In 2009, the Reverend Peter J. Gomes—Harvard’s beloved chaplain for over three decades—was asked to describe how he envisioned his legacy. In response, Gomes said he wished to be remembered as a “thoughtful preacher,” one who “took the life of the mind very seriously,” and who “worked very hard at trying to find the right words to convey the right ideas.”
“I’d like people to think that that’s what I did and that I did it well and that I did it over a long period of time in a wide variety of places,” he said. “It would please me to be thought of as effective both in an exalted place like the Memorial Church at Harvard University and in a very modest pulpit like South Pond Chapel in the dark woods of Plymouth, Massachusetts—that I was able in those remarkably different settings to make people think and to cause them to react and to respond, that’s what I’m interested in, and I would hope that would be the legacy that I would leave behind.”
Unsurprisingly, even in his absence, his words come far closer to articulating the depth of emotion we feel in coming to terms with his passing much more powerfully than our own ever could.
Nevertheless, now is an opportune moment to explore and celebrate the legacy Gomes left for us all. At Harvard, he was an institution within an institution. His weekly teas at Sparks House, his rumbling and inspiring sermons, his popular Harvard history class, and even his wily antics on the Colbert Report make for fond personal memories that bring us all together in this time of loss, in the midst of immeasurable sadness. Although Harvard has lost a titan, Gomes’s legacy continues, both in our community and around the world, in the spirit of positivity, tolerance, inclusiveness, and humble kindness that he embodied through and through.
It is remarkable that even in his absence, Gomes’s words can still inspire us with the eternally glowing power of goodwill. Above all else, Gomes extended his heart and his hand to every member of this community through an immediate pact of profound personal trust. In many ways, his words as well as his actions broke the silence for the underrepresented and those not able to speak for themselves. With striking courage, for instance, Gomes came out as a homosexual in 1991 in response to the gay-bashing plaguing the Harvard campus at the time, largely as a result of a short-lived student publication that decried the “bad alternative” to heterosexuality. In later years, his bestselling books, including “The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart,” advocated against the use of the Bible as fodder for discrimination against minorities.
Over the course of his life, his advocacy for increased tolerance on an impressively wide spectrum of social and spiritual issues gave a strong voice to the underrepresented and lent indelible courage to their cause. We are unmistakably fortunate that his enlightened words can live on both through our memories and through the impressive collection of written works he leaves behind, ranging from collections of sermons and newspaper editorials to interviews and meditations on the Bible and faith in the modern world.
Notably, Gomes was an outspoken advocate of spirituality in an age often hostile to any sort of religion. In 2007, he wrote a memorable piece for The Crimson in which he argued—in response to polemical atheists such as C. Richard Dawkins and Christopher E. Hitchens. “We may not be a godly place but we are anything but godless, and that is what makes the place so interesting,” he wrote then of the Harvard community. “It is no accident that our most significant ceremony, commencement, occurs in the space demarcated by the rational bulk of Widener Library and the spiritual aspirations of Memorial Church. If we are shaped by the space in which we live, we are better and richer for being shaped by the stimulating and complementary forces of faith and reason. No university or college worthy of the name need fear either.”
Gomes was a living archetype of pluralism and acceptance who will never be forgotten. In Harvard Thinks Big 2010, Diana Eck, Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies, bolstered Gomes’s well-known opinion on the relevance of the study of religion when she said “‘Pluralism requires that we share a world, though not a worldview.’” It is this sentiment that we must keep in mind when we remember Gomes and try to cope with the loss of this shining light in our community. The sheer number of decorations on his commencement gown attested to his ability to bring together a vast rainbow of different flags, causes, and beliefs under the umbrella of a single, peaceful identity. As a man who embodied a graceful coexistence of tradition and innovation, his presence has been, and will always be, integral to understanding and moving forward in the pluralism of our time.
In the same 2009 interview, Gomes said that “‘He made us think’ would be a very nice epitaph.” We could not agree more.
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