster.  In 1970, he began his long association with the chaplaincy program at Harvard, becoming an Assistant Minister at The Memorial Church at Harvard University. In 1972, he was made Acting Minister and eventually became Pusey Minister in The Memorial Church and chaplain of the university.  In 1974, he was appointed Plummer Professor of Morals teaching in both Harvard College (the undergraduate program) and Harvard Divinity School. From 1989 to 1991, Gomes also served as Acting Director of the W.E. B. DuBois Institute for African and African-American Research.

20 years later, it is hard to remember the courage that it took in 1991 for this self-described cultural conservative and prominent Republican to “come out” as openly gay.  He disliked being “exhibit a,” but the culture war attacks on LGBT persons led him to break his privacy and stand up for LGBT rights in both church and society.  There had been gay-bashing incidents at Harvard and Gomes could not be silent. He began to perform “holy unions” in The Memorial Church for lesbian and gay couples–long before anyone was talking about legally recognized same-sex marriages.  Not without some squirming, Harvard University backed him, but Gomes was no longer welcome in the prominent Republican circles in which he had once been a favorite invited speaker. 

This self-described cultural conservative who enjoyed ministry to soldiers, veterans, and ROTC students also reluctantly spoke out against the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the torture and indefinite detention of suspected terrorists by the Bush administration and erosions of civil liberties. He was also critical of the Obama administration for keeping too many of these erosions of civil liberties, for not keeping the promise to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, and for the 2009 escalation of war in Afghanistan.  Gomes spoke out strongly against the rising Islamaphobia in the U. S. and the resurgence of “nativist” demonization of immigrants.  The role of prophetic social critic from the left did not come easy for him and he often chafed at it, but Gomes’ loyalty to the gospel compelled him to continue speaking out–though it strained and broke friendships he’d long held in conservative and Republican circles.

Considered one of America’s great preachers and a prominent author, Gomes was honored in numerous ways over the years. He was made an Honorary Fellow of Emannuel College (University of Cambridge) which established the Gomes Lectureship in his honor.  In 1998, Gomes delivered the prestigious Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching at Yale Divinity School.  In 2000, he delivered the University Sermon at the University of Cambridge and the Millennial Sermon at Canterbury Cathedral.  In 2003, Gomes delivered the Lyttleton Addresses at Eton College, England’s prestigious 600 year old preparatory school for boys that has educated kings and prime ministers, scientists, and poets laureate. In 2004, he gave the convocation address at Harvard Divinity School, challenging HDS to become anew the place of excitement that Gomes had known as a student, challenging it to connect more with the life of American churches (including Evangelical churches!), without losing its character as a place of academic rigor and both ecumenical and interfaith breadth.  In 2005, Gomes gave a series of sermons at St. Edmundsbury Chapel (named in honor of St. Edmund, British king and martyr) .  In 2007, he was named to the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, the original “Hospitaler Knights” and the oldest order of Chivalry in the United Kingdom.  In 2009, he gave the Lowell Lectures of Massachusetts, and in 2010 he gave the Princeton Lectures on Youth, Church and Culture and Harvard University named him Honorary President of the Alpha-Iota chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. (Phi Beta Kappa, founded at The College of William and Mary in 1776, is the oldest honors society for academic scholarship in the United States.)  He had also received numerous honorary doctorates over the years.

In addition to 11 volumes of published sermons, Gomes was also the author of several excellent books in theology that were aimed at a lay or non-academic audience, including the best-selling, The Good Book:  Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart (HarperOne, 1996) which takes on the abuse of the Bible in the U.S. to justify racism, sexism, heterosexism and homophobia, and anti-semitism, before giving several chapters showing a more fruitful approach to biblical interpretation in the areas such as the good life, suffering, joy, understanding evil, temptation, wealth, the relation of faith to science, and to ultimate mystery.  The Good Life:  Truths That Last in Times of Need (HarperOne, 2002). The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good About the Good News? (HarperOne, 20007).

I like people who break molds, not easily fitting into preconcieved patterns, and Peter J. Gomes was one such person.  Our society needs more such persons. Not just Harvard, nor American Baptists, nor the dwindling ranks of moderate-to-liberal Republicans, but the church universal is poorer without Peter Gomes.  So are all those who care about a more humane and just society, about education, cultural enrichment, and even good preaching. We are all poorer for Gomes’ passing.

Rest from you labors, now, good and faithful servant of our Servant-Lord.

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March 2, 2011 - Posted by | Baptists, obituary

1 Comment »

  1. […] –Peter Gomes, the black, Republican (at least until late in his life), openly gay Baptist preacher who was the long-time minister at Harvard’s Memorial Church, died unexpectedly from complications associated with a stroke this week. Michael Westmoreland-White has an overview of Gomes’ life and work. […]

    Pingback by Friday Links | A Thinking Reed | March 4, 2011 | Reply


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