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. charla nu

    Well if he was gay then he was in the right religion, no surprise

    April 6, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
  2. Jeff

    I hope he enjoys rejoining nonexistence.

    March 3, 2011 at 8:04 am |
  3. Mark from Middle River

    Black, Gay, Christian and a Republican ....

    Wow... This explains the low post count on this thread.

    March 2, 2011 at 11:14 pm |
    • zzzzzz


      jk zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

      March 2, 2011 at 11:17 pm |
  4. Den

    As a new Christian about fourteen years ago, I read Rev. Gomes' "The Good Book" with interest. It was eloquently written, well thought out, and made a lasting impression on me. The fact that he was black, gay, Republican, and Baptist had no bearing on my appreciation for his brilliance and the clarity of his thinking. These things only added a note of uniqueness to his character. I think we have lost one of the best of our Christian pastors with his death.

    March 2, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
  5. Mungu

    “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,” Boston Herald, 1996.

    March 2, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
    • kubariki

      Well said indeed.

      March 2, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
  6. OldGoat

    What made him so great? Being a minister (the world's oldest profession after being a "lady of the evening"), being black, being gay, or some combination thereof? I don't get it.

    March 2, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  7. Ben

    Golly, I'm SO sad..........what a tragic loss to humanity................

    March 2, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  8. TNDF

    The text link, "Harvard's black gay GOP chaplain dies" from the CNN home page make me feel disappointed that such headlines are necessary to draw attention to a media article.
    People like Rev. Gomes make me feel like I might have remained a Christian if I had met more people like him in my journey of faith.
    The comments from staunch, conservative Christians remind me of why I found the Church no longer resonated with my view of God, Christ, or spirituality in general.
    The comments from vehement non-believers remind me of why I've found only a few true skeptics that have been able to hold a meaningful conversation on faith, religion, and the unknown.

    March 2, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
  9. AL

    Not to offend anyone but "GAY GOP CHAPLIN" are words that are not suited to be next to each other. Im sory but if ur gay ur not religious. Simple.

    March 2, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
    • LAbobcat

      Jesus would be proud of you!

      March 2, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
    • mom2boys

      What a bunch of cr@p. I know many gay people that are religious and spiritual. Just because it doesn't fit your narrow world view..doesn't mean it doesn't or should exist.

      March 2, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
    • LivinginVA

      What you mean to say is: "If you are gay you do not subscribe to my version of my religion". Not only are there whole religions out there that don't condemn gays, but there are even Christian denominations that don't.

      March 2, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • Church of Suicidal

      Why is it that the most offensive things always seem to follow the words "Not to offend anyone..."? And yes, Al, you ARE simple.

      March 2, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
  10. Kyle

    Rev. Gomes presided over the baccalaureate service prior to my graduation from Lafayette College in 2007. To me, it was the most memorable part of the commencement ceremony. Not only was his sermon incredibly inspiring, but the man had a voice that would make James Earl Jones blush. Rest in Peace sir.

    March 2, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
  11. ILoveJesus

    "...a Christian who happens to be gay." Impossible, you have chosen your own lifestyle rather than that of Jesus Christ, therefore you have denied him. You have denied the truth of the Gospel of the Kingdom of Heaven. You have made the truth a lie, and have made a lie the truth.

    March 2, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
    • Observer

      Everyone just picks and chooses what part of the Bible to support. If you were all that concerned about "sins" you would be trashing Christians who divorce and remarry, or eat shellfish, or work on the Sabbath, or women who talk in church, etc. See which sins you agree with and ignor the rest.

      March 2, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
    • mom2boys

      Jesus never said a word about being gay in the bible. And how about shellfish? Do you eat lobster from time to time because if you follow a book written by a bunch of controlling men then you are an abomination yourself.

      March 2, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
    • LivinginVA

      That's your interpretation of your reading of a translation of your denomination's version of the Bible. Many Christians do not agree with you.

