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As gun debate goes on, Chicago mourns slain teen Hadiya Pendleton

First Lady Michelle Obama joins mourners at a Chicago funeral for teen Hadiya Pendleton, a new symbol in efforts to curb gun violence.

February 09, 2013|By Dahleen Glanton and Bridget Doyle
  • Friends and family mourn Hadiya Pendleton at Cedar Park Cemetery in Riverdale, Ill. Earlier, First Lady Michelle Obama was among those at her funeral in Chicago, where the teen was killed by gunfire Jan. 29.
Friends and family mourn Hadiya Pendleton at Cedar Park Cemetery in Riverdale,… (Chriss Sweda, Chicago Tribune )

CHICAGO — 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.

Hadiya, a high school honor student whose majorette squad performed in inaugural festivities for President Obama last month, was fatally shot Jan. 29 at a park about a mile from Obama's family home.

The killing of the bright 15-year-old incited public outrage that made its way from the streets of the South Side to the White House. Police are still searching for the suspected gang member who fired at Hadiya and her friends.

In the front row, a few steps from Hadiya's silver casket, First Lady Michelle Obama sat with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn and other elected officials who, like the president, 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 was killed during the deadliest January for Chicago in a decade, after 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 prompted 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 funeral. Only the friends and relatives who knew her best were allowed to speak. Nearly every one spoke of the violence that had taken 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 as "the light." They talked about her love for Chinese food and Fig Newtons and how she was prone to forget her majorette baton but never her lip gloss.

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. An additional 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.

Tammie Spraggins, 15, sobbed on a friend's shoulder outside the church. She said she went to middle school with Hadiya and wanted to see her friend one last time.

Earlier this week, the family had expressed concerns that heavy security would make it difficult for Hadiya's friends to say their farewells. But the first lady and other officials entered the church barely noticed, and most left quietly.

Before 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 President Obama was printed on the glossy funeral program.

Hadiya's mother, Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton, expressed her appreciation for the outpouring of support from across the city and the nation.

"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. "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 and then gave her a group hug. The praise dance ministry at the Pendletons' church danced in her honor. So did the Chi-town Cheerleaders team. Hadiya had been a member of both groups.

Stewart, Hadiya's godfather, talked about how 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."

Chicago Tribune reporters John Byrne, Peter Nickeas and Rosemary Regina Sobol contributed to this report.

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