Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Jill Krementz remembers Rev. Peter J. Gomes

The Rev. Peter Gomes photographed in Cambridge, Massachusetts on May 22, 1980 by Jill Krementz.

Few of us can orchestrate the conclusions of our lives and all of us will die with our work yet undone, our dreams yet unachieved. If that is unfair, then life is unfair. We may not be able to make an end but by God's grace we are enabled to make a beginning, and that is no small thing. The nature of faith is life lived in its incompleteness, and what each of us has the opportunity to begin right now is that holy pilgrimage that takes us from the crest of Pisgah into the valley, the highways, and the byways of our longest journey until we reach our rest, which is the perfect will of God.
Rev. Peter J. Gomes
May 22, 1942-February 28, 2011

Peter Gomes was a great man.

A Harvard Minister, a theologian, and the author of many best-selling books, Rev. Gomes, who came out as gay in 1991, was one of our country's most prominent spiritual voices against intolerance.

Born in Boston, Peter Gomes, an only child, was raised by his parents in Plymouth. His mother was a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music and his father (born in the Cape Verde Islands) was a cranberry bog worker. It was a childhood of literature and music lessons. Sundays were spent at a Baptist church where the family was active and where Peter would deliver his first sermon at the age of twelve. He would be formally ordained a Baptist minister in 1968.

For the past four decades Rev. Peter Gomes was a fixture at Harvard University where he was the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at the School of Divinity as well as the Pusey Minister of Memorial Church where he preached on Sundays. His sermons were delivered in a rich baritone voice and he quoted a wide range of sources ranging from Christopher Durang to Alice Roosevelt Longworth. He traditionally greeted Harvard freshmen with a sermon when they arrived on campus and was the last to address graduating seniors before they left for a world beyond Harvard yard.

Many of his friends and colleagues were astonished when Gomes took part in the inaugurations of both President Ronald Reagan and President George Bush. The Reverend Gomes later remarked to Morley Safer in a Sixty Minutes interview: “It was harder to come out as a Republican than as a homosexual."

In 2006 Gomes became a Democrat, supporting Deval Patrick who was elected the first black governor of Massachusetts.

In May of 1980 I photographed Gomes on two occasions: first in Plymouth and later in Cambridge for Life. The piece, written by Anne Fadiman, appeared in the July 1980 issue of the magazine.

Last week Peter Gomes died from complications from a stroke, and we lost an eloquent and passionate voice against injustice. As he prayed for all our souls, we now pray for this warm, wise, and witty humanist.
The Good Book is an inspiring and brilliant look at the Bible today. "The theme of this book," writes Gomes in his introduction, "is the risk and the joy of the Bible: risk that we might get it wrong, and the joy in the discovery of the living becoming flesh. It is around the theme that I formulate three basic questions which the thoughtful reader brings to the Bible: What is it? How is it used? What does it have to say to me?"

In a November 1996 New Yorker profile, Gomes confessed that he wrote this book "out of dismay at our culture's wholesale ignorance of the Bible" and coined the word "bibliolatry," the act of using the Bible as a self-serving, political device for a pattern of misuse.
In Chapter 7, Gomes writes:

"I have always loved Thornton Wilder's 1938 play Our Town, for in Grover's Corner, New Hampshire, I recognized much of the Plymouth, Massachusetts of my youth. When I was a young instructor at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama in the late 1960s, I assigned Our Town to my students in freshman English, partly because I thought it would be good for them to read an American classic about a world that most of my young black students would think they knew little about, and also because it would tell them a little something about me, their young 'Afro-Saxon'--as they described me--instructor from the North, whom they, with a combination of affection and derision, called 'Pilgrim.'"
Excerpt from a sermon, Wisdom and the Wise:

