By Rev’d. Deacon Kenton J. Curtis
“The great irony of the world is that joy and sorrow do meet. We have to know one to know the other.”
We all have events in our lives that are forever seared in our memories and unremittingly affixed to our psyches. These can, and generally do, run the gamut from events that immediately conjure some of the happiest moments of our lives, and assuredly some of the most painful and trying events in our lives.
I have one such memory that may be familiar to most of us. It is certainly not my own sad memory, but one shared by many. I just had the experience of proximity.
In October of 1998 a young man in Wyoming was beaten, tied to a fence and left to die. His name was Matthew Shepard. He was gay. The brutality shocked the world, and that incident hit too close to home for those of us in the LGBTQ Community.
Matthew was attacked in Wyoming, but he was transferred to Poudre Valley Hospital in Colorado, which has a good trauma unit. The hospital is in the same town as the parish that had sponsored me for ordination in 1996 – St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fort Collins, CO. The rector (pastor) of that parish, and a dear friend of mine (The Rev’d. William A. Bacon) was the priest who was summoned to the hospital to give solace to the Shepard family.
The Shepard family is Episcopalian. I so vividly recall Fr. Bacon telling me of his ministry to Matthew and his family, including the short-time Matthew was on life-support as well as at the time of his death. Two events surrounding this horrific, violent event and tragic loss of life have helped me to know how extreme sorrow continues to be a part of the LGBTQ story and experience.
Many LGBTQ folks harbor justifiable anger towards the church or anything to do with the church. But as a gay man, and an ordained Christian, I am so proud that The Episcopal Church, my home church, has attempted to right some of the wrongs of the past. Matthew Shepard was also a son of The Episcopal Church. At the time of his death, the church stood up, made a stand and fully embraced Matthew, his family of origin and his family of choice.
Leading this stand was a verger (Master of Ceremonies) at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Denver who knew that the Cathedral had to “do something” in the wake of this highly visible murder. St. John’s Cathedral is located in what is known as the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Denver, which is home to a large LGBTQ population.
A Requiem Mass was quickly organized. Invitations could only be spread by word-of-mouth; this was before the advent of the internet and social media. The Bishop of Colorado presided. There was only one public service announcement about this brutal attack coming from a local PBS affiliate. Yet still, we hoped that word-of-mouth would gather a healthy handful of people who would come to mourn the passing of a man. A man they didn’t personally know, but one whose death had captured the attention of the entire nation and world. The level of horror and the level of hate surrounding this murder was the sole consolidating factor.
As the clergy and choir gathered outside the cathedral, lining up to process, we watched with incredible hope as the number of people coming up to enter the cathedral continued as a steady stream. When we entered the cathedral, we were not prepared for what we saw. The church was filled to capacity. We had anticipated possibly two hundred mourners; close to a thousand were already there. People of every demographic churched and unchurched, young and old, gay and straight, children, teenagers and their parents were gathered. “A Great Cloud of Witnesses” indeed!
The second occurrence related to Matthew’s death was when I accompanied my former rector, Father Bacon, to Matthew Shepard’s funeral, held in Casper, Wyoming. It was surreal, but “surreal” doesn’t nearly capture it.
Media trucks from every local and national news stations surrounded St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, a small church in Casper. All around the park and across the street from the church were reporters all looking for anyone to interview.
Sadly, the virulently homophobic, fundamentalist Fred Phelps and members of his Westboro Baptist Church from Kansas were stationed in a fenced-in area in the park, right across the street from St. Mark’s.
There they were with the placards displaying incredibly crude images and vulgarities. They screamed at anyone who dared attempt to interact with them. Mourners at the funeral, getting nowhere with words against these protestors, linked arms, created a line between the fundamentalists and the church singing “Amazing Grace”. They sang so loudly that they drowned out the hateful screaming of the protestors. An inspired moment indeed!
As we were ushered into the church for the Funeral Mass, I will never forget the words of The Rev. Canon Ann Kitch (a cousin of Matthew’s) as she said: “I believe Matt has shown us the way, out of the abyss into which his murder has plunged us.” She alluded to the powerful Christ-like imagery of Matthew being strapped to a fence and left to die. The Rev. Canon Ann further said:
“Matt has shown us the way, away from violence, hate and despair.”
“And it is that love that has radiated out of the midst of this tragedy, love which empowers his parents to speak in passion rather than condemnation, love which inspired his friends to acts of prayer and witness, love which is more powerful than any voice of hate.”
This love of which she spoke resulted in Matthew’s father asking the court not to impose the death penalty on the two men convicted of killing him.
As the funeral ended, we exited the church and saw that the protestors had gone. Maybe God’s intervention? A very persistent snow was the beloved culprit that made them leave.
It’s difficult to recall this story and find any sense of joy. But, again remember, joy and suffering meet in an unlikely way.
Matthew’s legacy is one of hope. And yes, one of joy:
Joy found in a cathedral packed with grieving strangers.
Joy found in a gentle gathering of mourners forming a human chain to counter hate with love.
Joy found in the snow that fell that day.
Joy found in the Matthew Shepard Foundation founded by Matthew’s parents that to this day fights for Civil Rights for all LGBTQ people.
God calls us not to look at the Cross and see only sorrow, but we are called to see joy well.
As we mark the 50th Anniversary of Stonewall, we must remember all those who propelled us forward as a people. First among them, the Stonewall Veterans, who on a hot summer night in 1969 said, “enough is enough.” They changed the world and we will continue their legacy.
As we face myriad challenges in our country and in the world, we can take heart in the fact that Matthew’s spirit continues to guide us with the message that love prevails over hate.
The Rev’d Deacon Kenton J. Curtis, LCSW, serves on the clergy staff at The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City. He is also a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in New York State.
Learn More about The Matthew Shepard Foundation HERE
(Main image courtesy of BBC)
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