The Narthex - George
Matsek's take on Life 01/11/11:
Remembering the real Matthew Snyder
By George Matysek
It’s a sad reality that Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder has become linked to the Westboro Baptist Church.
The 20-year-old Marine was killed nearly five years ago when his Humvee overturned in Iraq. During his funeral, Westboro protesters held anti-gay and anti-Catholic signs outside St. John in Westminster – inexplicably insisting that Snyder’s death was part of God’s vengeance on America for its tolerance of homosexuality.
Snyder was Catholic, but not gay.
Albert Snyder, Matthew Snyder’s father, sued the Rev. Fred W. Phelps and members of his Westboro congregation, seeking financial compensation for emotional distress, defamation and other injuries. The case has made it all the way to the Supreme Court and is expected to be decided this year.
Working on a report in last week’s Catholic Review about the heartwrending story, I could clearly hear Jane Perkins’ passion as Matthew Snyder’s maternal aunt told me how difficult it has been that people think of her beloved nephew only in connection with the ugliness of Westboro. They don’t know about what a great human being he was, she said.
I invited Perkins to write a reflection on the real Matthew Snyder. She graciously agreed, and I’m honored to share it with you here.
Matt is my Godchild. This is an important relationship, one which I treasure still, and in an instant can be brought to the moment I was asked to be Godmother to Matt.
I love the photo of Matt, with his bald little head, being held in my arms that Christening Day. Living in another state, I was not blessed to share as much time with Matt and his sisters as my siblings were, but we did pretty well, nevertheless. Julie and the children would come to visit overnight and my family would do the same with her. And of course, our family is very close, so there are always parties, graduations and sacraments to celebrate which brought all of the families and cousins together for fun and laughter.
Through the years, my thoughts of Matt run like a picture movie reel. Seeing him for the first time, holding him at the Baptismal font, watching him waddle over to my car when I gave him his first birthday gift – a giraffe clothes tree that each of the nieces and nephews were given on their first birthday. I see him with red painted feet at 18 months, in his kitchen, walking over and over again across white paper, in order for me to be able to make gifts for friends of mine. I see him in his little red shorts and bow tie, twisting and dancing at my wedding (he was 3). I didn’t get to see him play his sports when he was little, but my albums have his team photos, swinging a bat, holding a soccer ball. I think of the talents he possessed: black ink sketch drawings, pottery figures, his love for anything baseball amidst arrowheads and precious stones.
I see him in his bathing suit running around at his 8th birthday as we celebrate summer, and Matt. I see him in videos talking to the camera and telling the world all there is to know. I see a little 10-year-old boy driving 3 hours to his baby cousin’s Baptism. Matt arrives and presents a hand-created posterboard that had drawings of each of the important items that are a part of the Baptism ceremony—the oil, the white cloth, the candle…each with its meaning special for 1-month old Catie Jane. He’s older, and chooses St. Sebastian as his Confirmation saint—Matt was unique in his thoughts and in his actions.
He comes into my backdoor and says “Hi, Aunt Jane, I was hoping you’d have barbecue!” I hear him laughing at the bonfire in the back woods. I see him dunking his cousins in the pool. I hear him laughing and playing games with the ‘kids.”
In our family, Matt is the oldest male cousin, so he is a role model, and he did it well. Although from start to finish, the cousins were ‘13 stairsteps’ little more than a year apart from each other, the oldest were never too old, or too cool or too busy to take time and have FUN with the younger ones. They rolled down hills, stared at clouds, rode wagons, took walks, played games, hiked a football, roasted marshmallows, told ghost stories, trekked through the woods and played football on Thanksgiving. They went fishing, body surfing, told jokes and went to the Baltimore zoo together. I see Matt sitting on the curb, as the July 4th parade marches by. I see Matt living life to the fullest, always smiling. I see Matt laughing so hard, he could be crying.
I hear Matt on the phone telling me he joined the Marines. I say, “Matt, I know you wanted to surprise me, but I can’t say I am surprised. I’m proud of you. When do you leave?” Matt was excited, ready and growing up. He was not 18. That fall, before he left, he came to Lancaster and we met in the parking lot of Dutch Wonderland—we both knew where it was, because when Matt was little, our families would meet there for the day and have fun together. We drove to Good & Plenty for a family style lunch. I told everyone at the table, this is my nephew and he is leaving for boot camp. Matt was always humble, and quietly thanked the strangers for their good wishes. Later I thought, maybe we should have gone somewhere less crowded, that we could have spent more alone time.
Matt loved everything about his Marine life—there were struggles, of course, but he was so proud of his accomplishments, such as when he made ‘marksman.’ He was supposed to be deployed much earlier than he did, but playing soccer, he broke his leg in two areas and had to recoup.
When he flew back from 29 Palms, I was in Baltimore, so I wanted to go with my sister to pick him up. Here was this young man, whom I had not seen too often since he returned from boot camp (very lean from the rigors) and now, he is hobbling on crutches and still grabbed his duffel bag and carried it along. He was the Marine we knew he would be—strong, confident and still, humble.
I see Matt carrying the birthday cake, in his fatigues, for my grandmother—his great grandmother who is 98. I see him with his new camera that he is taking with him to Iraq. He is so excited. He is like a kid in a candy store. He has fun acting silly and taking pictures with his cousins. Through the years I always ask him, what do you think you want to do? He has dreams—maybe re-enlisting, maybe going to Australia to be a photographer, maybe something with cars, maybe…..
