Vanessa Collier, a 33 year-old mother of two and wife to her partner, Christina, passed away on December 30th. Her funeral at New Hope Ministries was to feature photos of Vanessa proposing to Christina, and family pictures with their daughters, Madison and Kylie. Fifteen minutes after the service was supposed to start, they were asked to leave because Pastor Ray Chavez did not believe in her "alternative lifestyle" -- a decision that prompted a protest and a demand for an apology. Continue for more photos, plus video and details.
Jose Silva, post-secondary dean of Catalyst High School and current candidate for an at-large Denver City Council seat, led the protesters in chants as they marched in front of the church. He and Collier met at Denver West High School as students nineteen years ago. He attended the service and says that it wasn't until after Collier's flowers had been set up and her casket laid out that mourning family and friends were told the service could not happen there.
"I thought it was a joke. I thought we were being punked," Silva says.
Collier's wife, Christina Higley, did not attend the protest. She spent time with her daughters, eight-year-old Madison and eleven-year-old Kylie.
"The part for me that is the issue is the difference between church and state. When you receive public funding for your school and for the other entities within your church, your personal values go out of the window," Silva says, referencing numerous programs run by New Hope, including a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center.
As the protesters gathered in the parking lot of Newcomer Funeral Home, where Collier's service ended up taking place, security guards for New Hope stood across the street, watching. But Silva was insistent that this be a peaceful protest and told people to only stay on the sidewalk.
"The message is remembering that our friend should have dignity in death," Silva says of the protest. "This is about us taking back the conversation."
Before marching across the street, the protesters huddled together to pray for Pastor Chavez and ask that he be guided to give an apology. The sentiment shared by many was that had they known they were not wanted, they simply would have found another church. But being asked to leave after showing up for the service was simply not okay.
Melissa Rae grew up with Collier and says her friend was a very generous person. "She was an amazing soul. She would give you the coat off her back," Rae says. "I'm grateful that I was able to call her a friend."
As the protesters stood by the building, making a colorful scene on Sheridan, some driving by honked in support. Two attendees brought rainbow flags, easily spotted among the crowd.
"When she met her wife, it was the most impressive thing," Rae says of Collier's relationship. "I've never seen love like it."
"For me, it's bigotry," notes Silva, who grew up with a lesbian mother. "The bigotry in this country has to stop."
Father Hal Lycett needs to carry an oxygen tank, but that did not stop him from attending and marching in the protest. "The tragedy for the christian church at this time is that it's not aggressively inclusive," Father Lycett says. His daughter is a lesbian; it was through her that he heard about what happened to Collier.
According to Silva and friends of Collier, Pastor Chavez has not reached out to the family with any kind of message. Nothing on the New Hope Ministries website addresses the protest, nor does the church's Facebook page offer a hint that anything upsetting has happened. The money given to New Hope for the use of their sanctuary has not been returned to the family, protesters say.
Look below to see Fox31 coverage of the protest.
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