      March 2, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
  12. alanjay1

    "Harvard's black gay chaplain dies"? I can't think of a more disrespectful way to memorialize someone than to reduce them to two completely superficial adjectives. If I were a family member of his, I would feel dishonored by this. Hugely disappointing.

    March 2, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
    • JustSoYaKnow

      Being gay isn't a directly outward trait. Unless you tell someone, they generally will not know just by looking at your picture. It meant something to me to be able to identify with him. I think you're taking it a bit more personally than necessary.

      March 2, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • alanjay1

      If it was a big part of his life, then certainly it merits mentioning in the article. But it would have been far more respectful to say something like, "respected maverick Harvard chaplain dies". I know it's a challenge to get all of the salient facts in a headline, but for a beloved man who died, I just think the way CNN boiled it down was really disrespectful.

      March 2, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
    • Observer


      Maybe "maverick" isn't the right word either. It's lost all it's original meaning since Palin came along. : )

      March 2, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
  13. Grumpster

    Why can you just say a Chaplain died...rather than having to qualify it with Black and Gay? So what if he's black...so what if he's gay...I don't even care he's a chaplain. He was human and he died. End of story.

    March 2, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
  14. Ken Bradshaw

    May God bless this man and I hope he has joy in the eternities.

    Now I have a problem, about every month CNN publishes a Believe column from a religious professor (usually an Ivy league or North East college) that that is ostensibly about religion, but usually has a gay agenda. This is the 3rd one I have tracked. This cannot be a coincidence. CNN, you should be honest in what you are doing. Ken

    March 2, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
    • tms

      This is no coincedence.

      March 2, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
    • ScottK

      CNN is as honest as any other media source. You can trust them to put forward their news stories in the light and tenor of their belief's and agenda, which in this case is to show that there are many Christians out there who are also g ay. The fact that you don't agree with that possibility doesn't matter in the slightest.

      March 2, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • Ken Bradshaw


      And every other facet of religion is ignored?

      March 2, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
    • ScottK

      Other facets are not ignored, its just when the facet is "Christians hate G ays!" they report it, but add their comment that not all Christian's may feel that way. You are saying that they should not add their comment or "agenda" to the discourse, and I believe they should as a responsible media group. If a person yells 'Fire" in a crowed theatre and there is no fire, then it would be irresponsible for the TV crew to report there is a fire just because someone shouted it.

      March 2, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • Ken Bradshaw

      Bennett Cerf tells the story of an Englishman, a Frenchman, and a Polish man being assigned to write an essay about elephants for a college class. At the time, Polish independence was uppermost on the minds of the Polish no matter where they lived. The Englishman wrote about "The Elephant and how to hunt it". The Frenchman wrote about "The Elephant and how to cook it" The Polish man wrote about "The Elephant and the Polish Question". What I see here is not unfettered discussion of religion – but an agenda that always points back to the one issue – matter where its starting point – with the argument (poorly argued) that is a person disagrees – he/she is either hateful or does not understand religion. Ken

      March 2, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
    • ScottK

      "that that is ostensibly about religion, but usually has a gay agenda. This is the 3rd one I have tracked" Ah, the never tiresome gay agenda tracker...

      As you say "but an agenda that always points back to the one issue " and I re-read the article to see where Stephen professes a love of or even an acceptance of the "gay" agenda and so far i'm left with his quote of "But he was also gay, black, Baptist and, for much of his adult life, Republican." & "calling himself, simply, "a Christian who happens to be gay."

      Is this the grand conspiracy you have sniffed out? That there was a Christian who accepted he was gay and still claimed to follow Christ and some contributor on CNN said, yes this is so? Ken the super-gay tracker? Er, i mean super gay-tracker...

      "a person disagrees – he/she is either hateful or does not understand religion." No one called you hatefull or stupid, I simply stated "The fact that you don't agree with " the possibility there are gay Christians " doesn't matter in the slightest." And, it still doesn't.

