Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013 | 1:06 p.m.
CHICAGO — 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.
Yet, one speaker after another remembered 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton not so much as a symbol but as a best friend, 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 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. She met privately with the family before the service and then accompanied the girl's mother to the open casket at the front of the church.
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."
Some of Illinois' most recognizable politicians and clergy were in attendance, including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. 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 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." The captain of the King College Prep majorettes presented Cleopatra Pendleton with the girl's band jacket.
Still, the girl's killing resonated with the city and beyond in a way other Chicago slayings have not.
Her godfather, Damon Stewart, said someone on Facebook had 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. The response, he said, was obvious.
"She's important because all those other people who died are important," Stewart said. "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, said Pendleton was the face of an "epidemic of violence causing funeral processions around the country."
"Sisters and brothers, I beg you," he said. "We must become like Jesus. We must become the interrupters of funeral processions."
Police have said the shooting appears to be a case of mistaken identity involving gang members who believed the park, which is north of the University of Chicago and the Museum of Science and Industry, 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.
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. The program also included 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 reads.
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.