South Carolina Episcopalians

An Independent Journal of News & Commentary for Anglicans

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"Matt loved the church. He loved the ceremony. He loved the fact that it was a safe place for anyone who wanted to enter. That it was a welcoming place for anyone who wanted to enter." -- Dennis Shepard at the interment of his son at Washington's National Cathedral

October 25, 2018

Proud Our Church Reaches Out to those Once Marginalized

Acolyte Matthew Shepard, laid to rest this week, loved the Episcopal Church

by Wayne Helmly, St. Stephen's, Charleston

Once again I am grateful to God for and proud of The Episcopal Church.

Yesterday a Service of Thanksgiving and Remembrance for Matthew Shepard was held at the National Cathedral in Washington led by Bishops Mariann Budde and Gene Robinson. 
You may find it here.

Matt's ashes were interred at the cathedral twenty years after his death. Why so long? Because Matt's parents, Dennis and Judy Shepard, feared that his cremains would be at risk of desecration.   Let that sink in, especially those of you who are parents:  Grieving parents afraid to lay their son's remains to rest for twenty years because they were concerned about violence and destruction, even in death.

Matthew grew up in The Episcopal Church where he attended Sunday School, youth group, and served as an acolyte. 

In 1998 when he was 21, he was found badly beaten and barely breathing, tied to a split-rail fence on a dirt road near Laramie, Wyoming.  He'd spent 18 hours there in the near-freezing cold before a cyclist discovered him, at first mistaking him for a scarecrow. He died five days later. Police said his attackers targeted him because he was gay.

Bishop Robinson has worked with the Shepard family for a long time because they chose to turn Matt's savage murder into a force for good. These grieving parents and Bishop Robinson were instrumental in the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, expanding the federal law to include crimes based on a victim's sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.

Violence and murder are a part of the LGBT story that even our most ardent allies are uncomfortable talking about.

Yesterday however, the Episcopal Church faced the reality of the LGBT community's physical peril head-on.  And no one blinked.  I was also grateful that Considering Matthew Shepard played a prominent role in this service.

In his very emotional sermon (found at 1:12 on the video), based on "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" from Matthew's gospel, Bishop Robinson said that just before he strapped on his bullet-proof vest to be consecrated Bishop of New Hampshire (another indication of the threats we sometimes face), a note from Judy Shepard was handed to him. The note read, "I know that Matthew will be smiling down upon you tomorrow."

He went on to challenge all of us in his sermon. He pointed out that we humans tend to label people different from ourselves as The Other, which is code for "Not really human," and once so labeled, it gives tacit permission to do "anything to them that you like."

We LGBT people know that, so do African Americans. James Byrd, Jr., the other person for whom the above mentioned hate crime bill was named, was an African American from Texas who was dragged behind a pickup truck for miles until he was decapitated simply because he was a man of color.

Let me bring this closer to home.

Though they try now to avoid the subject now, those who left The Episcopal Church here did so because of animus toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Christians. In fact. a parish a few blocks from St. Stephen's has some very explicit requirements for service in their church right now. You may find them here.

I found myself wondering if churches such as this one, that write paragraph after paragraph about how unacceptable they believe LGBT people are, give even a hair shirk of thought that they may be implicitly giving permission for people to do "anything [to us] that they like," including physically harming and murdering us.

People who do not walk in our shoes might call that scapegoating. But that is because they do not live our reality.  I believe that their words are simply another form of violence and encourage more of the same.

As my husband, Joey, and I sat holding hands while we watched the service, I wondered why anyone would would care what a married same-sex couple was doing on a quiet Friday evening.  We were watching a church service, for heaven's sake.

But make no mistake, they do!

And the LGBT community is under attack right now on the federal level, as well as on the church level.  The Trump Administration has taken steps to restrict protections, including trying to reinstate a ban on transgender individuals in the military and rescinding guidance for schools receiving federal funding on how to treat transgender students.  Trump has also installed dozens of conservative judges and his administration and is drafting language that would limit the definition of gender to only male or female at birth, stripping the transgender community of protection under civil rights law.

Bishop Robinson said honoring Matt's memory was not enough, he implored us all to go vote. AMEN. 

Through tears, the bishop concluded with this, "I have three things I want to say to Matt: Gently rest in this place. You are safe now. And Matt, welcome home.

Thanks be to God for the life of Matthew Shepard, for the bravery and servanthood exemplified by his parents, Dennis and Judy, along with Bishops Budde and Robinson, and for the Episcopal Church whose walk (at least yesterday) matched her talk.

Love and Peace

There's power in love.--The Most Rev. Michael B. Curry (2018)