On Saturday, Hadiya Pendleton, the vibrant 15-year-old who was shot down days after performing at the President’s inauguration, drew long lines of those who wished to honor her at her funeral. Hundreds stood outside the Greater Harvest Baptist Church on Chicago’s South Side even after the funeral director announced that there was no more room inside. Fifteen hundred funeral pamphlets about Hadiya’s life–all that were published–quickly vanished. Many of those who showed up but couldn’t get in chose to continue their outdoor vigil in the cold throughout the four hour service.
While the family struggled to keep the proceedings personal and focused on the child they lost, they inevitably had to acknowledge the deeper meaning of her death. When her mother, Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton, spoke during the service, she said:
“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. No mother, no father should ever have to experience this.”
Hadiya’s godfather, Damon Stewart, put his goddaughter’s life into a larger context for those gathered in the church. After saying that her death should “break the hearts of everyone who has lost someone they love,” he quoted a Facebook post that asked, “What makes this girl so much better than the others?” Stewart’s answer was this:
“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.
“Don’t let this turn into a political thing. Keep it personal. A lot of politicians will try to wield it as a sword. They want to use it for votes.”
When Father Michael Pfleger spoke about Hadiya as an innocent victim of violence, he asked, “When did we lose our soul?” and urged the crowd in the church to become “the interrupters” of genocide, to stop the killing of the community’s children by gun violence.
A number of prominent figures–both national and local–attended the funeral. Michelle Obama was there, having met privately with Hadiya’s friends and family before the service. She attempted to keep a low profile, but her presence made a statement about her husband’s priorities. The back of the funeral program contained a copy of a hand-written note from President Obama to Hadiya’s parents that said, in part:
“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.”
Hadiya has become a symbol and a rallying point for many reasons, articulated by those at the funeral who knew her. A friend observed that her smile “lit up a room”; the mother of a friend said, “Hadiya was a gift to everyone that knew her”; the pastor called her “genuine and real.” For people across the nation who have seen this young girl’s picture–the light in her eyes, the warmth of her smile–the draw is obvious. There could be no better emissary to remind those of us who didn’t know Hadiya that a tragedy of great magnitude occurs every time a young life is extinguished, and to bring responsibility to bear on each and every one of us to bring such tragedies to an end.
Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton noted that the “outpouring of support has been absolutely amazing” but she has no doubt about its inspiration:
“My baby did all this. This is all Hadiya.”