(MCT) — WASHINGTON — First lady Michelle Obama, the Illinois governor and Chicago’s mayor will attend Hadiya Pendleton’s funeral on Saturday, but the family of the slain teenager is determined to hold a service that looks past politics and celebrates the life of a 15-year-old girl lost to street violence.
The shooting death of the King College Prep honor student last week put an international spotlight on Chicago at a time when gun violence is at the center of an intense debate in Washington and across the country. Hadiya, who was killed about a mile from President Barack Obama’s Kenwood home just days after performing in inaugural festivities near Washington, quickly became a symbol of innocent victims in a rising tide of murders.
The announcement Thursday that Michelle Obama will attend the funeral has cast an even harsher spotlight on the gun issue and on Chicago’s rising homicide rate.
But while the family welcomes the first lady, it wants to make sure that Pendleton’s accomplishments are front and center, and that her loved ones can say their goodbyes.
“It’s a nice gesture and we appreciate it,” said Shatira Wilks, a cousin who serves as the family’s spokesperson. “But that is who we are.”
The Rev. Courtney Maxwell, the family’s minister who will deliver the eulogy, emphasized that this will not be a political forum.
“There absolutely will be no talk about the gun issue,” Maxwell said. “We want to talk about celebrating her life and not get into a political situation as it relates to guns.”
Top officials planning to attend include Gov. Pat Quinn, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. Quinn plans to speak; Preckwinkle does not. It was unclear late Thursday whether Emanuel would speak.
The first lady is not expected to make public remarks during her visit. She will attend the services along with two other major White House figures from Chicago: senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
Quinn and Emanuel have each visited Pendleton’s parents since the slaying. During his annual State of the State speech on Wednesday, Quinn pointed to the teen’s death as an example of why the state needs tougher gun laws, but the governor is not expected to broach the topic at the funeral.
“There are no words in the English language, or any language, to relieve the pain of parents who lose a child,” said Quinn, who has two adult sons.
Since the honor student’s death, her parents, Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton and Nathaniel Pendleton, have made public appeals for people to step forward and provide police with information about the shooting. There is a $40,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of Pendleton’s killer.
While family members have said they would like to see some good come out of Pendleton’s death, such as anti-violence efforts, Wilks said the family had concerns initially about the idea of the president attending the funeral, as had been suggested by some.
“We have the utmost respect for the president. We love him, but it would be a very selfish gesture for the president to come,” said Wilks before the first lady’s visit was announced. “Blocking off 15 blocks, taking up the first 10 pews with security and people checked as they come would take all the attention off Hadiya. Hadiya would become just a name in the environment. It would no longer be about her.”
After Thursday’s announcement about Michelle Obama’s attendance, family members said they appreciated her interest.
While the Secret Service travels with the first lady and special security will have to be put in place, her visit would not be as disruptive to the funeral as the president’s would. In 2010, she attended the funeral of Bishop Arthur Brazier, a local community activist and a longtime friend of the Obamas, and was barely noticeable in the 3,500-seat sanctuary. The first lady did not speak at the service, but Jarrett made comments on behalf of the president.
The first lady also attended a memorial service for Jarrett’s father, James Bowman, in 2010 at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel on the University of Chicago campus. She did not stay for a reception and another remembrance event later in the day.
Rev. Maxwell said the president reached out to Pendleton’s parents by phone this week. Now, it’s the first lady’s turn to offer condolences.
“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, the first lady’s communications director. “Too many times, we’ve seen young people struck down with so much of their lives ahead of them.”
Anita McBride, who was chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush, said two messages could be drawn from Michelle Obama’s funeral trip.
“One, this is an opportunity,” McBride said. “A first lady is often called on to be a comforter-in-chief, as we saw with Laura Bush after 9/11. This is a role that comes naturally to her as a woman, as a mother, to comfort someone, just as the president has to do.”
Secondly, she said, first ladies often choose causes to draw attention to and support a president’s initiatives. “Gun control is something the president says he is putting every fiber of his being into as long as he has the bully pulpit,” said McBride, now executive in residence at American University’s School of Public Affairs.
The funeral will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at Greater Harvest Baptist Church, which has a capacity of 1,000 people in the main sanctuary, according to the pastor, the Rev. Eric Thomas. He said an overflow room in another part of the church would accommodate about 200 more.
Thomas said he was asked by the family’s minister, the Rev. Maxwell of Greater Deliverance Temple Church of Christ, to host the funeral because of the large crowd expected.
“This is something we’ve never experienced,” said Thomas. “There will be a lot of street blockages and our parking lot will have limited access. Certain parts of the church will be curtained off for security reasons and they’ve requested that we have a special place for the first lady in the church.”
Maxwell said he has known the Pendletons for more than seven years. In his eulogy, he said, he will make sure that people know about Hadiya’s “great spirit and how her mom and dad cultivated such an awesome spirit.”
Several of Pendleton’s friends from school, including fellow members of the majorette team at King College Prep, will speak at the funeral, Maxwell said. He said there will be a performance by the church’s dance ministry, a group of praise dancers that Pendleton belonged to. She also will be recognized for her work in the church nursery.
The Rev. Michael Pfleger, pastor of St. Sabina Catholic Church and an anti-violence activist on the South Side, said the first lady’s visit will not silence calls for the president to make a public policy statement on violence in Chicago. The larger issue, he said, is the more than 100 children who have died since the start of last year.
“Hopefully, this will become the face of the larger issue and not just the face of one funeral,” Pfleger said.
Family members also said they are glad to see that Hadiya is making a difference in the world.
“Hadiya always said she was going to be a star,” said Wilks. “She’s a star now and she’s reaching the globe.”
(Reporters Monique Garcia, John Byrne and Kathleen Hennessey contributed to this report.)