CHICAGO A prominent Chicago pastor remembered a slain 15-year-old girl Saturday as the face of an "epidemic of violence causing funeral processions around the country."
Father Michael Pfleger spoke at Hadiya Pendleton's funeral, telling a packed South Side church that "we must become the interrupters of funeral processions."
Pendleton was a band majorette and honor student who was shot and killed on Jan. 29, just a few days after performing for events surrounding President Obama's inauguration. Police say Pendleton was an innocent victim in a gang-related shooting.
Hundreds of mourners and dignitaries including first lady Michelle Obama stood and applauded Pendleton's family for their strength after her death brought national attention to the city's staggering gun violence.
Mrs. Obama met privately with the family and accompanied the girl's mother to the open casket at the front of a packed South Side church just before the start of the service.
Mrs. Obama, who grew up on Chicago's South Side, put her arm around Cleopatra Pendleton and patted her back. The woman threw her head back and wailed as the lid of her daughter's flower-strewn casket was closed.
Moments later, the hundreds in attendance rose to their feet to begin the service with a round of applause "to the strength of this family." Then, the choir began to sing so loud the floor shook.
Some of Illinois' most recognizable politicians and clergy were also in attendance, including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Father Michael Pfleger. But Pendleton's family says her funeral service was not about politics it was about remembering a girl who loved to dance, who once appeared in an anti-gang video.
"Everything is about Hadiya," said Shatira Wilks, one of Pendleton's cousins and a family spokeswoman.
None of the dignitaries was slated to speak during the service, which was officiated by the teen's pastor, the Rev. Courtney Maxwell, and the Rev. Eric Thomas, the pastor of the Greater Harvest Baptist Church, where the service was held. The teen's brother was also expected to speak, and the musical group that Pendleton was a member of will perform.
Pendleton was shot and killed while she talked with friends after school at a park not far from the Obamas' home in the Kenwood neighborhood. Police have said the shooting appears to be a case of mistaken identity involving gang members who believed the park was their territory. No charges have been filed.
Pendleton's death brought new attention to Chicago's homicide rate and the national debate over gun violence. Pendleton's slaying came in a January that was the city's deadliest in a decade. In 2012, Chicago recorded 506 homicides.
Earlier Saturday morning, a line of hundreds stretched from the church as mourners filed past Pendleton's casket. A woman who walked in with the girl's family sobbed loudly while organ and piano music played.
A glossy, eight-page funeral program included photos of Pendleton and details about her life, including her favorite foods cheeseburgers, fig cookies, Chinese and ice cream and the numerous school organizations she was involved in, and said she wanted to major in pharmacology and journalism in college.
The program also included a copy of a handwritten note from Mr. Obama addressed to the girl's family.
"Michelle and I just wanted you to know how heartbroken we are to have heard about Hadiya's passing," it reads. "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. God bless, Barack Obama."
Other dignitaries at the service were Gov. Pat Quinn, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett all of whom are from Chicago.
Quinn mentioned Pendleton's death in his State of the State address earlier this week as he called for a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
"There are no words in the English language or any language to relieve the pain of parents who lose a child," said Quinn, who said he spoke with Pendleton's family two days before his speech.