Rashida Sims didn’t get off from her overnight shift as a home care nurse until 5:30 a.m. Friday.
That was when she hopped in her car and headed straight for New Psalmist Baptist Church and the funeral of U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, her fellow congregant for years at the Lochearn church.
As the nearly four-hour service let out, and thousands spilled into the mid-afternoon warmth and sunlight, the mood was downright convivial, as most agreed the event had been more one of celebration than of mourning.
Sims said what she remembered most about Cummings was the genuine warmth he showed nearly everyone he met in the 7,000-member congregation when he attended services there at 7:15 a.m. every Sunday.
“He wasn’t like your typical superstar, wearing sunglasses and walking past you to get someplace more important," she said. “He would stop, say ‘Hello,’ ask sincerely how you’re doing, and make time for you.”
“Even when I ran into him in the grocery store, there he’d be, pushing his own cart, and he’d stop and listen to anything you might have to say.”
Sims’ friend and fellow congregant, Patricia Battle, agreed wholeheartedly. She’d arrived at 6 a.m. and found a seat in the balcony to pay her respects.
“I thank God I was part of this today,” she said. “He was a blessing to this congregation. He was a man of the people.”
A theme among worshipers was how Cummings somehow found the time to engage with so many people, in so many walks of life, on such a personal level — and how strongly they felt the need to come on Friday to return the respect.
Larry King, 42, clad in a dark three-piece suit, arrived at 5 a.m., three hours before the viewing was to begin. He said it never occurred to him not to come say farewell.
Cummings came to both his graduations ― at Lake Clifton-Eastern High School in 1996 and at Baltimore City Community College in 2006. Cummings “gave a great speech” at the high school event and handed King an outstanding achievement award with his diploma, but it was the personal interaction that day that seemed to resonate across the years for King.
“I shook his hand,” he said.
Estella Duberry, 65, said she, too, felt a strong connection to Cummings, even though she didn’t know him personally.
She was a Morgan State University student in the 1970s at about the time the future politician was rising to local prominence, and as she watched his career unfold, she came to think of him as a civil rights leader in the mold of a Martin Luther King Jr. or a John Lewis.
That meant a lot to a young African American woman who remembers being forced to sit in the balconies of segregated movie theaters when she was a girl and being spat on by “one Caucasian man” when she was a college student.
So did the fact that even long after he knew world leaders and helped pass landmark legislation in Washington, he continued to live near where he grew up in South Baltimore.
Partly inspired by his example, she became a teacher of English as a Second Language who works with immigrant children in Howard County because the job allows her to work with marginalized people.
“This is historic," she said. "I wanted to be here today. I hope he knew what a connection he had to people. He gave so much.”
As mourners poured out of the church, flooding to cars and shuttle buses, the Rev. Herman Price sat quietly at a patio table, savoring the moment.
Price, a Baptist minister who lives in San Antonio, Texas, spoke of how Cummings’ widow, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, who lived in that city for a time years ago, had once babysat for his children. Rockeymoore Cummings and the congressman married in 2008.
Price told a story of Rockeymoore Cummings planning to come to Texas at one point and speak to a gathering of ministers at a fund-raising banquet. When she couldn’t come, she told Price she’d send her husband ― and he flew all the way to Texas to keynote the evening for a group of people he’d never met. The reason: It raised scholarship money for young people, a subject dear to Cummings’ heart.
“I don’t know how he found the time in his busy schedule to come, but he did, and he was wonderful," said Price, who planned to return Saturday to San Antonio. “Listening to what the speakers said about him in there, it seems he touched just about everyone that way. I felt like he was everybody’s congressman."