Harvard Religion: Gone Are the Halcyon Days

As a student at the Divinity School in 1965, Peter J. Gomes's first encounter with a Memorial Church service was hardly auspicious. "I knew I had arrived at Harvard," he said. "I didn't understand a word of what was going on." Now as acting minister to the University, he is in charge of this institution whose rationale has since come under close scrutiny.

Attendance at Memorial Church has dropped from the halcyon days of the fifties, when Sunday services drew crowds of 1000, triple their present attendance. Morning prayers, a tradition as old as the University, today attract 35 to 40 hardy souls--a far cry from the days when student attendance was compulsory.

But more basic to the current dilemna of Memorial Church is the anomaly of an established Protestant church (with strong Unitarian/Congregational leanings) in a community that has become increasingly otherwise. "I don't know what they believe in," Gomes said of the typical undergraduates at Harvard, "but whatever it is they don't do it here."

When Charles P. Price resigned last November as University minister, he recommended the formation of a committee to consider the future of a University church. That committee, headed by Krister Stendahl, dean of the Faculty of Divinity, will probably not submit its report before May, and a committee to find a permanent replacement for Price probably will not begin work until July.

Gomes, who was assistant minister under Price, is a prime candidate for the permanent position. As acting head of Memorial Church in the interim, Gomes has gained a considerable following among diverse church regulars.

During his Divinity School years, Gomes first glimpsed the possibility of ministry to Harvard College--and rejected it. In 1965, one possible area for divinity student field work was freshman counselling. "But we all said, 'Go over to those man-eating atheists? Forget it,'" Gomes recalled. "It's hard to believe, but we Divinity students were really intimidated by a bunch of pubescent Harvard freshmen."

FROM THE DEPTHS of senior crisis over what to do after graduation, Gomes answered a Time Magazine ad announcing that positions were open at Tuskegee Institute. "I got a letter, practically by return mail, saying they wanted to talk about a relationship," Gomes recalled. "Not too long afterwards, he was appointed Dean of Freshman and director of Freshman Studies at Tuskegee.

For a black from Plymouth, two years at Tuskegee was an experience in consciousness-raising. "I had never been in the South--I had never been out of New England," Gomes said. "My people looked upon themselves as a black version of Yankee, with all of the vices and some of the virtues.

At Tuskegee, Gomes found "a social microcosm by and for black folks," and the contrasts with home were striking.

"Growing up in New England we believed that if only integration would come every day would be Sunday," Gomes said. Instead, school desegregation in Alabama meant cutting out state aid to private black colleges.

Financial contrasts were not the only ones. "The most satisfying experience was the students," Gomes said. "Contrast the wealthiness of Harvard and the wastage of resources and intellectual wattages here versus the people at Tuskegee, who would have been written off anywhere else. One of the few things that restored my faith in process education was their tremendous determination."

Despite the uplift, Gomes returned to Harvard in the fall of 1970 at Price's invitation. "The one thing I wanted to do and couldn't do at Tuskegee," he said, "was to preach and teach as a minister, [Price's offer] was an opportunity to be identified as a Christian minister and live out that opportunity."

But since Price's resignation, the chores of administration have become a more important part of Gomes's job. "As an assistant your life is very clear and set," he said. "No matter who comes in you can always say to him, 'This isn't my decision.'"

Part of his job as acting minister is counselling--formally, for freshman, and informally, for anyone who drops in. "I do take the ombudsman role on this one," Gomes said. "The church is another source of advice, relatively non-threatening and certainly non-clinical--both of which are in vogue now."

MANY MEMORIAL CHURCH goers find Gomes decidedly traditionalist in comparison to his predecessor. "In comparison to Price, Gomes's theology is much more fundamental," said Stanley A. Gacek '74, a regular at services. "If you asked him a question, Price would always give a much more relativist view. If you asked him, for example, 'Does God exist?' his answer would be something like 'It depends on the individual's belief.' Gomes's answer would depend more on the Gospel."