On June 17, 2003, Shirley Shepherd did not show up for her job at a St. Paul storage facility. The energetic 79-year-old grandmother and great-grandmother also didn’t pay her daily visit to church, or make one of her regular calls on a good friend in a nursing home, and she wasn’t at her house. Her car, which had previously been stolen and recovered, was also missing.
Television, radio and newspapers broadcast details of the search as her family and friends agonized. Two days later her body, identifiable initially by her jewelry, was found beside a walking path in Woodbury. The police’s attention was focused on the young woman, Tekela Richardson, who had previously stolen Shirley’s car and who was also a customer of the storage center. She offered many versions of her story pointing to other people but ultimately confessed to the killing and was sentenced to more than 20 years in prison. With that the story sank out of public view.
The story, of course, didn’t end for Shirley’s family. Her two sons and two daughters and their families were left with anger, hurt and a lot of questions. In the midst of it, however, was unexpected peace and comfort from an unlikely source, the eldest brother, Greg Shepherd.
Fit and solid even into his 50s, Greg still looks and moves like the athlete he was once known for being. He was also known by his family and co-workers, however, for his temper and outbursts. Yet there he was, composed and talking to the media, and a steadying resource for his family. What was happening?
“My wife Nancy and our son had gone to this church near us several years ago and really liked it and felt they were getting something out of it,” Greg says. “I couldn’t believe it when they told me the services could last as much as two hours. I said, ‘I’ll never go there.’ That wasn’t what I was used to. I liked it where you went in, listened to the sermon for 20 minutes and then you’re out and go to lunch.”
About four years ago, however, he was persuaded to pay a couple of visits, and was amazed by what he saw in the group and in the pastor, Rev. Dr. Tom Jestus. “There just seemed to be a light in his life and the people looked like they were happy to be there,” Greg says. “Pastor Tom didn’t just read from the Bible but explained the scriptures that I never understood before, and did so in a way that I could enjoy and even take away things I could use in my life.” Greg and his wife became regular attenders, connecting with many of the other members at the Miracle Centre in South St. Paul.
Gradually he began to see changes in the way he reacted to things and to other people. Then his mother was killed and he saw just how much his heart had changed.
“Yes, I was angry and I probably felt some hatred at first,” he says. “But we had people praying for us, stopping by, leaving messages. Pastor Tom was there everyday, reminding me to look at God’s plan, not my plan. He helped me to see that it didn’t do any good to scream and yell and be angry at the person who had done this, that I would only hurt myself, and that’s not God’s desire for me.
“If God and Tom hadn’t already been working on me, and then being with me, I would have been a lot different going through this, believe me. There definitely would have been outbursts. At first I wanted to know why this happened in the way it did, but I began to better understand what God’s son went through, and what he endured so that something good could happen for us, and good things were going to happen now because of what my mom went through. I’m at peace and I know my mom is as well.”
One of the good things that started to happen almost right away was that friends and family grieving Shirley or dealing with other crises in their lives began to meet with Greg and Tom at Greg’s house on Tuesday evenings to talk and pray and find out that the Bible isn’t just platitudes and “thou shall nots”. Many in the group don’t attend church otherwise, or aren’t “religious” but are finding a benefit that has kept the group going for the last two years.
“We’ve got nine or 10 people coming regularly to meet for an hour. People dealing with family problems, divorce, kid problems, whatever, and we get it out in the open and ask questions and find answers in the Bible,” Greg says. “We find good, practical things about what we can do and what we should do, and it helps us to look at the big picture by looking at Jesus’ life and all the things he did and the effect he has had. It’s relaxing, and brings us comfort and peace of mind.”
Another change Greg has noticed is that he is more open and comfortable with people than before. “Until this time I wouldn’t have been able to sit around and talk about my faith or what happened to my mom, but now I can talk to anybody,” he says. “A lot of times people don’t know what to say when someone is going through a bad situation, but now when I go to wakes or funerals or other things I have a better feel for what people are going through.
“My marriage has also gotten better. We’ve had a good marriage, married 33 years, but this has made it stronger. We can talk about God with each other now and with our kids, and they can see a difference in us. People who knew me before can’t believe that I don’t want to get ahold of that woman and rip her up, but what good would that do, and how would that reflect on God?
“I don’t hate her. I hope she gets her life turned around in prison to where she knows she can ask God to forgive her, but other than that I don’t think about her very much,” he says. “Sometimes it seems like there’s a lot of attention focused on people who commit crimes, like the big article the St. Paul paper did the other day about the guy who had raped two women. What good does that do? Why not focus on the good things the victims did? My mom visited the nursing home regularly, took people who were down and out into her home, and even tried to be a friend to Tekela and people should know about those things and be encouraged that there are people like her in the world.”
Rather than being bitter, Greg has let his mother’s life be an inspiration. “I’ve realized that life is short and I want to give back as much as I can,” he says. “I’m not going to waste time hating anyone. Once you let the hatred get in then the Devil’s got you. I try to keep my mind open to God and let him do what he needs to do through me.
“What does anyone want out of life? Meaning – a life with meaning. That’s what I have.”