'We Need People Like Him Every Day'

By Jess Bidgood

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Mar. 1, 2011

BOSTON — The Harvard community — and people the world over — is mourning the death of Reverend Peter Gomes, the man who ran the university's Memorial Church for over forty years.

Gomes died Monday night because of complications from a stroke he had in December. He was 68.

The Reverend Peter Gomes died Monday at the age of 68, after a more-than 40-year ministry at Harvard University. 

Gomes' longtime friend, writer and columnist Mike Barnicle, met Gomes because the two would regularly spend early mornings at the same restaurant. "He was an education to sit with, next to, to listen to, a sheer education. Not just in terms of his moral values but his view on the world,” Barnicle told WGBH's Emily Rooney on Tuesday.

A black, openly gay minister, Gomes was a decided rarity. He came out about his sexuality in 1991. 

He was also politically conservative for most of his career, although he changed his political affiliation to Democrat to vote for Gov. Deval Patrick in 2006.

Barnicle said Gomes learned from his own experience being different, and set out to help others with theirs. 

"He was was an expert at honing in on the demonization of people," Barnicle said. "He could see people and institutions being demonized well before it would become apparent tthat they were being demonized."

That, Barnicle said, gave Gomes a sense of fairness that underguarded his political and religious beliefs.

“It’s not fair to go after people because of who they are, or because of their sexual orientation, or because of their color, or because of their income, or because of their zip code. That’s who he was, he was an expert in what’s fair,” Barnicle said.

Gomes was known for his soaring, intricate speaking style. "I like playing with words and structure," he said once, "Marching up to an idea, saluting, backing off, making a feint and then turning around."

"His sermons were actually high theater in my mind," Barnicle remembered.

Gomes did not leave behind a memoir; He said he'd start work on it when he retired, at 70. It's a shame, Barnicle said. "We need more of him than just a memoir, we need people like him every day."

Gomes reflected on his life's work — and his death — on Charlie Rose's talk show in 2007. 

I even have the tombstone the verse on my stone is to be from 2 Timothy. “Study to show thyself approved unto God a workman who needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” That’s what I try to do, that’s what I want people to thnk of me after I’m gone. When I was young, we all had to memorize vast quantities of scripture and I remember that passage from Timothy I thought, 'Hey that’s not a bad life’s work.' And in a way I’ve tried to live into it. So my epitaph is not going to be new to me, it’s the path I have followed in my ministry and my life.

Your comments: Did you ever hear Gomes speak? Share your memories.

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