I got an email this morning telling me that the most purely wonderful voice in Cambridge is now silent.
Peter Gomes died yesterday, of complications from a stroke.
He was sixty eight — younger than I would have guessed, for he seemed somehow outside of time — and much too young to be gone.
As I think I’ve said before, I’m a committedly Jewish atheist, and so the loss a Baptist minister — Peter’s full title at Harvard University was Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in Memorial Church — whose services I never attended might seem of little moment personally.
Acquaintances die; famous people die, and we note each loss as a marker of time passing; the sadness we might feel could simply be the chill on the back of our necks felt as the loss of those not-quite-known anticipates that moment when we must answer the call.
But with Peter, it’s not that.
I did not know him well, but like a lot of people, I think, I found it very well indeed to know him. In the decades since we first met I learned not just to enjoy his company — that was easy, for he was an absolute beast (in the best possible sense) of sociablility, a grand companion and an extraordinary artist of conversation — but to admire who he was and what he did in the world.
I (again, like many others) owe Peter a personal debt of gratitude. We met first in my junior year of college when he led the wedding of a couple of friends. We happened to sit at the same table for the wedding lunch, and we talked, and he asked me what I hoped to do after graduating. I wanted to travel, I told him, and in particular I wanted to go to places where I would be absolutely unmistakeably an Other, an outsider and a not-much valued one, because I wanted to learn how to step outside at least a little the envelope of American white, male, fancily-educated status. I planned to go to Japan, I told him, then Number 1, according to my department head, where there would be no doubt that I would be a possibly slightly pitied someone else.
Peter listened — I can’t imagine with what internal sense of irony as an gay African-American Baptist who had somehow managed to overcome the booby traps and ambushes that Harvard University can deploy. He gave me some advice…and then, when he turned up, months later and unexpectedly on a committee awarding travel grants to (as I remember it now) unbelievably callow seniors, he elicited my story again, then impressed upon his fellow committee members what he saw as the merit of my application. I got the fellowship; went to Asia; started first writing, then science writing; and thus found a life-long (so far) delight that others call work.
I thanked him many times after that. But on a day like this, it seems I never quite said it well enough. It’s the nature of these things, I suppose.
In the three decades since, I would see Peter here and there. I moved back to the Boston area a few years after my travels, and once there, found myself at lunch with him fairly often. That’s where I learned to call him Peter, rather than Rev. Gomes, sitting at a table with a half dozen or so folks, where, over a two hour meal and conversation, the Rev. Gomes would draw out and offer given — he might have said Christian — names.
The talk would move around the table, though often I’d simply surrender to that wonderful sound, and listen to Peter declaim. He loved to talk, and he had a lot to talk about, and he had that voice.
Have I mentioned his voice?
His was a bass instrument, resonant. It had all the power you would want in the bottom range — but also strong overtones a good way up, a voice that could both ground you and cut through the clutter and distraction of the inside of one’s head. He was a famous pulpit preacher, but at table he could pitch his volume low, and sound almost miraculously as if he were both declaiming and confiding. He spoke in round sentences, with pleasure in the music of words. He was, simply, a grand talker.
All this of course, dodges around the blunt, beautiful fact that Peter Gomes was a public man and a good one.
It’s true that part of why this Jewish atheist so misses him — already — is that I loved that his very person gave the lie to the worst mock-religionists and bigots of our public life:
There he was, an African American spiritual leader of one of the most elite, mostly white congregations in America. He was gay. He believed utterly in his God and in his saviour — and he was wise enough to read in scripture the meanings that celebrated rather than condemned his person and his life. He accepted the wages of rage and invective that his words and his existence sometimes evoked. He found the best revenge: a life both well lived and deeply enjoyed.
Again: his faith I never shared. I argued with him when I thought he was poaching — he spoke at an Aspen conference where I’d been asked to talk a bit on Einstein, and I told him then that I did not buy his particular path through the science-faith minefield.
He parried with enormous gusto, and a bit of that gift of ironic amusement I’d felt before, because, I think, to him the urgent task was to find ways to be of use and value to others and one’s self. Which is to say that, at least as we talked, we converged on the view that the point of doing religion was not to buy a ticket on God’s train, but to act well enough in this world so that were such a train to come, you’d be able to get on board. I believe he simply saw the science-religion wars as rather missing that point, which is a view I agree with in the abstract, though I regret that the faux religiousity of the anti-science crowd among us now makes it almost impossible to escape that particular battle.
Peter had flaws; he was, as the rest of us are, hardly a perfect human.
But the measure of the man is that he used his public position to preach with firmness in the right as his God gave him to see the right. He self-described as conservative, but undertook radical action and argument as required — famously coming out publicly in 1991 when incidents of gay bashing at Harvard evoked his sense of duty:
“I don’t like being the main exhibit, but this was an unusual set of circumstances, in that I felt I had a particular resource that nobody else there possessed.”
He was radical too, in his claim that a commitment to Jesus demanded something more than mere fandom. In an interview on NPR on 2007, he said:
The scandal is the fact that we seem to pay so little attention to the content of Jesus’ teaching and a great deal of attention to Jesus.
So I am proposing here that we might, in fact, look at what Jesus says, rather than who it is that says it, and that might be exciting, and we might find something, by our modern standards, which is rather scandalous.
…I mean, if you look at Jesus in the New Testament, you will discover that he spends almost a disproportionate amount of time with the people who were on the fringes of his society.
And so, if he came back today, we might wonder, who are the people on the fringes of our society with whom he would be spending time? And my guess is he wouldn’t be spending time with most of us who are at church all of the time. I don’t think he’d be spending time with most of the theologians or the radio or TV evangelists.
I think he’d be spending time with those people whom we tend to marginalize. He’d still be spending time with the prostitutes. I think he’d be spending time with minorities of every kind — racial and sexual and others — and I think we might be surprised to discover that nothing on that point has changed, as far as Jesus is concerned.
…Do we practice these things [love thy neighbor, etc.] among people who are very much like ourselves, which tends to be what the church does? Or are we meant to practice them among everybody? And that means people who don’t vote as we do, or who don’t look as we do, or who don’t live where we do, who don’t share all of our values.
It’s Jesus who redefines who the “other” is. There is no other, as far as Jesus is concerned.
I don’t speak Jesus-speak; I don’t go to church; I’m rarely in synagogue these days. But I get the meaning of what Peter said here in his terms. It translates just fine into mine.
I hadn’t seen Peter for at least a couple of years when I got the news this morning. The last time I ran into him in Harvard Square he told me to rejoin the lunch group I’d left years ago; there was always more to talk about. I planned to, and I told him I would, but being a father, trying to grab time with my wife, writing, students, moving house, cats to the vet…you know the tune. It didn’t matter. The Rev. Gomes was made of granite, and the mighty river of his voice ran through it. He would be there when I had time.
And now he is not; Peter Gomes is dead, much too soon.
Image: Claude Monet, The Lunch, c. 1874