My Time in the Presence of Judy

Editor's note: Judy Shepard appeared at Mercyhurst's Mary D'angelo Performing Arts Center April 3rd, 2001 with singer-songwriter Randy Driscoll and filmmaker (and Mercyhurst Alumnus) Brent Scarpo for a screening of his documentary Journey to a Hate Free Millennium: Stories of Compassion and Hope.

by Gary N. Snyder

Matthew Shepard was the victim of hate. Two young men decided to "befriend" Matthew and took him outside Laramie, Wyoming to an open field where they tied him to a fence, brutally tortured him, beat him, pistol whipped him and left him alone on a cold October night, after they took his wallet and shoes. Matthew was found 18 hours later by a passing cyclist and eventually received medical attention where his body was connected to machines to sustain bodily functions. He died Monday, October 12, 1998 at 12:53 a.m. in the hospital with his family at his side.

Meeting Judy

When I heard that Judy Shepard, the mother of Matthew Shepard, was coming to Erie to speak, I knew I was going to attend and be reconnected with my real future. As destiny would have it, I was given the opportunity and the pleasure of meeting someone special. For several years now, I have been waiting for this time and fate didn't let me down. I don't expect people to understand what I mean when I talk about fate, destiny, and my future. I simply say that over time I have come to learn to that little voice inside me. Every now and then it speaks; this time it said "Go."

I arrived early for the speaking engagement to be greeted by an acquaintance that was going to say opening remarks for the presentation. It was titled 'Journey into a Hate Free Millennium' based on the documentary film from New Light Media. The engagement was to feature three speakers: Brent Scarpo, a Mercyhurst Alumni ('84), who brought the entire 78 minute documentary that he co-produced, Randi Driscoll, a LA singer/songwriter who was here to perform a song she wrote in response to Matthew's death, and Judy Shepard. Just before the program started, I greeted several acquaintances and friends of mine that had arrived in attendance. Together we discussed the 'ordinance' that is currently tabled (as of this writing) by the local County Council. I grabbed extra copies of the newsletter and inserts in support of passing the ordinance to give to those I saw there. My acquaintance, the opening speaker, previously had dinner with Brent, Randi, and Judy, and informed me that he lightly touched on the subject of the ordinance and did not want to create an atmosphere to 'beat a dead horse,' I agreed. Hence forth, I decided not to discuss the issue with her directly. A better time and place would accommodate itself.

Brent began the program with some personal background stories of attending Mercyhurst and how Dr. Garvey personally talked with him during freshman orientation to have him stay on at the college; Brent had decided it was not the place for him initially. He went on to explain that after attending his years there, at graduation his mother gave him a silver thimble as his going away present. His mother gave it to him and said that if he could "Fill it full with love, care, and respect for yourself, then I can sleep at night and I won't need to worry about you." He continued to explain that every time he ever felt adversity in his life, he would take the thimble out of his pocket (he carries it everywhere with him to this day) and remember what his mother said. She was right; he would survive.

Brent went on to explain, "The worst form of hate in this world is that which you will never know." This could be the job you didn't get, the living arrangement you were denied, the things you wanted to buy - all because of something about you the other person did not like about you, a personal prejudice - hate. In these circumstances, we are all victims of hate and discrimination. These are living examples of 'the worst form of hate' because it truly is 'that which you will never know.' With that though in mind, Brent then introduced Randi Driscoll to perform her song that she had written response to Matthew's death.

And Judy Cried

While we listened to Randi Driscoll sing her song 'What Matters' for everyone there, I sat two seats away from Mrs. Shepard. We had only an arms distance between us. I could tell that she is someone who is not easily adjusted to being near strangers this closely. She's not phobic, just protective - how could one not be after losing her own son? Judy is said to believe that the song stands for what The Matthew Shepard Foundation is about and believes in. Randi had written the song in response to her grief and torture over seeing the media coverage for what happened to Matthew and his family.

Randi started with a personal rendition of Amazing Grace that led into a truly touching performance her song 'What Matters.' My body tingled and the hairs all over stood on end. I had to smile with joy and pride in hearing the craft of talent that came from the heart. Randi truly is artistic and will continue to go very far in helping others understand how hate, intolerance, and ignorance need to be stopped. I think Judy agrees. I know the tears that she shed while listening to Randi spoke volumes about the love and beauty that exists all around.

After her performance, we then suspended time and found ourselves transported into the hearts, the thoughts, and the reality of people we had yet to know and understand personally. Brent's one question to the audience before the viewing the documentary was "Are you a part of the problem? Or are you a part of the solution?" Brent feels that if everyone had at least a thimble full of 'Love, care, and respect for yourself' the people who commit crimes of hate, prejudice and discrimination would have nothing to do. For they too, would have a thimble full of love, care and respect for themselves, which would allow us to evolve into a better world. Brent had arranged for the audience to view the entire 78-minute documentary. He explained that the usual format is to present a 35-minute educational version with more audience participation for the presentation. This other version of the program would be done at Gannon University the following night.

The documentary interviewed Judy and Dennis Shepard, Matthew's parents. It also focused on two other families from victims of hate crimes. He interviewed James Byrd Jr.'s family. James was beaten, chained, dragged behind a truck on 2 miles of dirt and paved roads in Jasper, Texas until his death by decapitation. Then the perpetrators continued to drive his body another mile down a paved road to leave it at the doorstep of a black congregated church across from a black cemetery. They did all this because he was black and they were forming a new hate group in Jasper. James' murder was a message. Brent also spoke with Darrell and Craig Scott, father and brother to Rachel Scott, one of the thirteen victims shot and killed by students known as the 'trench coat mafia' at the Columbine High Massacre in Littleton, Colorado.