"Some of you may recall with horror or delight that in January of 1985 I took part in the inaugural exercises of President Reagan at the start of his second term. This was an honor no citizen could refuse, in my view, and besides, I thought it would be fun. What a bully pulpit is the east front of the United States Capitol or, or as it happened, under the dome of the rotunda. So off I went and it was fun indeed, but one of the people I met in Washington said to me as the ceremonies were coming to a close and I shortly would make my way back to Cambridge, 'What will your friends in the People's Republic of Cambridge' think about all this?' Well, I soon found out. I was at a dinner, at a fashionable table, in a fashionable street, hard by this fashionable church, filled with people who pay others to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, and one lady said to me after the soup and after she had exhausted the limited supply of small talk, in sheer exasperation, 'How could you?' It was not really a question, don't you see? When I replied that Mr. Lincoln freed the slaves and I felt I owed a debt to the Republican party. she, like Queen Victoria, was not amused."
From a sermon, Growing Up:

"My text this morning concerns the act of growing up: when we stop growing, we start dying; it is as simple as that. Growth is essential to life, and when growth stops, so do we.

Remember that naughty line of Alice Roosevelt Longworth, when she was informed that President Calvin Coolidge had died. She said 'How can you tell?'"
"Some years ago I was on a night flight from Boston to London on a Saturday and was to preach in a London church on a Sunday morning; in those days I was not intimidated by jet lag and looked forward to my engagement within a few hours of landing at Heathrow Airport. Then, midway, over the Atlantic Ocean we encountered significant turbulence and were warned to keep our seatbelts fastened. Less concerned about the storm than about my sermon, I took out my notes and my Bible, and as I read, the lady beside me who had been mercifully quiet throughout the flight, observed me. As the turbulence increased she noticed that I was reading the Bible, and finally she asked , nervously, 'Do you know something that I should know?'

In the preaching profession that is known as 'an illustration in search of a sermon.'"
The clergyman was known for his three-piece charcoal-gray suits, rep ties, and a pocket watch.

Robert S. Boynton, in his November 11, 1996 New Yorker profile, described Gomes's rich baritone voice as "three parts James Earl Jones, one part John Houseman."

Photographed by Jill Krementz, May 27, 1980.
I will give you my definition of what a Christian is. To be a Christian is to be a changed man or a changed woman in an unchanged world. Anyone can be a Christian in a Christian world, but, in case you haven't noticed it, this is not a Christian world. This is a pagan world, a fallen world, a secular world, a sordid world, a shabby world, and it happens to be the only world that you and I have. That's it. To be a Christian in it is to be changed in the middle of that which is unchanged.
Rev. Gomes inside Harvard's Memorial Church. When Gomes was eight, he built a pulpit out of wooden crates in his basement and every Sunday afternoon preached from memory the sermon he had heard that morning at the predominantly white First Baptist Church of Plymouth, Massachusetts.
Photographed by Jill Krementz, May 27, 1980.
Every evangelist I met owned a dog-eared, red-letter edition of the Bible which fit his left hand like a glove and appeared to open itself to the relevant passages .... I knew this book because it was filled with living people and living principles, and any and all of them would come to my aid when I needed them. As the compass was to the wandering Boy Scout, and the evening star to the pilot at sea, so was the Bible an infallible guide to the wandering Christian: read mark, learn, and inwardly digest.
My sermon this morning is something of a commencement address:

At about this time of the year, seniors in college are frequently asked, “What are you going to do next year? What are your plans?” It has become something of a rude question. So all I have to say to you, you overindulgent anxious seniors, is relax every one of you. As St. Paul has said in our lesson, “Be anxious for nothing.”

The real question to you is not whether you have a job or a plan, but whether you have an imagination. What do you imagine life will hold for you? What do you want life to hold for you? Anybody can see what is there. Anybody can go where a map will take him. Seeing what isn't there, however, traveling without a map, is what makes life interesting, and that is what the imagination is all about, and it is the use of the imagination that sets the spirit free.

Never in my wildest imagination, and I have a very fertile imagination, had I imagined that I would have spent the last thirty-one years here among you. That was neither a plausible plan nor even a reasonable fantasy. No! I had imagined something better for myself than this. I imagined myself first as a curator of American Decorative Arts and then eventually as Director of the Museum of Fine Arts here in Boston.
Rev. Gomes with Harvard student, Tom Weary. Gomes never tired of reminding students of what Harvard's Puritan founder hoped for the university: that it become the New Jerusalem, a moral beacon in a sinful and fallen world.
Peter Gomes in his office at Harvard's Sparks House.
Rev. Gomes in his office at Memorial Church. On the wall is a portrait of the great 18th-century Anglican preacher George Whitefield (1714-1770), attributed to Joseph Badger.

