A Joyful Voice Stilled: RIP Peter Gomes

I got an email this morning telling me that the most purely wonderful voice in Cambridge is now silent.

Peter Gomes died yesterday, of complications from a stroke.

He was sixty eight — younger than I would have guessed, for he seemed somehow outside of time — and much too young to be gone.

As I think I’ve said before, I’m a committedly Jewish atheist, and so the loss a Baptist minister — Peter’s full title at Harvard University was Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in Memorial Church  —  whose services I never attended might seem of little moment personally.

Acquaintances die; famous people die, and we note each loss as a marker of time passing; the sadness we might feel could simply be the chill on the back of our necks felt as the loss of those not-quite-known anticipates that moment when we must answer the call.

But with Peter, it’s not that.

I did not know him well, but like a lot of people, I think, I found it very well indeed to know him.  In the decades since we first met I learned not just to enjoy his company — that was easy, for he was an absolute beast (in the best possible sense) of sociablility, a grand companion and an extraordinary artist of conversation — but to admire who he was and what he did in the world.

I (again, like many others) owe Peter a personal debt of gratitude.  We met first in my junior year of college when he led the wedding of a couple of friends.  We happened to sit at the same table for the wedding lunch, and we talked, and he asked me what I hoped to do after graduating.  I wanted to travel, I told him, and in particular I wanted to go to places where I would be absolutely unmistakeably an Other, an outsider and a not-much valued one, because I wanted to learn how to step outside at least a little the envelope of American white, male, fancily-educated status.  I planned to go to Japan, I told him, then Number 1, according to my department head, where there would be no doubt that I would be a possibly slightly pitied someone else.

Peter listened — I can’t imagine with what internal sense of irony as an gay African-American Baptist who had somehow managed to overcome the booby traps and ambushes that Harvard University can deploy.   He gave me some advice…and then, when he turned up, months later and unexpectedly on a committee awarding travel grants to (as I remember it now) unbelievably callow seniors, he elicited my story again, then impressed upon his fellow committee members what he saw as the merit of my application.  I got the fellowship; went to Asia; started first writing, then science writing; and thus found a life-long (so far) delight that others call work.

I thanked him many times after that.  But on a day like this, it seems I never quite said it well enough.  It’s the nature of these things, I suppose.

In the three decades since, I would see Peter here and there. I moved back to the Boston area a few years after my travels, and once there, found myself at lunch with him fairly often.  That’s where I learned to call him Peter, rather than Rev. Gomes, sitting at a table with a half dozen or so folks, where, over a two hour meal and conversation, the Rev. Gomes would draw out and offer given  — he might have said Christian — names.

The talk would move around the table, though often I’d simply surrender to that wonderful sound, and listen to Peter declaim.  He loved to talk, and he had a lot to talk about, and he had that voice.

Have I mentioned his voice?

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His was a bass instrument, resonant.  It had all the power you would want in the bottom range — but also strong overtones a good way up, a voice that could both ground you and cut through the clutter and distraction of the inside of one’s head.  He was a famous pulpit preacher, but at table he could pitch his volume low, and sound almost miraculously as if he were both declaiming and confiding.  He spoke in round sentences, with pleasure in the music of words.  He was, simply, a grand talker.

All this of course, dodges around the blunt, beautiful fact that Peter Gomes was a public man and a good one.

It’s true that part of why this Jewish atheist so misses him — already — is that I loved that his very person gave the lie to the worst mock-religionists and bigots of our public life:

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There he was, an African American spiritual leader of one of the most elite, mostly white congregations in America.  He was gay.  He believed utterly in his God and in his saviour — and he was wise enough to read in scripture the meanings that celebrated rather than condemned his person and his life. He accepted the wages of rage and invective that his words and his existence sometimes evoked.  He found the best revenge:  a life both well lived and deeply enjoyed.

Again:  his faith I never shared. I argued with him when I thought he was poaching — he spoke at an Aspen  conference where I’d been asked to talk a bit on Einstein, and I told him then that I did not buy his particular path through the science-faith minefield.

