The recipients of the annual Peter J. Gomes STB '68 Memorial Honors are typically people who have changed the world: the minister who helps form an international nonprofit that enables formerly enslaved women and girls to reclaim their lives; the diplomat who works with the U.S. Secretary of State to navigate complex religious landscapes; the activist who fights tirelessly for democracy, education, and human rights in East Africa.
This year’s group is no different, with one important exception: They were chosen not only for their impact on the world, but also for the way they changed Harvard Divinity School.
"This year we celebrate the School’s bicentennial,” said Dean David N. Hempton. “We look forward to a future of continued leadership in the study of religion, but we also look back at our legacy and at the leaders who have changed HDS. The 2017 Gomes honorees have all made important contributions to the process of opening to new knowledge, new ideas, and new voices that has become our hallmark. I’m very proud to welcome them to the fellowship of honored graduates."
Chosen each year by the HDS Alumni/Alumnae Council (AAC), the Gomes honorees represent the diverse personal and professional paths on which HDS graduates have an impact. This year, the council recognizes:
The Rev. Dr. Charles Gilchrist Adams, BD ’64, the preacher and civil rights leader who, as both a student and a faculty member, brought a deeper understanding of the African American religious experience to HDS;
Precious Rasheeda Muhammad, MTS ’01, an activist and educator who proposed and organized the first ever Harvard-wide conferences on Islam in America;
Mary E. Hunt, MTS ’74, the feminist theologian and cofounder of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual (WATER) who was part of the first wave of feminist and liberation theologians to train at HDS;
David Little, ThD ’63—formerly the School’s T.J. Dermot Dunphy Professor of the Practice in Religion, Ethnicity, and International Conflict—who put human rights at the center of religious scholarship.
The AAC also recognizes two non-alumni who had an outsized impact on HDS: Constance Buchanan, founding director of the Women’s Studies in Religion Program, and the late Buddhist scholar Robert H.L. Slater, the first director of the Center for the Study of World Religions.
AAC Chairperson Chris Hanson, MDiv ’10, said that the bicentennial is the right time to recognize this particular group of alumni and affiliates.
"It’s an honor to be chairperson of the AAC during such a special year for the School and to have the chance to honor these individuals who helped to shape our trajectory as an institution,” he said. “I’m very much looking forward to the events of the bicentennial and the reunion and to presenting this year’s Gomes Honors to our awardees. This is a very proud moment for our School and community.”
The honorees were surprised, grateful, and a little overwhelmed to be selected in the School’s bicentennial year. All expressed admiration for the late Rev. Peter Gomes, a scholar, author, and longtime minister of Harvard's Memorial Church, whose work the awards were established in 2013 to commemorate.
Honoree Mary Hunt called Gomes a “Harvard Divinity School original.”
“Peter Gomes lived early the diversity we take as normative today,” she said. “People of color, LGBTIQ people, and women are now integral members of a more inclusive community than the one he entered. I am inspired by his good humor and stylish hospitality, edified by his excellence in intellectual and pastoral pursuits, and challenged by his integrity. I look forward to living up to this award as many more opportunities to evolve and embrace come our collective way in the years ahead.”
Precious Muhammad said that she was “humbled and honored” to be named a Gomes honoree. She cited Rev. Gomes’s vision for a “beloved community” and his commitment to “elevating marginalized voices” as areas of critical focus in her own life and said that he remains a powerful example for her at a challenging and divisive moment in history.
"Peter Gomes refused to be seen through a single stereotypical lens,” she said. “He understood the weight of history and carried it well. To receive this award at this defining moment, where alternative facts and chaos threaten to divide our country, and yet we find ourselves still carving out the time to build a more strengthened Harvard community—I couldn't be more grateful."
David Little said that he and his wife were “moved” by his selection, which conjured fond memories of their old friend and of HDS.
“Peter Gomes was a good friend and esteemed colleague,” he said. “My wife Priscilla and I greatly profited from his preaching, and sorely mourned his death. My experience as a doctoral candidate at Harvard Divinity School 50 years ago was formative—both intellectually and spiritually—and my several years as a teacher were a high point in my career.”
Rev. Adams gave thanks and said that he would try to live up to the honor.
“When I heard that I was selected as an honoree, I rejoiced in God having brought me from so far down to so high up,” Adams said. “I just ask every moment to be worthy of it.”
The Alumni/Alumnae Council will officially present the 2017 Gomes Honors during the special bicentennial alumni reunion on Saturday, April 29. The honorees will be presented with their awards in a ceremony celebrating the alumni community held at noon on the HDS campus. Following its conclusion, there will be an alumni luncheon and then an opportunity to hear from the honorees in conversation. Alumni should register for the events of the bicentennial and reunion to attend.
—by Paul Massari