Considering Matthew Shepard Reflections
“Matt Shepard and his story have led me on an inspiring, challenging and deeply meaningful journey that I continue to this day. In composing Considering Matthew Shepard I wanted to create, within a musical framework, a space for reflection, consideration and unity around his life and legacy.”
– Craig Hella Johnson, composer
In February, I had the privilege of singing with Craig Hella Johnson and the renowned choral ensemble, Conspirare, in Johnson's work, Considering Matthew Shepard. Singers from Omaha and Lincoln joined Conspirare on the final piece, “All of Us.” An opportunity like this does not come often. While I knew the experience would certainly be impactful, I was unaware of how deeply it would change my life.
In October of 1998, Matthew Shepard, a young, gay student at the University of Wyoming in Laramie was kidnapped, severely beaten, tied to a fence and left to die alone in a lonely field under a blanket of stars. Five days later, when Matt passed away, the world was watching. I was a freshman in high school.
In a lecture with Craig Hella Johnson, he invited us to simply consider. In the midst of such confounding darkness, hatefulness, and the sense of separateness we have created in our culture, we asked ourselves this question: Is love anywhere to be found? Matt's story continues to resonate so deeply today, 20 years later, because as a culture, we are still failing at learning how to love and respect one another. We do not hold all beings as being worthy of that love and respect. If we want to heal from this hateful act (or any other like it), we must ask the question, "What do we need to look at? What, even if it's in the most seemingly innocuous way, do I personally contribute to this sense of separateness?" As I reflected on this, I asked myself, "Am I guilty?" and had to admit that the answer is yes.
Hearing the story of Matt's brutal attack and murder is almost unbearable. The hatred that fueled his attackers is beyond our understanding. We naturally get angry upon reading suck a story, but anger will not bring him back to life or prevent such violence from happening again. Johnson's work shows us a better way through hope and love
One line has resonated with me ever since I experienced this work: "Once we dreamt that we were strangers/We wake up to find that we were dear to each other.” Johnson said that the image he wished to convey with this line is that of Matt and Aaron and Russell, standing together, representing all of us who are so separated from one another, singing together “Once we dreamt that we were strangers/We wake up to find that we were dear to each other.” Though there are many differences among us, that which unites us is far stronger than these differences. Though we are seven billion people on earth, we only truly succeed by defending the weakest among us. That possibility never ceases to amaze me when I think about it and feel it in this context.
The final piece of the work, was an invitation. “All of Us” calls us to remember the inherent value and radiance in every being and in every aspect of creation. It is a celebration in which we raise our voices to those who are marginalized, mistreated, or simply ignored. This journey was not only about Matt’s life. It was an invitation to love everyone. Despite the darkness of war, gang violence, school shootings, and so much else, I want to find love and hope. And I invite you to do the same. If Considering Matthew Shepard is coming to your community, I urge you to do whatever you can to experience this work. You will leave a changed person.
Founder & Managing Artistic Director, Omaha Children's Choir