I happen to be in Wyoming when it happened. Brad and I were back home keynoting the conference we grew up going to.
Not only was it on the local news but the national news as well. Matthew (everyone I know just called him Matt) Shepherd was dead. His body had finally given in to the beating that he had received 5 days earlier.
My heart broke for his family. Such an unspeakable and sudden loss.
My heart broke for his friends. I didn’t know him personally, but many of my friends did. Both of my siblings had sang with him in a traveling children’s choir. One of my friend’s daughters is named in his memory.
My heart broke for my home state of Wyoming knowing that people all over the country were thinking because of the actions of two men we were going to be seen as a bunch of back water closed minded hicks (which is so far from the truth).
Snow in October in Wyoming is not unusual. Half of the Halloweens of my childhood where spent tracking through the snow.
As a child the first snow of the year was always the best. Because it was still warmish it was a very wet snow. The flakes were giant. They would hit the ground and melt in an instance. Then as the snow built up on the ground it was the prefect for snowballs.
No mater was going on in class someone would just yell out, “Look! It’s snowing!” For a moment there was nothing any teacher could do to get our attention as we all looked outside (or even rushed up to the window).
That week it was different. It was just snow, but it was SNOW!
It came down for hours and it piled up deep!
I was so happy. Not the happiness of a child for the first snow. But the very adult happiness that meant that I-70 and I-80 were closing down making hard for the folks from Westboro (I refuse to call them a church) to get to the funeral.
I know it seems silly and was really just a coincidence, but it really did feel like a holy snow.
As I remember it, the local officials said that everyone has the right to free speech, but that their resources were limited. They could only guarantee the safety of the “protestors” inside a confined area. Bright orange snow fence was set up. In my mind I remember it being called the “free speech zone”, but that could be just what I called it.
Some how a few of them had made it through the snow. Amazing, they risked their lives to drive on treacherous roads to show up at a funeral of a slain boy to sow hate.
The “protestors” did their part and stayed in their little pen.
Earlier that day the Catholic youth ministry community that I had grown up with decided that something needed to be done. It was a simple act and a beautiful act.
Candles in hand, a row of people created a barrier between the “protestors” and the mourners as they entered St. Mark’s. I have no idea if it helped. I have no idea if created a barrier. I have no idea if it stopped any pain.
But it felt like the only thing that could be done in that moment. A desperate attempt to shield mourners from the hate.
13 years later I can still remember that day so vividly. I remember the snow. I remember the heart broken faces. I remember the peace and calm of the face of the people holding hateful signs, as if they were the normal ones and we were the ones who had broken from reality.
That night a good friend made dinner and we sat around a table telling stories of the past times in youth ministry, and family, and school, and just being friends and family.
Trying to make sense of it all. Trying to find peace.
I concluded one thing from it all. Peace isn’t something you do. It isn’t something you create.
Peace is something you are. It is not something you are once. It is something you need to choose to be over and over again.