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My Take: Remembering the Rev. Peter Gomes
The Rev. Peter Gomes, Harvard University's chaplain for more than 30 years, died Monday at age 68.
March 1st, 2011
04:43 PM ET

My Take: Remembering the Rev. Peter Gomes

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

The Rev. Peter Gomes, who died Monday from complications arising from a stroke at age 68, may not have been “America’s chaplain” — that title belongs to Billy Graham — but he was Harvard’s for three and a half decades.

He was also sui generis — of his own kind. Officially, Gomes was the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church at Harvard University. But he was also gay, black, Baptist and, for much of his adult life, Republican. Fascinated by the pilgrims, he made his home in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Gomes' accent was part old Harvard, part colonial New England. He spoke as if his every word would be recorded for posterity.  Many were.

He prayed at President Ronald Reagan’s second inaugural. He preached at the inaugurations of President George H.W. Bush and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick.

He also wrote many books of sermons, in addition to popular books such as, "The Good Life: Truths That Last in Times of Need," and "The Good Book: Reading the Bible With Mind and Heart." And he was the only guest on "The Colbert Report" I have ever seen who got more laughs than Stephen Colbert.

Sermons came out of him as if channeled, typically without the benefit of notes, and always in elegant paragraphs. Like any great preacher — and he was one of America’s best — he knew not only how to speak but how to speak the truth.

He came out in 1991 while speaking out against homophobic remarks published in a campus magazine, calling himself, simply, "a Christian who happens to be gay. His sermon after 9/11 is one of the finest reflections on that tragedy in the idiom of faith.

The last time I heard him preach was at the memorial service for my graduate school mentor William Hutchison, a specialist in American religious history. Gomes remembered Hutchison as a Quaker and a man of character who brought a tone of civility to a faculty not known for making peace.

“The Harvard Divinity School faculty is a den of vipers," Gomes told us, because at the time, at least, it was.

The last time I saw Gomes was at a dinner he hosted in my honor in 2008. He had invited me to deliver the William Belden Noble Lectures, given each year at Harvard in memory of a divinity student who died while preparing for the ministry.

A dozen or so people attended the dinner, and Gomes lorded over the proceedings, offering, in addition to his old world hospitality, an eloquent prayer and, later, an even more eloquent toast. He made me grateful that night that our lives had crossed, however briefly.

“They will never make another Peter Gomes," I told a friend as I was driving away that night. And they never will.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Baptist • Christianity • Education • Gay rights • Homosexuality • Politics

soundoff (272 Responses)
  1. Observer

    No one believes every word of the Bible. They just pick and choose whatever agrees with their own prejudice. That's why there are so many hypocritical Christians who trash gays while ignoring the FAR GREATER number of their own Christians who commit adultery by divorcing and remarrying according to the Bible. They are all hypocrites.

    March 2, 2011 at 10:05 am |
  2. alberto

    so how is this news?

    March 2, 2011 at 10:02 am |
  3. Bob

    "Religion Scholar" – what a joke.

    March 2, 2011 at 9:59 am |
  4. Brian

    The book of HEBREWS has about as much weight on my worldview as the book of The Odyssey.

    Unless you can profess to live by all of the tenants of you god, word for word, you shouldn't call out those you you believe do not. Remember love triumphs hate, it's something that your Christ would have understood. Why don't you.

    March 2, 2011 at 9:53 am |
    • Peggy Munro

      Brian,
      An uneducated religious person is a dangerous thing. You are correct.

      March 2, 2011 at 11:17 am |
  5. Doc Vestibule

    I find it astounding that this man was a Baptist minister!
    When the American south was forced to rescind the Jim Crow laws and accept racial integration, it was Baptists who most strongly opposed equality.
    Wallie Criswell, an extremely popular and influential Southern Baptist Minister famously said "Let them integrate! Let them sit up there in their dirty shirts and make all their fine speeches. But they are all a bunch of infidels, dying from the neck up."
    Scarcely half a century later, the zeitgeist has shifted so radically that such open racism is considered abhorrent to the very same Christian sect that spouted scripture to justify insti.tutionalized bigotry.
    I fervently hope that the prevailing Baptist condemnation of ho.mose.xuality will soon be viewed with the same sense of shame that the memory of segragation elicits.
    Regardless of whether I subscribe to his religion, I am awed at the strength of character demonstrated by this man. A gay minister is anathema to most of his fellow baptists today, just as being a black minister was in his youth.

