WASHINGTON – Bells chimed softly, a flute slowly played “Morning Has Broken” and thousands filled the soaring nave of the Washington National Cathedral for the interment of Matthew Shepard, the young man whose murder 20 years ago came to symbolize the hatred many Americans have harbored toward gay people.
The poignant service was at once a funeral and a celebration of life, a moment of closure for Shepard's loved ones and of remembrance for all those moved by the murder of Shepard, who was pistol-whipped and left for dead in a remote Wyoming prairie.
Presiding over the worship service at the second-largest cathedral in the country, in front of a crowd of about 2,025 people, was Bishop Gene Robinson, whose elevation in the early 2000s as the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church marked another huge – and controversial – milestone in the push for LGBT equality.
Earlier in the service, Matthew Shepard's father, Dennis Shepard, thanked those in cathedral, and the scores of others watching the live-streamed service online, for “helping us take Matt home.”
The father recalled his son's love for the Episcopal church, growing up in Sunday school and as an acolyte in their church at home in Wyoming.
“Matt was blind, just like this beautiful house of worship,” Dennis Shepard said.
“He did not see skin color. He did not see religion. He did not see sex orientation. All he saw was a chance to have another friend.”
For Shepard's family and friends, the interment served as a celebration of his life that wasn't possible at the tumultuous time of his 1998 murder, when anti-gay protesters screamed at funeral-goers.
Tensions were so fierce at his funeral that his father wore a bulletproof vest under his blue suit.