      March 2, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
    • Ken Bradshaw


      I don't believe I got snotty with you. Nor do I think I am out of whack with much of the reaction to this article. It is obvious that it prompted much comment other than mine – specifically to the gay issue. And I believe that my comments have been among the gentlest out there. If you look back you will also so that I did not issue any criticism or judgment on Rev Gomes. But yes I think there is an effort on the part of CNN to constantly move back to this issue

      March 2, 2011 at 6:36 pm |
    • ScottK

      I never said you were getting snotty.

      "But yes I think there is an effort on the part of CNN to constantly move back to this issue"

      1. I do not agree with you
      2. Belief Blog does not equal 'Christian anti-gay blog"
      3. Anyone disseminating information will have some form of agenda or bias, impossible to do otherwise
      4. CNN does accept the fact that gay Christians exist
      5. CNN has never taken an offical possition as to its religious orientation, therefore your claim of some pro-gay christian agenda is bogus.

      March 2, 2011 at 7:12 pm |
  15. MG

    CNN front page link says "Harvard's black gay GOP chaplain dies." Well, it may be intended to encourage hits, but to reduce who Peter Gomes was to what he happened to be is insulting. Yes, he happened to be black, happened to be gay, happened to be Republican, and happened to be a chaplain. However, this was one of the greatest orators the English-speaking Christian church has known. That should be the headline.

    March 2, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
    • tms

      One of the greatest????? There are seven thousand more prophets..........This is equal to ranking preachers based on anointing... He may have been a great preacher and a great man of God. I pray that he repented and did not become reprobate regarding his failings.

      March 2, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
  16. BillyBob117

    Why is this even news??

    March 2, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
    • Liz in Seattle

      It's news because he was a great man who touched many lives and he died unexpectedly. I approve of this on the front page much more than the latest verbal ejaculations of Charlie Sheen or sarah Palin.

      March 2, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
    • JustSoYaKnow

      Even if you just look at the tag lines, it's pretty significant in and of itself. Very rarely do I feel well represented in media. I am a gay male with strong conservative roots and a Mormon upbringing that I'm still pretty heavily attached to. I appreciate having a man of faith propped up on the front page now and again rather than activists or gay-pride harpies.

      March 2, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
    • CN

      gay-pride harpies? really? how does it feel to be part of a religion that consigns you to live as a second class citizen merely for an accident of birth? do you really believe it is moral to command people who are gay to live the only life they know they get alone and celibate? for that matter, how old were you in 1978? were you an adult? how did it feel to be part of an officially racist organization (since african-americans could not serve as deacons)? tell me, why was that again? didn't it have something to do with african-americans being the descendants of those who didn't take sides in the battle for heaven, and their dark skin was a curse to mark them? please elucidate.

      March 2, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
  17. fastball

    When he was featured on "Stephen Fry's America", (a BBC-TV series), he left me with an indelible quote. When asked by the host to describe one of the unique features of Americans – he paused thoughtfully, and said delicately "Americans go with their gut. They never let a surplus of facts influence their thinking."

    March 2, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
    • ohsnap

      Which explains why he thinks he can be a gay 'man of God'.

      March 2, 2011 at 10:50 pm |
  18. larry

    why is his race so important to this story that CNN has to lead with it.

    March 2, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
    • MrMojoR

      Yesterday they had a tagline that said he was a longtime and beloved chaplain. I did not click on that one.

      Today they kindly mentioned that he is black, gay, and Republican so I totally checked it out.

      March 2, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
    • Thenextstep

      So they can make him out to be as minority as possible. He already has the black and the gay thing going for him. So He's SPECIAL.............. Didn't you know that............................

      March 2, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • Tim B

      Because it makes people like you and me click on it.
      That why were are here not isn't it?????

      March 2, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
    • Friendo

      Maybe because CNN is so use to bending over backwards to avoid reporting on the race of black criminals that they thought this would be a good opportunity to include the adjective "black" in their headline.

      March 2, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
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