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Vanessa Collier, right, with wife Christina Higley and their two children. Photo by YouCaring.com
A Colorado pastor halted the funeral of a 33-year-old mother of two over the weekend, reportedly because a memorial slideshow featured kissing and other moments of affection between the woman, Vanessa Collier, and her wife, Christina Higley. As a result, the crowd of more than 150 mourners moved flowers, programs — and Collier’s body in a casket — from New Hope Ministries to a funeral home across the street. The pastor’s decision has ignited anger both online and in the streets outside the church in Lakewood, where a large crowd of friends and supporters, unmoved by a reported apology from pastor Raymond Chavez, held a protest on Tuesday, chanting, “Shame on Pastor Ray!”
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Collier was “a loving wife, daughter, mother, sister, friend — that’s who she was and that’s what she should be judged based upon,” Jose Silva, a family friend and protest organizer, told Fox 31 in Denver outside of the church. In a Facebook post announcing the protest, Silva noted, “I am a child of a lesbian mother and if my mom was to die, I would want ‘Dignity in her Death.’ As a Christian, I am against bigotry and stand with my friend Vanessa Collier’s family in seeking an apology and refund from Pastor Ray Chavez and New Hope Ministries. The acts that took place at her funeral were wrong and no family should ever have to go through that.”
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Chavez could not be reached for comment Wednesday. A person answering the phone at New Hope Ministries told Yahoo Parenting, “I’m sorry, I don’t have anything to say, but thanks for calling,” before hanging up.
Collier proposing to Higley. Photo by Facebook.
According to USA Today, Collier died “when her gun went off while cleaning it.” Her daughters are 7 and 12 years old.
While several news outlets have reported that Collier’s service had been halted because she was a lesbian, Higley posted the following clarification to her Facebook page on Wednesday: “Vanessa’s services were NOT refused because she is a ‘lesbian.’ Her services were refused because we would not let New Hope Ministries ‘edit’ her life which was a slideshow of our family photos including our engagement and family photos of her and I with our two children! It never crossed my mind that it would be an issue considering we paid to use their facility ONLY. We brought in our own Pastor to facilitate.” (It’s unclear who that pastor was and how Chavez, the pastor for New Hope, came to be the one to halt the service.)
Higley continued, “I’m not asking anyone to go against their own beliefs and religion. I only hoped we could find a house of God to celebrate my beautiful wife and her life (HER WHOLE LIFE) and lay her to rest in God’s arms. Is it too much to ask for? To reflect on how beautiful her life is, with all of her family including myself, her children, her family and closest friends? I lost my best friend, the love of my life and our children lost their mother! How would Ray Chavez explain to them why our family photos were inappropriate for her services to be conducted in that house of God?”
When someone is a gay or lesbian parent, being proudly out and steadfast about not wanting to edit out important family life details is particularly loaded with meaning, according to Gabriel Blau, executive director of the Family Equality Council, a national organization that works for the rights of LGBT families. “As parents, we want to celebrate our families and to be able to see ourselves for who we are, and for our communities to see us. We walk very hard, for our children, to make sure we can walk around with our heads held high,” he told Yahoo Parenting. Blau added that when opponents try to edit the lives of gay families, it’s because they doubt (or want to deny) the actual existence of such families. “Our stories are the most powerful tools we have,” he said, and to have someone attempt to erase them is “not just sad, but scary.”
Those outraged over the news, whether they knew Collier or not, have been expressing their emotions online. A supporter named Brandie Rossi, of Los Angeles, has started an online petition at Change.org, asking Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper to “protect the rights of gays and their families in death.” It’s garnered nearly 1,500 signatures since Monday. Others have begun a YouCaring.com memorial fundraising page to help support Higley and her two daughters, collecting more than $2,000 so far.
On Facebook, comments poured in to Higley’s page. “This is absolutely disgusting. I have long been disillusioned by organized religion, but this is low even for them. It’s absolutely amazing to me that any religious figure could somehow justify this,” wrote one supporter. Another noted, “My prayers go out to you and the girls… Such a hard time and to throw that into the mix doesn’t help. I’m so sorry. You two have a beautiful family. I will continue to pray over you and the girls.”
Meanwhile, Higley, as a mom, remains doubly devastated. “Vanessa and I were together for 3 beautiful years. Our daughters are 12 and 7,” she told Fox 31 in an email. “Having to explain to them why we had to leave was completely heartbreaking.”