The Rev. Dr. Peter J Gomes: A Eulogy

 

The second semester of Freshman year, I was already (in my own mind) a cool cat when it came to wily ruses to get into good sections of my classes. This is how I did it: I signed up for Reverend Gomes’ Christian Bible and its Interpreters, but sneakily didn’t enter my name for the section lotteries. Instead, I simply turned up at Professor Gomes’ Wednesday section, and insinuated myself as a member. It was in an underground room in Memorial Church – the only class I took my four years in that building, and appropriately lined with dark wood, crimson wallpaper and a particularly obnoxiously loud and handsome grandfather clock. The man himself sat in the middle of a long table like Jesus in Da Vinci’s The Last Supper.

“Hoom!” was the first sound he made when it turned out the class list didn’t quite tally with the one he had been given. Sitting in the middle of the table was a kind of beautiful ledger with cream paper, and a bulbous fountain pen. We were all supposed to write our names in it for attendance at the start of class. My fifteen compatriots and I looked uneasily at one another, until one of the braver ones took up the pen, a thing of silver and marble, and proceeded to scratch his name awkwardly in the ledger. When the book got to me, I felt like a chicken scratching her name in the Book of Life, but fortunately the six names above mine bore the same marks of strenuous effort. When we went around introducing ourselves and our reasons for taking the class, one of us said her two previous siblings had taken it, and now that she was, her parents were nervous. Gomes chuckled appreciatively.

“Ah, so you, too, are here to lose your faith!”

I was slightly alarmed. I had been warned about this sort of thing – my church was the sort which had concerned housewives pull you aside to tell you not to study literature at university, or preferably not to go to university at all, “in case you lose your faith”. It was a good thing that the Serious State of Degeneration of Mainline Protestantism in the North East had yet to reach the ears of tropical Singaporeans half a world away, or the assurance that Harvard was founded by the Puritans wouldn’t have made for such a good retort. At the same time, I felt a kind of illicit thrill, the nerd’s equivalent of taking the first puff of a cigarette behind one’s school. Perhaps I would be corrupted! The chorus of R.E.M.’s “Losing my Religion” rang in my head. My church back home had thought R. E. M. (and Harry Potter, and James Bond) were Satanic. I felt myself at the precipice of a very long and slippery slope.

I enjoyed the class immensely. I was taking it for fun. I read with literary interest of Christian typology. I was shocked and delighted to learn Augustine had warned against literalism centuries before my country had even been founded. Professor Gomes’ lectures were always an event. The man was a self-conscious fulfillment of everything any of us had dreamed a Harvard professor would be. I am pretty sure he did it on purpose. He would stride into Harvard Hall, walking stick in hand, a vision of tweed and pocket-squares and watch-chains, and carelessly (but theatrically) toss his fedora in a way that made it land precisely on the window ledge of the first window on the right, alarming students sitting on the next one. Job well done, he would write the three words “GOD CHURCH BIBLE” on the board, and launch into his subject with that booming voice of his. To say it was challenging to my evangelical, Calvinist, dispensationalist worldview is an understatement. By the end of the class, I was shaken and stirred, major theologians jostling for space in my head. I didn’t know what to do about the final project. I talked to him about it, and in his infinite kindness and understanding, he assigned me Barth.

One of the most glorious experiences I have ever had at Harvard was the dinner Professor Gomes threw to conclude the class. It was in the wonderful rose-red Pusey room, on the second floor of Memorial church – another room outfitted to his instruction. We were ushered into the room, seated at great round tables, and when Gomes rose to give a toast, instructed to read the text that was inscribed (by his instruction) along the top of the walls of that room. Squinting, we read– “Here is Wisdom; here is the Royal Law; here are the Lively Oracles of God.”

“To the lively oracles of God!” he said, lifting his glass with glee. “And let that cry shake the very stones!” I am certain he has left more than just these little clues, scattered around and about the campus, anchoring Harvard to its true origins, to its moral core.

Him being a proud eschewer of email, I thought I would never be able to contact him again with the course completed, but I was wrong. I was to have several more encounters with the man before I graduated. Whether it was the steward of the Signet Society (“We do not do, we are”) complaining about budgeting for his refurbishment of the dining rooms (“Professor Gomes has exquisite – but expensive – taste!”) to finding myself on the Harvard Ichthus, which he lent the moral support of his name on the masthead to, Gomes permeated the atmosphere of my Harvard.