    March 2, 2011 at 9:53 am |
    • R Hookup

      Gomes was not a Southern Baptist, but rather an American Baptist. There is a big difference.

      March 2, 2011 at 10:34 am |
    • iminim

      Perhaps Dr Gomes was a Baptist for the same reason many educated people are. The denomination defining ideology of Baptists is that each believer can read and interpret the scriptures through their own relationship with Christ. That means you don't have to have an intermediary (priest, minister, saint, etc) in your relationship. Perhaps Dr Gomes, an independent thinker and an educated, talented man, found this part of Baptist belief to be particularly relevant to his situation.
      As a "liberal" Baptist, I find it amusing that conservative Baptists often know so little about their denomination that they are the first to comdemn some people's relationship with Christ, such as Dr Gomes', when it differs from theirs. They are often the ones who see no "correct" interpretation but their own and call all other interpretations wrong, or even blasphemous. It is they, not the liberals, who have lost their connection to their heritage as Baptists.

      March 2, 2011 at 10:47 am |
    • Peggy Munro

      Well said. No! very well said.

      March 2, 2011 at 11:13 am |
  6. toy

    Stephen what a wonderful and beautifully written article, it made my heart smile and brought a tear to my eye.

    March 2, 2011 at 9:52 am |
    • Peggy Munro

      Amen!

      March 2, 2011 at 11:15 am |
  7. Haven

    The world is at a loss for Rev. Peter Gomes. His Books were amazing, and his complexity in and of itself helps to show how far we truly are from understanding the nature of god. He was like the angels crying Kadosh at new revelations, such was he to the world.

    God Speed Reverend Gomes. May you rest in peace.

    March 2, 2011 at 9:52 am |
  8. BruinsGuy02110

    The United States needs more honest, eloquent religous leaders lke Rev. Peter Gomes.

    Sadly, there are too few and too many Charlatans!

    March 2, 2011 at 9:49 am |
  9. Michael

    Black. Gay. Republican. Religious. CONFLICTED. Sounds kind of like Bobby Short who was probably the most insecurely pompous person I ever met.

    March 2, 2011 at 9:48 am |
    • fran glass

      when i hear "black, gay, bastist, republican" i just think "damn, that man must have been a masochist."

      March 2, 2011 at 10:14 am |
  10. deb0155

    And this is news?! Here's some real news: Medal of Honor Recipient, Captain Ed Freeman, United States Air Force, died last Wednesday at the age of 70, in Boise, Idaho. He rescued 29 wounded men in spite of heavy combat in Viet Nam and these men would not have made it without the Captain and his Huey. No one knew until the mission was over that the Captain had been hit 4 times in the legs and left arm. Now, this man is a REAL HERO!

    AND THAT IS REAL NEWS! But never made it in the media!

    March 2, 2011 at 9:48 am |
    • JohnR

      Ed Freeman died again? This has got be at least the third or fourth time. A new record for sure! Put THAT in the media!

      For the record, Ed Freeman was a genuine hero who died in 2008. Media coverage may not have been what it should have been, but he was recognized in life with a Congressional Medal of Honor and in death with a Post Office named after him. He deserved both and more.

      And this is what bothers me. Someone whose acts of selfless bravery rose to the level of genuinely awe-inspiring should not be used to diss other people when they die. It's a totally hideous practice, one that is obscenely disrespectful not only to the other people, but to Freeman himself.

      March 2, 2011 at 10:17 am |
    • JohnR

      I can't believe I capitalized "post office". Egad!

      March 2, 2011 at 10:18 am |
    • Peggy Munro

      Thanks for the information. I hope he is the hands of his God but I also love the story you call non news.

      March 2, 2011 at 11:11 am |
  11. Katie

    And they had to mention he's 'black' AND 'gay' why??? What difference does it make, really.

    March 2, 2011 at 9:47 am |
    • Peggy Munro

      Irony, just irony and ironic it is.

      March 2, 2011 at 11:09 am |
  12. TONY

    Why gays are republlican is beyond me republicans hate gays left, to them gays will have a voice only a silent one I don't know this guy, but him being a republican make him loose all credability where i am concern, republicans are hypocrits, and racist

    March 2, 2011 at 9:39 am |
    • Peggy Munro

      And so I thought but I do like this guy even if he happened to be a republican.

      March 2, 2011 at 11:08 am |
  13. ILoveJesus

    He was not a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

    March 2, 2011 at 9:34 am |
    • jayh

      Whatever.

