A Vigil: Remembering the Past, Focusing on the Future

On a rainy, chilly Friday night, a city came together.

Craig Wallace and the cast of the Ford’s Theatre production of “The Laramie Project,” directed by Matthew Gardiner. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

This fall, as part of the annual Lincoln Legacy Project, Ford’s has been performing The Laramie Project. This play tells the deeply important and inspiring story of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student who was the victim of a hate crime that cost him his life.

On Friday, October 11, 15 years after Matthew’s death, Ford’s Theatre hosted a vigil in his honor.

As people entered the First Congressional United Church of Christ (where performances of The Laramie Project had been presented during the shutdown), they put down their umbrellas and gave a little shiver, happy to be in out of the rain. To keep from disrupting the last few minutes The Laramie Project that night, those there for the vigil were told to remain very quiet in the lobby. While some whispered to each other with excited anticipation, most sat in a reflecting silence; preparing themselves for the event that was about to take place.

The show ended and people began to file into the sanctuary, collecting a candle as they entered.  The room was filling with people of all ages, sizes, and races.

Photo by Erin Granzow/Reflections Photography, Washington, D.C.

Once everyone was settled, a candle was lit in the front of the church. This single flame was then passed from candle to candle. The light spread and in just a few short moments every candle in the room was lit.

Paul Tetreault, director of Ford’s Theatre, stood in front of the crowd and began to speak. He spoke of the purpose of this year’s “Lincoln Legacy Project” and The Laramie Project. He then introduced Mr. Dennis Shepard, Matthew’s father.

The room fell silent.

Dennis Shepard speaks a candlelight vigil held in honor of his son, Matthew Shepard, and National Coming Out Day. Also pictured are members of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington. Photo by Erin Granzow/Reflections Photography, Washington, D.C.

Fighting tears, Mr. Shepard began his address. He talked about how this was the first production of The Laramie Project he had ever seen, how his wife said not to come because it would make him angry. He shared how it did not anger him but how it instead reminded him how something good can come out of something so terrible. He spoke of change and how we all have the power and responsibility to stop the animosity in this world. He even shared that he was wearing Matthew’s tie with the “Peanuts” characters sitting in a theatre. When he was done, there were very few dry eyes in the room.

After Mr. Shepard had finished, Paul Tetreault reminded the crowd that we, as a society, have a long way to go on the issue of hate toward the LGBTQ community. He invited Garrison Gibbons to speak.

Garrison is a junior at the University of Mississippi and was in the university’s recent production of The Laramie Project. During one of the shows, a group of athletes shouted anti-gay slurs at the cast. Since the incident in early October, Garrison has been speaking out on ways to create a better atmosphere for gay students on campus.

Ford’s Theatre Society Director Paul R. Tetreault and Garrison Gibbons. Photo by Erin Granzow/Reflections Photography, Washington, D.C.

Garrison emphasized, “There is still work to be done in this country. There are still struggles the LGBTQ community faces.”

Rev. Dwayne Johnson of the Metropolitan Community Church of Washington, D.C. then led the crowd in a moment of silence.

The silence was filled with palpable emotion.

Rev. Johnson introduced members of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, who sang a beautiful version of the song “Make Them Hear You” from the musical Ragtime. Yet another reminder that we all have the power to stand up for what is right.

The evening was a beautiful vigil to honor the life of Matthew Shepard and everything he stood for.

Garrison ended his speech by saying, “Matthew’s strength lives in me, in all of us. And for that, I want to take this moment to say… Thank you Matthew. Thank you.”

We can make a difference. We can stop hate.

“With malice toward none; with charity for all.”

Michael Windsor is a graduate of Salisbury University, where he studied Theatre and Communications. At Salisbury he was a founding member and “Managing Director” of SUTC, a completely student-run theatre company.