Guthrie, a freelance journalist based in Seattle, found inspiration in the voice of the Rev. Peter J. Gomes
I don’t remember the exact words on the sign, only that the title of the sermon sounded hopeful. Hopeful and a touch of humor—two things I needed as I began my adventure at Harvard. My brother and father had died within months of one another in 1995. I got the call to tell me that I was a Nieman finalist on the day my brother died. I saw the sign on a Friday, one of those beautiful late September days in Harvard Yard, leaves crunching under my feet as I passed Memorial Church. I ended up back at the brick and white church two days later. The sound of organ pipes jolted me to the fact that I was attending a church service for the first time in years. Why? I had no idea. Until a soothing baritone voice sounded from the front and a short, stout bespectacled man I could barely see took his place behind the pulpit.
Oh, how I heard him—his New England cadence, his exacting phrases, his unusual mix of historical references, humorous remarks, and his oft-irreverent asides about the most revered of institutions he held so dear—Harvard. I knew immediately that my first encounter with the Rev. Peter J. Gomes was not to be my last. He became an important aspect of my life as a Nieman Fellow. I was enthralled with the man and his many identities—black, gay, Yankee, Republican, Baptist. Gomes hugged, he laughed, he greeted each member of his congregation with such joy as they exited the church. He helped me believe again. Becoming a part of a church community also served me well in Atlanta, where I moved in 1997 to cover health for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Many of my stories led me to congregations that were providing health screenings and leading the charge against high death rates of prostate and breast cancers among African-American men and women.
Adapted from “In a Time of Need, a Friend Indeed” by Patricia S. Guthrie, Nieman Reports, Spring 2011