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He parried with enormous gusto, and a bit of that gift of ironic amusement I’d felt before, because, I think, to him the urgent task was to find ways to be of use and value to others and one’s self.  Which is to say that, at least as we talked, we converged on the view that the point of doing religion was not to buy a ticket on God’s train, but to act well enough in this world so that were such a train to come, you’d be able to get on board.  I believe he simply saw the science-religion wars as rather missing that point, which is a view I agree with in the abstract, though I regret that the faux religiousity of the anti-science crowd among us now makes it almost impossible to escape that particular battle.

Peter had flaws; he was, as the rest of us are, hardly a perfect human.

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But the measure of the man is that he used his public position to preach with firmness in the right as his God gave him to see the right.  He self-described as conservative, but undertook radical action and argument as required — famously coming out publicly in 1991 when incidents of gay bashing at Harvard evoked his sense of duty:

“I don’t like being the main exhibit, but this was an unusual set of circumstances, in that I felt I had a particular resource that nobody else there possessed.”

He was radical too, in his claim that a commitment to Jesus demanded something more than mere fandom.  In an interview on NPR on 2007, he said:

The scandal is the fact that we seem to pay so little attention to the content of Jesus’ teaching and a great deal of attention to Jesus.

So I am proposing here that we might, in fact, look at what Jesus says, rather than who it is that says it, and that might be exciting, and we might find something, by our modern standards, which is rather scandalous.

…I mean, if you look at Jesus in the New Testament, you will discover that he spends almost a disproportionate amount of time with the people who were on the fringes of his society.

And so, if he came back today, we might wonder, who are the people on the fringes of our society with whom he would be spending time? And my guess is he wouldn’t be spending time with most of us who are at church all of the time. I don’t think he’d be spending time with most of the theologians or the radio or TV evangelists.

I think he’d be spending time with those people whom we tend to marginalize. He’d still be spending time with the prostitutes. I think he’d be spending time with minorities of every kind — racial and sexual and others — and I think we might be surprised to discover that nothing on that point has changed, as far as Jesus is concerned.

…Do we practice these things [love thy neighbor, etc.] among people who are very much like ourselves, which tends to be what the church does? Or are we meant to practice them among everybody? And that means people who don’t vote as we do, or who don’t look as we do, or who don’t live where we do, who don’t share all of our values.

It’s Jesus who redefines who the “other” is. There is no other, as far as Jesus is concerned.

I don’t speak Jesus-speak; I don’t go to church; I’m rarely in synagogue these days.  But I get the meaning of what Peter said here in his terms.  It translates just fine into mine.

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I hadn’t seen Peter for at least a couple of years when I got the news this morning.  The last time I ran into him in Harvard Square he told me to rejoin the lunch group I’d left years ago; there was always more to talk about.  I planned to, and I told him I would, but being a father, trying to grab time with my wife, writing, students, moving house, cats to the vet…you know the tune.  It didn’t matter.  The Rev. Gomes was made of granite, and the mighty river of his voice ran through it.  He would be there when I had time.

And now he is not; Peter Gomes is dead, much too soon.

RIP.

Image:  Claude Monet, The Lunch, c. 1874






38 replies
  1. 1
    Proudhon says:

    Thanks, Tom, for that lovely tribute. I first heard Dr. Gomes preach on radio – the Memorial Church services are broadcast on the Harvard radio station. I listened to the blues show that preceded the service while on my treadmill, and as I got into better shape, my run extended into the service and eventually I looked forward to Dr. Gomes’s sermons even more than the blues. I even attended in person once – first time in church for me in 20-odd years – just to shake his hand on the way out and thank him. I’m not a Christian, but when Dr. Gomes preached of Jesus’ radicalism, and told us our God was “too small,” I believed in something. Maybe I just believed in him.

  2. 2
    MikeJ says:

    Reading this makes me want to go to lunch with Tom Levenson so when they finally take me down somebody will be able to write eloquently about me.

  3. 3
    Phyllis says:

    I had not heard he’d passed; the world is smaller without him. What a lovely tribute.

  4. 4
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    Wow. Just . . . wow. What a beautiful and honest tribute. You were (if I may dare use the term) blessed to have him in your life. I suspect he might say he was blessed to have you in his.

