Skip to main content

Eulogy at Rev. Peter Gomes’ Memorial Service

Cambridge, Mass.

As prepared for delivery

It is heartening to look out and see so many people here, remembering a man who meant so much to us all.

Peter was an original in so many ways. Over the past weeks, we have remarked on his complexities. An African-American from Plymouth. A Baptist at Memorial Church. A Republican in Cambridge. Out of the closet and out of the box. I always sensed that he prized these antinomies, cultivated them. There seemed to be a bit of wry delight when, to someone perplexed by his character, Peter would simply say that he was who he was, and it always made sense to him. There was music in Peter, a symphony of points and counterpoints. He rewarded close listening from a careful ear.

We also remember Peter’s appreciation for tradition and his deep historical sense. Peter and I shared a love for the past.

Peter taught a course on “The History of Harvard and its Presidents.” He was also one of the first to congratulate me on becoming the President of Harvard. He came to my office, then still at Radcliffe, dressed in full regalia. It was for him a most serious occasion. “Madam,” he said in that voice of his, “madam, I come to pledge my fealty.”

It is fitting that a man who relished tradition would become one himself. It is difficult for me to imagine Memorial Church, or spiritual life on campus, or indeed Harvard as an institution, without his presence. Peter seemed made for his role. But as he knew, even the most venerable traditions are alive, shifting, ready to surprise us with something new.

The night Peter left us, I shared the sad news with Derek Bok. Derek recalled the turmoil of Harvard in the early 1970s, which Peter lived through as an assistant minister.

In those days, the future of the Memorial Church was uncertain. Derek remembered just how radical a choice to lead the Memorial Church Peter seemed at the time. In the secular reaction to the faith of the 1950s, few could imagine a minister at Harvard who quoted the scriptures by memory — or who would dare assert the universal significance of their message.

Peter dared. He at once broke from tradition, and confirmed its power.

Over the past forty years, under Peter’s guidance, spirituality has flourished at Harvard. The number of different religious traditions represented in our community has grown rapidly, as has curiosity about faith — whether by seekers or those interested in religion as a cultural phenomenon. Memorial Church is more central to the Harvard community than it has been in many years. Thanks to Peter.

Who was surprised, then, when Harvey Cox asserted the Hollis Professor of Divinity’s centuries-old grazing rights in Harvard Yard, that Peter would accompany Harvey and the cow? These were moments we had come to expect and to love. A moment that vindicated ancient liberties, but offered with joy and irreverence. Reverential irreverence.

In his appreciation for historical things, Peter would have told us that the experience of loss is universal, though its performance is deeply influenced by the times. I understood this as a scholar of the Civil War, but with Peter’s loss, the lesson was more poignant. After learning of his death, I needed to hear Peter’s voice and I found him that night online — archived interviews, sermons on YouTube, and his magnificent triumph on Colbert. To hear a friend at the very moment of loss is something quite new.

I found Peter’s interview with Charlie Rose especially striking. A bit into the conversation, Peter began to speak of his memorial plans — a day filled with hymns — the music of the Bible he loved so much. It reminded me that in that moment and in the many gifts he has given this community, he will always be there for us.

On Charlie Rose, Peter also spoke of the Bible’s most demanding injunction — to love others. It is so hard to love other people, Peter said with a smile. They are so unlovely, so unlovable.

Peter loved freely, and was loved in return.

I will so miss him.

Thank you.

– Drew Gilpin Faust