This past Friday, October 12, was the 20th anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death. I realized that as I read the good news that his ashes will be interred in the Washington National Cathedral alongside other national figures who helped transform our consciences for the better.
I was about to preach at Oaklands Presbyterian Church in Laurel, Maryland, when someone handed me a newspaper article about a young gay man who was hanging on to life by a thread after being beaten and hung coyote style on a fence in the prairies of Wyoming. Another gay-bashing, I thought, and I doubted any more would come of it than the gay-bashings friends and others had endured. Thank God, I was wrong about its impact.
Weeks later I paralleled Matthew’s life with the Presbyterian Church’s history on LGBT concerns during a “Moment for Mission” for Rutgers Presbyterian Church in New York City on December 6, 1998. It was printed in the March/April 1999 issue of the More Light Update, and then in a Church & Society issue on “Hate,” September/October 1999.
In memory of Matthew Shepard and the many other lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender people (the latter of whom bear a disproportionate brunt of our hate crimes) similarly attacked, I’ve decided to offer this as my post this week.
When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him what Martha had said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother Matthew Shepard would not have died.”
When Jesus saw her weeping, and those who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So everyone said, “See how he loved Matthew Shepard!”
But some of them said, “Could not one who gave vision to the visionless have kept Matthew from dying?”
The gay University of Wyoming student who was brutally killed in October 1998 was born in 1976, the year that the United Presbyterian Church set up the Task Force to Study Homosexuality. As we held our meetings and regional hearings to determine whether homosexuality was a sin and a bar to ordination, Matthew Shepard’s mother was changing his diapers and dreaming who he might become.
Matthew Shepard was just learning to walk when the 1978 General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church gathered in San Diego and rejected the recommended policy of the majority report of our task force that homosexuality was neither sin nor a bar to ordination.
Although we were devastated by this outcome, at least the General Assembly had not changed the Book of Order, had not set its recommended policy to presbyteries and congregations in stone. But, as Matthew Shepard was learning to talk, the denomination’s Stated Clerk muted our hopes by declaring that the Assembly had interpreted the church Constitution in a way that made its recommendation binding on presbyteries and congregations.
Many congregations balked and, as friends and family told Matthew Shepard’s parents what a sweet little boy they had, a handful of Presbyterian churches began passing statements saying they would welcome people into their churches and into church leadership without regard to sexual orientation. Thus began the More Light church movement, which gave rise to similar movements in other denominations.
Matthew Shepard entered school as denominations across the United States resisted being schooled in matters related to sexuality. Churches kept an arm’s length from homosexuality and human sexuality by commissioning church committees to study these issues, only to dismiss and even condemn their conclusions and recommendations.
So, as Matthew Shepard was becoming aware of his own sexuality, our church and almost every church was announcing in the media that it was sinful, not God’s wish for humanity, evil, sick. Matthew would have had an easier time of it had he grown up in the 1950s when few people talked about homosexuality.
In Matthew’s final years of high school, as he was developing the normal crushes and contemplating what he would do with his life, the Presbyterian Church was busy codifying its anti-gay position by an amendment to our Book of Order.
As Matthew began a college career focused on political science and international relations and hoped someday to serve the United States government in a foreign embassy, that same government passed legislation that prevented recognizing the same-gender marriage he might have had.
And the night of Matthew’s death, the Presbyterian church was sleeping on its ecclesiastical sofa, having declared a moratorium on decisions regarding homosexuality.
Russell Arthur Henderson and Aaron James McKinney were coming of age at the same time, exposed to the same anti-gay messages that the church was sending to Matthew Shepard. If the church calls gay life sick and depraved, why shouldn’t they? If Christians angrily attack the so-called homosexual agenda, why shouldn’t they attack homosexuals? If Christians rob gays and lesbians of their spiritual inheritance and vocations, why shouldn’t they rob Matthew?
If the church excommunicates gays and lesbians, why shouldn’t they cast Matthew out? Excommunication means to send out of community, away from the resources needed for survival, to die of exposure in the wilderness. And in the wilderness of Wyoming, Russell and Aaron executed that sentence upon Matthew Shepard.
If the body of Christ—the church—had been there, Matthew Shepard would not have died.
If the body of Christ had been there, Russell and Aaron would not have brutalized him simply for who he was.
Unlike Jesus, the body of Christ doesn’t have a second chance with Matthew. The church cannot resurrect people. So it needs to get there sooner if it is to bring life to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. It cannot dawdle, lest its only service to gay people be to bury its failures at rescuing the spiritually abused.
“Lord, if you had been there, our brother Matthew Shepard would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.”
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