To say that Peter Gomes was one of a kind hardly conveys his uniqueness. His mother came from Boston’s African-American aristocracy, a type once known to blacks, not unpejoratively, as “dicty.” That she ran off and married an immigrant from the Cape Verdean Island of Brava, a foreman in the cranberry bogs of Plymouth and a Catholic to boot, was the most daring of moves.
Peter dared to leave Massachusetts for Bates College, then a modest Baptist place, and only after graduating made his way to Harvard. He became a great student of the Puritans, and knew the little biographies of early Harvard men backwards and forwards. That he did his turn at Tuskegee testified at once to his curiosity about the African-American world and his consciousness of what was required of him. Though his accent seemed to the untutored ear Anglophiliac, it aimed to be the purest Boston Brahmin. He was a New Englander, and proud of it.
He was also a shrewd judge of character, a great gossip, and, so far as I could tell, a tough inside player. When there was pressure to expand the Harvard chaplaincy into something more ecumenical, he did what it took to maintain his position as primus. The Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in The Memorial Church would never be inter pares.
I recall a dinner at Sparks House, the turn-of-the-19th-century clapboard domicile he occupied along with his antiques and his leather-bound volumes. The guests were all young men. Only later did Peter come out to the world, and his strong moral and intellectual witness for gay equality became his redeeming feature for those who found him insufferable.
I last spoke with Peter back in 2000, when he came to Trinity to give the Baccalaureate speech and do the invocating and benedicting at Commencement. I don’t know how much of this stuff he’d done over the years en route to yet another honorary degree, but he had it down to an art form. I’ve never seen a graduation crowd more thoroughly charmed, amused, and edified.
It had been a couple of decades since I’d seen him and he did look like a send-up of himself: stout and gouty, toting a velvet bag stuffed with his Harvard robe, and not one of those latter-day polyester ones either. He’d written a letter for a candidate to be Trinity’s
new chaplain that included the commendation, “He says his
prayers.” No wonder people didn’t know what to make of him.
I saw him last two years ago on stage at the Bushnell, appearing at a Connecticut Forum evening to chat about religion with Rabbi Harold Kushner and Christopher Hitchens. I’m afraid Kushner was way out of his league as a repartee artist, but Peter more than held his own against Hitchens’ well-wrought atheist pieties.
A YouTube clip from the occasion ends with him delivering a bon mot that perfectly conveys his talent for making his own pieties go down easy. “I can’t conceive of a world without God,” said he, “and I’d like to think that God can’t conceive of a world without me.” It’s sad indeed to have to conceive what he hoped was unthinkable for God.