  5. 5
    Violet says:

    A lovely tribute, beautifully written. I did not know him, yet now I feel like I do and feel a loss. Thank you.

  6. 6
    MikeJ says:

    BTW, you want to see a funny example of the guy who calls into a radio show and says, “as a lifelong demoncrap, I think the evil muslin OBummer is driving us into a ditch..”

    One of the one star reviews of the Rev’s book start out, “irst of all, understand that I have always been a fully-inclusive, spiritual Democrat. “

  7. 7
    Johannes says:

    Tom, what an outstanding tribute to a great human being! I’m an Episcopalian, who has been watching my church struggle to live into some of the lessons Dr. Gomes taught, and I’ve learned that our society needs every prophetic voice like his we can get. Like Phyllis said, the world is smaller without him–but it gets a little bigger every time we see his influence reflected in another heart.

    Thanks, Tom.

  8. 8
    tim serbo says:

    A man as full as Peter Gomes delivers a tribute in full. Chapeau, Mr L. My encounters with him weren’t anywhere nearly as intimate as yours, but it was always a pleasure to see him stroll into the faculty club bar. He didn’t object to our smoking a joint in the pews on commencement day. And he said something about how greed and hard-heartedness have been with us forever, but are only now celebrated as virtues. That left a mark.

    You note with some wonder his deft negotiation of Harvard’s treacherous waters. To which i can only add, Word. The upper reaches of that joint are viciously political, and i seem to recall he took some pleasure in being wicked enough to fight, and hold, his corner.

  9. 9
    asiangrrlMN says:

    @Violet: Ditto this. Beautiful, Tom, and my condolences on your loss.

  10. 10
    curious says:

    what a lovely remembrance.

  11. 11
    benintn says:

    What a wonderful tribute, that Gomes would elicit from you a story of religiosity that is not pompous, but rather useful in this world and (maybe?) in the next. That, to me, is what the life of faith is about. “Here I stand, I can do no other.” Gomes understood what it meant to live a life in faithful protest, and in joyful hope.

  12. 12
    Sherean says:

    Tears in my eyes for someone I’d never heard of before; your words brought him to life. He sounds like a great guy. My condolences on your loss.

  13. 13
    geg6 says:

    What a beautiful tribute, Tom. He must have been a wonderful person, and a fun and challenging one, too. I am not just an atheist but a disdainful one, mainly because I can count on one hand religious people who live what they preach. But Rev. Gomes sounds like one of those rare, unicorn-like creatures. Treasure your friendship with him always.

  14. 14
    WereBear says:

    I never heard his speak, but I love what he had to say. Sounds like he took great joy in good deeds; and that’s a fine philosophy to live by.

  15. 15
    Batocchio says:

    That’s a lovely tribute. Thanks for that, and sorry for your loss.

  16. 16
    Dee Loralei says:

    A truly lovely tribute, Tom.

  17. 17
    Doug Hill says:

    Not a fan, I found him pompous and he was a Republican til 2006.

  18. 18
    Lysana says:

    A fine and wonderful tribute indeed. Thank you for sharing that, and I also share my condolences on your loss.

  19. 19
    Lysana says:

    @Doug Hill: This is a wake, not a discussion. Bugger off.

  20. 20
    tkogrumpy says:

    @MikeJ: Now that’s bizarre, I had the same thought.

  21. 21
    Corner Stone says:

    Tom, are you sure he wasn’t really 680 years old?

  22. 22
    tkogrumpy says:

    @Doug Hill: Oooh! Icky, a republican!

  23. 23
    Ruckus says:

    Sounds like he was a giant among us.
    “the point of doing religion was not to buy a ticket on God’s train, but to act well enough in this world so that were such a train to come, you’d be able to get on board.”
    That’s been my understanding of religion for over 50 yrs. I just never heard a religious professional profess this before. I hope he found what he expected.

