Last night (February 28, 2011) a black, gay, Republican Baptist minister I never met and author of two bestselling books I haven’t read, died of a heart attack in Boston. His name was Peter Gomes and the world is a lesser place in his absence.
I taught for a semester one fall at Harvard, and Gomes was the minister of Harvard’s Memorial Church, although I never set foot in the place. He was also Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister, teaching courses of which I was totally unaware. I was too delighted with my gothic classroom, my interesting students and the leaves falling on Harvard Yard to think about anything else. I had always dreamed of being there, teaching and walking through those leaves in boots and a long wool skirt. Is there an American English major who doesn’t dream of teaching about books and writing at Harvard? We all have alternate identities, paths not taken but still open to possibility, and that was one that I got to live for a time. Going to church there never occurred to me.
But one Sunday morning, on a whim, I drove alone from Boston to Salem in a rainstorm. (The idea was to tour the House of Seven Gables, which turned out to be closed. I’d been there before when the tours were full, and many times subsequently, and I still haven’t toured the House of Seven Gables. Maybe I’ll make it this year.) Driving slowly in the rain, I fooled around with the radio, looking for the Boston classical station, but the weather was messing up reception and I accidentally landed on some churchy-sounding music. Well okay, I like hymns and sang along. But then the music stopped and I realized I was listening to a sermon. Not okay, I don’t like sermons. Usually.
So I surfed up and down the dial for a few minutes, but found nothing suitable for a rainy Sunday morning drive, and drifted back to the sermon station. I was about to stick a tape in the deck (It would have been Enya…) when I actually heard Peter Gomes, and was hooked. I didn’t know who he was, didn’t know Harvard broadcast services live from Memorial Church. But I knew this was one fantastic preacher!
He was talking about Job, but not the usual riches-to-rags/disease/humiliation-and-back-to-riches story. No, his reference was to another part of the story, an unfamiliar part in which God basically tells Job to quit whining. “There are monstrous clashes of good and evil against which your little problems don’t even make it up to insignificant in comparison. So shut up, Job; you’re being a self-absorbed, obnoxious, tedious pest.”
These are not Peter Gomes’ words, but my paraphrasing of them; his were eloquent, educated, wry and exactly what I needed to hear right then (or for that matter, at any other time). He was brilliant, knew his material intimately and lectured with an intellectual’s engaging passion. He didn’t insist that anybody “believe” as he did, didn’t proselytize, couldn’t have cared less. He just wanted to tell a story. And could he ever! I became his fan in that fifteen-minute sermon.
What I didn’t do was then race out to become a Baptist or even go to hear him in person during the remainder of that stay in Boston. But I thought about him and later followed him on the Internet, occasionally reading his sermons and enjoying little personal facts about him that turned up. Ordained a Baptist, he loved all things Anglican and wore a Roman collar sometimes, dressing for state occasions in a red gown and old-fashioned “preaching bands” or “Geneva bands” (see pic) now worn only by British clergy and barristers. When a conservative Harvard publication released a virulently anti-gay issue, Peter Gomes stood on the steps of Memorial Church and defined himself a gay man, later pointing out that he flatly refused to be confined by any of the categories to which others might assign him – conservative, Baptist, gay, or African American. He was all of those, but none of those was all he was. He held High Tea regularly in his home, officiated at the inaugurations of Republican presidents and then became a Democrat in order to vote for Deval Patrick, Massachusetts’ black governor. He was a character, a brilliant, warm, intellectually generous man with a deft wit who marched to his own drum straight to the edge of the grave and on over. I admire such people. I admired him.
And his death makes me think. What can I do to acknowledge the impact of one sermon by this remarkable man, heard on a car radio years ago in the rain somewhere between Boston and Salem? His memorial service at Harvard on Thursday (March 3, 2011) will include addresses by articulate notables who knew and loved him, and I’ll probably read them on the Internet. But that’s just passive, observer behavior.
So I’ll do this. First, for anyone interested in traditional Christianity, I urge the reading of Peter Gomes’ books – The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart, and The Good Life: Truths That Last in Times of Need. I haven’t read them, but despite the fundy-sounding titles I’m confident that they’re excellent, scrupulously researched and inspiring. And second, I will keep writing to the sound of my own drum, not to the sound of what’s trendy or hot or happens to be selling. I doubt that I could do that anyway, but the “ka-ching” of others’ financial success is a siren song to which no writer is deaf. And third, no whining, ever.
Bye, Peter. Great sermon!