Life

Matthew Shepard’s Interment Ceremony and the Grace of the Christian Left

The service demonstrated how progressives of faith can transform prayer into action.

Gene Robinson carries the remains of Matthew Shepard following his memorial service.
Rev. Gene Robinson carries the remains of Matthew Shepard following his memorial service at the National Cathedral on Friday in Washington.
Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

Six words encapsulated Matthew Shepard’s interment ceremony in the Washington National Cathedral on Friday. At the end of his homily, the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop elected to the Episcopal Church, had three things to say to “Matt.” (“This will be the part where I cry,” Robinson noted.) The first was his wish for Shepard to gently rest in the cathedral. The second was his reassurance that Shepard was safe now. Before offering the third, he paused. Then, glancing at Shepard’s ashes and the cathedral walls beyond them, a teary Robinson concluded, as if pointing out the most natural idea in the world, “Oh yeah, and Matt—welcome home.”

That homecoming was decades in the making. It came 20 years after Shepard was tied to a fence, tortured, and left for dead on a remote prairie in Laramie, Wyoming, in October 1998 because he was gay. Thousands packed the cathedral to attend the ceremony. More livestreamed it. Shepard’s parents, Dennis and Judy Shepard, both attended; Dennis delivered remarks that emphasized his son’s belief in equality. The ceremony commemorated an event 20 years in the past, but speakers made sure to note its relevance to today. Robinson, clad in rainbow-colored vestments, urged attendees to vote, advocated support for the transgender community, and opened the ceremony by remarking, “This cathedral is actually serious about being a place of prayer for all people.” He welcomed people of all faiths (and none) to the cathedral, exhorting them, “Let the beauty of this service—the words and the music—wash over you, and comfort you in whatever ways you need to be comforted.” Tearing up, Robinson also welcomed the LGBTQ community, saying, “Many of you have been hurt by your own religious communities, and I want to welcome you back.”

Even 20 years after Shepard’s murder, his interment is a politically powerful act in this American moment, one that demonstrates the intersection of Christianity and politically progressive action. How we choose to remember our past—through art, memorials, and other markers and interpretations—is inherently political. There have been plenty of books, plays, songs (with some performed at his interment), and films about Shepard, and he is memorialized in law by the 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. But until now, there were no physical memorials to him, aside from a single memorial bench at the University of Wyoming, where Shepard was a student.

For Shepard’s family, finding a final resting place for him was a fraught endeavor. The specter of violence followed Shepard and his family even to his funeral in 1998, thanks to the Westboro Baptist Church, and his family held onto his remains, fearful of desecration. Interring him at the cathedral, however, allows the Shepards, who are Episcopalian, to share Matthew with the world in a significant, accessible memorial. It also allows them to shield their son from harm, particularly in an Episcopal church—somewhere that Matthew, as Dennis Shepard noted, considered a welcoming, safe, “place of acceptance for anyone who wanted to enter.” Shepard’s final resting place may not be a standalone memorial, but it allows him to be memorialized respectfully and fittingly.

Beyond the specific arrangements of Shepard’s final resting place, his interment sends a message of active support for LGBTQ rights. The National Cathedral is much more than the seat of the Episcopal Church. It serves as the bipartisan backdrop for many intersections of religion and politics, from Sen. John McCain’s funeral to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final Sunday sermon. Its stage commands national significance; only about 200 people are interred there, including figures such as Helen Keller and President Woodrow Wilson. Shepard’s interment cements him as a figure of significance not only to the LGBTQ community but also to the American people. In doing so, the cathedral signals that his fight is Americans’ fight—that LGBTQ rights are American rights.

The Episcopal Church ordains LGBTQ clergy (such as Robinson) and performs nontraditional marriage; the cathedral views LGBTQ equality as “the great civil rights issue of church in the 21st century.” The congregations of neither the cathedral nor the greater Episcopal Church are newcomers to this movement, but Shepard’s interment is still significant. It indicates active outreach to, and embrace of, the LGBTQ community—a community that, as Robinson noted, has not always been welcomed by religious groups. Simultaneously, it sounds this call to the cathedral’s bipartisan audience and urges them to heed it. “If you are here just to pay your respects and to remember Matthew, it’s not enough,” Robinson said, speaking of the power of memory to animate our actions. “If you’re not here to be transformed, you’ve come for the wrong reason.”

Robinson’s call for transformative memory, for Christian love and prayer to become political action, does not simply reflect the magnitude of Shepard’s murder. It also connects Shepard’s interment into a greater modern movement taking place throughout the Episcopal Church, other branches of Christianity, and other faiths entirely. In recent years, particularly since Donald Trump’s election, there has been a rise in faith-driven progressive activism. While Christianity (along with other religions) has been a force behind progressive causes throughout American history, from the abolition of slavery to civil rights, it waned as the conservative evangelical movement emerged as a dominant force in American politics. Yet this spirit now seems to be resurrecting itself in a modern, multifaith incarnation as the religious left. Among the Christian left, from the Red Letter Christians to the Rev. William Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign, this progressive push interprets Jesus’ message as protecting and uplifting the vulnerable and seeks to apply that message to modern life.

“The scripture is very clear about where you have to be to be in the moral center,” Barber told the Guardian. “You have to be on the side of the poor, the working, the sick, the immigrant.” While not a direct counterpart to the Christian right, the Christian left rebuts the right’s use of Christianity to justify its conservative agenda. “We have a moral obligation and a religious obligation to offer a different voice,” Doug Pagitt, executive director of the ongoing Vote Common Good campaign, told the Guardian. “Our faith compels us to speak out.”

A church can be powerful tool for action: It evokes a strong, established moral platform; its hierarchy and structure provide a network for organizing and communication within a given community; it can help with logistics, providing resources, space, and sanctuary. Shepard’s interment represents how these elements can produce a politically powerful act, rooted in compassion and sensitivity, empowering the vulnerable and rebuking the oppressive. Friday’s service marks just one instance of how the Episcopal Church, and other branches of Christianity, will carry on Shepard’s legacy—not only providing a welcoming home for all who need it, but also actively working to create a world where such an unconditional welcome exists everywhere for transgender people, for Jewish people, for all under attack. That work can be complex, difficult, even painful. Or it can be something as simple as welcoming Matt home.