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Groundbreaking Harvard minister Peter Gomes dies

The Rev. Peter J. Gomes, at the pulpit of Memorial Church at Harvard University, won a reputation as the institution’s conscience and soul. The Rev. Peter J. Gomes, at the pulpit of Memorial Church at Harvard University, won a reputation as the institution’s conscience and soul. (Evan Richman/ Globe Staff/ File 2000)
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / March 2, 2011

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The Rev. Peter J. Gomes, who was known internationally as Harvard’s pastor and was just as pleased to be seen as a son of Plymouth, died Monday in Massachusetts General Hospital of complications of a stroke suffered in December.

At 68, he had been dividing his time between a 1799 house in his hometown and Sparks House, the 19th-century residence reserved for the leader of Memorial Church in Harvard Yard.

Rev. Gomes cut an imposing figure at Harvard and was as memorable for his groundbreaking roles as he was for his aristocratic presence and a preaching style that set him apart.

He was the first black minister of Memorial Church and the only gay, black, Republican, Baptist preacher most people would ever meet. Descended from slaves, he nonetheless delighted in serving as trustee emeritus of the Pilgrim Society and celebrating his hometown’s Mayflower history, a distinctly white Anglo-Saxon Protestant tradition.

“The oddest thing about being an oddity,’’ he told The New Yorker magazine for a November 1996 profile, “is that there are very few oddities like you.’’

Drew Faust, Harvard’s president, called Rev. Gomes “one of the great preachers of our generation and a living symbol of courage and conviction.’’

“To generations of Harvard students, he was a wise counselor and an admired teacher who presided at every commencement,’’ she said in a message to the Harvard community. To many of his faculty colleagues, he was a cherished conversationalist and a steadfast advocate of Harvard’s best traditions. But to me, and I suspect to many others, Professor Gomes was first and foremost a trusted adviser and a true friend.’’

“No one epitomizes all that is good about Harvard more than Peter J. Gomes,’’ Henry Louis Gates Jr., who directs Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, said in a statement issued by the university.

In a blog entry posted yesterday for The New Yorker magazine, Gates noted that his friend “was a large, warm, and mischievous soul, who contained a multitude of identities, each worn with a certain roguish sense of irony.’’

A Republican at predominantly liberal Harvard, Rev. Gomes prayed with presidents at Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration and four years later at the swearing-in of George H.W. Bush. Then he changed his registration to Democrat to vote for Deval Patrick during the 2006 gubernatorial primary.

Patrick called Rev. Gomes “a unique individual and beloved friend.’’

“He taught so many that faith is not just what you say you believe, but how you live,’’ the governor said in a statement.

Though Rev. Gomes never shied from controversial topics in sermons in his 42 years of ministry, he conceded he was somewhat reluctant to step into the sexual orientation fray when he publicly announced he was gay, in November 1991, after a conservative student magazine at Harvard published an issue condemning homosexuality.

“I do not know when the quality of life has been more violated,’’ he told a crowd of about 100 as he stood on the steps of Memorial Church, setting off sustained applause when he added, “I am a Christian who happens as well to be gay. . . . Those realities, which are unreconcilable to some, are reconciled in me by a loving God.’’

Mixing scholarly erudition and plainspoken anecdote, Rev. Gomes wrote two best-selling books, “The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart,’’ which was published in 1996, and “The Good Life: Truths That Last in Times of Need,’’ which came out in 2002.

He was just as adept at witty repartee that was swift and sharp during a September 2008 appearance on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.’’

Growing up in Plymouth, Rev. Gomes was routinely elected president of classes in which he was the only black student and was president of his 1961 graduating class at Plymouth High School.

He practiced preaching in the basement of his home after Sunday services, delivered his first sermon at 12, and was an Anglophile in training who later credited his mother with giving him the courage to be his own person.

“She always told me that I must invent my own reality,’’ he told the Globe in June 1996. “Reality will not conform to you. You must invent your own and then conform to it. So I did. I am an authentic and an original. . . . I will not allow myself to be known simply as an African American, no more than I would allow myself to be known as gay or conservative. They are all bits and pieces of a work in progress. I am a child of God.’’

