By Dahleen Glanton and Bridget Doyle, Chicago Tribune reporters
12:47 AM EST, February 10, 2013
The funeral for Hadiya Pendleton on Saturday was a celebration of her life, just as her parents had wanted. But along with those moments of joyful remembrance, there was bitter awareness of the street violence that took her away.
In the front row, just a few steps from Hadiya's silver casket, first lady Michelle Obama sat with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Gov. Pat Quinn and other elected officials who, like President Barack Obama, have made gun control the centerpiece of their campaigns to end the violence.
Throughout the program, relatives and friends made it clear that this would not be a day to talk about the politics of guns, it would be a day to talk about Hadiya.
"Don't let this turn into a political thing. Keep it personal," said Damon Stewart, Hadiya's godfather. "A lot of politicians will try to wield it as a sword. They want to use it for votes."
Hadiya, a high school honor student whose King College Prep majorette squad participated in inaugural festivities last month near Washington, D.C., was killed Jan. 29 in Harsh Park, about a mile from the Obamas' Kenwood home.
The senseless killing of a bright teen with a promising future quickly incited public outrage that made its way from the streets of the South Side all the way to the White House.
Hadiya's death occurred during the deadliest January for Chicago in a decade, and it came on the heels of a homicide total last year that was the highest since 2008. The first lady's attendance at Saturday's funeral placed Chicago even further into the spotlight of a national debate over gun violence that has polarized Congress and forced the president to take his gun control initiatives on the road to garner more public support.
Neither the first lady nor elected officials gave remarks during the program. Only the friends and relatives who knew her best were allowed to speak. Nearly every one of them spoke of the violence and how it had taken the lives of too many young people, not just in Chicago but across the country.
For more than three hours, Hadiya's friends and relatives paid tribute to the young woman they referred to in the service as "the light." They talked about her love for Chinese food and Fig Newtons and how she was prone to forget her majorette baton and even her performance wig, but never her lip gloss, which she wore all the time.
They talked about how she loved to laugh and was never serious, until it came to her school work. Her 10-year-old brother, Nathaniel Jr., used the description "goofy." One friend said that even after death, Hadiya would always be with them, "whispering the answers to us in chemistry."
More than 1,000 people packed the Greater Harvest Baptist Church on South State Street. Another 200 filled an overflow room. And hundreds more stood outside in freezing weather for hours, unable to get inside.
Some who waited in line didn't know the Pendletons personally, but they felt a connection to the teenager's death.
Some young people who said they went to school with Hadiya weren't able to get in. Only students wearing green wristbands and relatives and friends wearing orange ones were guaranteed admission through a special security line.
Tammie Spraggins, 15, sobbed on a friend's shoulder outside the church, explaining that she went to middle school with Hadiya and wanted to see her friend one last time.
"They're letting in people and adults who didn't even know her," Spraggins said through tears. "I can't even say goodbye to my friend one last time."
Earlier this week, the family had expressed concerns that heavy security would make it difficult for Hadiya's friends to express their farewells. But the first lady and other officials entered the church barely noticed, and most left quietly without speaking publicly.
Prior to the service, the first lady met privately with about 30 of Hadiya's friends and classmates, according to the White House. She also met privately with members of Hadiya's family.
A handwritten note offering condolences from the president was printed on the glossy funeral program containing poems, tributes and more than 50 pictures of Hadiya from birth to her teen years.
Hadiya's mother, Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton, expressed her appreciation to the first lady, the mayor and the governor after going to the microphone unexpectedly. She said the outpouring of support from across the city and the nation has been amazing.
"All y'all don't know me and our sense of humor," she said, laughing and occasionally pausing to cry. "Honoring Hadiya and having a smile on my face may be offensive to the masses. I'm not worried about her soul, I know where she is."
She also had a message for other parents.
"You don't know how hard this is," she told the audience. "For those of you who do know how hard this is, I'm sorry. No mother, no father should ever have to experience this. I put her in things. I kept her busy so she wouldn't run into the element. … When your children try to talk to you, listen. Don't judge them. This should be a judge-free zone. You made them. You deal with that."
Students and friends lined up at the microphone to share their memories of Hadiya. Many of the young girls referred to her as their "best friend." Members of the majorette squad, dressed in their black and gold warmup suits, presented Hadiya's mother with her team jacket, then gave her a group hug.
The praise dance ministry at the Pendletons' church, Greater Deliverance Temple Church of Christ, danced in her honor. So did the Chi-town Cheerleaders team. Dressed in long white skirts, white leotards and white ribbons in their hair, they did an acrobatic dance to the spiritual "Now Behold the Lamb." Hadiya had been a member of both groups.
With the program running long and so many tributes to Hadiya, the Rev. Courtney Maxwell decided not to deliver his planned eulogy, saying it already been done by others. And Maxwell had shared personal remembrances of Hadiya in remarks while he officiated the service.
Outside the church, friends also took time to remember her.
Trinity Dishmon, 40, said her daughter Deja, 15, was close friends with Hadiya in middle school. The two girls stayed in touch and were texting about their upcoming 16th birthdays while Hadiya was in the Washington area for the president's inauguration.
"Hadiya was a gift to everyone that knew her," Dishmon said, tearing up. "These last 12 days have been unbelievably numbing. It's not six degrees of separation anymore, it's one. It's just unreal."
Other dignitaries attending the funeral included Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and U.S. Reps. Danny Davis and Bobby Rush. White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and Education Secretary Arne Duncan accompanied the first lady.
Police are still searching for the suspected gang member who fired at Hadiya and her friends, who did not have gang ties, according to authorities. A $40,000 reward has been offered.
Stewart, Hadiya's godfather, addressed the fact at the funeral that the teen had become an important symbol for people. He said he had read a Facebook post that said: "I'm not going to buy into the hype. What makes this girl so much better than the others?"
He had an answer: "She is important because all those other people who died are important. She is important because all of the families who were silent, she speaks for them. She is a representative of the people across the nation who have lost their lives."
Tribune reporters John Byrne, Peter Nickeas and Rosemary Regina Sobol contributed.
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