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Boston, March 1, 2011 -- The Rev. Dr. Peter J. Gomes, 68, an American Baptist preacher who was as comfortable interpreting the bible in Harvard Divinity School classrooms as he was matching wits on national television with Stephen Colbert, died February 28.
Gomes' distinctive personal mannerisms -- emphatic speaking style, head tilted back, eyes peering over the top of his glasses -- were imitated last year by performing artist Anna Deavere Smith in her one woman play, "Let Me Down Easy," about persons facing illness or death.
Folding her arms in an uncannily familiar fashion across her chest, Smith vividly channeled Gomes on stage when she asserted his advice to people at funerals: don't be afraid of death. "I tell them, stay at the grave as long as you can," Smith said in Gomes' resounding voice. "I say, cherish the moment."
Gomes was the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard University, and Pusey Minister in the school's Memorial Church. He was a prolific writer and popular speaker in churches and other settings, including inaugurations of presidents and governors.
When his death was announced today, social media such as Facebook provided a forum for instant tributes. A U.S. clergyman working on the staff of the World Council of Churches in Geneva wrote, "One of the most memorable sermons I have heard was preached by Peter Gomes. And I am especially grateful for his courageous stance in favor of equal rights within the churches regardless of sexuality or gender."
"He was powerful, gracious, poetic, prophetic," wrote an ordained American Baptist woman in New York State.
Gomes' outsized personality and keen intellect also made him a controversial figure throughout much of his life. He straddled a wide gulf of the political spectrum, giving the benediction at President Ronald Reagan's first inaugural and preaching prior to the swearing-in of President George H.W. Bush.
But he was also critical of religious fundamentalism, saying in an op-ed column in the New York Times in 1992 that fundamentalism was "dangerous because it cannot accept ambiguity and diversity and is therefore inherently intolerant. Such intolerance, in the name of virtue, is ruthless and uses political power to destroy what it cannot convert.”
In 1991, Gomes announced that he was "a Christian who happens as well to be gay," and he began to focus his message on addressing the "religious case" against gays. He said he was celibate by choice, but he spoke extensively to explain why he believed a literal interpretation of the bible often led to intolerance and homophobia.
He wrote extensively. Besides volumes of sermons, his books included The Good Life: Truths that Last in Times of Need (2002), Strength for the Journey: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living (2003) and The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good About the Good News (2007). In 2006, he supported Deval L. Patrick, who was elected the first black governor of Massachusetts.
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