A pastor, a gardener, a Republican, a Democrat, a gay man, child of God: These are terms used to describe one man, the Rev. Peter J. Gomes, longtime pastor of Harvard's Memorial Church who died Monday evening of complications from a stroke. He was 68.
"Just as there are no two snowflakes alike, there are no two Peters," Cynthia Rossano, Gomes' friend and editor for more than 25 years, said today. "He was unique. His personality was large and his character was deep."
Gomes was perhaps best known at Harvard for his role as a professor at the Harvard School of Divinity and where he served as the minister at the school's Memorial Church. But his voice and reach extended far beyond the confines of the Cambridge campus. He was a best-selling author who was named one of Time magazine's most outstanding preachers in 1979 and who preached at churches around the world.
"He was like a conductor in the pulpit, he really orchestrated an audience," Rossano said. "His depth of his knowledge came through along with his humor and wit when he preached a sermon."
The Massachusetts native was almost impossible to categorize. He was baptized a Catholic but grew up in the Baptist church before graduating from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, and Harvard Divinity School. He was an African-American man raised in a Republican family who ministered at Harvard University and who came out as gay in 1991.
He was the son of a cranberry bog worker who went on to pray at the inaugurations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. And he was a devoted minister who urged Christians to look beyond a literal interpretation of the Bible to capture its spirit.
"He taught Bible interpretation and he firmly believed that both liberals and conservatives needed to step back from looking at specific Bible passages that would only reinforce their point of view," Rossano said.
"In a way, he thought of the Bible as a living thing. He always preached against intolerance wherever it came from."
Rossano said Gomes delighted in the seeming contradictions in his life as he was firmly opposed to "letting any one thing to define him. Except he did say he was first and foremost a child of God."
Gomes suffered a stroke Dec. 10, said Rossano, who was with him when he died Monday. "He was never afraid of death because he believed firmly in the next life," she said. "And we all hope he is up there enjoying it all today."
Harvard's President Drew Gilpin Faust wrote today in an e-mail message to students and faculty at Harvard that Gomes was "one of the greatest preachers of our generation … and a living symbol of courage and conviction."
Gomes showed some of that courage in 1991 when he came out as a "Christian who happens as well to be gay" at a protest rally at Harvard. His admission shocked the campus at the time and the larger religious community.
One of Gomes' final sermons took place at Harvard's Memorial Church Nov. 14, 2010. Gomes dedicated his service to the memory of the war dead.
From the pulpit, he talked about the Memorial Church bell nestled in the steeple of the church. The bell is inscribed with a single line that reads "in memory of voices that are hushed."
Now that Gomes' booming voice has been hushed, Rossano recalled that inscription, saying, "That is a beautiful epitaph and a fitting one for Peter."