Rev. Peter J. Gomes (1942 – 2011), the former Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church at Harvard, died on Feb. 28, but his soul was honored and his spirit partied with us at this yearâ€™s Boston Pride.
By a vote of over 2,000 people, Gomes was nominated as one of Boston Prideâ€™s 2011 Parade Marshals. At the 21st Annual Pride Breakfast in the Peopleâ€™s Republic of Cambridge, the Cambridge GLBT Commission and the Cambridge City Council celebrated the establishment and inaugural presentation of the Annual Bayard Rustin Civil Rights Award by awarding its first one to the late Rev. Peter J. Gomes.
Accepting the award on Gomesâ€™ behalf were the dynamic married duo of Lowell House, and the first same-sex couple ever to be masters of one of the twelve undergraduate residences at Harvard, Professor Diana Eck and Rev. Dorothy Austin. Eck is Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies at Harvard and Austin is Associate Minister in the Memorial Church at Harvard and Chaplain to the University.
“The Reverend Professor would have been deeply honored to hear his name spoken in the same sentence with Bayard Rustinâ€™s on the occasion of this award. He admired Rustin deeply. Peter would have said that he himself was a foot solider in the great arc of history,” Eck stated.
While Bayard Rustin (1912 – 1987) is most noted as the strategist and chief architect of the 1963 March on Washington that catapulted the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King onto a world stage, he also played a key role in helping King develop the strategy of nonviolence in the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955 – 1956), which successfully dismantled the long-standing Jim Crow ordinance of segregated seating on public transportation in Alabama.
And as the great humanitarian he was Rustin was not a one-issue man, because as the quintessential outsider — an African American man, a Quaker, a one-time pacifist, a political and social dissident, and a gay man, Rustin connected to the plight of all disenfranchised humans beings around the world.
Like Rustin, Rev. Peter Gomes, too, was the quintessential outsider — an African American man, Baptist preacher, gay, and a proud Republican who offered prayers at the inaugurations of Presidents George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. Gomes became a Democrat when his former student, Deval Patrick, won as Massachusettsâ€™ first black governor, and offered prayers at Devalâ€™s first inauguration in 2007.
Also like Rustin, Gomes, an accidental gay advocate who told the “New York Times” he “came to abhor the label â€™gay minister,â€™” advocated for LGBTQ rights at a time when it was both unsafe and unpopular.
In 1991 Gomes came out of the closet as a pre-emptive strike against a rabidly conservative Christian student group on campus whose magazine hurled homophobic diatribes against us lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer students and also wanted to remove Gomes from his position as the University minister.
“I now have an unambiguous vocation — a mission — to address the religious causes and roots of homophobia,” he told the Washington Postmonths later. “I will devote the rest of my life to addressing the â€™religious caseâ€™ against gays.”
As a native son of Plymouth, Gomesâ€™ primary interests were in early American religions, church music, Britain, and Elizabethan Puritanism. Descended from slaves, he nonetheless delighted in serving as trustee emeritus of the Pilgrim Society and celebrating his hometownâ€™s Mayflower history, a distinctly white Anglo-Saxon Protestant tradition.
One of the many things that will never be forgotten about Gomes is his melodious baritone voice and inimitable preaching style.
As one of his former head teaching fellow, I miss the sound of Peterâ€™s voice; the things he said with that voice; and the choir that resounded within him with that voice. Described in “Harvard commencement and matriculation speeches and public addresses during the 1980s – 2010” as “combining British RP (Received Pronunciation), family intonations, the tradition of Southern Baptist preaching, the educated diction of Harvard, his wit, and his mastery of alliteration and parallelism,” Peterâ€™s oratory was unmatchable .
Austin jovially gave us a mimic sampling of Peterâ€™s voice and the words he would convey if he were among us.”Dear people, you are good and you are so very good for your courage.”
Gomes knew how to be a friend. And he befriended you well. He was best man at Eck and Austinâ€™s nuptials, and his friendships stretch across the globe.
In an email sent to Eck on March 1, the day after Gomes died, from renowned British author Karen Armstrong of “A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam,” she wrote, “A magnificent, archetypal life. Peter encapsulated so many of the conflicts that trouble our time and yet he preserved a sense of lifeâ€™s pathos and its fun. I love him and cannot believe he has gone. It was my privilege to know him and feel that he was my friend.”
This Boston Pride we came out to honor Gomesâ€™ friendship and spirit with which he showered us all.