This past week, Rev. Peter Gomes passed away after complications from a stroke. He was Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister at the Memorial Church (also known as ‘Mem Church’ or that place that woke me up from naps freshman year with its incessant bell clanging) at Harvard University. He spoke at the inaugurations of Presidents Reagan and Bush. He was, indeed, one of the nation’s most prominent spiritual voices. Yes, he was a minister, professor, theologian, advocate for gay rights, and a truly amazing presence on campus, but he was also the voice that welcomed freshmen, guided them, and sent them on their way at emotional Baccalaureate services. Against the backdrop of a New England liberal arts college, he was not just an accepted spiritual guide, but an admired and sought-out one.
Personally, I feel it is important to stress that Rev. Gomes devoted much of his study of the Bible to the question of gay rights and intolerance. “Religious fundamentalism is dangerous because it cannot accept ambiguity and diversity and is therefore inherently intolerant,” he declared in an Op-Ed article in The New York Times in 1992. “Such intolerance, in the name of virtue, is ruthless and uses political power to destroy what it cannot convert.” How true does this ring in world affairs, in politics, in daily squabbles?
In spite of these achievements, my warmest memories of Rev. Gomes are of him behind the pulpit at Easter Mass. Being Russian Orthodox, I technically had no business attending this service (even more so since “my” Easter usually falls on a different day), but I made a point of going to hear Rev. Gomes. I was never disappointed.
At the 2009 Bachalaureate service, over a thousand of us graduates packed ourselves into Mem Church to accept what was most likely going to be our last sermon from the Rev. There wasn’t enough room for all of us, so people sat on the floor, lined the isles, crowded together in the back and out the door. There we were, smushed side by side, left alone with each other, sweating in our polyblend black robes…our families, our professors, our mentors were all outside and this was probably the only time during Graduation weekend when we would be exclusively surrounded by our peers, those who had traveled this road with us, who had bore witness to our struggles and our successes. Whatever our different fields of study or career paths (or even employment statuses) were that June, we were – for a brief period – in a room of equals.
When I heard of Rev. Gomes’ passing this week, I found my notes from this address, and I would like to honor his memory and his impact on our lives by repeating them:
First he told us that, as we leave and enter the world outside of Harvard Yard, he placed no new demands on us, that they were the same demands we had always had. And by that he meant the pursuit of virtue, be it in academic excellence, or honest business, or kindness for our fellow man. And in his thundering voice he reminded us, “In the pursuit of virtue you are only undefeated because you have been on trial. In other words, never give up.”
Then he confided in us, “I am convinced that in your hearts and minds there is not only greatness, there is also goodness.” Recognizing that many among us were Type As who had excelled, motivated in part by our commitment to our own progress (and this is not necessarily a bad thing), it was humbling and necessary to be reminded of this.
Lastly, he made us laugh: “Upon concluding four years of study at this fine institution, most of you have surely learned that here at Haaaahvard, it’s not who you know that matters. It’s whom.”
This reminiscence is my brief tribute to Rev. Gomes. We will miss you.