Sunday Morning Coffee with Peter J. Gomes

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Very few people I know can say to their pastor “You were so great on the Colbert Report!” I am incredibly fortunate to be one of them.

Peter J. GomesI started attending Harvard’s Memorial Church in 1997, when I first moved to Boston to attend Harvard for my doctorate. I always sat in the balcony, and often had coffee with me. I just know the Very Reverend Professor Peter J. Gomes could see me up there, and I’m quite certain he would not and did not approve.  As irreverently reverential though he was, I think coffee in church definitely would not be his style. And I agreed, wholeheartedly (in theory), which is why I hid in the balcony, in shame, and would certainly not sit in the orchestra section for this reason. (Sorry, theatre is my frame of reference here given my role as President of a local nonprofit theater company so I’m going with that seating design.)

My chagrin was deepened when I used to show up in full winter running clothes, complete with fuel belt, hat, gloves, and everything, in order to combine my Sunday mornings with church, coffee, and marathon training. I was certain I had reached the bottom of the barrel. Certainly no respectable person attending Harvard Memorial Church would have the gall to show up in running clothes and coffee in hand (and, as long as I’m coming fully clean, occasionally a sandwich). You see, any other fine churchgoer at the Memorial Church has shown up dressed in their Sunday best, having already drunk their morning coffee, pored over the Sunday times, completed the entire crossword (in pen, obviously), and run more than 10 miles at a fairly brisk pace. I was clearly out of my league.

Peter often joked with the audience about Episcopalians (again: theatre frame of reference), particularly regarding their reticence to discuss “Things of Importance” (a rough paraphrase, words and emphasis mine). Though not raised Episcopalian, I did grow up Methodist, which is similar, so I certainly understood his gentle mockery of these staid forms of Christianity. We didn’t talk about money, for one. Come to think of it, we didn’t talk much about anything, as far as I could tell. Once in college, however, I wandered from Methodism and spent a number of years wending my way through various sects of the Christian church, discovering manifestations from the utterly austere to the unabashedly emotional. I also developed a deep respect for Eastern religions and the Unitarian church during this time. Where did I belong? I couldn’t seem to figure it out.

Coffee had been an integral part of this journey.

You see, in those days—and still now—many churches aspire to bringing in bigger audiences. Younger audiences. Audiences who are invited to come as they are: in jeans, and possibly even in shorts if it was a warm summer day. And coffee was definitely allowed. And so was rock music, apparently—though I use the phrase very loosely—as many of these churches featured praise bands in lieu of traditional hymns. Well. It goes without saying that I loved the fact that I could spend my Sunday mornings with God drinking coffee; that much is obvious. But certain things definitely did not fit my personality. I certainly never wore jeans. (Running shoes, yes, but that was different: when I didn’t take a run after church I often took a long walk along the Charles River to church.) And I loathepraise music almost as much as I loathe hearing classic rock songs like Baba O’Riley sung a cappella (but that’s a different story). While it is a wondrous thing that there are diverse styles of worship that reach different kinds of people, and the marriage of rock and roll with traditional church music clearly resonates with many, it simply wasn’t for me. The lyrics, the simplistic melodies, the repetition. It was the repetition that was the hardest part. And if you added the arms raised, the clapping, the “Praise Jesus!” and, occasionally, the speaking in tongues if the church was Pentecostal … well, it was simply too much for this Methodist to bear.

But I did enjoy the coffee.

You see, at such places, anything goes, coffee included. If it weren’t for everything else (like the music and preaching), I’d still be going to those churches, coffee in hand, knowing that I wasn’t judged, if not ostensibly by the minister then, harshly, by myself.

After many years, my attempts to find a church home finally ended at the Memorial Church, in large part, of course, because of Peter. Where else, I would tell my friends, could you experience such humor, wit, wisdom, and erudition … combined with the tradition of Harvard … not to mention the world-class choir? The music is always breathtaking, and services often include a classical trio or quartet, a cello solo, or a piano sonata. Hearing an organ fugue by Bach or Handel is commonplace and occasionally accompanied by period instruments such as the natural horn or harpsichord. And did I mention that beyond Peter and the other fine ministers, the church often hosts national and world leaders in theology, including Jewish, Unitarian, and for the first time this year even Muslim preachers? The church, after all, is integrally related to the Harvard Divinity School and ultimately caters to the highly intellectual Christians that comprise its parishioners although its doors are open to all. Friends often tell me about their own churches, with their fine choirs and preaching, but I couldn’t help but be the (occasional) Harvard snob that I was, secretly scoffing at these lesser churches. Even if coffee was allowed. Clearly, they had never been to the Memorial Church.

While the Memorial Church will certainly continue to excel, with its other superior ministers and mission remaining firmly intact, Peter’s passing nonetheless marks the end of an era. I did not know Peter personally as did so many others, I am sad to say. But to me the loss nonetheless feels very, very personal. It may well be, in fact, that one of my only words to him was about appearing on the Colbert Report in April 2010, when he stood grandly on the slate porch to welcome everyone to the Easter service.

So why, then, for me, is this loss so raw, so palpable?

I think I finally have the answer to this question. At its essence, simply, Peter made himself known. And, while he may not have known me, I spent many a Sunday morning, coffee in hand, getting to know him. For all of his great gifts, he was, at heart, one of us, struggling to love unlovable people and make sense of the world in the short time we have been given.  And perhaps even make a true and lasting difference. It is even possible that the hours I’ve spent in Memorial Church listening to Peter preach for more than a decade in aggregate is likely more time than I’ve spent chatting with friends during the same period, friends whose presence in my life may have been tied to geography or circumstance. For 14 years, Peter was always there, a beacon, and while certainly a pastor, ultimately, a friend – even if only one-sided. He was exactly the kind of friend you would meet for coffee, if you were so lucky, and would leave the conversation each time somehow changed.

On Wednesday, April 7, 2011, I attended Peter’s memorial service alongside so many others. And, while their relationships with him were no doubt less one-sided than my own, I took my regular spot in the balcony, trying hard to celebrate his life and light with laughter but nonetheless overcome with a deep sense of grief and loss.

And I didn’t bring coffee.

This piece was written on April 9, 2011. The Reverend Professor Dr. Peter J. Gomes passed away on February 28, 2011.


Dr. P.K. Newby is a nutrition scientist, speaker, and author with expertise in all things food, farm to fork, whether preventing obesity and other chronic diseases through diet or teaching planet-conscious eating. As a health expert and food personality, she brings together her passions for food, cooking, science, and sustainability to educate and inspire, helping people eat their way towards better health, one delectable bite at a time. Healthy Hedonism (TM) is her philosophy: Because healthy food shouldn’t suck.

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