Saturday, January 17, 2015

On it goes

* Mom's Funeral Halted by Pastor Over Affectionate Photos of Two Wives -- "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."
* Church in Lakewood stops woman's funeral because she was gay -- "...those who loved Collier, 33, picked up programs, flowers and eventually the dead woman's casket itself, moving the service to a mortuary that happened to be across the street."
* Beliefs clash at lesbian's funeral evicted from church in Lakewood -- "...Kelly said presenting pictures at the funeral that appear to condone a lifestyle worshippers at the church believe is a sin would be against Chavez's beliefs."

And on it goes. The three links above relate another story in the ongoing saga of the clash of conservative Christian standards with the newer kind worldview held by more and more Americans.

This past Saturday a scheduled funeral at New Hope Ministries in Lakewood, Colorado was abruptly cancelled. The service was for 33-year old Vanessa Collier, who had lived for at least 3 years with a lesbian partner. The pastor apparently discovered that the memorial slideshow included pictures of the two women kissing, as well as some other kinds of physical affection. He cancelled the funeral. It is not clear to me exactly what the timeline is, but it seems this happened very near to or in the beginning of the funeral service.

It has been incorrectly reported that the funeral service was cancelled because Vanessa Collier was a lesbian. That is not correct. Collier's partner Christian Higley clarified that idea on her Facebook page. She wrote, “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!”1

Some observations
Pastor Raymond Chavez and the church had every right to deny holding funeral services for Vanessa Collier at their building. A congregation has the right to determine the uses of her building -- who can use it and for what purposes. But exercising that right at the beginning of a funeral was a bad decision. The battle was engaged at the wrong time. instead the should have chalked it up as learning a lesson for which to be prepared the next time.2

The lines of communication between family and church apparently were not open.3 Was the family honest and upfront with the situation? Perhaps they didn't think about it. They were grieving, after all, and the death was sudden. Because of the nature of the conflict, most opinions that I've seen come down on the side of the family (and full of outrage). But both sides must bear some responsibility. The family was given an option to consider. This option, if agreed to, would have allowed the services to continue. They did not agree to the offer. That was their choice. Nevertheless, I think the church and pastor must bear the most blame for the poor way in which this was handled. A grieving family is never thinking its clearest, regardless of the circumstances. The church and/or pastor, only being asked for the use of the building, was somewhat of a "disinterested" party and should have thought through things more clearly.

The church did not just lend the use of the building, but were charging for it. If I were asked, I would recommend to the church that they not only refund the charge for the use of the building (which they apparently did, though there are some conflicting reports), but also pay the cost of the family using the mortuary's chapel.

Churches need to have conversations now and have a clear understanding of how their buildings can and cannot be used. Don't wait until you're in the midst of a disagreement! (Some of the last "minute-ness" can also be attributed to a comedy of errors, including the church losing the video montage and not being able to review it until the last minute.)

Persons with liberal left-leaning worldviews should be wary of scheduling funerals and/or other services at churches with conservative right-leaning worldviews. It is a recipe for disaster. And don't put all the blame on the church. Unless you're just looking for a fight, look elsewhere for accommodations -- where your lifestyle is not disapproved.4 In fact, even if you are looking for a fight, find some other time to do it.

One source of outrage is the misconception that people have that a church ought to be whatever they think it ought to be. For example, Jeanette Arguello asked, "A church turning away a funeral. Who has ever heard of anything like that happening?" But if there is freedom of religion in our country, a church has to be able to determine its own faith and practice, even if that practice includes turning away a funeral (which in fact happens a lot more than one might think). When something like this happens, everybody and their dogs know what the teachings of Jesus are -- even if they've never read the Bible. And they certainly "know" and recite that He taught, "Judge not lest ye be judged," as they judgmentally judge the judgment of those they judge.

Isn't it probable that the media reports this in the most shocking way possible to elicit the best ratings possible? Was the timing as close-cut and critical as we've been led to believe?5 Have the events been presented in an unbiased manner? Was the chaplain who preached the funeral affiliated with New Hope or not? There are variations in different news reports that will probably keep us from ever knowing the whole story. And, finally, many people on either side are going to believe what they want to believe, regardless of the facts.6

Lest lucidity be lost in my lecture, let me sum up succinctly:

  • A church has a right to schedule and use its own facilities in the way that satisfies the church and not those outside the church who think they should be accommodated  just because.
  • Verily, verily, New Hope Ministries botched their exercise of this right. After the funeral starts is too late to make up your mind.

1. It wasn't simply "family photos including our engagement and family photos of her and I with our two children" that they objected to, but of them kissing, etc.
2. Even so, someone would probably call that a precedent and berate them the next time.
3. It is possible that the Newcomer Funeral Home shares some blame in this fiasco as well. It is not clear whether the funeral home or the family contracted with New Hope Ministries to host the funeral. One source says that Collier did not attend New Hope and that the funeral home contracted with the church (which is directly across the road from it) to hold the ceremony there because the New Hope's sanctuary offered more room.
4. Last-minute cancellation seems to be a fair representation to all.
5. Another New Hope, New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Tampa, Florida, found it could be flogged for cancelling the funeral a day ahead of the event.
6. Some of the protesters against New Hope ranted on about “Death with Dignity” (though they weren’t talking about the actual death, but the funeral). But…it isn't just churches and Christians that create ghastly wrangles at funerals. It may be convenient for some to believe that at the moment.

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