Hundreds of Vanessa Collier’s friends and family gathered Saturday at New Hope Ministries, sitting before an open casket that held the woman they loved, when suddenly the minister overseeing her funeral stopped the service.
The memorial could not continue, Pastor Ray Chavez said, as long as pictures of Collier with the love of her life, the spouse she shared two children with, were to be displayed.
Chavez said there could be no images of Collier with her wife, Christina. There could be no indication that Collier was gay.
Outraged, those who loved Collier, 33, picked up programs, flowers and eventually the dead woman’s casket itself, moving the service to a mortuary that — thankfully, they say — happened to be across the street.
“It was humiliating,” said Victoria Quintana, Collier’s longtime friend. “It was devastating.”
Collier’s friends, many of them lesbians, already were accustomed to dealing with the social and political challenges of their sexual orientation. Then they were faced with the death of a friend who, Thornton police say, may have committed suicide. Then last weekend, as they mourned, they were confronted with a church that wouldn’t let them celebrate Collier’s life because of what the minister called an “alternative lifestyle.”
A representative for New Hope Ministries declined to comment before hanging up on a Denver Post reporter on Tuesday. A biography on the church website says Chavez founded the ministry in 1981 with his wife, Lola. It says the church “is a place where those bound by drugs, alcohol, gangs and violence can find an ‘Ounce of Hope.’ ”
That hope was denied to Collier because she loved a woman, friends said.
“A church turning away a funeral. Who has ever heard of anything like that happening?” said Jeanette Arguello, a friend.
About four dozen supporters gathered outside of the church Tuesday afternoon in protest, chanting “Give us an apology!” and “Shame on Pastor Ray!” Security guards were stationed in front of the building to ensure none of the marchers made their way onto the property.
“You will not find Jesus at New Hope but you will find hypocrisy,” said a sign carried at the demonstration. “Indignity in death,” read another.
An hour-long viewing of Collier’s body had just finished and the memorial service was 15 minutes underway when Chavez stopped it, those in attendance said.
Friends say they gave the church a remembrance video of Collier a week before that contained images of her kissing and embracing her wife. The pastor had every chance to stop the funeral long before it began, they said.
Collier, the mother of two girls, 7 and 11, lived in Thornton and died Dec. 30. New Hope Ministries was chosen for the memorial service because of its location — close to where Collier and her friends grew up, friends said.
David Campanella, area manager for Newcomer Funeral Home, where the service was moved, said they handled all of the funeral services for Collier’s family when at the last minute the ceremony for Collier was moved from the church to the funeral home.
“Certain events were not going to be allowed to take place according to the church,” Campanella said. “In talking with family we decided it would be best to have the services here.”
Friends say the funeral home space was cramped and that Collier’s family had little space to sit. The service moved from a spacious chapel and became standing-room-only in a matter of minutes.
Collier’s friends say they still haven’t been reimbursed by New Hope Ministry for the cost of the funeral.
“We want to pray that the Lord helps (Chavez),” Jose Silva told protesters Tuesday, pointing at the church.
“We are in mourning.”