      March 2, 2011 at 9:41 am |
    • Eatmore1

      Be careful! You should not try to speak for Jesus Christ! He CAN, and HAS called some of the worst characters to be 'ministers of His gospel'. Moreover, there is nothing that we (you and I) can do about it!

      March 2, 2011 at 10:19 am |
    • ILoveJesus

      Eatmore1, he preached 'another' gospel, not the Gospel of the Kingdom of Heaven.

      March 2, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
    • LivinginVA

      Maybe not according to your interpretation of what Jesus stood for, but he was in mine, and that the Christian ministers in my family.

      March 2, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
  14. CW

    I'm sure this gentlemen was a good man and preached the word of God as he knew it. Here is where I will disagree with him...and his belief's.....If he while "coming out" he acted on his so called G-'AY urges and at anytime thought that being G-'AY was okay in God's eyes...then...I say he was a FALSE TEACHER. Here is the way I consider things one can't stand up and preach and say they believe in God and do what they call Godly works while stealing, living in aud-'ultery, mur-'dering people, or the like. The Bible teaches that we have to turn from self...deny ourself and URGES...and make choices that are pleasing and in agreement WITH the word of God.

    March 2, 2011 at 9:27 am |
    • CN

      another stunning example of how much our christian brothers love us. and you wonder why some people reject your hideous religion.

      March 2, 2011 at 9:33 am |
    • Brian

      Gay means he has an attraction to men. Nothing more. Grow up. It's a complicated world, that supposedly, your God made. And he has a lot of rules. If you wear mixed fiber clothes, please admit to your hypocrisy

      March 2, 2011 at 9:37 am |
    • CW

      @ CN,

      You can reject God all you want....I know what the God says about this abomination of a behavior. See Romans, See Corithians....they all say that acting on G-'ay urges is a SIN...PERIOD.

      As for you saying: "another stunning example of how much our christian brothers love us"

      I say: I do love all people...Sinners...G-'ay people...Mu-'erder's...BECAUSE THE BIBLE STATES THAT WE ARE TO LOVE ALL PEOPLE...INCLUDING OUR ENEMIES. With that said though the Bible also tells us that we are to call sin...sin and encourage our brothers and sisters to repent and stop sinning.

      March 2, 2011 at 9:38 am |
    • CW

      @ Brian,

      One comment....READ THE BOOK OF HEBREWS.

      March 2, 2011 at 9:39 am |
    • Todd

      But gay people can't get married. And if you equate adultery with murderers, then I guess you can't vote for Palin (child is unwed mother), Gingrich, serial adulterer, Romney (adulterer), Huckabee (adulterer).

      But you can vote for Obama – one wife his whole wife, and no pregnent children.

      Or, you could stop driniking the kool-aid and actually think for yourself for a change.

      March 2, 2011 at 9:40 am |
    • fran glass

      right on CN! 😀

      CW – you are a bigot and you DO NOT "love" gay people as your fictional book apparently instructs you to. At least own your hate. Saying something doesn't make it true.

      March 2, 2011 at 9:42 am |
    • CN

      and you can keep preaching your hideous nonsense all you wish. but expect your evil to be resisted at every turn.

      March 2, 2011 at 9:46 am |
    • CW

      @ Fran Glass,

      Okay....here we go again....Any christian that says SIN IS SIN = H-'ATE SPEECH. What a bunch of hogwash.....Instead of spewing this idi-'otic rant try going and reading the Bible then you'll know what your talking about.

      March 2, 2011 at 9:47 am |
    • Christian

      Good for you. And I assume, being the high moral character that you are, that you have never and would never divorce. For if you do, you blaspheme and worse: "Marriage is a solemn agreement before God; hence those who divorce their wives are guilty not merely of covenant breaking but of blasphemy" – Malachi 2:14-16. Do tell us all about yourself and your habits so that we may judge you as you publicly (well, from behind the moniker "CW") judge others. Oh, and about that?
      “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye." – Matthew 7:1-5

      March 2, 2011 at 9:52 am |
    • Brian

      @CW
      The book of HEBREWS has about as much weight on my worldview as the book of The Odyssey.

      Unless you can profess to live by all of the tenants of you god, word for word, you shouldn't call out those you you believe do not. Remember love triumphs hate, it's something that your Christ would have understood. Why don't you.