With elegant diction neither Bostonian nor British, Rev. Gomes was just as unusual in the pulpit, telling The New Yorker that “Martin Luther King, Al Sharpton, and Jesse Jackson all sound the same to most white Americans, which is a dilemma for me, because I don’t sound like any of them.’’

Of his preaching style, he told the magazine: “I like playing with words and structure. Marching up to an idea, saluting, backing off, making a feint, and then turning around. I use the Harvard version of call and response, which is just as effective as all the hooting and hollering of a Baptist church.’’

Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet and Nobel Laureate, told The New Yorker that Rev. Gomes’s “style is full of cadence, roguery, and scampishness, which is redemptive. With Gomes there is always an element of masquerade as he tempts his audience into complicity.’’

The man who during four decades at Memorial Church would become known as the conscience and soul of Harvard was the grandson of a Baptist preacher and was baptized a Catholic.

His father was a cranberry farmer who emigrated from the Cape Verde Islands. His mother was raised in Boston’s black upper-middle-class, graduated from New England Conservatory, and played organ and directed the choir at the predominantly white Baptist church Rev. Gomes attended as a child. Her family was also his link to the years before the Civil War and emancipation.

“I have always considered myself an heir of slavery, for I am only two generations removed from it,’’ Rev. Gomes wrote in “The Good Life.’’

An only child, he learned the valuable spiritual lessons taught by failure. Held back his first time through second grade, he was taunted as “Peter the Repeater,’’ he wrote in “The Good Life.’’ The experience turned him into an overachiever.

“Religion is nearly always the experience of the twice-born, the second birth, the new creation, the reprieve, and the renewal,’’ he wrote.

Rev. Gomes graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1965 from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, and aspired to become a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts when a religion professor persuaded him to give Harvard Divinity School a try. To his father’s chagrin, it was a good fit.

“When I told my father I wanted to go into the ministry, he said, ‘I had hoped my son would do honest work,’ ’’ Rev. Gomes told the Globe in 1991. “He expected me to go into the bogs like he did. I have spent the rest of my life trying to persuade father I was doing honest work.’’

After graduating from Harvard Divinity School in 1968 with a bachelor’s degree in sacred theology, he taught for two years at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama before returning to Harvard in 1970 as assistant minister of Memorial Church. The sojourn in the South was eye-opening.

“I saw more black people in my first half hour at Tuskegee than I had ever seen in my entire life,’’ he told The New Yorker.

Within four years of returning to Cambridge he was leading the church, where he became the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister at Memorial Church.

“I always liked to call Peter the bishop of Harvard,’’ Bishop M. Thomas Shaw of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts said in a statement. “I’m so grateful for his ministry, particularly to the Episcopal Church, and the way he encouraged so many in their vocations. He was a singular man, and I’ll miss the example of his deep commitment to the Gospel, his keen mind, and his outrageous sense of humor.’’

The affection Rev. Gomes harbored for Harvard was evident in a course he taught on the history of the university and its presidents.

“He was someone who was at home in the Harvard archives, on speaking terms with generations of the dead,’’ said his longtime friend Diana Eck, professor of comparative religion and Indian studies at the university.

“That was also true of Plymouth. Peter was kind of the mayor of historical Plymouth, someone who could point out every landmark and tell an anecdote about every person. He cared about history in a way that was quite intimate.’’

Therese Murray, president of the Massachusetts Senate and a longtime Plymouth resident, said that Rev. Gomes “wasn’t just a voice against intolerance; he was a voice for acceptance.’’

“By his very nature, his words and the way he lived his life, the reverend taught us the value of people and the importance of love, understanding that we are equal and with purpose,’’ her statement said. “We are proud to call him a son of Plymouth and of history.

“He was the spiritual pillar of our community and the Commonwealth, a great teacher, author, and orator who changed so many lives for the better.’’

A memorial service will be announced for Rev. Gomes, whose life will be honored at Memorial Church in Harvard Yard tomorrow beginning at 9 a.m. and concluding with a service of Compline at 10 p.m.

Rev. Gomes, who planned to retire in 2012 when he turned 70, experienced heart problems in 2009, and doctors installed a pacemaker.

About a year ago, he told The Crimson, Harvard’s student newspaper, that he was putting off writing a memoir until retirement.

“If you’re too candid while you’re still in service — well, you can get in a lot of trouble,’’ he said.

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard@globe.com.