March 7, 2011
The death of Peter John Gomes of Harvard marks the closing of a chapter at America’s oldest college. Peter and Archie Epps, the last and long time Dean of Students at Harvard, were the vanguard of racial change at the University. Beginning in 1970 they were the face of what we now talk about as “diversity” in the academy. Good friends, they touched the lives of thousands of students during their time as officers of Harvard. Epps died in 2003. For Peter his passing was a great personal loss. Peter felt he was witnessing the passing of a revered old guard. With Peter’s death the inclusion mantel is given to others; beyond the classroom few will have the impact on student life at Harvard that The Reverend Professor had.
A graduate of Bates College, Peter came to Harvard Divinity School in 1965, graduated and spent two years at Tuskegee Institute (now University) learning the ways of the South and returned to Memorial Church as Assistant to Charles Price. When Price left and Derek Bok assumed the Presidency, Peter navigated a time of uncertainty and emerged as Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Minister in the Memorial Church. Pictures tell the story. Price, monochromatic, pale and dour, Peter, youthful, black, a modest afro complemented by facial hair that in retrospect is noteworthy as the only time he ever tipped his cap to contemporary trends. The times had changed.
He was not a radical, but he was a Christian and sometimes those things go together. He preached regularly to large crowds, mostly white, each Sunday during the school year. He challenged them by reminding that being Christian meant more than going to church on Sunday. He encouraged them by telling truths that others often ignored. Being mighty was not always being right; being at Harvard did not mean you did not have much to learn. Privilege was a grace and to whom much was given much was expected. In return they loved him with a broad affection that allowed him to be one of Harvard’s premier fund raisers. He would tell Harvard audiences across the country that he knew their secrets and they believed him. They needed, he said, to give back and they did.
In the pulpit he had the support of Harvard Presidents, the advice of Divinity School professors who reminded him that they needed to be told they were sinners as well as saints, and the love of students who listened to him as they prepared to leave Harvard. He could tell them what they needed to know and they heard him at Senior Chapel. When they came back as alums he celebrated their fallen and as the years passed he was the constant presence who remembered who they had been. An old alum asked the other day “Who will do that now?” That is a tough question to answer.
As an author he wrote a number of books widely read. His sermons travel far in print and are good for a sharp insight or barbed quip. The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart changed the lives of many for its practical theology that made the Bible relevant again for many who had forgotten its wisdom. The Good Life: Truths that Last in Times of Need argued that sometimes failure was a great teacher. For those who had cut their teeth on only success, it was a lesson needed.
For all of his wisdom and for his pastoral skills, he will be remembered, but it is for his courage that he rises above the crowd. At a moment in 1991 on the Harvard campus when homophobia was pulsing, Peter had the courage to tell people he was gay. It was not thought to be a career enhancing move. His words shocked his more traditional Christian friends who were forced to deal with a man they knew to be Christian, but who now told them he was gay. Celibate himself, he supported the right of gay men and women to enjoy the pleasures and burdens of marriage. His stature and measured words were heard by many who otherwise would have tuned him out. His reputation grew.
A son of Plymouth, Massachusetts, he called himself a black Puritan; born to Peter Lobo and Orissa White Gomes, she the daughter of a Baptist minister, he was nurtured in the Baptist Church of Plymouth on Sunday morning. But he went as well to the small African Methodist Episcopal congregation. He was always a bit puritanical in the way he noted rules and traditions. Immersed in the waters of baptism as a young man, he always was wary of other baptismal traditions fearing he might drop a squirming infant. He would remind me that he had learned to baptize the right way! The rules of dress also mattered. The decision to wear a straw hat in his presence before Memorial Day or after Labor Day was not a decision to be made lightly. The economic argument did not carry much weight and he had no experience with western heat in May or September. It was simply not done.
His memory will fade but he will not be forgotten. He has joined the line of Harvard immortals called up over sherry and on moments of reflection and celebration. To be remembered with the likes of Nathan Pusey, Mason Hammond, Elliot Forbes and Zeph Stewart would surprise and please him. The awkward little boy from Plymouth who went from being an outsider to the President of the Pilgrim Society is now at rest and at home. Harvard is better, we are all better for having been in his company.
Robert M. Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute