Hello, my name is Mark Lee. I am now one of the clergy on staff at Plymouth Congregational UCC here in Fort Collins. But in 1998, I was pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church in Cheyenne, where we were deeply involved in responding to the crisis of Matthew’s death. MCC is a denomination that arose in and primarily serves the LGBTQ community.
Let me begin by reading to you something I wrote for the Cheyenne community interfaith memorial service held the day after the family service in Casper:
Welcome to this service of peace, liberation and justice
in memory of Matthew Shepard.
We have gathered today from many places,
from many communities of faith,
and from many ways of life,
bound together by a common grief,
by a common outrage,
and by a common quest for a just society.
More than that, we are here
because of a great movement of the Spirit of God:
the international outrage over Matthew’s death
is not something concocted by the media or by gay activists,
but a spontaneous combustion of God’s Spirit
in hearts throughout the world.
For we are in a divine moment,
a time of turning and significance.
Kairos time which goes deeper than clock time.
Those divine times are full of pain and wonder.
A bomb destroys a Sunday school in Birmingham,
four little girls die,
and suddenly the quest for racial justice takes a turn:
white people wake up to the violence that has gone on for centuries.
People take sledgehammers and break down the Berlin Wall;
it is a defining event,
and marks the collapse of Soviet imperialism.
Nelson Mandela is released from three decades in jail,
and the days of apartheid are numbered.
All these are divine moments;
with Matthew’s suffering and death,
the gay and lesbian community has entered such a time.
The ongoing struggle for justice is galvanized by the event;
God rises up and says, “No more!”
and the scales fall of the eyes of people throughout the world
and they see what has been there all along.
So today we gather, riding the wave of this spiritual movement, with two pictures. One is the specific, local, personal picture of Matthew, as we remember his life and death. But in this movement of God’s Spirit, Matthew has become a window into something far larger: the quest of our communities for safety, peace and justice. Do not be trapped into false dichotomies between the personal and the political; for God, justice is both personal and political. We are not faced with a choice today between celebrating Matthew’s personal life and celebrating the struggle for liberation; one leads quite naturally into the other.
As I look back, I feel the crisis erupted so rapidly that it was difficult to grasp the magnitude of what was going on from its midst. When I heard what happened, I got a candle and went down to PVH and joined many of you at the vigil. At first, I did not understand the epochal nature of the event for the gay community. Lots of gay people had been murdered -– I thought of Steve Heyman, the psychology professor who was the sponsor of the gay group at the University of Wyoming who was suspiciously murdered in Denver in 1993, which still remains unsolved -– so thought this would be a flash in the pan as well. And then, before long, I felt that there was a lot of grand-standing going on by the national, “coastal,” GLBT organizations who had no understanding of the realities faced by GLBT communities in small and rural communities. This included even the national office of my own church; the main statement they issued following the event (still online), while its heart was in the right place, is riddled with factual errors. So other than one press event in Laramie, where I was the first to talk about how the community ought respond to the promised visit by Fred Phelps (who was familiar sight at MCC events and with whom I’d been having online flame wars for years), I kept my distance from the center of the storm in Laramie. However, Cheyenne, being the state capital and primary media center, was hardly immune from the firestorm.
The interfaith community quickly realized we needed to do something local for those who couldn’t or wouldn’t go over to the events in Laramie. St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church offered their hospitality. There ended up being two events there: first, an interfaith vigil, and later a community memorial service the day after the family’s funeral in Casper. We had a variety of faith communities involved, from Unitarian to Southern Baptist to Jewish. The church was full, good news proclaimed, songs sung, hugs shared, tears flowed.
The TV stations are based out of Cheyenne, and covered our events sensitively, taking care to only photograph silhouettes of people who might not have wanted their faces on the evening news. But concerning national media, it was a struggle for the local community to keep control over our narrative, rather than being co-opted by narratives imposed from the outside. “Gay boy killed by rednecks in hate state” may have been what it looked like from New York, but that was not how we understood either our home nor what happened. I could tell you painful stories about interviews by Nightline and The Advocate.
What did I learn?
The near aftermath included a period of retrenchment. At first, lots of people all over Wyoming were energized, took risks, came out. There was a huge push to pass a hate crimes bill. But a few months later, when Wyoming’s legislature refused to pass a hate crimes bill -– and it still hasn’t! –- that sent shockwaves through the community. Many people felt over-extended, and pulled back. Gay community dances that had 150 people now had 30. Attendance at my church plummeted, people told me that they were scared to have their car seen in the church parking lot. As the UGLW president put it, “You could hear closet doors slamming all over the state.”
As part of my doctoral work five years later, I reviewed my preaching for the year following Matthew’s death. I was quite surprised by what I found. Very quickly, Matthew didn’t appear in my preaching! My fellow students challenged me about this; “It was the biggest story in your community, why were you avoiding it?” But I was preaching to a community that was saturated up to its ears with the story, and the story about the story, and the stories built around the stories about the story. They didn’t need a sermon to remind them about the events of the day. Every newspaper, every TV newscast, every conversation was filled with it. We wanted to go back to normal, whatever that was.
People were coming to church for a word that went beyond the crisis, beyond the political fight about the hate crimes law, beyond the nagging fear that the community some of them had known their whole lives wasn’t really safe. They were coming to church for eternal truths. That, contrary to Fred Phelps, they were not divine mistakes or accidents, not unworthy perverted sinners condemned to hellfire. That they were beautiful, fabulous, beloved creations of a good God, who wants nothing more than for them to fulfill their potential for making a community marked by love and care and justice and play and goofiness and compassion.
Know that you are good, you are worthy, you are amazing and wonderful and beloved beyond all words. That the creator of the universe made a universe with a place for you in it. That is what I want you to take away from me today: that whatever the political strife and pain of the moment may be, you have the sure hope and knowledge that you are divinely loved forever.
The Rev. Dr. Mark Lee brings a passion for Christian education that bears fruit in social justice. He has had a lifelong fascination with theology, with a particular emphasis on how Biblical hermeneutics shape personal and political action. Read more about Mark.
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