Just after midnight…October 7, 1998. The wind chill in Wyoming dropped into the twenties. The sky was lit with the twinkling of stars, and most of us slept, dreaming peacefully. Sadly, on that night twenty years ago, a brutal nightmare was just beginning for one poor soul…a nightmare that would touch the heart of our country a few days later. Matthew Shepard, who would have been 42 years old this year, was robbed, pistol whipped and tortured, then tied to a fence and left to die in the freezing cold. He would not be discovered until 6:30pm the next evening, by a cyclist who mistook Matthew, now in a coma he would never wake from, for a scarecrow. Most reports tell us that his face was unrecognizable, covered in blood except for where the tracks of his tears washed them away.
A story so brutal, so heart wrenching, that tears come to my eyes as I type even those few details. For it is a crime I remember well and I can recall watching the coverage of the hospital vigil, the protestors, and his funeral and just asked myself and God over and over again “Why?”. At 21 years old in 1998, I was not unaware of hate crimes, prejudice, or the horrific way some members of our country treated others. However, perhaps because of the age of the victim, perhaps because he had already suffered a brutal assault only 3 years earlier and picked himself up and went on, perhaps because of the sheer violence and unabashed brutality of the crime…right up to the way he was crucified on a picket fence and left to suffer…much like Jesus was left to suffer—this crime shook my soul. And as the 20th anniversary of it fast approaches…my heart still aches and my eyes still fill with sadness when I think of it.
All this time has passed…but how much has changed? We still have today in America, intolerance, hate crimes, violence…are we any better now than we were before that day? If we, parents or educators, mention his name in a classroom or at the dinner table this week, will our children even recognize it? How can we continue to work with the young women and men who will shape tomorrow to teach them that above all else, we are ALL God’s children, made in His image and likeness and that in God’s eyes, we are all special, all capable of making the world a better place, and of changing the tide of intolerance to tolerance with a smile, an outstretched hand, or a caring embrace.
Matthew Shepard had none of those things twenty years ago…however he was not alone. God was with him, just as He is always with all of us. Together, we must work to see each other as God sees us, and see the goodness of God in all. That is how we can best commemorate the senseless tragedy that took place on a cold October night 20 years ago.
Prayers for peace, love and tolerance always.