When I first met Rev. Peter Gomes in 2009 he looked terribly out of place. There he was, the keynote speaker at the Gay Christian Network conference, looking regal in his bowtie and Sunday best, standing amidst a sea of young people dressed down in jeans, shorts, and t-shirts. [Listen to the speech at bottom of post — ed.]
While he may have looked out of place, he was hardly uncomfortable. The Harvard professor and minister was rock star to these young gay, mostly Evangelical, Christians. They fawned over him, asked for his autograph, and took snapshots with him. I admit, I did my fair share of fawning, and got my own souvenir photo.
Gomes was gracious, kind, self-effacing, and profoundly funny. His demeanor was regal, but gentle, and approachable. His easy laugh and sly smile were infectious and put you immediately at ease. Hearing his speech to those assembled at GCN was to talk a walk on the grounds of Harvard in the Springtime. He was a breath of fresh air – and he brought the fragrant words of the Gospel alive to us.
He spoke for nearly an hour – poking fun at his own discomfort – a bow-tied, stuffed-shirt professor who found himself amid praise-band singing gay and lesbian Christians. He had prepared us for his long lecture, quoting William Sloane Coffin who said, “Sermonettes make Christianettes.” I don’t think anyone looked at their watch even once during his speech. He captivated us as he refused to claim any definition for himself except “a child of God.” He warned us, that in that definition, he might offend us with some of the things he had to say.
“I will not have done my job if I don’t piss some of you off,” he said to roaring laughter and applause.
Gomes was used to pissing people off. As the Boston Globe notes: “He was the first black minister of Memorial Church and the only gay, black, Republican, Baptist preacher most people would ever meet.” If that’s not a mixture sure to piss people off, I’m not sure what is.
Dr. Gomes left us this week at the tender age of 68. He has left behind an amazing array of written and spoken words for us to continue to enjoy, even as we are deprived of his comforting and empowering presence. Rest in peace, Dr. Gomes. There are many things he can be called – a scholar, a historian, a gentleman, even a heretic – but he was never a “Christianette.”