The Rev. Peter Gomes died Monday. He was the pastor of Harvard University Memorial Church for 40 years, a position that made him, beyond dispute, a member of the stuffy New England establishment. He was also a mischievous contrarian who loved the jarring effect his very Black, very dignified persona had on snooty people with conventional expectations of a Baptist preacher.
In 1991, aware of attacks on gay people on the Harvard campus, he was moved to make a statement of conscience:
That succinct statement completely echoes my own experience; I am lucky enough to be simply surprised by people for whom this confluence is more conflicted.
I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Gomes only once, in a setting as incongruous as the man and so an environment that seemed made for him. An organizing job took me to the annual conference of the Gay Christian Network. This is a huge support group for mostly quite young, mostly white, mostly evangelical, LGBT people who have a hard time reconciling their version of the Christian faith with their experience of their gay identity. For a person like me, a longtime inhabitant of a secular gay culture in which both gayness and sexuality itself are taken for granted as as human realities, more good than disturbing, this was a surreal setting. I was among literally thousands of young men accustomed to living in closets who were getting to come out for a weekend and who were powerfully turned on to each other -- but who also often believed deeply they'd be sinning if they acted out their attractions. It was a very intense and slightly crazy weekend, punctuated by much loud singing of white gospel tunes and some ecstatic dance.
Into this, Dr. Gomes was invited to preach. And preach he did. He had a simple message: God called His creation "good" and God loved every person. With all the dignity and charm and authority he could muster, and that was a lot, he told these conflicted young men God loved them. It was very beautiful.
I feel very fortunate to have heard Dr. Gomes. For a truly delightful introduction to the man, take a look at this interview with 60 Minutes' Morley Safer.