CHICAGO — Hundreds of mourners and dignitaries including first lady Michelle Obama packed the funeral Saturday for a Chicago honor student whose killing catapulted her into the nation’s debate over gun violence.
Yet one speaker after another remembered 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton not so much as a symbol but as a best friend, an excellent student with dreams of going to college and a sometimes goofy girl with a bright smile and big personality. They said she was a typical teen who wanted to borrow her friends’ clothes and who never left home without her lip gloss.
And to her mother, Pendleton was the daughter she tried to keep busy so she’d be beyond the reach of the seemingly endless gang violence in the nation’s third-largest city.
“You don’t know how hard this really is, and those of you who do know how hard this really is, I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” Cleopatra Pendleton told the packed South Side church. “No mother, no father should ever have to experience this.”
Hadiya Pendleton was shot and killed Jan. 29 as she stood with friends at a park about a mile from President Barack Obama’s Chicago home in the Kenwood neighborhood. Just days before, the band majorette was among the performers during events for Obama’s inauguration. Police say Pendleton was an innocent victim in a gang-related shooting.
Michelle Obama met privately with the family and some of Pendleton’s friends before the service.
Obama, who grew up on Chicago’s South Side, then accompanied the girl’s mother to the open casket at the front of the Greater Harvest Baptist Church. She put her arm around Cleopatra Pendleton and patted her back as the woman threw her head back and wailed.
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.” The nearly four-hour funeral was punctuated with a choir singing hymns so triumphantly that at times 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 said they didn’t want the day to be about politics.
None of the dignitaries spoke during the service. Instead, close friends, holding back tears, got up to remember her.
One said she felt Hadiya was “still here with us, whispering the answers in chemistry.” Another said Pendleton always told her to do her best in school so they could go to college together. The captain of the King College Prep majorettes presented Cleopatra Pendleton with the girl’s team jacket.
Still, the girl’s death resonated with the city and beyond in a way other Chicago slayings have not.
Her godfather, Damon Stewart, said someone on Facebook had asked what made Pendleton’s death more noteworthy than those of more than 40 people who had already been slain in Chicago this year – many without so much as a mention in local newspapers. The response, he said, was obvious to him.
“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.”
The Rev. Michael Pfleger, a prominent Chicago priest, said Pendleton 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.”
Police have said the shooting appears to be a case of mistaken identity involving gang members who believed the park, which is near Lake Michigan and north of the University of Chicago, was their territory. No charges have been filed.
Pendleton’s death brought new attention to Chicago’s homicide rate. It 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 and church organizations she was involved in. The program also included a copy of a handwritten note from President Obama addressed to the girl’s family.
“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,” it said.
Other dignitaries at the service included Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett – all of whom are from Chicago.