  24. 24
    janeform says:

    Reverend Gomes presided over the memorial service at my 25th reunion, just a couple of years ago. He was wise about mortality, and used his great gifts as an orator to transform what could be thought of as an obvious point into something deeply affecting, something that went straight to the heart. He said (those of you who have heard him speak may imagine what this sounded like): Your classmates who have died have preceded you to the grave, you will follow them there. I had just found out the day before the service that a friend of mine had died, and I understood at that moment that I was no different from my friend, that the time between being alive and being dead was short, my time just a little longer than his. Reverend Gomes also spoke about his own mortality, reminding us that those of us who remained would not see him at our 50th reunion. He laid out the arc of life so well that you could feel it in your bones. That I remember so well what he said, and how he said it, is a mark of the profound emotional effect he had.

    What a fine man. Rest in peace.

  25. 25
    Svensker says:

    Thank you for writing that. Very powerful. The world is such a shitty place sometimes that one forgets about the good stuff. Amen.

  26. 26
    Delia says:

    I only knew him through one of his works,The Good Book, but I was impressed.

    Thanks for that lovely tribute.

  27. 27
    Ash Can says:

    A magnificent tribute. Beautifully done. It’s evident that Dr. Gomes was an exemplary person and Christian. Thank you for sharing your memories of him with us.

  28. 28
    hamletta says:

    A beautiful tribute for a beautiful man.

    @geg6: They’re not so rare as you think. You just don’t hear about ’em much, because they’re too busy doing the Lord’s work to mug for the cameras.

  29. 29
    Carla Mortensen says:

    I sang in the Memorial Church choir during my years at Harvard and, unlike some of my fellow singers who routinely sharpened their wits with the NYT crossword every Sunday morning, I always listened to Peter’s sermons. His blending of contemporary issues with Biblical scripture, his insightful and supportive comments about those of us laboring in the academic endeavor, his challenges to us about how to move with integrity and authenticity in the modern world were masterful gems of oratory.

    But perhaps my favorite Peter moment was when I once sought his counsel about a delicate situation containing a strong personality. He leaned back in his chair and entoned thoughtfully, “My deah, one must know when one can trust a person, and when one must simply enjoy them.” Peter, I trusted you and enjoyed you and am far the better for it as a result.

  30. 30
    JD_PhD says:

    Thanks, Tom.

  31. 31
    Tom Levenson says:

    Thanks to all who offered kind thoughts.

  32. 32
    serena1313 says:

    Although I knew nothing about Reverend Gomes or his works, after reading, or even while reading, your beautifully written heartfelt tribute I felt as if I had known him to some extent.

    The man was not only thoughtful, but thought provoking. His physical presence will be missed, but his words will continue to live on. While I do not agree with everything he said, I do agree with his message.

    Tom, thank you for sharing.

  33. 33
    ET says:

    After I read the Good Book I thought – this is a man I wanted to meet.

  34. 34
    protean girlfriend says:

    Gomes came out with Barbara Johnson at Harvard at a time when queer people were becoming more visible and therefore more of a target of right wing nuttery. This was maybe early ’90s. There was a student publication that discussed the (im)morality of homosexuality, among other such things in the Boston area, and so Peter Gomes and Barbara Johnson decided to become visible on campus as homos to rebut this.

    I am forever grateful for them both for this.

    RIP.

  35. 35
    Chrisd says:

    His commencement advice to our class, many years ago: “Think small.” Better advice I have never been given.

    RIP

  36. 36
    DlewOnRoids says:

    The more I read from Gomes and The Jesus Seminar, which works on parsing what Jesus said from what people wrote that Jesus said, the more I like this Jesus fellow. I don’t think there’s a higher power or another plane beyond tangible reality, but as far as how people should behave, he’s pretty much dead on, especially if you adjust for the norms of his age.

    Too bad he’d never get a hearing today. He’d be dismissed as a DFH who’s outside the mainstream and not savvy enough.

  37. 37
    tom says:

    Dr. Gomes preached at my church on a couple of occasions. It is the custom at my church for the preacher to give the same sermon at both morning services, but Dr. Gomes preached two completely different, well-prepared, eloquent, cogent sermons at the two services. He was clearly a man who loved his Saviour and who understood how much his Saviour loved him and the rest of humanity. He will be missed.

  38. 38
    Tom Levenson says:

    @Carla Mortensen: I hear Peter’s voice in your quote. Perfect.

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