From the Worldwide Faith News archives

UCC/Student's death mourned

From "Barb Powell"<>
Date 22 Oct 1998 14:09:26

Office of Communication
United Church of Christ 
October 19, 1998                 
Andy Lang, press contact               
(216) 736-2215
On the World Wide Web:
For immediate release
UCC mourns Matthew Shepard's death;
congregations think about the future 
CLEVELAND -- When Tim Brown heard the news about
Matthew Shepard's death, he felt an immediate stab of pain.
     The horror of Matthew's brutal death recalled a painful
memory from 1988 when Brown was 22.  While walking alone
on a street after leaving a gay bar one night, several men
attacked him.  "There were 12 or 15 of them. I never got an
accurate count or really a good glimpse. Acid was sprayed in
my face, and my left contact lens dissolved in my eye."
             Brown recovered from that attack -- amazingly with his
eyesight -- with a much more personal view of  hate crimes. 
He now directs the youth outreach program for the United     
Church of Christ Coalition for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and
Transgender Concerns.  He says that Christian congregations
can teach tolerance to a new generation by helping teenagers     
understand that insults against gays and lesbians are
             Verbal violence in schools and churches can escalate
into physical violence later, he says.  "I wonder about the
upbringing  and education of those who assaulted me and the     
ones who murdered Matthew Shepard.  What were their
experiences as children?  Where did they learn it was
acceptable to physically and verbally assault someone?  Did a
church never challenge these beliefs?  Were teasing, taunting,
hitting gay students in their youth groups and Sunday School
classes overlooked?" 
           Shepard's death was not an isolated incident.  The
Federal Bureau of Investigation reports an increase in hate
crimes throughout the country motivated not only by
homophobia but also by racial, religious and ethnic prejudice. 
In 1996 there were 8,759 hate crimes ranging from vandalism
to murder.  Five blacks were killed, along with two Hispanics
and two gay men. Racial attacks counted for the largest
number; more than 4,600 crimes committed against African
Americans.  A total of 1,231 hate crimes were committed
against homosexuals and bisexuals and 1,209 attacks against
Jews were recorded.
        Throughout the 1.4-million-member United Church of
Christ, congregations are asking what they can do to stem the
tide of hate crime in the United States.
       The Rev. Mitzi N. Eilts, the national director of the United
Church of Christ Coalition for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and
Transgender Concerns, outlines three steps churches can take:
     *Join local candlelight vigils Nov. 1 in honor of
     Matthew Shepard and all the victims of hate crimes.
     Contact the Fellowship of Reconciliation at
     914-358-4601or by e-mail at <>
     for information. Organize a vigil if one is  not already
     scheduled in your community.

     *Raise the issue of hate crime with your local and state
     officials. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force
     (NGLTF) provides resources to inform communities
      about models for hate-crime legislation. Contact Tracy
     Conaty at (202) 332-6483, extension 3303, or visit the
      NGLTF Web site at
      *Become  an "Open and Affirming" (ONA)
      congregation. Churches become "open and affirming"
      when they adopt a public commitment to welcome all
      people into membership without regard to sexual
      orientation. ONA churches send a clear signal to
      lesbians and gays that the congregation is one place in a
      dangerous world where they will be safe. The Rev. Ann
      B. Day of the ONA office can be reached  at (508)
      856-9316, or by e-mail at <>.
     While Shepard's parents prepared to bury their son in
Casper, Wyoming, UCC members joined vigils throughout the
country.  At Casper's First Congregational United Church of
Christ, the young student's death hit some members hard: both
his former Cub Scout leader and the principal of the junior high
school Shepard attended are members of the church.  Shepard
was a student at UCC-related Catawba College in North
Carolina before he resumed his studies at the University of
       "Our community has a record of standing up against
bigotry," says the Rev. R. B. Saunders, pastor of First
Congregational.  "Several years ago a person who wanted to
establish an Aryan Nations base here was run out of town."  A
hate-crimes bill was blocked in the Wyoming legislature
because it mentioned violence against homosexuals, but
Saunders now thinks the bill will pass.  "Hopefully it [Matthew
Shepard's death] can change the atmosphere.  Perhaps these
young men [who allegedly murdered Shepard] felt that
homosexuals are fair game.  A law against hate crimes will at
least send a clear message that the community will not tolerate
attacks based on race or sexual orientation.  And these attacks
will not be tolerated here!"
       Shepard's murder has sent shock waves of revulsion
through the state, which according to the FBI has one of the
lowest rates of hate crime in the country.  When Shepard was
buried on Friday the University of Wyoming was closed as an
expression of grief.  To show their belief in diversity and
tolerance, the school's sports teams said they will wear a yellow
and green symbol on their uniforms in Matthew's memory at
every game for the rest of the season   yellow signifying
non-violence and green for peace.
       United Church of Christ President Paul H. Sherry called
Shepard's murder "a sad and shocking reminder of the power of
prejudice, stereotypes and homophobia to damage and
sometimes end lives.
       "We mourn his tragic death," Sherry said, "and join our
hearts in prayers for his family and friends, his classmates, for
the alleged perpetrators and their families, and for all others
whose lives have been ended or forever changed because of
hate crimes of any kind.
         "We cannot be silent in the face of such injustice not as
individuals, not as the church, not as Christians.
         "We call upon our local churches to extend the inclusive
love of Christ to gay, lesbian and bisexual persons who, in this
time, are vulnerable to the violence of hate crimes, and to
witness in their communities that any kind of hate inspired
violence against persons is intolerable."
     Meanwhile, Matthew Shepard's family and friends struggle
to make sense of his death.  At the university where Shepard
lived the last months of his life, the student newspaper, The
Branding Iron, published a simple obituary: 
          Born Dec. 1, 1976, in Casper, he was the oldest son of
            Judy Peck Shepard and Dennis Shepard.
            While living in Casper, he attended Crest Hill Grade
            School, Dean Morgan Junior High and completed his
            sophomore year at Natrona County High School.
            He was a member and an acolyte in St. Mark's
            Episcopal Church.
            He attended the last two years of high school at th           
           American School in Switzerland (TASIS) in Lugano,
          Switzerland, where he graduated in 1995. While at
          TASIS, he traveled extensively throughout Europe.
          After graduation from high school, he attended
          Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C., and Casper
          College. He then moved to Denver, where he worked
          several jobs.
          He was attending the University of Wyoming, majoring
          in political science/foreign relations with a minor in
          languages at the time of his death.
          He enjoyed the theater and had parts in several Casper
          College and Stage III Theater plays. He was also quite
          active in politics and campaigned for several
          He was selected as the student representative for the
          Wyoming Environmental Council.
          He enjoyed soccer, swimming, running, camping,
          hunting, fishing and snow skiing, as well as dancing
          and theater. 

       The Shepard family has asked that contributions to the
Matthew W. Shepard Memorial Fund be sent to First National
Bank, Account 1926083, P.O. Box 578, Fort Collins, Colo.,
     For further information on the UCC Coalition for Lesbian,
Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns' youth outreach
programs, contact Timothy Brown, coordinator of the
Youth and Young Adult Program at 1005 East 9th Ave., #102;
Broomfield, Colo., 80020; phone (303) 439-2698; e-mail
<>; or on the World Wide Web at
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