Johan Sebastian Bach’s oratorio St. Matthew Passion is usually performed in or around Holy Week. In many Christian churches, the passion from St. Matthew’s gospel was read on Palm Sunday, last Sunday, the first day of Holy Week.

That same day, selections from Matthew Shepard’s passion were performed at Unity Temple. Considering Matthew Shepard, by Craig Hella Johnson, is a powerful choral work in its own right, but it’s also about the “murder of the century” (last century) and echoes the passion of St. Matthew.

In early October, 1998, Matt Shepard, a gay, first-year student at the University of Wyoming was left tied to a fence on a remote road outside Laramie after being savagely beaten. The two young men who committed the atrocity were soon arrested and each received two consecutive life sentences.

News of the murder spread quickly. It would not be a stretch to assume that everyone reading this is familiar with the heinous hate-filled crime that occurred 25 years ago this October. BBC News, in a report on the 20th anniversary in 2018, described it as “the murder that changed America.”

If so, partial credit goes to Hella Johnson’s first concert-length work. According to the executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, Jason Marsden, the oratorio is “by far the most intricate, beautiful and unyielding artistic response to this notorious anti-gay hate crime.”

But it didn’t change America enough. Although the federal Hate Crimes Prevention Act, also known as the Matthew Shepard Act, was signed into law by President Barack Obama on Oct. 28, 2009, and similar state laws followed, the country has slipped backward since you-know-who made it OK for some Americans to hate again.

As Unity Temple’s music director, Martha Swisher, pointed out before the performance, “The ACLU is currently tracking 426 anti-LGBTQ+ bills. This is by far the highest number of such legislation in the history of the U.S. Practices have been put in place criminalizing and banning health care for transgender youth, banning gender-affirming care and refusing care for the queer community, not to mention censorship of education and awareness in many schools and communities. On March 31st, we honor International Transgender Day of Visibility, acknowledging the 1.6 million trans youth and adults across the United States.”

I was a little wary of this musical work, having heard too many well-intentioned but over-the-top treatments of tragic events, which try too hard to make audiences feel something. Hella Johnson and his artistic collaborators, however, focused on the real goal: bringing Matthew Shepard vividly to life, pulling off as Swisher noted, “a kind of resurrection through art.” The result is deeply moving in its simplicity, as we hear from Matthew’s own journal, which serve as lyrics in the song, “Ordinary Boy”:

I am funny, sometimes forgetful and messy and lazy. I am not a lazy person, though.
I am giving and understanding and formal and polite.
I am sensitive. I am honest. I am sincere. And I am not a pest.
I am my own person. I am warm.
I want my life to be happy and I want to be clearer about things. I want to feel good.
I love Wyoming. I love Wyoming very much.
I love theatre, I love good friends, I love succeeding, I love pasta, I love jogging, I love walking,
And being myself.

The oratorio doesn’t need to inflate the emotional wallop. The story on its own is more than enough. And the songs tell that story in a variety of styles but with an admirable minimum of embellishment.

The first officer to arrive on the scene after Matthew’s barely breathing body was discovered, reportedly found a large deer, a doe, lying close by, as if shepherding Shepard, a silent companion to the young man’s long, dark night of body and soul — an act of tenderness, in sharpest contrast with the two inhuman humans who left him to die.

All night I lay there beside you,
I cradled your pain in my care.
We move through creation together,
And we know there’s a welcoming there.

“Deer Song”

It is tempting to call Matthew’s killers “animals,” but that would be unfair to animals. The empathy this creature embodied reminds us to resist getting mired in the darkness of our moral outrage and instead reclaim our true animal nature — the “ancient heart” as the lyrics describe it, of our innocence, the very essence of our humanity.

When I think of all the times the world was ours for dreaming,
When I think of all the times the earth seemed like our home —
Every heart alive with its own longing, every future we could ever hope to hold …
Was there already sadness in the sunlight, some stormy story waiting to be told?

“The Innocence”

What we owe Matthew Shepard is never forgetting that he died for the “crime” of being himself. His murder was an act of hatred that unleashed the full fury of love worldwide.
Like an atom, split.
Won’t you meet me here where the old fence ends and the horizon begins?
We’ve been walking through the darkness on this long, hard climb
Carried ancestral sorrow for too long a time.

“Meet Me Here”

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