Rev. Whitefield, one of the founders of Methodism and of the evangelical movement, helped spread the Great Awakening in Britain and, especially, in the British North American colonies. He was a great favorite of Gomes; Peter wrote an article about him (Harvard Magazine, May-June 1977) describing Whitefield as the founder of American revivalism whose visits to the colonies from his native England were spectacular. "His voice had the range of an organ and with it he could reduce grown men to tears ... He had many friends including Franklin, and many other including Dr. Johnson thought him humbug."
Orissa Gomes, Peter's mother, who lived in Plymouth and was celebrating her birthday on my second visit. The daughter of a Baptist minister, Mrs. Gomes was an accomplished musician and organist. Her husband, Peter's father, was the son of a boat hand from the Cape Verde Islands of West Africa and supervised the local cranberry bogs.
Peter Gomes in his mother's kitchen preparing tea.
Afternoon tea with his mother at their home on Russell Street. I had admired the lovely pewter demitasse spoons used that afternoon and weeks later, after having sent some photographs to his mother, to Mrs. Shipman, and to Peter, I received a package with a dozen of them as a gift.

His letter to me:

"Under separate cover I am sending you twelve demitasse spoons of late Victorian plate. Please accept them as a small token of my appreciation. Should you ever be tempted to visit Plymouth, I will happily show you the special shop where I got them."
Carrying a cake to be served with tea.
Rev. Gomes cuts a cake while Elsie B. Shipman looks on.
Elsie Shipman and Peter Gomes exit the tea party. Later Mrs. Shipman would write thanking me for the photographs I sent and complimenting me especially on the beautiful background of shrubs.
Gomes, who loved music, played both the organ and the piano. He often played the church organ when he attended services in Plymouth. Among his closest friends was the cellist,
Yo-Yo Ma.
My photograph of Peter Gomes which appeared in Life magazine.
Anne Fadiman wrote the story for Life which was accompanied by my photograph of Gomes sitting at the family piano in his family's house in Plymouth.

Ms. Fadiman, the former editor of The American Scholar, is now a member of the Yale English Department. She and her husband George Colt both graduated with honors from Harvard University where their daughter Susannah is a member of the class of '12. In a recent email, Anne wrote to me:

"Hearing Peter Gomes preach at Memorial Church was one of the first things Susannah did when she arrived as a freshman in the fall of 2008. Last Thursday, she was back at the church, sitting in silent vigil for Peter.

"After my piece on Peter was published, Mrs. Gomes wrote me a hilarious note that began: `Anne Dear, How wonderfully you pinpointed so many facets of our pompous rascal whom we have to love in spite of himself! Whenever I hear Sir Edward Elgar's pomp and circumstance, it reminds me of Peter and me--he the pomp, and me the circumstance!'"
My father was a farmer who grew cranberries, and he knew from a lifetime of experience that growth was not a random or a casual thing, or something you could leave to Mother Nature or Father Time. He knew that growth required a great deal of work, imagination and perseverance. He was constantly fighting weeds that grew with great force, vigor, and abandon, and were always stronger than the vines he was trying to row. He knew that growth was itself not a virtue, for in the unintended garden the bad weeds grew just as well as, if not better than, the good plants.
Prayers and piety are part of a classical education.
I suggest that the good life does not depend on good times. The test of the good life, as I have been speaking of it, is in its capacity to get us through and beyond the bad times, the times when things turn sour. Everybody can count themselves good, happy, and virtuous when it takes no effort to be so and there is no consequence; living a good life is what prepares one to endure and overcome when life is not so good.
Special thanks to Jane Beirn, Anne Fadiman, Geoffrey Movius, Justin Mullane, Ted Stebbins, and John Bethell, who were generous with their help.

Text and photographs © by Jill Krementz
all rights reserved.