'Harvard's Pastor' Rev. Peter Gomes Dead 68 The faith community is mourning the passing of one of the nation's leading theologians. The Rev. Peter Gomes died on Monday at age 68. He was best known for his work at the Harvard Divinity School, where he was a professor and the first black Minister at the university's Memorial Church. Host Michel Martin talks to a longtime acquaintance of Gomes, the Rev. Cheryl Sanders, about his life and legacy.
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'Harvard's Pastor' Rev. Peter Gomes Dead 68

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'Harvard's Pastor' Rev. Peter Gomes Dead 68

'Harvard's Pastor' Rev. Peter Gomes Dead 68

'Harvard's Pastor' Rev. Peter Gomes Dead 68

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/134198265/134198244" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The faith community is mourning the passing of one of the nation's leading theologians. The Rev. Peter Gomes died on Monday at age 68. He was best known for his work at the Harvard Divinity School, where he was a professor and the first black Minister at the university's Memorial Church. Host Michel Martin talks to a longtime acquaintance of Gomes, the Rev. Cheryl Sanders, about his life and legacy.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And finally today, the faith community is mourning the passing of a man known as Harvard's pastor. His was the first official voice heard by most Harvard students when he addressed the freshman class, the last voice heard as he gave the benediction at commencement. He was Peter Gomes, an American Baptist minister, minister of Harvard's Memorial Church and a professor of Christian morals. He died Monday at the age of 68 from complications from a stroke.

He was a larger-than-life figure known far beyond Harvard Yard, a black Republican, native New Englander known for his elegant speech and attire. He gave the benediction at the second inauguration of President Ronald Reagan, and offered the National Cathedral sermon at the inauguration of President George H.W. Bush, and he also became a national figure when he revealed in the midst of a campus debate about homosexuality that he was also gay.

We wanted to know more about the life and legacy of Peter Gomes, so we've called upon the Reverend Cheryl Sanders. She's a professor of Christian Ethics at Howard University School of Divinity, and she's also senior pastor at Third Street Church of God, also in Washington, D.C. And she's a longtime acquaintance of Reverend Gomes, going back to her time as a student at Harvard Divinity School.

Reverend Sanders, thanks so much for joining us, and we are so sorry for your loss.

Reverend CHERYL SANDERS (Professor, Christian Ethics, Howard University School of Divinity): Well, it's been an important time of reflection for us all as we continue to think about his legacy.

MARTIN: You were longtime acquaintances. But do you remember, what is it about him that first struck you?

Rev. SANDERS: He just had his own unique way of speaking and carrying himself and interacting with people, and just kind of free and alive and eloquent and always engaging, and just a joy.

MARTIN: You know, in fact, he talked about his desire not to be put in a box in an interview a short interview he did with a website called Five-Minute.com. I'll just play a short clip from it. Here it is.

(Soundbite of Five-Minute.com interview)

Rev. PETER GOMES (Professor, Harvard University's Divinity School): I have been a singular person. I think most people who reflect on me and on the ministry would have a very hard time trying to find exactly where I fit in the whole system. And I frankly have rejoiced in confounding people's expectations and their experiences.

MARTIN: You know, to that end, I think many people were still intrigued by his decision to come out as a gay man. This was well along in his adult life. This was in the early '90s, well established as a theologian, as a professor. So I was just still curious about why you think - or did you ever talk to him about why he decided to come out?

Rev. SANDERS: I never discussed that with him at all.

MARTIN: Do you think it played a role in his theology - his identity played a role in his theological understanding?

Rev. SANDERS: It certainly played a role in the writing that he did subsequently. That event was 20 years ago, and he had one particular bestseller, "The Good Book," was a book on biblical interpretation that specifically addressed that issue. And so I do think that it sort of created a platform for the kind of thinking and reflection that he had been doing all along.

MARTIN: Can you just describe his preaching style for those who have not heard it?

Rev. SANDERS: He was very precise in his diction, a lot of humor, but deep reflection, without being heavy-handed. And people were always buoyed by his preaching. I can't put him in a category, because I don't know anybody else who preaches like that.

MARTIN: How do you think he'll be remembered?

Rev. SANDERS: I hope he will be remembered for more than the stand that he took in 1991, because that doesn't tell the whole story of the man. He was a gracious spirit, a person who - wide-ranging in his travels and his experience, but always able to establish rapport and meaningful conversation with people at all kinds of levels, and to make sense out of their questions and their struggles.

MARTIN: Would you mind telling us about your last conversation with him? It's my understanding that he was thinking about retiring.

Rev. SANDERS: I think he had set next year, 2012, as his date to retire. And he had some goals and objectives that he was working on there at the University that he spoke with me about. And, of course, he gave me some information about what we needed to be doing at Howard University.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rev. SANDERS: So he had it all mapped out, and he didn't have a chance to fulfill all of those dreams, but certainly, he filled his position well, his 30 or almost 40 year there at Memorial Church. He was deserving of the well done, because he did do his work. I just regret that he was not able to enjoy his retirement.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: The Reverend Dr. Cheryl Sanders is a professor of Christian Ethics at Howard University School of Divinity. She is the senior pastor of Third Street Church of God, which is also here in Washington, D.C. And she joined us from her home office to talk about the life and the recent death of Harvard University professor, the minister of Memorial Church, the Reverend Peter Gomes.

Now, Reverend Sanders, thank you so much for joining us.

Rev. SANDERS: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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