Rev. Peter Gomes: May Stroke Not Silence This Ringing Harvard Voice


If you’re religious, now is a good time to pray that stroke will not silence one of the best-known orators of our time: Harvard’s Rev. Peter J. Gomes.

According to the Harvard Crimson, a colleague says that Rev. Gomes, 68, has been able to communicate with visitors since his stroke on Friday but “will not be preaching in the near future.”
And The Boston Globe says here that “’There are signs of improvement, both in his ability to speak and in his physical response,’’’ said Wendel Meyer, a longtime friend and an administrator and preacher at the church.”

Rev. Gomes, a Baptist minister, is considered one of the country’s most prominent preachers, and has written several popular books. He’s long been a central figure in religion at Harvard; and though he’d been planning to retire in 2012, that date may have to be moved up, colleagues say.

I’ve asked Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital for a specialist to speak broadly about speech recovery from stroke, and am hoping for inspiring examples from history of orators who returned to the podium. But for now, I’d like to share a flashback of Rev. Gomes’s mellifluous powers. This is from a story I wrote for The New York Times way back in 1998, about a special sermon he delivered to graduating seniors:

‘You are going to be sent out of here for good, and most of you aren’t ready to go,” Mr. Gomes, gowned in cherry red, told more than 1,000 seniors in genteelly ringing tones that called to mind a cross between a Shakespearean actor and the sitcom character Frasier.

”The president is about to bid you into the fellowship of educated men and women, and you know,” he paused and slowed, ”just — how — dumb — you — really — are.”

He paused again for the cheers of agreement.

”And worse than that, the world — and your parents in particular — are going to expect that you will now be among the brightest and best,” Mr. Gomes continued. ”But you know that you can no longer fool all the people even some of the time. By noontime today, you will be out of here. By tomorrow, you will be history. By Saturday, you will be toast. That’s a fact — no exceptions, no extensions.”

Having stated the problem, the minister moved quickly to alleviate it, promising students that their best years were yet to come, and that God would be with them.

”The future is God’s gift to you,” Mr. Gomes said. ”God will not let you stumble or fall. God has not brought you this far to this place to abandon you or leave you here alone and afraid. The God of Israel never stumbles, never sleeps, never goes on sabbatical.”

He added, ”Thus, my beloved and bewildered young friends, do not be afraid.”

Mr. Gomes concluded with a benediction: ”God grant you life until your work is done, and work until your life is over.”

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