Peter Gomes, World’s Best Christian, RIP

Man I will miss this dude.

I was at Harvard Extension School between 91′ and 94′, and graduated at age 28.  I was on the three-college-eight-year-plan. Being a bit older and on a foriegn coast,  I was a bit isolated. Without the normal trappings of undergrad life -dorm, frat, etc.- it was a lone wolf deal.

Planted in the middle of Harvard Yard is Memorial Church, and walking by it ten times daily I started to notice the posted sermon topics for the upcoming sunday, along with the name, “Peter J. Gomes”. Since I was raised as a Christmas Tree Jew, I was always curious about the other half and attended church one Sunday.

Waiting through the dry hymns and liturgy, finally this small but august man rose to the stained wood pulpit and preached. His spectacles balanced way down his nose, his cadence a rolling train somewhere between Tuskeegee and New Cannan, he talked about Jesus like a guy he knew well, admired, but didn’t -and shouldn’t- totally get.  His eyebrows arched way up, cracking a smile often, actually looking at the people he was talking to.

Where Gomes made the greatest mark on me was not at these somewhat grand and long sunday services, but in the back of this great church, in the little chapel that seated about 5o people on three sides with a space for a choir on the fourth. In this chapel were the weekday morning services for the busy student. They were condensed affairs running only from 8:40 to 9:00 am.

I’d have my coffee and corn muffin from Au Bon Pain, then enter a little back door, get a program for the morning, and sit. That little service was like a machiato shot of good vibes. In that svelt span of time, he would do a reading, there would be a song by  a small version of the big choir, and each day either Gomes or a visiting professor, sometimes a student, would do a 5 minute sermon. I remember one guy, a preacher from out of town saying, “my Daddy told me if you got an hour sermon, you need a day to prepare, if you’ve got a five minute talk, you need a week.” I learned something there about brevity, I hope.

all the way to the right side...

But it was being in that small space with Peter Gomes that was the highlight. It was his humor and sarcasm that I wish I could capture here. The way he’d look at a capacity crowd for Easter Sunday, arch an eyebrow and say “well, I see so many new faces today”,  as if to say, you know we do this every sunday right?

I was fascinated by his mixture of faith, skepticism, humor, wisdom. He was both funny and very intellectual. And when he came out as gay to a group of students protesting some homophobic taunts on campus, he added bravery into the mix.

This small clip will at least fill in some blanks from my poor descriptions, but since i’m at word 500, i’ll stop and let his own voice fill my five minutes.   -jw