This article was also published in the Old Colonial Memorial of Plymouth, Massachusetts.
I first met Peter Gomes when I was a pilgrim. As a teenager, I worked at Plimoth Plantation, a recreation of the 1627 village of the Mayflower passengers. I was a teenage high school drop out expected to recall vast amounts of historical and cultural details, convincingly interpret them in a daily eight-hour improvisation, and do it all in a precise seventeenth-century Norfolkshire dialect while wearing a burlap suit in the New England summer humidity. In all the memorization of Spanish-Dutch wars and historic methods of constructing thatched roofing, I found my niche in the Reformed faith of these settlers. I immersed myself in the writings of John Robinson, the Pilgrims’ pastor-in-exile during the Separatists’ stint in Leyden, Holland. Armed with the sixteenth-century, pre-King James, Geneva Bible, I was sitting in the meetinghouse at Plimoth Plantation one day when Peter Gomes walked in.
Shorter than even my teenage frame, he was an intimidating figure. In his hometown of Plymouth, especially among those of us in the field of history, he was a celebrity. Even at seventeen, I had learned a fundamental principle of academia: to be one of the most knowledgeable people in the world on a given topic is indeed achievable, if you choose an obscure, specific topic. And so when it came to exegeting Bible passages in the Geneva translation as illuminated by the commentaries of the Rev. John Robinson, I was already a leading scholar. I was not intimidated in my interpretations by museum guests in clergy collars or with history degrees, or really even by my own supervisors at the museum whose own ridiculously specific historical inquiries into colonial musketry or bread recipes were so distinct from my own. But in this portly, bespectacled, exceedingly overdressed tourist, was the one man with whom I had no margin of historical or theological error.
He never once was interested in being the expert that day. He listened to my railings against the gross darkness of popery—Gov. William Bradford’s words, not my own—with patience. He asked me how I knew that I would be saved, perhaps seeing if I would let any hint of my Evangelically-raised self peek through the Calvinist costume. I think he approved of my answer, “I can only hope.”
“Indeed,” he said, in his trademark slow baritone. “One can only hope.”
It was years later before I managed to transform myself from the high-school-drop-out historical reenactor to the Harvard undergraduate, starting college as 23-year-old. One morning after the Memorial Church’s morning prayers, he introduced himself to me and asked, “Where have I seen you before?” I told him that he had not ever seen me on campus before, but in Plymouth, we had once bantered over a Geneva Bible. “Of course,” he said. “I remember.” I am nearly certain it was a lie, but if so, what a white and pastoral lie it was.
While an undergraduate religion concentrator, I had the opportunity twice to preach at Harvard morning prayers. If only every young man and woman discerning vocations to Christian ministry could preach once or twice in the pulpit of Peter Gomes. But Peter’s powerful presence was not wholly mysterious. He earned it. It is most famously seen in his preaching. His delivery was deep and slow. I was convinced that Peter could make a two-page manuscript into a forty-five minute sermon. The Kennedyesque Boston Brahmin accent, punctuated by tangents of equal humor and commentary. Brothahs… and… let us not be sexist, at so venerable and progressive an institution… sistahs… Sometimes he would look to heavens in his soaring prose, but I was always preferred when he would look you in the eye over his rounded glasses.
Famous as he was as a preacher, on campus he relished the title of professor as passionately. In lectures, he paced slowly back and forth in the front of the room. Tweed coat, bowtie, round glasses, and that accent, he was the epitome of “Harvard professor.” In fact, in all my classes at Harvard, he was the only professor who looked or sounded like that kind of “Harvard professor.”
He was also a gracious pastor. Although he was often absent to live his second life as a world-renowned preacher and theologian, he found his way back to Cambridge to open his home every Wednesday afternoon to students for afternoon tea. It was at once the most pompous and traditionalist sort of Harvard social activity one can imagine, but the most intimate and casual occasions I participated in as a student. Being a bit older than most of my fellow undergraduates, I had toddler twins who would accompany me to tea each week. His official residence on campus was the least childproofed place on this earth. His home was lined with extraordinarily fragile, sharp, and expensive antiques all perfectly placed at toddler level. Yet, his welcome to us always generous. He refused to talk to them like toddlers, but always addressed them as “the little ladies,” and directly asked them if they would like something to eat. “I have strawberries, and pound cake,” he would begin his list, smiling as my daughters grew excited. Seeing how this world renowned author treated my daughters, I realized that Wednesday afternoon tea, as posh and Harvardian as an event it was, was not about ostentation. It was pure hospitality.
My own life changed because of Peter Gomes’s hospitality. He organized a vocations dinner, and invited students who were seeking, questioning, or dodging God’s call to Christian ministry to dine in his home with a dozen of his closest clergy friends. I vividly recall exactly when during that dinner I realized that there is no job on earth I could do better or that I would love more than being a Christian pastor. I wonder how many churches today have formerly self-doubting Harvard alumni in their pulpits because of the ministry of Peter Gomes to the least of those in academia, the confused undergraduates.
Peter was a living contradiction. Much has been said of Peter Gomes the gay, black, Republican Baptist, with a high-church penchant for vestments and liturgy. How did he reconcile all those conflicting identities? It teaches me much that he did not. The societal expectations that one’s race must equate to a certain party affiliation or that one’s sexuality to a certain religion are nonsense. Much is made of his accent. To those who have never lived in Plymouth, Massachusetts, hometown of Peter Gomes, all I can say is, no, that was not a Plymouth accent. But to deride it as an affectation or fraud is wrong as well. Peter believed in self-defining. The son of an immigrant cranberry bog worker was as entitled to speak like John F. Kennedy and drink fine tea at Harvard as anyone else. Perhaps another accent may have been more authentically “Plymouth,” but no other dialect or cadence would have been authentically Peter. A refusal to be defined by circumstance, Peter Gomes teaches, is not dishonest. It is the most profoundly honest way to live. And as posh and refined he was, he was not greedy or selfish about it, but threw open the doors of church and home alike to any who wished to join him.
As news of Peter’s death has spread, I can hardly believe I am reading about him in the New York Times and in the Boston Globe. That friends far removed from Plymouth and Harvard have shared their sadness is further tribute. It is not that I ever doubted his impact through his public persona and books, but to those of who had the honor of knowing Peter in Plymouth, he was a neighbor and to those of us at Harvard, he was a pastor and professor. That I got to know him in both place settings is an honor I will forever cherish.
One afternoon as my daughters and I were leaving Wednesday Tea, he said to me. “One day you will tell these little girls that they used to have tea at my house, will you not?” Yes, Rev. Gomes, I will tell my daughters that when they were just two, they played every Wednesday afternoon in the living room of the Rev. Professor Peter Gomes, Pusey Minister of the Memorial Church, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals, historian, neighbor, and pastor.