WASHINGTON - The crypt below the National Cathedral in Washington is hushed and protected, just the kind of place a parent might wish for the soul of a child who was tortured and murdered.
Judy and Dennis Shepard took two decades to find a place to lay to rest their son Matthew, ultimately choosing the Washington National Cathedral, a massive Episcopal Church attracting more than 400,000 visitors annually. In 1998, the 21-year-old college freshman was beaten, tied to a fencepost, and left to die in near-freezing temperatures overnight. A week later, he succumbed to injuries from blunt-force trauma.
The family from Wyoming worried for two decades that any gravesite would become a target for hatred and homophobia. Threats persist. On a website quoting Bible scripture and dedicated to condemning gay rights, Matthew Shepard’s image is positioned above electronic flames and a counter indicating his “days in hell.”
“Matt was blind,” Dennis Shepard said at the interment service in the cathedral Friday about his son, who served as an acolyte in the Episcopal Church when he was young. “He did not see skin color. He did not see religion. He did not see sexual orientation. All he saw was a chance to have another friend.
“It’s so important that we now have a home for Matt, a home that others can visit. A home that is safe from haters,” he continued.
WATCH: Matthew Shepard Laid to Rest in National Cathedral
The right time
The Shepards say this is the right time to memorialize their slight, boyish older son because of gains lost, not made, in LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning) rights in the past 20 years.
Recognizing advances — gay marriage is legal and members of the military no longer fear being discharged for sexual preferences that do not align with the mainstream — they point to increases in violence and hate crimes, which the FBI says dipped slightly last year after four years of increase.
The interment is seen as an important political statement, too, at a time when rights are being eroded, the Shepards and others say. While the interment service celebrated human rights and inclusion, the FBI arrested a Florida man, charged with sending pipe bombs this week to a dozen political leaders and media outlets, most of whom represent opposition to Republican administration of President Donald Trump.
Despite saying as a candidate that he would support the LGBTQ community if elected, President Trump has promoted so-called religious freedom laws the LGBTQ community says discriminate against them, from being refused service when ordering wedding cakes to being threatened with removal from the military to diluted protections for transgender employees.
Hollywood celebrities, including former Trump supporter and transgender Caitlyn Jenner, have spoken up.
“The reality is that the trans community is being relentlessly attacked by this president. The leader of our nation has shown no regard for an already marginalized and struggling community,” Jenner wrote in The Washington Post on Oct. 25. “He has made trans people into political pawns as he whips up animus against us in an attempt to energize the most right-wing segment of his party, claiming his anti-transgender policies are meant to ‘protect the country.’ This is politics at its worst.”
The Shepards, too, fault the federal leadership as divisive.
“We have an example of bullying every day from a big, white building in this city,” Dennis Shepard said, alluding to the White House and describing the federal political leadership “a Cabinet of homophobes.”
The Shepards said they chose the cathedral, in part, because the Episcopal Church has embraced inclusivity. Although the National Cathedral, whose towers stretch hundreds of feet into the sky, looks like an impenetrable European cathedral, its details reveal a human touch rarely seen in august buildings: One of the 231 stained-glass windows is dedicated to space travel, and popular gargoyles include Darth Vader and the wife of one of the cathedral’s stonemasons.
Women are not represented only as servants to powerful men. The sitting bishop is Mariann Edgar Budde, since 2011 the ninth and first female bishop of the cathedral. Alongside the many gay men at the interment service were people of various preferences.
As early as 1976, the church declared that “homosexual persons are children of God who have a full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance, and pastoral concern and care of the Church.”
Matthew Shepard was laid to rest alongside Helen Keller, President Woodrow Wilson and 220 others interred there as “a way to honor the work this church has taken on for protections, inclusion and participation of LGBTQ people in our society,” said Alan Yarborough of the Episcopal Church Office of Government Relations.
“It’s also a way to honor LGBTQ people and their presence in the church in a full way, a way to honor that as a sign of hope, and at the same time, to raise awareness to the work that’s left to be done to protect the dignity and worth of LGBQT people. This is part of the past and present engagement in the broader human rights work of the church,” Yarborough said.
Former Bishop Gene Robinson, who in 2003 wore a bulletproof vest when he was consecrated in the Episcopal Church as the first openly gay clergy member, said that social activism has a long history in Christianity that some of today’s churchgoers fail to recognize.
“One of the most common complaints I hear about going to church is politics don’t belong here,” Robinson said. “That would all be fine, except that Jesus was a political person. Virtually everything he said had a political ramification. He was killed by political forces.”
Jesus “wasn’t killed for saying love your neighbor,’” one of the tenets of Christianity, Robinson said. “He was killed because the kind of loving he was talking about was so radical and antithetical to the Roman empires that ruled the world at that time. He was too dangerous. He could have easily mounted a military force to take on Rome.”
“He was one of many dissidents. You can’t follow someone who was such a political figure and not be accused of being political,” he added. “I’m not ashamed of it at all.”
Addressing the thousands at the interment service, Robinson was reduced to tears.
“Be you Jew, Muslim, Hindu or Sikh, you are welcome here. … Let the beauty of this service wash you and comfort you in whatever way you need to be comforted. We welcome those of you who are gay or lesbian, sexual transgender or queer,” he said, garnering a prolonged standing ovation. “Many of you have been hurt by your own religious communities and I want to welcome you back.
“I have three things I want to say to Matt,” Robinson continued. “Gently rest in this place. You are safe now.
“And Matt,” he ended, “welcome home.”
Minutes later, off to the side of the cathedral in a small procession unnoticed by most, Robinson carried Matthew Shepard’s remains in his arms to the crypt.