Images of affection between the late Vanessa Collier and her wife are what caused a funeral to be stopped, right as it was beginning. “I probably wouldn’t have believed this if I hadn’t witnessed this,” Jose Silva, who had been friends with Collier for 17 years, tells Daily Beast.
The 33-year-old’s death was sudden, and already difficult enough on the family. Collier died while cleaning a firearm on December 30th, leaving behind a wife, Christina Higley, and their two daughters, aged 12 and 7.
The family prepared for the funeral with New Hope Ministries, a church in Lakewood, Colorado, just west of Denver. The church requested that videos, pictures, and music be submitted by January 6th, a Thursday morning. All media was submitted on time. On Saturday, January 10th, Collier’s body was moved to the church in preparation for the funeral. The service was supposed to begin at 10 a.m. and wrapped up shortly thereafter, since her burial was two hours away from Denver. She was to be buried in Pueblo next to her grandmother.
Between 150 and 200 people were in attendance at New Hope for the funeral. The casket was open. The flowers were laid out. Music began playing, but the funeral didn’t officially begin.
Silva said Pastor Ray Chavez stepped up at 10:15 and made an announcement: “Due to technical difficulties, we have to stop the funeral. The funeral is being moved.”
Silva recalls, “I thought we were being punked! It was a very confusing moment.” The pallbearers were asked by the pastor to come up and close the casket.
“They’d never closed a casket. They don’t work in the mortuary business,” says Silva.
Collier’s body was moved across the street to Newcomer Mortuary where family and organizers reopened her casket, reorganized the flowers, and then proceeded with the service.
Technical difficulties, Silva claims, were not the issue at hand. “It all came down to, Vanessa was a lesbian. There was a photo of her kissing her wife and a photo of her asking her wife to marry her,” he says. “This was included in the photos submitted.”
These images were only screened moments before the funeral, and then brought to the pastor’s attention.
“The pastor said that the family can edit the video. The family declined and the funeral was canceled.”
The church has not yet returned the funeral money to the family, Silva says.
Silva says the incident was traumatic, particularly on Collier’s children. “Her wife, Christina, had to explain to their two daughters why the casket had to be moved.”
A day of mourning and remembering, transformed into added unnecessary grief, Silva said, and put added stress on family members who made the drive to Pueblo. “Not only did they have a two hour procession, but they have to drive home with that memory in their mind.”
Collier’s wife expressed frustration after the funeral on her Facebook: “I would completely understand if we were asking to be married there and it be a conflict of interest. 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?”
New Hope has disconnected its telephone and staff is not responding to emails. Chaplain Gary Rolando presided over the funeral at Newcomer, and according to Colorado’s 9 News, he said that pastors at New Hope ask that alternative lifestyles be censored in the church.
Rolando also expressed that it is a “shame” that Collier’s friends are “using her death to push an agenda.” The website of New Hope, claims that the church “is a place where those bound by drugs, alcohol, gangs and violence can find an ‘Ounce of Hope.’”
But Silva says that editing the video would be like editing his friend’s life. “What, is the family supposed to edit out her kids too?”
He organized a rally on Tuesday, January 13th, which was attended by around 50 people. Supporters carried signs with sayings like, “indignity in death” and “you will not find Jesus at New Hope, but you will find hypocrisy.”
Silva says that some passing by the rally told supporters that they were going to hell. The Facebook page for the event, is experiencing similar messages of hate. Many protesters expressed a need for an apology from Pastor Ray, who has still not spoken to the press. The rally brought on national attention from such news organizations as the Denver Post, USA Today, and CNN.
“We want an apology,” says Silva, who is both a Christian and the son of a lesbian mother. “The apology still has not come. This isn’t a war against Christianity. This is about that hour and fifteen minutes about dignity and how we dignify death.”