(Guest Post by NEA Vice President Becky Pringle)
On the last Friday in October, I solemnly entered the Washington National Cathedral, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his last Sunday sermon, where people have gathered for 100 years to memorialize our nation’s leaders and come together at times of celebration and suffering.
On this October day, I was there for Matthew Shepard’s final home-going. Twenty years after their son’s murder in Laramie, Wyo., Judy and Dennis Shepard decided that this historic cathedral was the perfect place to inter his ashes.
Matthew was murdered in 1998 by two men who didn’t know their gentle, inquisitive son, but hated him anyway. The murderers couldn’t see his humanity. They beat the University of Wyoming student for being a gay man, the person God created him to be.
I remember feeling sickened as I learned the details of Matthew’s death. My father was a history teacher, so he made sure we knew the unvarnished story of our nation, the pain of oppression and discrimination. I understood what the worst among us were capable of. Yet, I was horrified that this could happen at the dawn of a new century.
The murder made me stronger in my resolve as a teacher to speak up and advocate for my LGBTQ students, to let them know they were safe in my classroom and on my hallway, to show them I was their champion. Because our students are always watching. I didn’t know at the time my daughter was one of those students.
I also understood that in order to stand in the gap for them—with them—I had to listen, read, and engage in courageous conversations. I had to learn. Continuously. It is a journey of awareness I invite my fellow educators to take with me. NEA’s Human and Civil Rights department provides many resources to assist educators who are willing to learn. But don’t stop there. Talk to your students, reach out to community partners. Become warriors, as Judy and Matthew Shepard have.
After their son’s murder, no one would have blamed the Shepards for turning inward to grieve and heal within a tight, comforting circle. Instead, they have spent these past 20 years helping make life better for other people’s children. My child. They stood up when they wanted to wail. They showed up when they wanted to pull the covers over their heads and believe it wasn’t true.
They have generously shared their son’s beautiful life and awful death with all of us. The Shepards added the fire of their own pain and loss to an already blazing movement for LGBTQ dignity and rights. In the book The Wild Edge of Sorrow, author Francis Weller aptly describes what these heartbroken parents have exemplified for two decades: “It takes outrageous courage to face outrageous loss.” They showed it once again last week.
The family held their heads high as they walked into the National Cathedral on this gray October day, the pain of loss still etched deeply into their faces. Two thousand of us mourned—and remembered—inside the hauntingly beautiful, cavernous church where “Morning Has Broken” uplifted us even as we cried for Matthew.
He grew up in the Episcopal Church, a faith community that has been among the most welcoming to LGBTQ members. For his parents, it seemed fitting that he would be interred within these walls. It would send a message of acceptance and love.
Outside of the cathedral’s columbarium, there is a public chapel. Here, Matthew will rest in peace. But he will continue to be a powerful symbol in our ongoing struggle for LGBTQ rights. Judy and Dennis Shepard will now have to travel 1,800 miles to visit their son’s ashes, but they are making that sacrifice for all of us.
Sitting in the National Cathedral, as a middle-school science teacher, vice president of NEA, mother of two children, and a grandmother, I reflected on the distance we’ve come, and how far we have yet to travel.
After Matthew’s murder, the Shepards joined forces with the family of James Byrd, Jr., a black man in Jasper, Tex. who was murdered by white supremacists just months before Matthew’s death. Byrd’s killers beat him mercilessly and then dragged him behind a pickup truck until he was decapitated.
The families’ efforts led to the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, signed into law by President Obama. But, speaking with a reporter just last week, Judy Shephard observed: “Now we find ourselves at ground zero again.”
Even as we communed together in the peace-filled, love-filled sanctuary last month, I couldn’t help but feel sad and angry about the truth of that sentiment.
The day before Matthew’s memorial service, a white supremacist in Louisville, Ky. shot and killed two African American senior citizens. Earlier in the week, a white supremacist in Florida mailed bombs to Democrats and critics Donald Trump has vilified.
The day after Matthew’s service would end up being the culmination of a week of domestic terrorism: A white supremacist yelling “All Jews must die” murdered 11 people, the oldest of whom was 97, during service at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Our leaders, for good or ill, set the tone for how we treat each other and for much of what happens in communities across America. Tweeting and talking about “enemies of the people” will eventually inspire those who are already swimming in hatred to threaten, act, and kill.
That’s one of the reasons Mel House, a member of the NEA Board of Directors from California, felt so strongly about attending the memorial last week. Mel took the red-eye to D.C. for the service, then turned around and took another overnight flight back home a few hours later.
In 1998, Mel was a young teacher who was not yet out and had no real friends in town with whom to share his sadness about Matthew. Mel writes:
“There was nowhere to go, to reflect, to say goodbye, to tell Matthew whatever needed to be said. Until now. Matthew is still relevant, for different reasons now than then. And he is finally home. He is finally safe. May he rest forever in the comfort of the walls of the National Cathedral, where others may sit with him, and reflect.”
In the wake of the hatred that killed Matthew Shepard 20 years ago and recently claimed other victims, Retired Bishop Gene Robinson preached during the service that we honor victims of hate and tyranny through action. We can take a moment to reflect and mourn, and then…we must get to work. And we must vote.
Those who are elected to positions of power either will or will not enact policies that protect everyone. They either will or will not use their words to unite rather than to divide. They either will or will not see each of us as worthy of dignity, respect, and protection. On Election Day, the choices are ours to make. Our students are depending on us to elect policymakers who will fight for public education and for them, and to reclaim the soul of America. It’s in our hands.
From the Washington National Cathedral’s observation gallery—located at the city’s highest point—you can see for miles in each direction. To the south are the federal buildings where our laws are implemented, the U.S. Capitol where they are debated, and the White House where they are signed.
But if you look closely enough, you can see much more than those hallowed places. There in the distance, even on a gray October day, you can see the light.