By Gabriel Poblete
Yesterday, I went to the National Cathedral for the service for Matthew Shepard.
I walked into the National Cathedral and found a seat on the left shoulder, having arrived too late for a center seat. I wasn’t able to see the stage, with one of those gray, immense arches blocking my view.
I would watch the service for Matthew Shepard through a television screen affixed to the arch.
I spent some time staring and analyzing the stained windows, the variegated scenes of suffering or catharsis. One really caught my attention: a black woman with a red outfit that ran down to her ankles and a pearl necklace seemingly ascending. She was smiling.
Guided by a clergyman wearing a purple tunic with a grey vest as a choir sang, Matt’s parents, Dennis and Judy Shepard, made their way down the center aisle to the stage. At that instance, they seemed very much at peace.
It had been just over 20 years ago that their son had passed. Matt had been brutally tortured, pistol-whipped and left attached to a fence in blistering cold weather in Laramie, Wyoming. Eighteen hours would pass until Matt would be found by a cyclist, who said he thought Matt was a scarecrow at first. Matt would die a couple of days later.
Matt’s death would spawn outcry across the country. At a time when the conversation about gays revolved around the AIDS pandemic, the conversation would broaden to the need of establishing a threshold of respect for all, regardless of sexual orientation.
In 2009, then-President Barack Obama would sign the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the latter having been tied to the back of a pick-up truck and dragged miles, resulting in the severing of his head and right arm.
Having held on to the ashes for all these years for fear of desecration, Matt’s parents had finally felt comfortable interring the ashes at the cathedral.
A rumbling bell juxtaposed with innocuous, pleasant flute playing could be heard as Bishops Mariann Edgar Budde and Gene Robinson made their way to the stage. I would learn after the service, Robinson is the first openly gay bishop to be ordained by the Episcopal Church.
“We welcome those of you who are gay or lesbian, bisexual or transgender or queer. Many of you have been hurt by your own religious communities, and I want to welcome you back,” Robinson said.
The bishops then welcomed Dennis Shepard to the lectern. He spoke in a low, somewhat shaky voice of his gratitude to the church and the closure from finally putting Matt’s remains to rest.
“It’s so important that we now have a home for Matt. A home that others can visit. A home that is safe from haters. A home that he loved dearly from his younger days in Sunday school and as an acolyte in the church back home,” he said.
Then came the hymns and prayers. This is my first time going to the Episcopal church, but as far as I could deduce, the organ is crucial to establishing the tempo of the service. And as the congregation joined in on the hymns, I could hear the desperation—some had to be comforted by something bigger, as they reached for the high D of the third bar and worked their way down, tackling the fifth measure’s bouncy double eighth-notes before resolving into a mid-G.
The procession continued with more readings and choir performances, but I was left impressed by the serenity that resulted from the great organ.
As I researched Matt’s death, I learned that what bothered many was not just the incessant number of hours he hung on that fence, but that he had to go it alone. But there’s an anecdote that many find comfort in.
The first officer to arrive at the scene was Reggie Fluty, who said she had seen a doe opposite a large bush by Matt. As Fluty approached Matt, the large mother deer ran away.
Robinson, too, must’ve found comfort in this story, as he told it during his sermon. Because he seemed to empathize with the isolation Matt might have felt on that infamous day—the isolation many who are ostracized often experience.
“The bigger picture here is what we human beings tend to do, which is to label someone different from ourselves as ‘other,’ which is code for not really human. And then you can do anything to them you like,” Robinson said to the crowd. “People of color know that. The LGBTQ community knows that. Every marginalized person and group knows that. And we are seeing way too much of that at the moment.”
As the service came to an end, the bishops, Matt’s parents and other members of the church made their way down the aisle. I was surprised to see they wrapped back around and made their way up through the aisle closest to my seat.
I saw the parents once again. The saga of losing your child, having his life forcibly exchanged for martyrdom, is a saga that is not meant to be wrapped up neatly – or ever.
After having spent a couple more minutes appreciating the cathedral, I decided to leave. I took a couple of pictures, people-watched and walked around the perimeter.
Before I headed out, I spoke to Tearyn Upinjustice, a member of the Sisters of Pertual Indulgence, a collective of drag queen nuns. Upinjustice told me they felt comfortable attending because they had the family’s approval.
He said he found it all to be both wonderful and sad, having remembered when the incident took place. He said much has improved since then, though the current political climate is hostile toward members of the LGBTQ community.
“With the powers that be today, we are taking many many steps backward, and it’s very terrifying. Transgender people now are being attacked, and it’s 2018.”
The sisters, with their Day-of-The-Dead-like face paint and colorful take on nun outfits, proved to be a source of levity in an otherwise melancholic morning. For many, the service was a stark reminder of how far things have come, and how much stands to be lost.