Nineteen years ago I stood in a park in Salt Lake City huddled together with strangers, holding candles and shivering, as the dark, cold October night air engulfed us. We were gathered in memory of Matthew Shepard, a college student who had been violently and brutally murdered just days before on a desolate stretch of road outside of Laramie, Wyoming.
Learning of the murder itself was horrifying, but the details of the endless hours of inhumane beatings Matthew suffered, made it even more profoundly and viscerally upsetting. As I stood there, my mind wrestled with how to make sense and respond to the unfathomable level of hate that manifested itself that dark night in Wyoming. The answer came from Matthew’s parents.
As Judy and Dennis Shepard made their rounds of TV and press interviews, they spoke about their beautiful boy and spoke of his innate goodness and kind heart. They spoke of countering the hate with love. They picked up the pieces of their shattered hearts and began advocating for the LGBTQ community, hoping to make life better for someone else’s child.
As 2017 ended and morphed into 2018, I stood in front of the TV in shock and disbelief as I listened to the evening news report that another young college student, Blaze Bernstein, had been murdered and left in a shallow grave just a few miles from where I was standing in my family room.
In the days that followed, I watched on TV as people once again gathered in a park on a dark winter night, holding candles and trying to make sense of a senseless and brutal murder of a young man who was set to make his mark on the world.
Again, I asked myself: how do we as a community make sense of this unfathomable tragedy? The answer came from Blaze’s grieving parents. In their interviews, with the press and the TV news, they asked for the community to honor their son by a “communal call for kindness” and community service.
And our community here in South Orange County responded. When the Bernstein family requested donations to the children’s charity, Orangewood Foundation, so many people responded that their servers crashed. In the Help Us Remember Blaze Facebook Group, people from around the world shared how they were planting trees in honor of Blaze, helping local homeless families and sharing how they were going to #BlazeItForward and #DoGoodForBlaze.
“As this began to unfold, we realized that we had an opportunity to set an example for people everywhere. To show them how even in the face of tragedy and loss, there is something better to concentrate on rather than bitterness, revenge, self-pity, and regret. We wanted people to embrace love, tolerance, and kindness, to do good. Our goal was to repair our broken world one child at a time, one kind act at a time, one day at the time.” — Jeanne Pepper-Bernstein, The Forward
Within the Jewish faith, it is customary to leave a small stone on the grave. Placing a rock on the grave serves as a sign to others that someone has visited and are symbols of the lasting presence of the deceased’s memory. In the days after the news of his passing, the park where Blaze was taken, began to be filled with painted stones left by both friends and strangers alike.
Nineteen years ago I stood in a park in remembrance of Matthew Shepard. Today I did it for Blaze Bernstein. And while I hope I never have to do it again, if necessary, I will. I’ll gather with strangers, hold a candle, and place a stone to remember a life lost.
And I’ll remember the example set by these two mothers: love heals. In the face of unspeakable tragedy and hate, the only path forward is love, compassion, and kindness.
That way, in the end, light and love will drive out the darkness.