When hundreds of Vanessa Collier’s closest loved ones crammed into the pews of New Hope Ministries in Lakewood, Colorado on Saturday to attend her funeral, they settled in for the mix of melancholy and merriment that often accompanies a burial: mourning, storytelling, and a passionate celebration of life.
But after about 15 minutes, Pastor Ray Chavez abruptly brought the service to a halt. In a move that shocked those present, Chavez said he wouldn’t proceed with the ceremony because Collier, a mother of two, was a lesbian.
According to the Denver Post, Chavez said he would only continue the service if images of Collier and her wife, positioned around the casket, were removed. The family, outraged, refused, and “picked up programs, flowers and eventually the dead woman’s casket itself” before relocating at a mortuary across the street. The scores of attendees, many of them reportedly lesbians themselves, followed suit, abandoning the church.
“It was humiliating,” Victoria Quintana, Collier’s friend, told the Denver Post. “It was devastating.”
Hurt and frustrated, dozens of friends and supporters of Collier reconvened in front of New Hope Ministries on Tuesday to protest the pastor’s decision. Holding images of the deceased, who police say is thought to have committed suicide, the demonstrators shouted chants of “Give us an apology!” and “Shame on Pastor Ray!” According to the group’s Facebook page, the protestors also noted that Chavez, who reportedly referred to Collier’s sexuality as an “alternative lifestyle,” has yet to refund the family the cost of the funeral.
“You will not find Jesus at New Hope but you will find hypocrisy,” one sign, held by a protestor, read.
Some images of the protest are below.
— Ryan Haarer (@RcHaarer) January 13, 2015
— Jesse Aaron Paul (@JesseAPaul) January 14, 2015
Friends protest Lakewood church’s abrupt venue change for lesbian woman's funeral: http://t.co/MgNH8iTunl
— KDVR FOX31 Denver (@KDVR) January 13, 2015
About four dozen people here in support pic.twitter.com/8EreMiKWbp
— Jesse Aaron Paul (@JesseAPaul) January 13, 2015
The New Hope Ministries church website does not list a denominational affiliation, but the pastor’s shocking decision is representative of a larger debate over homosexuality within American Christianity. According to a recent analysis by Tobin Grant of the Religion News Service, the majority of Catholic, Black Protestant, and White Mainline Protestant churches now allow openly gay people to be church members, and a growing number of major denominations have moved to ordain LGBT people and even perform same-sex weddings. Evangelical Christians are far less accepting of LGBT people, but the faith-based movement for LGBT equality is starting to break into conservative Christian circles: several evangelical leaders — including famed theologian David Gushee — declared a less antagonistic and sometimes even affirming stance toward homosexuality in 2014. Meanwhile, a Southern Baptist church in California broke ranks with the church last year when their pastor told the congregation that he no longer thought being gay was a sin (the church, however, was later expelled by the Southern Baptist Convention).