Etched on the walls of the main sanctuary in Harvard's Memorial Church are the names of the Harvard men who lost their lives in military service during World War II. The most familiar and impressive -- and the oldest name on the wall -- is Franklin D. Roosevelt, class of 1904
. For the first-time visitor, that usually takes a moment to register. Then comes the flicker of recognition. Yes, our commander-in-chief died while war still waged in the Pacific.
Franklin Roosevelt was in his fourth term in office when he passed this vale, and although many Americans couldn't imagine his job being filled by anyone else, another president dutifully took his place. And though he cherished his place in history, Roosevelt himself understood the fleeting nature of mortal influence. Five days before being elected president in 1932, he made note of it publicly, saying: "There is no indispensable man."
But in our hearts, as in human history, there are individuals who stand . . . well, not alone, but apart. Someone can take their position, but never really take their place. And you don't have to be a president, or even a Roosevelt. The Rev. Peter J. Gomes was such a person. For more than four decades, he dispensed grace, wisdom, and humor from the pulpit of Memorial Church, tending a migrating flock of Cambridge congregants, transient students, and itinerant Sunday visitors to Harvard Yard.
"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," Harvard President Drew Faust said in a message
Tuesday morning to the Harvard community. "Through his work and wisdom, Peter has left an indelible mark on the institution he served faithfully over so many years."
"Indelible" is certainly the impression Peter Gomes had on me. I first met him five years ago, while covering the White House for National Journal, an authoritative, non-partisan Washington magazine. Atlantic Media, our parent company, hosted seminars on policy and politics, and at a session in Boston I was to moderate a conversation about the war in Iraq. Gomes, a tenured Harvard professor, best-selling author, and trained theologian was to be paired with another academic, but the other scholar wasn't able to make it, and so at the last minute I found myself seated beside Gomes in front of an intellectually curious audience.
I had been told he was a Republican, which seemed interesting -- Gomes was not only a Harvard professor but also gay and African-American -- but it wasn't strictly true. He was a fan of any prominent Republican I mentioned, and when pressed on the point of party affiliation he conceded that he had recently switched parties. He finally registered Democrat out of fealty to his friend Deval Patrick, then running for governor of Massachusetts, but in truth the Republican Party that Gomes identified with had long ago faded into the mists of the past.
And if he had little use for the modern GOP, he seemed to have even less for George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. What he really didn't like, however, was war.
This is certainly a defensible position for a man of God, even one who isn't an Ivy League professor, but I queried Gomes closely on the point President Bush had raised in so many speeches: Don't Iraqis have as much right to freedom as Americans? Gomes answered in a roundabout way. He certainly wasn't at all opposed to the march of democracy, he said, and he was all about American exceptionalism. But the best way to demonstrate that exceptionalism, he replied, was by example -- and not with military force.
Here, Gomes was in good historic company. This sounds like John Winthrop, a fellow Protestant pastor and the first governor of Massachusetts, the state Deval Patrick still leads. In his famous "city on a hill" sermon -- often invoked by both Ronald Reagan
and by John F. Kennedy
-- Winthrop exhorts his fellow pilgrims to set an example in their behavior and steadfastness in the New World that would be a light to people everywhere.
"We must always consider," Winthrop said, "that we shall be as a city upon a hill -- the eyes of all people are upon us." The imagery, of course, is Christ's
and it made perfect sense, even in a secular setting, that a Christian minister would invoke that line of reason, even without mentioning Jesus.
I had been thinking of Gomes in recent weeks, wondering if he believed that the largely peaceful revolutions taking place in the Arab world stood as proof of his position. I was making plans to pay a call on him when word came Tuesday morning that he had been felled by complications arising from a stroke. My friend Eric Andersen
, director of the fellows program at Harvard's Institute of Politics, let me know in a note with the subject line "Sad News."
Gomes' death was indeed sad news for those who knew him, though in the Christian faith we are taught that his passing is also good news; it means that Peter Gomes is now with God. The problem for the living is that we will miss him, and all the more so because there was simply no one like him. Drew Faust was right. He was definitely an original.
Born in Boston in 1942, Gomes was educated in the public schools of Plymouth, Mass., where he was always a prodigy, and a bit of a character. Friends and relatives remember him pretending to preach
from atop wooden crates in his basement from about the age of 4. He graduated from Bates College
in 1965, and he received an advanced degree from Harvard Divinity School in 1968, the year he was ordained by the First Baptist Church of Plymouth
Gomes was hired on the faculty at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where he served as a church organist and choirmaster. He became an assistant minister at Memorial Church in 1970 -- and never left. In 1974, he was named the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and minister in the Memorial Church, making him a member of the Divinity School faculty and Harvard's official spiritual adviser.
In time, he would become president of the Signet Society
, Harvard's oldest literary group, as well as a member of the faculty of the College of Arts and Sciences, and the author of numerous volumes of sermons and several best-selling books, including "The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart."
In 1991, in response to what he saw as gay-bashing on campus, Gomes had taken to the steps of Memorial Church to make an announcement
. "I am a Christian who happens as well to be gay," he told a crowd of roughly 100 students and parishioners. "Those realities, which are unreconcilable to some, are reconciled in me by a loving God.''
"I don't like being the main exhibit," he explained later to The New Yorker, "but this was an unusual set of circumstances, in that I felt I had a particular resource that nobody else there possessed."
This was true, and being gay was only one part of it. "Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart" details historical efforts to misuse the Bible to marginalize Jews, blacks, women, and gays. It was published in 1996, the same year that Gomes told the Boston Herald
, "I'm always seen as a black man and now I'm seen as a black gay man. If you throw the other factors in there that make me peculiar and interesting -- the Yankee part, the Republican part, the Harvard type -- all that stuff confuses people who have to have a single stereotypical lens in order to assure themselves they have a grasp on reality."
As our 2006 Q&A ended, Gomes graciously invited me to call on him if I was ever in Boston. As it happened, the following year, I was named a fellow at the Institute of Politics, and I did indeed call on him. I audited the popular class he taught: The History of Harvard and Its Presidents, and I often attended services in Memorial Church when he was preaching, including Easter Sunday service in 2007. Twice I accepted his invitation -- open to anyone -- to drop by for Tea at Sparks House
, which he held on Wednesday afternoons.
But it was at a candlelight vigil on a sad April night that Peter Gomes forever touched my heart. On a Monday morning, 32 people, most of them students, were massacred by a gunman at Virginia Tech. My middle daughter had recently graduated from that school, but everyone on the far away Cambridge campus -- on every college campus -- felt the pain. At Harvard Yard that evening, many stunned students drifted to Memorial Church to comfort one another, and be comforted. The impromptu outpouring convinced Gomes to hold a service Thursday evening.
At 10 that night, the candles were lit, and prayers were murmured in an anteroom before mourners filed into the sanctuary. The good reverend preached strongly that night, as he always did. Normally he employed his theatrical and distinctive voice, one that seemed a cross between James Earl Jones and Billy Graham -- with a dash of Daniel Patrick Moynihan thrown in -- as a kind of instrument. On this night, a subdued Gomes let his message itself be the medium.
He told those of us who had come for words of comfort that the lesson of these sudden and inexplicable murders "at our sister college in Virginia" is that we can never really be prepared for death, that we can only be prepared for life -- and that it is very nearly our duty to those denied a full long life to ready ourselves for our time here on Earth and to do our utmost with it.
Amen, reverend. Rest in peace.