His life was a case in point in how fancy dinners can have stellar uses. In my junior year, I saw a tiny ad in the Harvard Gazette for a “Vocations Dinner” at Sparks’ House, where he held his weekly teas. As a Myers-Briggs INFJ obsessed with the word “vocation”, and feeling particularly directionless at the time, I knew I had to sign up. It was all the pomp you could imagine, with very silent butlers and clinking silver and every imaginable sort of cheese. When Professor Gomes stood up to clink his glass to welcome those who were interested in making a career out of ministry, he set out to dispel the myth that it would necessarily impoverish us. “Some of us, as you can see, do quite well for ourselves,” he said, waving airily at the cheese platters. There were seating cards involved. For which I will be eternally thankful, for I was seated next to Samir Paul, the dashing young man who had just received the mission to revive the Ichthus (then in the throes of death due to the graduation of its entire exco). From there on, the Ichthus became the consuming passion of my Harvard life, and I had Gomes to thank for it.

The thing about Professor Gomes was that he had style. Sometimes this was infuriating, and some people held it against him. Perhaps from years of being in charge of fiercely ecumenical Memorial Church, he had honed the art of the evasive witticism. “Do you believe in God?” “Well, God believes in you.” “Do you believe in the Trinity?” “Well, it is traditional.” Always pithy, sometimes maddening, he could seem two-dimensional, or, more accurately, opaque. He clearly enjoyed pomp and ceremony, and believed in them in a nearly sacramental way. He enjoyed recounting dinners with English Catholic aristocrats (“Who had always managed to keep their heads”) and holding tasteful dinners redolent of Old Harvard. In his way, he was one of the keepers of Old Harvard, simultaneously incongruous and more Harvardy than anything else. (To place it in context, most of Harvard for me consisted of wearing a hoodie, typing out papers while procrastinating on Facebook.) My more evangelical friends liked to dislike him for his equivocation, and those who were suspicious of WASP-iness liked to dislike him for his airs and graces. I must admit I held some of the same reservations, as I distrusted my own enjoyment of the pomp and privilege that was being at Harvard.

But it all melted away in a very unexpected place – in the office of poetry critic Helen Vendler. I forget why she told me this, but I do remember the story, because I told it to someone else. Just before I graduated, I was talking to a friend who was struggling deeply with his sexuality and his religion. Like me, he had been brought up evangelical, but the sort of thing he had grown up believing cut him more deeply and closely than I could imagine, for he was just coming to terms with being gay, a thing his family hoped would be merely temporary. He was one of my friends who liked to make Professor Gomes and Unitarian jokes.

“Do you want to hear a touching story about Professor Gomes?”

“No, I don’t want to hear a touching story about Professor Gomes.”

I went ahead anyway. “Well, here it is anyway. Helen Vendler told me that, in the nineties, during the AIDS epidemic, there was a lot of demonstrating for and against homosexuality in the college. And there was this one undergrad who had holed himself up in his room when he had found out he tested positive. He refused to come out for weeks and weeks. His friends brought him food and it would just lie outside, and they were all afraid he would commit suicide. Months went by. Then, the only person who managed to reach him and coax him out was Professor Gomes, because he sat outside his door and waited until he did.”

My friend was silent for a moment.

“Yes, that was a touching story. I’m touched.”

And really, that’s what it was. It wasn’t that, in an act of extraordinary bravery, Professor Gomes had stood on the steps of Memorial church in the face of an angry mob and come out as gay, and a Christian. It wasn’t that he was one of only two black men on the faculty when he first started at Harvard. It wasn’t that he knew every theologian and American historical movement in Christianity inside out. It was that he cared deeply and sacrificially for that one boy. After hearing that story, I knew that this man knew God. He complicated my faith – made it less lazy, more honest, more complex – but he didn’t make me lose it.

In the Spring of 2010, up the steps of Memorial church, the soon-to-be-graduates entered boisterously two by two. His red cloak billowing behind him, Professor Gomes stands with both hands held out, round-framed glasses tilted slightly up over deep-set eyes, booming his congratulations to each undergrad who passed by. I reach out to grasp his hand and thank him. “Did you know that the Ichthus now blogs every day?” I told him. “I am very pleased to hear that, my dear. Very pleased,” he boomed. “I am very glad, for I was an early investor.” All eyebrows and eyelids, he gives me a wink.

“This is so Old Harvard!” whispered one of my atheist friends during the service. “It’s so… anachronistic, that we have go to church to get blessed before we graduate. By a Professor of Christian Morals.”

“Yeah…”

“But you know, it’s sort of like, if there wasn’t such a thing, you’d feel kind of cheated, somehow. Like you aren’t really graduating from Harvard.” I knew Professor Gomes would have liked to hear that.

Later during the processional, I call out to him as he passes by. “Professor Gomes! I seek your blessing!”

“You have it!” he said, flourishing his wand and tapping me with it. And I still feel blessed.

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