Updated 11:40 a.m. ET
On a chilly night in Wyoming 20 years ago this month, a young man named Matthew Shepard was beaten and left to die. Shepard was gay, and his killing was widely seen as a crime of hate.
Friday, his ashes will be placed in a crypt at the Washington National Cathedral.
A public service at the cathedral was led by the Right Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, Episcopal bishop of Washington and the Right Rev. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay man elected a bishop in the Episcopal Church. It will be followed by a private interment service for the Shepard family.
Shepard's parents' requested that their sons ashes be interred at the cathedral only after deciding against other burial sites for fear they may be desecrated.
Robinson tearfully welcomed attendees, especially those who are LGBT, saying "many of you have been hurt by your own religious communities, and I want to welcome you back."
"For Matthew to come back to church ... is a remarkable step forward," he said.
Shepard's father Dennis thanked the crowd for attending. "Matthew loved the church," he said, "he loved the fact that it was a safe place for anyone who wanted to enter."
"It's so important that we now have a home for Matt ... A home that is safe from haters. A home that he loved dearly."
Robinson also offered lengthy praise of Shepard's parents, who have devoted their lives to activism and created a foundation in their son's name. "By the grace of God, they decided they were going to turn this horrendous event into something good."
In October 1998, Shepard was beaten unconscious by two men he had encountered in a bar in Laramie, Wyo. After robbing him, the men left 21-year-old Shepard tied to a fence on the outskirts of town. Eighteen hours passed before he was found by passing bicyclists. He died from his injuries five days later without regaining consciousness.
Prosecutors alleged that Shepard was targeted simply because he was gay. The men charged with his murder, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, were sentenced to life in prison, where they remain.
In the years since, the circumstances surrounding the case have been disputed, but Shepard's murder has nevertheless come to be seen as a classic hate crime, highlighting anti-gay bigotry. Four months before Shepard was killed, white supremacists in Texas had tied an African-American man, James Byrd Jr., to a pickup truck and dragged him to his death. Outrage over the two brutal murders ultimately led to the passage of the Shepard/Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009.
The act expanded an existing federal hate-crimes law to include crimes based on a victim's sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. Shepard's killing became the basis for a play, The Laramie Project, which brought widespread attention to the problem of homophobia. Shepard's parents, Dennis and Judy Shepard, established the Matthew Shepard Foundation and became activists for gay rights and more vigorous prosecution of hate crimes.
Shepard's funeral in 1998 was met with noisy protests by anti-gay militants, and for 20 years his parents were reluctant to bury their son's ashes for fear any gravesite would be desecrated. The decision to seek his interment at the National Cathedral came as a result of the Shepards' friendship with Bishop Robinson. Robinson contacted the cathedral dean, the Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, and Washington's Episcopal bishop, Mariann Edgar Budde, both of whom readily agreed to the placement of Shepard's ashes in the cathedral crypt.
"The Shepards realized they had not come to full closure" over their son's murder, Robinson told NPR in an interview prior to the interment ceremony. "They began to think this might be the time to lay Matthew to rest."
In addition, Robinson said, Shepard's interment at the cathedral is significant for the LGBTQ community in the United States, which has faced hostility from many people in conservative faith circles.
"Let's be honest," Robinson said. "Churches and synagogues and mosques have been the source of our greatest pain as LGBTQ people." Robinson himself was vilified after revealing his sexual orientation, and his election as Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire in 2003 led to a split in the U.S. Episcopal Church.
"For Matthew to come back to church ... is a remarkable step forward," Robinson said. "It's the cathedral saying some churches are different. Some churches have been on this journey with you, and we will not only welcome you, we will celebrate you."
Bishop Budde similarly sees the interment of Matthew Shepard in the cathedral crypt as having broad significance. Other notable figures whose remains are there include President Woodrow Wilson; Navy Adm. George Dewey; and Helen Keller and her teacher, Anne Sullivan.
"There will be young people from all across the country, having tours here and being educated here," she said. "When they pass by, they will see a plaque in his honor. They will see that this is a church that has learned from the example of violence that we need to stand and be counted as among those who work for justice and the full embrace of all God's children."
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