(TheBlaze/AP) — Hundreds of mourners and dignitaries, including first lady Michelle Obama, packed the funeral service Saturday for a Chicago teen whose killing catapulted her into the nation’s debate over gun violence.
But one speaker after another remembered 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton not so much as a symbol but as a best friend, reports say, an excellent student with big dreams and simply a girl with a great smile and bubbly 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 city’s seemingly endless gang violence.
“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 on Jan. 29 as she stood with friends at a neighborhood 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 was among a long list of dignitaries who attended the funeral, but she was able to meet privately with the family before the service. She also accompanied the girl’s mother to the open casket at the front of the church.
“As a mother and Chicagoan, the first lady was heartbroken to learn of the tragic loss of Hadiya Pendleton due to senseless gun violence,” Kristina Schake, an aide to Obama, commented.
The first lady, who grew up on Chicago’s South Side, put her arm around Cleopatra Pendleton and patted her back.
Criticized for “politicizing” the girl’s death on Friday, though, she appeared to making an effort to avoid the press and ducked in through a side door.
Some of Illinois’ most recognizable politicians and clergy were in attendance, including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, Gov. Pat Quinn, and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
But Pendleton’s family said the service wouldn’t be political – it would be a time to remember a girl who loved to dance and who once appeared in an anti-gang video.
None of the dignitaries spoke Saturday. Instead, close friends, holding back tears, got up to remember her.
One of them said she felt Hadiya was “still here with us, whispering the answers in chemistry.”
But the national impact of the young woman’s killing was noted.
Her godfather, Damon Stewart, said someone on Facebook 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.
“She’s important because all those other people who died are important,” Stewart retorted. “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.”
Father Michael Pfleger, a prominent Chicago pastor, reportedly asked, “when did we lose our soul?” in discussing “our failure as a society that has allowed guns to become part of our wardrobe.”
Pendleton’s slaying 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. It also had 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 read.
According to ABC News, Hadiya’s mother is expected to be a guest of honor at the State of the Union Tuesday night.
CBS Chicago has more: