Remembering Peter Gomes: Black, Gay, Baptist Pastor

Peter Gomes, who died a year ago today, was an anomaly in the growing ranks of out and open gay or lesbian clergy: he was raised Catholic, but became a Baptist pastor. He was also African American, and a Republican. Not, in short, an obvious fit with the popular image of an American gay man. But (and this is important) he was able to recognize and publicly acknowledge his sexuality, and to reconcile it with his faith. This is an important reminder for us that there is no conflict at all between a gay or lesbian orientation and religious faith, or with conservative political philosophy. The only conflict is with those influential people in some churches and in some political circles who seek to impose their own interpretations of Scripture, or their own political prejudices, on everybody else – in disregard of the fundamental Gospel message of inclusion and justice, and the conservative principle of non-interference in private lives. He is also a potent reminder that advocates for equality and sexual justice are no longer found only among liberals, but also include many important conservatives: Republicans in the US, and (some of) David Cameron’s  Tories in the UK. Nor are the advocates for full inclusion in church all liberal or mainline Protestants: they also include Baptists, Mormons – and Catholics.

Gomes was renowned for the power of his preaching: Time magazine named him in 1979 as one of the outstanding preachers in America and he was widely sought after as a speaker and preacher in both the U.S. and Europe. He was equally renowned for his scholarship:  he was a member of both the Divinity School faculty and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, at Harvard, and an Honorary Fellow of Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge.

This scholarship is important, to appreciate his full significance as an advocate for LGBT inclusion and equality. Many of our opponents deny that they are prejudiced, claiming instead to be motivated only by Christian values “as found in the Bible”. But the scriptural evidence for this is flimsy, based primarily on selective recourse to just a handful of verses, poorly translated, and poorly understood. Gomes, who has applied his considerable scholarship in history and Bible study, as well as his impressive communication skills, in writing a series of books on the Bible and its relevance to modern life, is superbly well qualified to counter the popular ignorance of what the Bible really does have to say (or not say) on the subject of homoerotic relationships (among other themes). In “The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart (1996)” (which became a best-seller), Gomes analyzes the historical efforts to misuse the Bible to marginalize Jews, blacks, women, and gays, and  encouraged believers to grasp the spirit, not the letter, of scriptural passages that he believed had been misused to defend racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and homophobia.

The reasons he gave in 1991 when he came out publicly as gay for are worth reflecting on.

A self-described cultural conservative, Gomes stunned the Harvard community and reluctantly made national news when he came out as a homosexual in 1991 in response to gay bashing on campus. “I don’t like being the main exhibit, but this was an unusual set of circumstances, in that I felt I had a particular resource that nobody else there possessed,” he told The New Yorker in 1996.

“I’m always seen as a black man and now I’m seen as a black gay man. If you throw the other factors in there that make me peculiar and interesting — the Yankee part, the Republican part, the Harvard type — all that stuff confuses people who have to have a single stereotypical lens in order to assure themselves they have a grasp on reality,” he said in an interview with the Boston Herald in 1996.

-full obituary at Harvard Gazette

By confounding stereotypes, Peter Gomes forces us to look beyond them – an important reminder for all of us, especially for Christians, to look beyond the externals, to the real person, and to Christ within each of us.

Some of Rev Gomes’ Books:

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