This essay was originally published in Duke University’s Faithandleadership.com blog.
I found God at Harvard in Sunday School, in prayer circles, and at the feet of Peter J. Gomes, who died yesterday.
I came to Harvard in the 1990s from Alabama. A bitter battle had torn apart my own denomination. I wanted nothing to do with church people. But I was urged to try Memorial Church. And there I found grace, love, and Christian witness. Peter deeply believed in Jesus and prayer, and helped make it safe for me to do so as well.
The turning point for me was a shocking sermon he preached in 1991, “The Courage to Remember,” where an African-American minister from Harvard railed against Harvard’s Memorial Hall because it only commemorated Union dead from the Civil War, not the Confederates. “Humanity transcends the sides and there are no victors ultimately; there are only those to be commended to God.”
He stood on a notoriously secular campus in one of the most insular towns in America and said we should love people like me: those from the south. This was at a time when the “Boston Globe” printed cartoons of the first Clinton/Gore campaign for president showing the two posting campaign signs on outhouses. I could not tell you how many people had asked me to repeat the word “Alabama” in my southern accent for their entertainment. Not a few suggested the South had nothing to offer but racism, despite an actual race riot going on in South Boston, their own back yard, as we spoke in 1994.
Here was a person who looked at each student as a person. A little love, a little reconciliation goes a long way. Thank you, Mr. Gomes.
He could be a frustrating man. I realized his very real limits. But when you read his prayers, his dreams for us, his belief in God, those foibles are hard to remember. And this is the gift of Peter the Golden-Tongued. He drew God’s love in such beauty that it drew me and countless others back to God’s heart.
Peter wrote a lot about death. He always carried with him a quote from Cardinal John Henry Newman who wrote, “Life is short. Death is certain. The life to come is everlasting.” He rejected anyone who had the heavenly blueprint, (“unless they have heavenly credentials — that they have been there and they have come back to tell you about it”) but wrote he was persuaded by Paul that “`Neither life nor death nor things above nor things below nor powers nor principalities nor anything would ever be able to separate us from the love of God.’ That is what eternity is about, and that is what we remember in the midst of life.”
I close with a few words from the benediction he gave to a class leaving Harvard. It was about the stones and people of Harvard, a place he cultivated the kingdom of God in for nearly 40 years:
“I wonder how many of you have ever noticed the stone staircases that lead from the first to the second floor of University Hall? They are a remarkable example of the engineering skills of the building’s great architect, Charles Bullfinch, and their particular style is called ‘vagrant’ because they have no visible means of support…they are not a miracle but a marvel.
My wish for each of you is that you have useful, elegant, and efficient lives without any visible means of support, vagrant lives which will suggest to others as well as to yourselves that you are supported by an inner strength, an inner tension, a source of support that appears to defy the laws of physics but which sustains you and supports others.
In other words I wish God for you, that peace which this world can neither give you nor take away from you but will sustain you in this life and get you to the next. . . We have come now to the end of the beginning and the beginning of the end, and soon you will belong no longer to us or to yourselves but to the world.
Go out there, then, with courage, grace, and imagination. We give you our love — a word not used much around here, and saved for your very last moments — and we commend you to the love of one another and to the greater love of a loving God. This now, at last, is the best that we can do for you. This is the best that there is and it is yours, so go for it, for God’s sake, and for your own. Amen.”