Hundreds of mourners and dignitaries, including first lady Michelle Obama, stood and applauded the family of a 15-year-old Chicago girl for their strength Saturday, a week and a half after her death brought national attention to the city's staggering gun violence.
One speaker after another at Saturday's funeral remembered Hadiya Pendleton as more than a symbol, but as a girl who had dreams, joked with her friends and loved school and performing as a majorette with the group that performed at events surrounding President Barack Obama's inauguration just days before her death on Jan. 29. Police say Pendleton was an innocent victim in a gang-related shooting.
Her godfather, Damon Stewart, said some people on Facebook had asked what made Hadiya's death noteworthy when more than 40 people had already been slain in Chicago this year — many without so much as a mention in local newspapers. The answer, Stewart told the packed South Side church, was obvious.
"She's important because all those other people who died are important," Stewart said. "She's important because all of those lives and voices of those families who were ignored, she now speaks for them. ... I don't believe in coincidence. God needed an angel. God needed to send somebody for us to change."
Michelle Obama met privately with the family before the service and then accompanied the girl's mother to the open casket at the front of the church. Obama, who grew up on Chicago's South Side, put her arm around Cleopatra Pendleton and patted her back. The woman threw her head back and wailed as the lid of her daughter's flower-strewn casket was closed.
Moments later, the hundreds in attendance rose to their feet to begin the service with a round of applause "to the strength of this family." Then, the choir began to sing so loud the floor shook.
Some of Illinois' most recognizable politicians and clergy were in attendance, including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. But Pendleton's family says her Saturday funeral service was not about politics — it was about remembering a girl who loved to dance, who once appeared in an anti-gang video.
None of the dignitaries was slated to speak Saturday. Instead, close friends, holding back tears, got up to remember her. One of them said she felt Hadiya was "still here with us, whispering the answers in chemistry." The captain of the King College Prep majorettes presented Cleopatra Pendleton with her team jacket.
Father Michael Pfleger, a prominent Chicago pastor, said Hadiya was the face of an "epidemic of violence causing funeral processions around the country."
"Sisters and brothers, I beg you," he said. "We must become like Jesus. We must become the interrupters of funeral processions."
Pendleton was shot and killed while she talked with friends after school at a park not far from the Obamas' home in the Kenwood neighborhood. Police have said the shooting appears to be a case of mistaken identity involving gang members who believed the park was their territory. No charges have been filed.
Pendleton's death brought new attention to Chicago's homicide rate and the national debate over gun violence. Pendleton's slaying came in a January that was the city's deadliest in a decade. In 2012, Chicago recorded 506 homicides.
A glossy, eight-page funeral program included photos of Pendleton and details about her life, including her favorite foods — cheeseburgers, fig cookies, Chinese and ice cream — and the numerous school organizations she was involved in. The program also included a copy of a handwritten note from President Obama addressed to the girl's family.
"Michelle and I just wanted you to know how heartbroken we are to have heard about Hadiya's passing," it reads. "We know that no words from us can soothe the pain, but rest assured that we are praying for you, and that we will continue to work as hard as we can to end this senseless violence. God bless, Barack Obama."
Other dignitaries at the service were Gov. Pat Quinn, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett — all of whom are from Chicago.
Quinn mentioned Pendleton's death in his State of the State address earlier this week as he called for a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
"There are no words in the English language . or any language . to relieve the pain of parents who lose a child," Quinn said.