The documentary is real and moving. It does not leave the audience to pretend in their own mind what happened to these victims. The families tell the stories from their hearts and their pain. Through their words and tears they reiterate the details of what happened to them and their loved ones. One cannot help but be disturbed by the brutal cruelty that one of our own fellow humans is capable of committing.

To understand how this hate develops and where some of it comes from, Brent also spoke with T. J. Leyden, a former Neo-Nazi Skinhead member. T. J. explained his history attending camps and activities for hate groups. He gave examples of how they would commit hate crimes and choose their victims.

Also, he revealed how hate is a taught behavior. It starts young, in his case with his own child, and eventually can kill everyone around them. T.J. is now reformed and teaches students of all ages about hate and how his experiences have helped him eventually see that what he was doing was wrong. I knew that Judy had seen the documentary before, but Brent's craft in celluloid still touches the heart. I imagine that watching home movie footage she had given to Brent to use brought up memories and more for her. Judy, at the center of herself, is a human being, a mother, a wife, a person who breathes the same air we do, walks the same streets we do, lives in the same world we do. Her life changed greatly when destiny came to her in a phone call across the ocean to awake her and her husband at 5am in Saudi Arabia. I imagine she relives that day repeatedly at times. I know that the pain of losing a loved one never leaves. It just changes with time, space, and what you do with your life.

That pain resurfaces itself from time to time. It did while watching the documentary. Judy cried quiet tears. Tears that slowly collect and release themselves to travel down a face flush with emotion. Politely, she wiped them away. If I had a tissue, I would have offered one. It may have broken the distance between us, but alas we kept our spaces to ourselves. Sometimes there is something to be said for respect of the individual.

And Judy spoke

After the documentary, Brent touchingly introduced Mrs. Shepard. I think, Judy Shepard is not a woman you would describe as a star or even what one would think of when you meet someone of 'public' celebrity status. Honestly, Judy is simple, quiet, and polite to everyone around her. She's your next-door neighbor you can borrow sugar from if you want. She's an educated mother whose life has taken her on an amazing journey. She is not someone that you would pick out of a crowd to be a person who now tours colleges and cities speaking on hate and its effect on the world we live in. She is just like us. She is a beautiful and humble human being.

She started her segment of the presentation by explaining that she never really is sure what to say. She had not watched the documentary in its entirety for some time. Yet every time she does, it brings forth emotions and feelings that matter to the heart. Judy said that she feels Brent helps answer our questions on 'What is hate? Where does it come from? How does it affect us? and most importantly, What can we do?'

She chooses to travel and speak. Judy brings forth a message. Her message is that now is the 'time to make a change.' There is already too much hate in the world. 'When we let hate go unchecked. . . . we let them all down, perpetrator and victim. It is our responsibility to try and make a difference.'

How can we make a difference? Start with Brent's last quote in the documentary, "The change begins with me." Judy feels that the 'glory is within all of us [sic]. Once you let it out, you have to put it to good use.' She illustrated through examples that as one person you can change the world. Mahatma Gandhi was one man. Mother Theresa was one woman. Martin Luther King was one man. Nelson Mandela is just one man. One the subject of politics, Judy said she prefers to not get involved. But she recognizes that legislation is needed. Considering the ordinance issue our community is facing, she feels that 'It is shameful that we have to have legislation to say that it is wrong to hate and discriminate.' Her plea is that everyone 'please take a stand. Let the people around you know that it isn't acceptable. This is your responsibility to make the world a safer place.'

Matthew came out to her at the age of 18, three years before he died. He decided in his own time and space when to tell his parents about his feelings on his sexuality and how that was important to him. After explaining how she and her husband dealt with Matthew's coming out, Judy believes that 'Your goal in life is to be the best and happiest you can be. Be who you are. Share who you are with the rest of the world.' Come out. Come out to yourself. Come out to your family. Come out to your friends. Be who you are and don't hide in the closet of fear. Take pride in who you are through and through.

In closing, Judy illustrated her thoughts that if the corporate world of gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals would come out and be true to themselves, their lives, and the world we live in would be a better place. Maybe Matthew would still be here today. 'It's fear and ignorance that killed Matthew. If fear is shed, the violence will go with it.' Acceptance of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals would not allow fear and ignorance to exist as hate.

By being who we are and not hiding that from others, we treat ourselves with dignity and respect. When we treat ourselves with dignity and respect, so will the world we live in. It takes one person to change the world. The journey begins with me. The journey begins with you.

Internships are available for college and university students currently enrolled in all degrees at The Matthew Shepard Foundation. Interns will be working directly with Brent Scarpo and Judy Shepard in passionately supporting the foundation's mission. Check the website listed below for more information.

On May 4th, 2001 - NBC is to begin shooting The Official True Story of Matthew Shepard, produced by Goldie Hawn. This movie is endorsed and supported by the Shepards. Together they have approved the script personally and will be involved with the project for its entirety. Stockard Channing will be portraying the role of Judy Shepard with Sam Waterston portraying the role of Dennis Shepard. Currently they are still casting for the part of Matthew. The movie is expected to air this coming fall so check your local listings for announcements.

The following internet sites can help you be active in stopping hate and the crimes committed:

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