The Reverend Peter J. Gomes: Remembrance and Memorial Service

A few days before the official memorial service, a Harvard Business School professor recalls the preacher who played a critical role as her spiritual adviser.

The Memorial Church service celebrating the life and ministry of the Reverend Peter J. Gomes, who died on February 28, will be held on Wednesday, April 6, at 11:00 a.m. (Read the University announcement here.) The service will be broadcast on WHRB 95.3 FM, and streamed live at its website,

In the meantime, Robison professor of business administration Nancy F. Koehn , a business historian, has shared this personal remembrance, which she originally prepared for herself and friends. It focuses on Rev. Gomes's role as a spiritual adviser at a critical time in her life, pursuing his mission as a minister based in a church—the foundation upon which his public roles rested. The remembrance is reproduced here with Professor Koehn's permission.

Commenting on the world’s loss when Charlotte Bronte died in 1855, George Eliot wrote, “A great light has gone out.”

And so it is for us at Harvard University in the wake of Peter Gomes’s death this week. Gomes was the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Minister of Memorial Church at Harvard. He was a teacher, scholar, best-selling author, mentor and the University’s leading religious officer and spiritual adviser, having served in that role for more than 35 years.

But for most of us here, who walked into Harvard Yard each Sunday to reach Memorial Church, he was, first and foremost, our preacher. In this role, he offered up many gifts to us, including a deep knowledge of scripture; an ongoing commitment to applying the teachings of Christ to our everyday lives and to the larger, turbulent world in which we find ourselves; an unshakable moral fortitude; a wry, unstoppable sense of humor; and an abiding faith in the power of Goodness.

I first encountered Peter eight years ago when my life was coming down around me in big, hunky pieces. My former husband had walked out on me, and the shock of this almost killed me, physically and emotionally. A friend suggested I might find solace in Memorial Church. And so one snowy Sunday, I walked into the church and settled myself in pew 36. (At the time, I remember thinking how strange it was that although I had been at Harvard for more than two decades as a graduate student and then as a faculty member at the Business School, I had never been to a regular Sunday service.)

Peter was preaching. His sermon was one of a series he had written about Lent and the larger spiritual runway to Easter. I was transfixed. By what he said and how he said it. I marveled at the power of his insights about the scriptural text; his careful, elegant use of language; the (almost miraculous) way he mixed religious insights with literature, popular culture and aspects of everyday life—he loved, for example, to quote his barber as a source of great wisdom or poke fun at Harvard’s elitism; his moral courage in calling out important failings in the political realm, in our own University and in ourselves (he was a kind of spiritual whistleblower without the sanctimony and self-aggrandizement of many public naysayers); and his cultivated dignity.

As I took his words in—I remember covering my Order of Service with notes—I knew I had found a bulwark against the storms in my life. From that moment on, I went to virtually every sermon he preached. I read his books, I downloaded his sermons from the Internet and listened to them while I walked my dog or drove to Harvard Business School. I quoted him to my M.B.A. students as we discussed effective leadership. Without his ever knowing it, Peter Gomes became my guide, inadvertently steering me toward (and then into) the vast, compelling world of the spirit and the possibility of what he called “a buoyant hope” that fills this realm.

But in order to move forward and stake my claim as a newfound pilgrim, I had first to survive. And here, again, I owe an enormous debt to Peter Gomes. Throughout that long, terrible winter (and in the ensuing years), I listened to him hammer home—in varying ways—the power of endurance in the face of defeat. Trouble was always all around. But, he liked to say, “We will not give up or give out or give in.” As he proclaimed in his spirited Easter sermon: “Easter is God’s ‘yes’ to the world’s ‘no!’” Or later when he preached on Ezekiel 37 and the prophet’s journey through the valley of dry bones: this “is a second chance for the human experience. The dry bones are now to be infused with life by the gift of the spirit, and they can start all over again.” In these and many other instances, Peter helped me find the strength to believe that, in the midst of great doubt and despair, I could keep walking. And that the path itself—up and out of my own valley of dry bones—might be paved with flagstones of Goodness.

Not long after my first Easter in Memorial Church, I went to see Reverend Gomes. I had decided I wanted to be baptized. I remember well how nervous I was walking into his book-filled office. We chatted a bit about faculty members we knew in common. And then I explained how broken I was and how much his preaching had meant to me. He brushed such compliments off—Peter had an endearing crustiness to him—and said he would be glad to baptize me. "Remember, however, Nancy,” he said, “that by entering the fellowship of Christ’s brethren, your troubles are only beginning.” A few weeks hence, he baptized several undergraduates and me in Memorial Church. It was one of the most important moments I have known.

Since that time, I have thought often of his words about the burdens of becoming a committed seeker. They embody Peter’s candor and his unique ability to offer those he met—his students, other scholars and ministers, his readers and his (grateful) congregation both sides of the Christian balance sheet--the hope and possibility as well as the obligations and demands of faith. He never flagged from showing us both and from helping us navigate the wondrous, difficult, and, at times, exhausting journey of trying to do God’s work on earth.

He was a blazing light to all who encountered him. 


Copyright © 2011 Nancy F. Koehn

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