A National Reckoning: The Interment of Matthew Shepard

“There are three things I’d say to Matt: ‘Gently rest in this place. You are safe now. And Matt, welcome home.’ Amen.” ~ Bishop Gene Robinson

Matthew Shepard was laid to rest today at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., twenty years after he was murdered near Laramie, Wyoming. Shepard’s parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard, asked for his remains to be interred in the Cathedral, in part, for fear that any other grave site would be a magnet for desecration. Sadly, their fear is justified.

I first learned of Matthew Shepard’s story after coming across an arresting image created by iconographer William (Fr. Bill) Hart McNichols, “The Passion of Matthew Shepard.” Completed in the year 2000, Fr. Bill released the image with the following dedication: Dedicated to the Memory of the 1,470 Gay and Lesbian Youth Who Commit Suicide in the U.S. Each Year And To The Countless Others Who Are Injured Or Murdered.

Ch8.MatthewShepardThis morning, NPR ran a brief but poignant story about the interment of Shepard’s remains. Senior reporter Tom Gjelten noted that the National Cathedral is affiliated with the Episcopal Church, “among the most LGBT friendly” of Christian denominations. Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, who “knows the sting of prejudice firsthand,” would preside. (At his episcopal installation ceremony, Robinson wore a bullet-proof vest, and received death threats almost daily for years after.) To carry Shepard’s ashes into the Cathedral, said Bishop Robinson, will be “an indescribable honor for me.”

“We’ve had a straight son and a gay son, and they’re not considered equal,” wonders Dennis Shepard. “They don’t have the same rights, and why is that? I can’t get an answer from anybody. They want to take rights away from the LGBTQ community, but when I ask them, and compare it to my two sons, they can’t tell me why.”

Listening to the story in the car on my way to work this morning, it felt to me like a kind of communal prayer, a 3 minute national reckoning, mediated, strangely enough, by NPR. And a sobering reminder of the rhetorical and very real violence of “othering” that continues in our midst. “First they came for the blacks . . . then the Jews and Muslims . . . then the gays and lesbians . . . then the journalists . . . then my son. . . . And then they came for me.” But is anybody really listening? The news cycle continues, the next outrage is quick to follow.

Bishop Gene Robinson carries the remains of Matthew Shepard, with Judy and Dennis Shepard following / Photo Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

“Where there is hatred,” says Saint Francis of Assisi, “let me sow Your love. Where there is injury, Your pardon, Lord.”

May our remembrance of Matthew Shepard and thousands upon thousands more like him be a source of courage for all who remain on the margins, fighting for their right simply to be, to belong, to love and be loved. And may our shared lament be a source of healing for the dead and for the living, a veiled reminder, in ways that surpass all understanding, that death will not be the last word.

If you have a few moments to listen to the story, to pause, remember, and pray, I promise it will be worth your time. It may even spark something unexpected in you, something hopeful and beautiful, as it did in me.
Postscript: A few years ago, the Jesuit-run America magazine ran a meditation by Fr. James Alison, “Toward Global Inclusion of LGBT People within Catholic Communities.” As one might expect, the comments thread following the article reflects the contentious pastoral and theological divide that continues to afflict the Roman Catholic Church over this issue–as it did and continues to do so for the Episcopal Church. Jesuit Fr. James Martin has faced both gratitude and condemnation from fellow Catholics for his efforts to “build a bridge” of welcome and inclusivity for LGBTQ persons in the church. My own attempt to think and pray through these questions can be found here, as well as in Chapter 8 of Hope Sings, So Beautiful: Graced Encounters Across the Color Line.

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