      March 2, 2011 at 9:54 am |
    • fran glass

      CW – you are talking to me about a work of fiction written by men claiming to speak for god.
      THAT SAID...
      i would bet a large sum of money that you participate in activities that the bible says are "sins". Have you ever had shellfish? Do you go to shellfish related articles and lecture shellfish eaters about their sins? If not then you are pick and choosing parts of the bible to follow and you are CHOOSING to focus your attention of gay people.. which makes you a bigot. understand?

      March 2, 2011 at 10:08 am |
    • fran glass

      ^picking ^of

      awesome.

      March 2, 2011 at 10:10 am |
    • fran glass

      he's going to pick on my typing mistakes (i'm working) instead of addressing what i just said.. wait for it...

      March 2, 2011 at 10:11 am |
  15. Elmer

    This last Thanksgiving, as I sat at the edge of Plymouth Harbor–I live in Plymouth where Gomes was born and raised–I happened to have the radio on as an hour interview with Gomes began. He related the story of how his parents were a little shocked that their son was spending all of his time volunteering at the Pilgrim Society, a lily-white outfit that certainly hadn't been very supportive during that Civil Rights era. After a couple of years of volunteering in the Society's library, Gomes was assigned to work at the front desk. Soon thereafter he was manning the desk when the President of the Society, a Mayflower Brewster, came in the front door. With his thick Yankee accent, Brewster asked Gomes: "What are you doing there, Boy." Gomes thought about all of his parents warnings about how he, a Black, would ultimately be treated by the elite Whites of the Society. As Gomes sat there sputtering and for once in his life unable to get a word out, Brewster pulled a Life Membership, worth a thousand dollars at the time, out of his pocket and handed it to the shocked teenage boy. Gomes went on to become the President of the Pilgrim Society himself. Only in America!

    March 2, 2011 at 9:10 am |
    • Peggy Munro

      Thank you Elmer,
      I will share this story with many. It is so well written and filled with deep meaning that I have to save it. So great people do blog eh?

      March 2, 2011 at 10:23 am |
  16. SuperFed

    I'm surprised the Ivy League schools haven't ran off chaplains like they did with the ROTC.

    March 2, 2011 at 9:10 am |
    • sleepytime

      You know Harvard has a divinity school, right?

      March 2, 2011 at 10:03 am |
  17. Gary

    I had the privilege of hearing this man preach in person once. That one event has forever impacted me for the better and I will forever consider him one of (if not the) greatest preachers of all time.

    March 2, 2011 at 8:57 am |
  18. elisa

    I wish I had heard about this man before - I never had. Much of the news we have is wasted on people who shouldn't affect us and here is one I wish had. Thanks for the story.

    March 2, 2011 at 8:25 am |
    • JohnR

      Well said.

      March 2, 2011 at 10:03 am |
    • elisa

      same name, same sentiment.

      March 2, 2011 at 10:21 am |
  19. Eli

    If you want some insight into this talented, funny, courageous man of God, read his bestseller, The Good Book.

    March 2, 2011 at 8:05 am |
    • Peggy Munro

      And so I will buy and read and if I like will recommend it to my book club. He sounds like an unbelievable man of God, the type I would have like to have met. At least he is now with his God.

      March 2, 2011 at 10:18 am |
  20. Reality

    o All "Abrahamics" believe that their god created all of us and of course that includes the g-ay members of the human race. Also, those who have studied ho-mo-se-xuality have determined that there is no choice involved therefore ga-ys are ga-y because god made them that way.

    To wit:

    o The Royal College of Psy-chiatrists stated in 2007:

    “ Despite almost a century of psy-choanalytic and psy-chological speculation, there is no substantive evidence to support the suggestion that the nature of parenting or early childhood experiences play any role in the formation of a person’s fundamental heteros-exual or hom-ose-xual orientation. It would appear that s-exual orientation is biological in nature, determined by a complex interplay of ge-netic factors and the early ut-erine environment. Se-xual orientation is therefore not a choice.[60] "

    "Garcia-Falgueras and Swaab state in the abstract of their 2010 study, "The fe-tal brain develops during the intraut-erine period in the male direction through a direct action of tes-tosterone on the developing nerve cells, or in the female direction through the absence of this hor-mone surge. In this way, our gender identi-ty (the conviction of belonging to the male or female gender) and s-exual orientation are programmed or organized into our brain structures when we are still in the womb. There is no indication that social environment after birth has an effect on gender ident–ity or s-exual orientation."[8

    Of course, those gays who belong to Abrahamic religions abide by the rules of no adu-ltery or for-nication allowed.--

    March 2, 2011 at 7:47 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.