After months of searching, the family of Phylicia Simone Barnes welcomed her home Saturday, but it was hardly the reunion they had prayed for.
Family and friends gathered for an emotional afternoon funeral service at Springfield Baptist Church in Conyers, Ga., to remember the teen who went missing from a Northwest Baltimore apartment complex four months ago while visiting family over Christmas.
"We are so grateful to announce that Simone is no longer lost, no longer missing," said Pastor Eric Wendel Lee Sr. at the start of the service, which the church broadcast over the Internet. Speakers during the 90-minute service included her childhood pastor and faculty at her school in Monroe, N.C., where she lived with her mother.
Barnes, an honor student who would have turned 17 this year, was found dead April 20 about 40 miles north of Baltimore in the Susquehanna River, where work crews noticed her body floating north of Conowingo Dam. On Wednesday, state police said that an autopsy confirmed Barnes was the victim of a homicide, but said they were withholding the cause of death for investigative purposes. No arrests have been made.
Next to her closed casket Saturday sat a large purple flower display in the shape of a cross and a large print of her senior class picture, in which she wore a black drape and a strand of white pearls.
Many of the mourners wore her favorite color — purple — or purple ribbons. At least one wore a black t-shirt with Barnes' picture.
Lawrence Sullivan, the dean of students at the school from which Barnes was supposed to graduate early before attending Towson University, remembered teaching Barnes in the seventh grade. He told mourners about their first parent-teacher conference, when he was amazed by the expectations Barnes' mother, Janice Sallis-Mustafa, had for her daughter.
He then gave Sallis-Mustafa her daughter's high school diploma and a hug.
"I knew her for only six years," said Sullivan, dean of students at Union Academy in Monroe, N.C. But he added that those six years amounted to nearly a third of Barnes' short life.
Chrissy Rape, a school counselor and college placement director at Union Academy, described Barnes as "highly motivated."
At first, Rape said, Barnes wanted to be a pediatrician. But later, after a psychology class, she decided on child psychology. Either way, Rape said, she knew she wanted to work with kids.
"She was loving and patient with the children" at an afterschool program where she worked. "It was her calling," Rape said.
Before she went missing, Rape said, Barnes had received several responses from schools who wanted Barnes as a student, some offering her merit scholarships.
She spoke of Barnes' love of the theater and her participation in drama groups at school.
She remembered how the school reacted when, after many days passed, Barnes still did not return to her home, to the school. On Phylicia days, she said, the students wore purple, and hung purple ribbons on trees in front of the school.
They plan to plant a tree next week in her honor. The school will also start a Phylicia Barnes scholarship.
A young friend sang an emotional original composition: "Come Home Simone."
"As I'm looking out my window, I'm missing you. I ask myself why," the song began. "We won't give the search up until we found you."
The girl began to cry, but managed to push through the song.
Another speaker read a poem by Barnes' mother. Written from Barnes' point of view, it began: "I know from everyone, my homecoming was a surprise." And later: "Please for me don't cry, it's only a temporary goodbye."
At the end of the funeral, mourners watched a slideshow of Barnes through the years with the CeCe Winans song, "Don't Cry For Me," playing.
One photo showed an elementary school-age Barnes wearing a lime green heart-shaped balloon around her head. Another showed her petting a black and white tuxedo cat. Some of the later photos showed Barnes in a turquoise satin prom dress linking arms friends.
In all of her pictures, she flashed her broad, bright smile. One of the final photos was of a rock painted white with "Faith, Hope, Love. Phylicia" in purple paint.
"God, if we ever needed you, we certainly need you now," Lee said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun