Hearts with a Mission apologizes to gay chorus

A homeless youth organization apologized Tuesday for a controversial decision to reject a $3,000 donation from the Portland Gay Men's Chorus at a charity concert in Grants Pass last month.

"It was a mistake," said Sharon Rush, program director at Hearts with a Mission, an organization for homeless youth in Jackson and Josephine counties. "We made it clear in statements and comments that the youth in our shelters deserve safety and to know they're loved."

Three of 12 members of the board of directors have resigned since the issue came to light, though they didn't disclose the reasons why, Rush said.

She said Hearts with a Mission accepts all children regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation.

Rush said Executive Director Kevin Lamson wanted to accept the donation but the board of directors for Hearts with a Mission rejected it because they thought it would be too controversial. After controversy erupted over the refusal, the board reversed its decision. The money was previously sent to the Maslow Project.

At a press conference Tuesday, board member Ann Hitchcock apologized to the chorus and to the Newman United Methodist Church in downtown Grants Pass, which sponsored the concert and accepted the donation on behalf of the Portland chorus.

"We sincerely apologize to the LGBTQ community for the offense we caused," according to a release from Hearts with a Mission.

Rush said Hearts with a Mission has two shelters, one in Medford with 16 beds and another in Grants Pass with 18, both of which are licensed by the state.

She said the Medford shelter has been full lately, and there has been a trend of more females seeking support.

While Hearts with a Mission is a faith-based organization, Rush said the youth who seek help are not given any religious training. She said there has never been any effort to change a person's sexual orientation.

Rush said the organization's founder, Kevin Lamson, felt called by God to start the nonprofit in 2007 to create a place to keep kids safe. 

Mario Fregoso, executive director for LGBTQ youth support group Lotus Rising project, said he met with staff at Hearts With a Mission and came away reassured.

"I do feel like it was a sincere apology from the staff," he said. "In my meeting with staff, I did not feel they came into work with any kind of bias. They gave clear examples of how they practiced their nondiscriminatory policy."

Fregoso said he set out to be a strong advocate for the LGBTQ community while asking questions of Hearts with a Mission.

The organization accepted his offer for diversity training in LGBTQ issues with the staff and board, he said. Basic Rights Oregon also offered training, Fregoso said.

While he met directly with staff, Fregoso said, he was unable to meet with the board, so he couldn't discern whether it showed any bias.

"As far as the board goes, that question has yet to be answered," Fregoso said, noting that three board members had resigned.

A petition being circulated by Lotus Rising has been signed by 1,000 people affirming support for LGBTQ youth. Fregoso said 40 percent of homeless youths are LGBTQ.

Hearts with a Mission's original decision to reject the $3,000 donation came while it requested an additional $26,000 a year from Grants Pass to get it through the fiscal year. This was in addition to $50,000 a year from the Grants Pass Department of Public Safety.

A person answering the phone at the Portland Gay Men's Chorus Tuesday didn't want to discuss the controversy, saying only the chorus was invited to the Newman United Methodist Church benefit.

"The donation was really from the church," he said, referring to a statement on his group's Facebook page that praised the hospitality of the United Methodist Church.

"Whatever controversy may have surfaced since, what is most important to us is that on one evening, a community came together united by music," according to the statement from Richard Jung, Portland Gay Men's Chorus executive director. "We look forward to performing there again in the future."

— Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.

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