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Hundreds of mourners, including first lady Michelle Obama, turned out Saturday for the funeral of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, a Chicago girl who was shot to death just days after she and her high school band performed at the presidential inauguration in Washington.
Her killing has catapulted her into the nation's debate over gun violence.
The first lady did not speak during Pendleton's funeral, but met privately with the family, and with her classmates and friends before the services. Later, Obama stood at the open casket and comforted the teenager's mother, rubbing Cleopatra Cowley Pendleton's back as she looked down at her daughter and wept.
When Cowley-Pendleton spoke, she said she tried to keep her daughter busy so she'd be beyond the reach of the city's gang violence.
"You don't know how hard this really is, and those of you who do know how hard this is, I'm sorry — I'm sorry," she said. "No mother, no father should ever have to experience this."
Friends and family lined up during the nearly three-hour funeral at Greater Harvest Baptist Church to talk about the girl with the ready smile; the sister who protected her baby brother; and the honor student and majorette who wowed her classmates and teachers with her infectious spirit.
Kaylen Jones and many of the other teenagers who spoke about Pendleton identified themselves as her best friend.
"I love her ... for these few weeks, I've been feeling like there's a part of me missing, but I've since realized she's right here with us," Jones said. "She never left; she's right here with all of us."
Pendleton was shot in the back on Jan. 29. She and classmates were in a neighborhood park about a mile from President Obama's Chicago home. Pendleton was caught up in a gang turf war, her group possibly mistaken for rival gang members. So far there have been no arrests.
Chicago activist Rev. Michael Pfleger said it's time to take action.
"We must become the interrupters of funeral processions ... all of us must become the interrupters of this genocide," Pfleger said. "We must interrupt the code of silence that is hiding people, killers in our own community."
Pendleton was one of 42 people killed in Chicago in January. Her death brought new attention to often-overlooked urban violence and the debate over gun violence. Her godfather, Damon Stewart, said he went to a Facebook page and saw that someone had asked what made her death more noteworthy.
"She's important because all those lives and the voices of their families that were ignored or silent, she now speaks for," Stewart said. "She's a representative, not just of the people of Chicago, but a representative of the people across this nation who have lost their lives."
A petition on the White House website had called on the President to attend Pendleton's funeral. Instead the first lady, who grew up on Chicago's south side, attended along with Education Secretary Arne Duncan and White House adviser Valerie Jarrett. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and other officials were also present.
Outside the church, 15-year-old Shalayah Sledge said it was better that the first lady showed up for the funeral and not the president.
"I think if he would have came [it] would have been more about politics and less about Hadiya," Sledge said.
There was a message from the president, on the back page of Pendleton's obituary. He told her parents he and the first lady would continue to work as hard as they could to end senseless violence.