First lady Michelle Obama and some of Chicago’s most well-known faces turned out today to attend the funeral of Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old girl whose killing has become another symbol in the national debate on gun violence.
Hundreds filled the Greater Deliverance Temple Church of Christ to pay their respects to the teenager’s family, but the mood in the room was upbeat, including renditions from the choir. Friends of the girl, who had been one of the performers at President Obama second inauguration just days before she was gunned down, read poems in remembrance.
Before the service, the first lady met privately with about 30 of Hadiya Pendleton’s friends and classmates, and then met privately with members of Hadiya’s family.
“As a mother and Chicagoan, the first lady was heartbroken to learn of the tragic loss of Hadiya Pendleton due to senseless gun violence,” said Kristina Schake, an aide to Obama. “Too many times we’ve seen young people struck down with so much of their lives ahead of them. The first lady is traveling to her funeral on Saturday to offer her condolences and support to Hadiya’s family and loved ones.”
Pendleton’s shooting came in January among a string of recent high profile gun crimes. Chicago is also struggling through the throes of the worst homicide rates it’s seen in a decade, spurred by gang warfare.
“She was not too young to leave a mark, and impact her friends, her family, and even now the nation,” the Rev. Courtney Maxwell said of the student who had reportedly once participated in an anti-gang video.
In Pastor Eric Thomas’ invocation he thanked “the life of this beloved angel.”
“Her life has not been in vain,” he said. “Because of this day there will be many other lives saved.”
Police say Hadiya Pendleton was killed when a gunman opened fire on a group of young people in a park blocks from her school on the city’s South Side, and about a mile from the Obamas’ own neighborhood. The drum majorette had returned to Chicago days earlier from Washington, D.C., where she had participated as a performer in the festivities surrounding President Obama’s second inauguration. Her classmates from the King College Prep School band were in attendance today.
There have been no arrests, although police believe the death was the result of mistaken identity from gang members who had claimed the area as their territory. Pendleton would have been an innocent bystander, they say.
The Chicago police department reported 506 homicides in 2012, although this recent tragedy has prompted local authorities to move an additional 200 officers on to street patrols.
Friends in the church described a girl who gave “the most sincere hug,” but the air the room was also thick with discussion of how Pendleton’s death had gathered national attention.
Pendleton’s godfather said he wished lawmakers would stop “playing politics” with the renewed attention to gun violence, and think of it more “personally.”
“There’s no way we can put a man on the moon, but they can’t figure this out,” Damon Stewart said to the parishioners.
“When did we lose our soul?” asked the Rev. Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina Catholic Church in Chicago, commenting on “our failure as a society that has allowed guns to become part of our wardrobe.”
“We must become like Jesus,” he said.
The first lady was joined by Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett. Each claims the city as their hometown, although none spoke during the morning service. The Rev. Jesse Jackson was also seen.
Pendleton’s mother, Cleopatra Cowley, is expected to be a guest of honor during President Obama’s State of the Union address this Tuesday, where the national debate on gun violence is expected to be mentioned. Representative Brad Schneider has invited Cowley for the event.
At the funeral today, Ms. Cowley came to the podium in good spirits over the show of support.
“Some people around here think you’re supposed to walk around with your head down low,” she said of the loss of her daughter. ”I’m not worried about her, I know where she is.”
Although after becoming solemn, the mother admitted it was her family that ultimately kept her going.
“You don’t how hard this really is,” she said to the pews. “And those of you that do know how hard this is, I am sorry.”
The State of the Union remarks will follow a set of executive actions already taken by the White House strengthening gun control measures and proposals from Obama that would include bans on high-capacity magazines and assault-style weapons if enacted.
The Associated Press contributed to this report, which has been updated.