Harvard Minister Peter J Gomes, an Advocate for Tolerance; Dead at 68

Members of the LGBTQ community of Riverside Church mourn the loss of Reverend Peter J. Gomes who died on February 28, one week after his canceled preaching engagement in our Distinguished Preacher Series.

His death was attributed to complications from a stroke, according to a statement from the university.

The 68 year old African American had an aristocratic air and preaching style that set him apart from his contemporaries.  He was once reported in the press as saying, “Martin Luther King, Al Sharpton, and Jesse Jackson all sound the same to most white Americans, which is a dilemma for me, because I don’t sound like any of them.”

He proudly shared stories of his slave heritage right alongside serving as trustee emeritus of the Pilgrim Society and celebrating his hometown’s Mayflower history.

Born in Boston and raised in Plymouth, he frequently found himself being the only black student and was elected president of his 1961 graduating class at Plymouth High School. He practiced preaching in the basement of his home after Sunday services, delivered his first sermon at 12, and credited his mother, of Boston’s black upper-middle class, with giving him the courage to be his own person.

“She always told me that I must invent my own reality,” he told the Globe in June 1996. “Reality will not conform to you. You must invent your own and then conform to it. So I did. I am an authentic and an original. I will not allow myself to be known simply as an African American, no more than I would allow myself to be known as gay or conservative. They are all bits and pieces of a work in progress. I am a child of God.”

He was the first black minister of Memorial Church and the first pastor of that church to participate in a US president’s inauguration.  A Republican, he participated in the inaugurations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He later changed his party affiliation to support and participate in the first inauguration of Massachusetts’ first African American Governor Deval Patrick.

The only child of an immigrant cranberry farmer from Republic of Cape Verde, he learned valuable spiritual lessons when he was held back in the second grade.  After being taunted as Peter the Repeater he vowed to become an overachiever.

In 1965 he received a bachelor’s degree from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine where he was persuaded to study religion by one of his professors but his father thought it was not honest work.

Still, he pursued his study in religion and graduated from Harvard Divinity School in 1968 with a bachelor’s in Sacred Theology and taught for two years at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama before returning to Harvard in 1970 as assistant minister of Memorial Church and in 1974 its minister.

“Peter Gomes served Harvard with unparalleled dedication, wisdom, and creativity for more than four decades,” President Drew Faust said. “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.”

A renowned advocate of tolerance, he served in the pulpit for 42 years, and over 30 of those as the “soul of Harvard.” In November, 1991 he stunned the Harvard community when he publicly responded to harassment against gays on campus.

“I do not know when the quality of life has been more violated,” he told the crowd from the steps of Memorial Church. “I am a Christian who happens as well to be gay. Those realities, which are irreconcilable to some, are reconciled in me by a loving God.”

He published 11 volumes of sermons, as well as books, including best-sellers “The Good Life: Truths That Last in Times of Need,” (2002) and “The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart,”(1996) in which he analyzed the Bible’s use in marginalizing Jews, blacks, women, and gays and taught classes on interpreting the Bible, the history of Harvard and its presidents, and an introduction to preaching.

He was a revered adviser to students and faculty alike. “No one epitomizes all that is good about Harvard more than Peter J. Gomes,” professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research told the press.

In 1979, Time Magazine called him “one of the seven most distinguished preachers in America,” and in 1998 he was named Clergy of the Year by the organization Religion in American Life. Reverend Gomes planned to retire in 2012 when he would turn 70 and write his memoirs.

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