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Material Man, Spiritual Body

By Anupriya Singhal, Crimson Staff Writer

When his alarm clock sounds at 6:30 a.m. each morning, Peter J. Gomes considers sleeping in until 8:30.

The extra hours abed, however, are a luxury that the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister of Memorial Church can only afford on Saturdays, as he performs a service at Memorial Church nearly every morning at 8:45 a.m.

Gomes’ many hats—he is the minister of Memorial Church, a professor at the Harvard Divinity School (HDS), and a well-known author—dictate a busy life for their wearer.

“My schedule requires that I be a multi-tasker,” he says. “Sadly, I’m not very good at it.”

During his few free moments, Gomes, who is 63, says he most enjoys the quiet of his home, the Sparks House.

“I think I would prefer a few quiet days in my home to going on a vacation,” he says matter-of-factly. “This house has a lived-in feeling to it.”

The tabletops and shelves in his study are filled with photographs of Gomes posing with luminaries such as former President George H.W. Bush, and there is almost always a fire blazing in his fireplace.

“Fires make us feel human,” Gomes says.

Exhaustively decorated with art, furniture, and books, the Sparks House, originally named after former University President Jared Sparks, sits directly across from Memorial Hall and boasts an array of antiques.

Though the house is owned by the University, every object in it has been collected by Gomes over the past 35 years. Gomes, who once aspired to the curatorship at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, says he loves antiques because they connect him to the past.

“I have always called myself a material man trapped in a spiritual body,” he jokes.

Gomes’s light-hearted, witty nature isn’t a secret.

“He has a wonderful sense of humor. He can see the ironies and light side of almost every circumstance,” says Harry R. Lewis, the McKay professor of computer science and former dean of the College. “He exemplifies the best of the Harvard tradition of idealism and humanity, and yet he never takes himself or any of the rest of us too seriously.”

In addition to his weekday services, Gomes generally delivers a sermon in Memorial Church every other Sunday. At these gatherings, he says, his congregation comes from all sides of the political spectrum, from the most conservative students in the Kennedy School of Government, to more liberal students in the College. But, he says, the political views of his churchgoers do not affect the content of his sermons.

“I’ve managed to offend everyone at least once,” he jokes. “I’m an equal-opportunity offender.”

Though one might expect that as a reverend, Gomes would most enjoy preaching on Sundays, he admits that he is always looking forward to Wednesdays, when he hosts nearly 50 students and professors for tea in his living room.

“Tea is the great punctuation mark in my week,” he says. “I’ve also learned that college students are always hungry, and sweet foods are always pleasing.”

Wednesday teas are open to all Harvard students and faculty members. According to Gomes’ former student Jeff D. Dean ’06, who teaches a basic Christian scripture class for 12- to 14-year-olds at Memorial Church, “Tea is a great way to meet interesting people. Plus, Gomes is an engaging host.”

Gomes teaches two mainly-undergraduate courses. In Religion 42, “The Christian Bible and Its Interpretations,” he relates 2,000 years of Christian experience to his students while putting the Bible in context of current secular issues, like stem cell research.

“In my teaching, I don’t preach. I try to make a distinction between the two,” he says.

His students say they enjoy his engaging lecturing style and humorous comments.

“He’s one of the few professors at Harvard that is good at what he does,” says Dean. “He’s a fascinating lecturer, and the class really taught me to read and interpret, and more importantly, how to think.”

This spring, Gomes is teaching Religion 1513, “History of Harvard and Its Presidents.”

Unlike many of his obligations, Gomes says, “Teaching is remorseless. You simply can’t put it off.”

In between his intellectual pursuits, Gomes says he enjoys “mindless” television from to time to time.

“I hate to admit it, but I’m one of those guys who always has the clicker in hand,” he says. “I’m always watching a half dozen shows at once.”

He is also a fan of action movies, especially those starring Steven Seagal.

“I like those films because they’re reassuring. The good guy always wins and the bad guys always get crushed,” says Gomes. “I like simple-minded stuff. Theology and life can get too complicated.”

In his scant free time, Gomes is working on the third volume, “The Good News: From the Bible to the Gospel,” of his series. The first two books, “The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart” and “The Good Life: Truths that Last in Times of Need,” were best sellers.

“I don’t know why writing this book is frustrating me so much,” he says. “I was supposed to have it finished by last summer.”

He says the books are meant to help readers relate the Bible to their everyday lives. He says he takes a “broader approach” to reading the Bible, including in his discussion of homosexuality.

Gomes, who told members of the Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, and Supporters Alliance (BGLTSA) that he was gay in November 1991, became a lightning rod for criticism in the months that followed, as several students called for his resignation.

“I think every once in a while in a lifetime, [you] must yield to what you must do,” Gomes told The Crimson in June 1992.

Gomes grew up in Plymouth, Mass., the sole child of an organist and a cranberry grower. He was active in church from a young age.

“Church was for me what basketball was for other kids,” he says. The grandson of a preacher, he says nearly everyone expected that he would follow the family profession.

“I could memorize anything in front of me and I had a loud voice, so naturally everyone thought I would become a minister,” he says teasingly. Gomes’ youth was “idyllic,” he says, with his only trauma being that he repeated the second grade.

“My memoir would be very dull,” he says frankly. “No one will buy it because there were no inner struggles in my upbringing.”

Gomes now spends part of every weekend in Plymouth, antiquing and gardening in the spring. “It’s my hometown. I know everybody, and everybody knows me,” he says.

In his past 35 years as the minister of Memorial Church, Gomes has also been the advisor of many student groups around campus, including the Organ Society, the Kuumba Singers, the Krokodiloes, and the University Choir.

This spring, he will have a walk-on part in the Lowell House Opera.

“I was drafted into the part,” says Gomes. “But I guess I didn’t take very much convincing.”

Lewis said that Gomes is a unique part of Harvard’s landscape.

“He’s an irreplaceable piece at Harvard. It’s hard to imagine there will be anyone like him,” says Lewis. “Still, he’s not eternal.”

Gomes, however, doesn’t seem to be worried about himself as much as he worries for the future resident of the Sparks House. Looking around his thoroughly-packed home, he remarks, “God help whoever is going to have to move in here when I’m gone.”

—Staff writer Anupriya Singhal can be reached at asinghal@fas.harvard.edu.

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