He came to Harvard as a student in 1965 and admits he was not a great but a happy student. He was ordained a baptist minister in 1968. As a student he listened to faculty at the Divinity School speaking about their spiritual lives. From 1968 he taught at Tuskegee in Alabama as instructor in history to teach "everything from Adam to the atom."
He came to Memorial Church as assistant minister in 1970 and became acting minister in 1972 and in 1974 was named the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Minister in the Memorial Church. He became the University's leading religious officer and spiritual advisor. He'd never set foot in the Memorial Church before his interview and imagined after it that he would be live fodder for atheists in Harvard Yard.
A cultural conservative, Gomes made national news when he came out as a homosexual in 1991 in response to incidents of gay-bashing on campus. "I'm always seen as black and now I'm seen as a black gay man. If you throw in 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 assume themselves that they have a grasp on reality" he said in 1996.
He became a Democrat in 2006 and spoke at Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick's inauguration.
Dean William Graham of HDS says:
On one occasion Peter Gomes was asked to preach at the commencement for an exclusive girl's school in New York City. He remembers,
"Many of the brightest and the best of the girls went on to elite colleges, and soon thereafter would make their way into the expanding stratosphere of the establishment once reserved for their brothers. They were able, aggressive, and entitled young women on the threshold of conquering the world, and I rejoiced in their achievement, was happy to celebrate with them, and wished them well."
For that occasion, Gomes based his sermon on the sixth chapter of Matthew where Jesus asks, "Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Therefore, do not be anxious about your life." It seemed like an appropriate message for the audience, he remembers that all the graduates smiled upon him.
During the reception, however, one of the parents came up to Gomes with "fire in his eyes and ice in his voice." He told the preacher that, frankly, his sermon was full of nonsense. Peter said, "The message didn't originate with me; it came from Jesus." The parent looked at him and said, "It's still nonsense." As the man went on to explain,
"It was anxiety that got my daughter into this school, it was anxiety that kept her here, it was anxiety that got her into Yale, it will be anxiety that will keep her there, and it will be anxiety that will get her a good job. You are selling nonsense."
Gomes continued, in his book, to have the last word. He notes that the father is not only wrong, but is heading for disaster. At some point his vision of the “good life” will run into bankruptcy and he will have nowhere to anchor his self-esteem. Gomes suggests that if Wordsworth were still taught as it was to our grandparents we could say:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
In 1998, he gave a farewell speech to undergraduates at Commencement:
And if anyone missed tea at Harvard with Peter Gomes, here's the next best thing (because there's no tea this coming Wednesday March 2nd at 5pm):