Greater NW Pride: Lessons from the Life of Mathew Shepard


Lessons from the Life of Matthew Shepard

In 1998, outside of Laramie, Wyoming, two men—Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson— beat up and robbed Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old college student who happened to be gay. Matthew was pistol whipped and left for dead for 18 hours, tied up to a fence on a remote Wyoming prairie outside of Laramie. He died five days later without regaining consciousness. For two decades, Shepard’s parents—Judith and Dennis—kept their son’s ashes near their home in Casper, WY.  They feared that laying him to rest in a public place would draw attention from people who hate LGBTQ people, and that his gravesite would be desecrated. It was at Matthew’s funeral that people from anti-LGBTQ Westboro Baptist Church gained some notoriety, in which they were outflanked by a group of LGBGQ and straight allies who were dressed in huge cloth angel wings, blocking out the Westboro Baptist Church members.
All that changed when someone from the Smithsonian came to the home of Judith and Dennis Shephard, hoping to get some of Matthew’s relics as a reminder of his life on the national scene. It was then that someone mentioned the possibility of having an internment of Matthew’s ashes at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. Because Matthew grew up in the Episcopal church, attending Sunday school and serving as an acolyte in his home church in Wyoming, his internment in the Cathedral only made sense. On October 26, 2018, a Celebration of Life and the Internment of Matthew Shepard was held, led by the now-retired and former out and gay Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson. It was in his sermon that Bishop Robinson said, “Let us be honest, churches and synagogues and mosques have been the source of our greatest pain as LGBTQ people.” Robinson himself was criticized near and far because he is gay. “For Matthew to come back to a church…is a remarkable step forward.  It’s the cathedral saying some churches are different.  Some churches have been on this journey with you, and we will not only welcome you, we will celebrate you.” At the end of the service, Robinson said, “Gently rest in this place, you are safe now. Matthew, welcome home” (Tom Gjelten and Amita Kelly, NPR, Oct. 26, 2018). 
In our churches—UMC, PCUSA, UCC, ELCA, and Disciples of Christ, to name a few—we are still struggling to welcome all. The threat of exclusion is real. Fear of physical violence outside of the church is still real.  The desire to find sanctuary as an out LGBTQ is real. We who are LGBTQ often strive daily to simply cope with how we are to exist in a culture that is still rabidly anti-LGBTQ around the country.  Currently, the focus of violence and death is to people who are transgender people. The Human Rights Campaign noted that in 2017, there have already been 27 deaths due to violence, which may eclipse the high of 28 in 2017 (USA Today, Sept 26, 2018). LGBTQ+ people are still being killed because of who we are, just like Matthew Shepard was killed. To hear, see, and feel a note of grace, of acceptance, of welcome, of love, is as strong of a desire in those of us who are LGBTQ as it is for any straight or cisgender members of a church. After all, outside of our death, today, we who are LGBTQ want to hear and see and feel these words are true from our respective churches: gently rest now. You are safe now.  Welcome home.

Brett Webb-Mitchell
Rev. Dr. Brett Webb-Mitchell is an openly gay Presbyterian pastor in the Portland area serving as the part-time LGBTQ+ advocacy coordinator for The Oregon-Idaho Conference of the UMC. He can be reached at brett@umoi.org. Become a subscriber to the Greater NW Pride blog to get Greater NW Pride in your email box!