Matt was a friend to everyone—to this day, we hear stories from strangers to us, but friends to Matt, who tell the story of a good friend who was there when needed the most. And that is how Matt was a child—he was one of the smallest kids, but not afraid to stand up for the underdog. And that is how Matt ended up in the humvee—he went overseas in a different MOS, but there was a need in the security convoy, and Matt knew there was a job to be filled, so he volunteered.
That is LCpl. Matthew Snyder. Not the face next to evil. Not the subject of a lawsuit. Not the Marine with a so-called ‘ruined funeral.’ He is Matt. He is LCpl. Matt Snyder whose funeral was attended by so many who loved him and by so many who never knew him but came to honor his service. He lived like so many other kids in America, and who is and will always be loved. And that is how Matt should be remembered, identified, seen and heard.
From The Catholic Review catholicreview.org
Westminster school offered support in face of Westboro protesters
By George P. Matysek Jr.
WESTMINSTER – As the Supreme Court considers a high-profile case involving the Westboro Baptist Church, much media attention has focused on what the Kansas church members did outside St. John parish during Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder's 2006 funeral.
Snyder was killed when his Humvee overturned in an accident in Al Anbar Province, Iraq.
Outside the Carroll County funeral, the anti-gay and anti-Catholic Westboro protesters held signs with inflammatory messages such as "God hates fags" and "Matt in hell." They insisted that the Marine, who was not gay, was killed through an act of God's vengeance on America for its tolerance of homosexuality.
There were others outside the church that day, however, holding symbols of a much different nature.
Ten students from each grade of St. John School carried American flags as they lined the driveway at the end of the funeral Mass. Some carried banners with messages such as, "Thank you, LCpl. Snyder, for your sacrifice" and "God Bless LCpl. Snyder."
After seeing the Patriot Guard Riders sing patriotic hymns, some students had earlier asked for and received permission to stand on the front steps of the school to sing patriotic hymns too. The Guard Riders travel around the country shielding grieving families from the Westboro group.
"I wanted to wave the flag because that man gave his life for our country," remembered Jakub Smith, a former St. John student who is now a sophomore at Winters Mill High School in Westminster.
Smith said he and his friends were appalled to see the Westboro protesters and wanted to show solidarity with the Snyder family.
"I felt it was the most disrespectful thing I ever saw in my life," Smith said of the Westboro protest. "It was very, very wrong. My friends and I just looked at each other and we were very sad for the family. They were trying to bury their son."
Jane Perkins, Snyder's aunt, described the actions of St. John's students as a "beautiful tribute to our beloved Matt."
Perkins and those who were there that day strongly disagree with documents filed in federal court that described the school as being in "lockdown" during the funeral.
"The children were aware of the circumstances of the WBC and chose to bury the dead respectfully," Perkins said. "They did not choose to hide their faith. The lessons of our Catholic catechism were very evident that March, 2006 day."
Perkins said the supportive actions of the students, parish leaders, police and others in the community overwhelmed anything the protesters did.
“It’s just a shame that none of that is getting any attention in the media,” she said. “There was so much good at Matt’s funeral. You could feel the love there.”
Phyllis Semler, St. John's assistant principal, said students provided a "comforting presence."
"The kids were really reverent," Semler said. "Usually, if you gather a bunch of kids, they're going to talk. I couldn't believe how quiet they were. They knew what they were there for. They were very appreciative of Matthew Snyder's service."
Semler noted that shades were drawn in a section of the school building that faced the Westboro protesters.
"The children were all over the windows looking out," she remembered. "We said, 'pull the shades,' so it's not a distraction when you start teaching. I don't think it was to hide the fact that they were there."
In the high court
Albert Snyder, father of the 20-year-old Marine, sued Rev. Fred W. Phelps and members of his Westboro congregation, seeking financial compensation for emotional distress, defamation and other such injuries.
Though the protest was at a distance from the church and the funeral procession was routed so as to avoid traveling near it, Snyder and his family saw coverage of the protest on the news during the wake. Because the Snyders are Catholic, signs used at this particular protest included "Priests Rape Boys" and "Pope in Hell."
While searching the Internet for stories about his son, Snyder also later came across a piece posted on the Westboro church's website that said Snyder and his ex-wife taught their son "that God was a liar."
A Maryland federal district court ruled in favor of Snyder, but the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the ruling, saying, essentially, that the statements on the signs fell within the scope of First Amendment protection.
In October oral arguments, the Supreme Court justices seemed to be trying to find a way to uphold the First Amendment protection of even "very obnoxious" speech, as Justice Stephen Breyer put it, while somehow shielding grief-stricken families from further pain because of such protests.
Discussion in the court touched on whether protests can defame someone who's dead; whether the Snyder family became "public figures," opening them to the attacks by Westboro because they talked about Matthew Snyder's death to reporters; and whether the doctrine of "fighting words" would apply. The doctrine, dating from the 1940s, says that First Amendment protections are limited when someone uses "fighting words" to incite violence.
In an interview with The Catholic Review prior to the Supreme Court arguments, Albert Snyder said having Westboro protesters at his son's funeral was "like you're laying on the ground after being beaten and someone is now kicking you in the face."
He said his main purpose in bringing his case to the high court is to prevent what happened to his family from happening to anyone else's. He has received donations from around the country to help with his legal expenses, promising to donate anything raised beyond that to help veterans of the Iraq war.
He does not believe the Westboro protesters were exercising their right to free speech. He called such a notion "insulting."
"I find it insulting for all the men and women who are over there fighting wars," he said, "for the ones who came back, for our veterans, for the parents who have buried their children, for wives – it's an insult that anyone would hide behind a freedom that so many people in this country have died for."
Catholic News Service contributed to this story.
Jan 4, 2011