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Rev. Gomes, Harvard minister and author, dies at 68

In this photo taken in 2000, Reverend Peter Gomes was at the pulpit of Memorial Church at Harvard University. (Evan Richman/Globe Staff) In this photo taken in 2000, Reverend Peter Gomes was at the pulpit of Memorial Church at Harvard University.
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / March 1, 2011

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The Rev. Peter J. Gomes, who was known internationally as Harvard's pastor and was just as pleased to call himself a son of Plymouth, died yesterday in Boston.

He was 68 and had divided his time and identity between a 1799 house in his hometown and Sparks House, the 19th century residence reserved for the leader of Memorial Church in Harvard Yard.

Collecting a bevy of titles during 42 years of ministry, the Rev. Gomes cut an imposing figure at Harvard and was unusual in the world of religion, as memorable for his groundbreaking roles as he was for his aristocratic presence and a preaching style that set him apart from contemporaries.

He was the first black minister of Memorial Church and the first pastor of that church to participate in a US president's inauguration. The Rev. Gomes also was 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."

A Republican at predominantly liberal Harvard, the 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.

Though the Rev. Gomes never shied from controversial political topics in sermons, he conceded that 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 irreconcilable to some, are reconciled in me by a loving God."

Mixing scholarly erudition and plain-spoken anecdote, the 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, the Rev. Gomes routinely was 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."

The Rev. Gomes was just as unique 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 the 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 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 the 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," the Rev. Gomes wrote in "The Good Life."

His father, meanwhile, was a cranberry farmer who immigrated from the Cape Verde Islands.

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 from then on.

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

The Rev. Gomes graduated with a bachelor's degree from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, in 1965 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,' " the 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 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 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 Plummer professor of Christian morals and Pusey minister.

The 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.

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