Peter Gomes was a gay black Baptist minister at Harvard and one of America’s most prominent spiritual voices for tolerance. He used his national celebrity as a “gay minister” to make the religious case for LGBTQ people, even though he reportedly disliked the label. He died at age 68 on Feb. 28, 2011.
A man of many contradictions, Gomes became a Democrat in 2007 after decades as a conservative Republican. He even gave the benediction at President Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration in 1985 and preached at the National Cathedral for the inauguration of Reagan’s successor, George Bush.
Gomes (May 22, 1942 – Feb. 28, 2011) was born in Boston to a black African immigrant father and a mother from Boston’s African American upper middle class. He grew up in Plymouth, Massachusetts. He studied at Bates College (where a chapel was named after him in 2012). After earning a divinity degree at Harvard University, he taught Western civilization at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama for two years before returning to work at Harvard in 1970. Four years later he became the first black person to serve as chief minister to Harvard. He held the positions of Pusey minister at Harvard’s Memorial Church and Plummer professor of Christian morals for the rest of his life.
He came out publicly as “a Christian who happens as well to be gay” at a student rally in 1991 after a conservative student magazine at Harvard published a condemnation of homosexuality. “I now have an unambiguous vocation — a mission — to address the religious causes and roots of homophobia,” he later told the Washington Post. “I will devote the rest of my life to addressing the ‘religious case’ against gays.”
He can be seen making the case for marriage equality in a Video: Peter Gomes discusses: Would Jesus Support Gay Marriage?.
In his 1996 best-seller, “The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart,” he showed how the Bible was misused to defend homophobia, racism, anti-Semitism and sexism.
His 2007 book “The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good About the Good News?” went on to show that Jesus was a subversive whose radical gospel always overturns the status quo.
Artistic tributes to Peter Gomes
Among Gomes’s many admirers is artist Jon Dorn, who drew the portrait at the top of this post. Dorn is a cartoonist, filmmaker, and Master of Fine Arts student at Emerson College in Boston. He also serves on the Plymouth Cultural Council.
A musical tribute to Gomes is “I Beseech You Therefore, Brethren” by composer Craig Phillips, music director at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills. It was originally commissioned by members of Harvard’s Class of 1978 to celebrate Gomes’ retirement, but he died before its premiere so it was sung at his memorial. The anthem has become a memorial to Gomes’ legacy. It is included on the 2014 album “Spring Bursts Today: A Celebration of Eastertide” by Harvard University Choir. Gomes himself selected the text, which was one of his favorite scriptures:
“I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” (Romans 12:1–2)
Quotes by Peter Gomes
Gomes’ blend of scholarship, wisdom and accessibility is expressed in a few selected quotations:
“Hell is being defined by your circumstances, and believing that definition.” — Peter Gomes
“The question should not be ‘What would Jesus do?’ but rather, more dangerously, ‘What would Jesus have me do?’” — Peter Gomes in The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good About the Good News?
“To some, the temporal triumph of the Christian community in the world is a sign of God’s favor and the essential righteousness of the Christian position. The irony of the matter, though, is that whenever the Christian community gains worldly power, it nearly always loses its capacity to be the critic of the power and influence it so readily brokers.” –Peter J. Gomes in The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good About the Good News?
“The battle for the Bible, of which homosexuality is the last front, is really the battle for the prevailing culture, of which the Bible itself is a mere trophy and icon. Such a cadre of cultural conservatives would rather defend their ideology in the name of the authority of scripture than concede that their self-serving reading of that scripture might just be wrong, and that both the Bible and the God who inspires it may be more gracious, just and inclusive than they can presently afford to be.” — Peter Gomes in The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart
Books by Peter Gomes
Links about Peter Gomes
Top image credit:
“The Rev. Peter Gomes, of Plymouth, 1942 – 2011” by Jon Dorn
This post is part of the LGBTQ Saints series by Kittredge Cherry. Traditional and alternative saints, people in the Bible, LGBTQ martyrs, authors, theologians, religious leaders, artists, deities and other figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people and our allies are covered.
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