DEL NORTE- The town of Del Norte recently hosted the Rural Philanthropy Days (RPD), a funding conference provided through the Community Resource Center (CRC) that brought grant makers and grant seekers together for a three-day event. Several organizations from the six counties in the San Luis Valley gathered in Del Norte for three days of networking and learning the fundamentals of grant seeking to help their organizations and communities. RPD is a statewide program hosted by the CRC that helps communities create opportunities for local organizations and nonprofit groups to meet with grant makers and learn how to make a grant proposal a success.
During the conference, which was held at the Gateway Church in Del Norte, an openly gay activist, Justin Garoutte, with the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation (PIRE) and another pro LGBTQ man gave speeches that have sparked controversy within the San Luis Valley and beyond.
During his speech, Justin Garoutte focused on the struggle many young gay individuals face while trying to accept their sexual identities. Garoutte opened his presentation by stating that he grew up in southern San Luis Valley in the community of Antonito and that he struggled with coming to terms with being a young gay man throughout his life. According to sources, and a transcript of his speech, Garoutte continued in great detail about his journey and acceptance of his homosexuality.
According to sources, a few attendees walked out of the conference during the speech but otherwise it was well received. However, behind the scenes, those who are associated with the Gateway Church felt differently. Gateway Church Pastor Greg Schaffer told Valley Publishing staff that he responded to his congregation during his sermon the following Sunday by stating, “We were absolutely taken off guard. Even the local group that planned the event was not aware of the presentation. When our church opened our doors to the community for Rural Philanthropy Days, I believed it to be a good thing. I thought it would be a blessing to contribute to the success of local business, people and ultimately to the economic growth of our Valley. However, when a guest speaker got up and began to share his life story about how he embraced his homosexuality, I was a bit taken aback and unsure about what was taking place. As far as I knew, RPD had nothing to do with a man’s life story of how he embraced his homosexuality. Let me make this clear. That the surprise, and eventual offence, was not that he was homosexual, but the content of what he shared was offensive. What was shared in our church behind our pulpit was a message that clearly mocked God and belittled our faith. In his story the reference was made to his sexual experiences and the shaking off of his religious guilt.”
The refence to sexual experiences was substantiated by the following transcript of a portion of Garoutte’s speech provided by a trusted anonymous source, “The internet was both a blessing and a curse. Late nights in my mother’s empty kitchen, after she’d gone to bed, allowed me the freedom to explore my sexuality (the kitchen was the only place I could connect to our dial-up AOL internet connection back then). AOL chat rooms introduced me to entirely new realms that I otherwise didn’t have access to in rural Colorado. I could virtually meet other guys online and find answers to my questions that neither of my parents could give me; as they still didn’t know what I was going through.”
Garoutte continued by stating, “A short while later, after having returned to my studies and having met a gentle, caring man late one night at a college party, I returned home with a hickey. This hickey forced me to come out to my mother and two younger sisters.”
In an interview, Pastor Schaffer stated, “In reference to the words I shared last Sunday. First, my congregation deserved an explanation as to what took place. They also needed to be reassured as to who we are and what we believe. In my sharing, most of those who were offended turned their ears off when they heard me say, ‘We do not agree with homosexuality.’ However, after that statement was made, I called our people to love all in spite of our differences. I also shared that we must see all sin as the same and to first look at our own sins before looking at the sins of another.”
Pastor Schaffer continued, “We as Christians are called to forgive, to walk in peace and to love our fellow brother. We endeavor to do this every day. We will not trade insult for insult. We will forgive what has been said and work on building meaningful relationships will all people to lead to mutual respect. We would ask for the same in return.”
The sermon was video recorded and shared online on a YouTube channel and has quickly gained National attention. In response to Pastor Schaffer’s sermon, a group of concerned citizens gathered together to protest outside of the church on Sunday, Sept. 29.
Scott Rappold, the organizer of the protest, had this to say, “Many of us in Del Norte were shocked when we heard about the divisive, homophobic sentiments expressed by the pastor of Gateway Church in last Sunday’s sermon. And because a gay man spoke at the church when it was loaned out for a community event, Rural Philanthropy Days, Pastor Greg asked for a ‘one-prayer cleansing’ of the building. Such statements are not indicative of the spirit of inclusion and acceptance that we embrace here in Del Norte. We decided to make our sentiments known by protesting at the church because we want the community and our visitors to know that this is a welcoming town, no matter someone’s race, background or sexual orientation. Our goal is not to sow discord in Del Norte but to ask Pastor Greg and Gateway Church to issue a public apology for the sermon, which has cast Del Norte in a negative light and has portrayed the community as one of bigotry and hate, which could not be further from the truth.”
With regard to the recent San Luis Valley Rural Philanthropy Days (SLV RPD) conference held in Del Norte and corresponding events held at Gateway, The San Luis Valley Rural Philanthropy Days (SLV RPD) Steering Committee Leadership, and partner organizations, Community Resource Center and Anschutz Family Foundation, stated that, “The SLV RPD Steering Committee, made up of diverse individuals from across the region, spent a year collaborating to design and present a conference that reflects our shared values of equality and inclusion for all people - including those from the LGBTQ+ and faith-based communities. This collaboration celebrates and encourages diversity by bringing together regional leaders from all six counties of the San Luis Valley. As members of the nonprofit sector, we strive to build community, connect people, encourage philanthropy and enhance organizational capacity to support thriving and healthy rural communities across Colorado. We want to focus on our commitment to equality and inclusion for all. The future Steering Committees will ensure that our chosen partners and venues are committed to this message. We want to continue to build bridges and advance a healthy dialogue.”
The Del Norte Prospector reached out to Justin Garoutte but did not receive a response by press time. According to sources, the protests of Gateway Church will continue until the church issues a public apology for the Sunday, Sept. 29 sermon. You can follow this developing story on Valley Publishing publications, websites and Facebook pages.