I want my baby back, I need my baby back!”
Those were the cries of Jonylah Emani Watkins' mother Judy, who was escorted out of her daughter’s home-going service after 15 minutes of heartbreaking sobs and screams. There were few dry eyes in sight, and boxes of facial tissue were quickly emptied. Men and women wept while holding on to their stomachs, chairs, and each other.
“Why would God allow this to happen? A six month old baby to be killed?” asked the Rev. Corey Brooks of New Beginnings Church on Chicago's South Side at the opening of his sermon at 6-month-old Jonylah Watkins' funeral on March 18.
Jonylah; the baby whose March 12 murder brought more national attention to the epidemic of senseless violence affecting Chicago.
Rev. Brooks' question followed the theme set by many previous speakers, including religious leaders from different denominations, the local alderman, and Jonylah's grandmother. The question was also a puzzle to many of the over 600 friends, family, and well-wishers who packed the church, or remained outside for an opportunity to enter.
Deloverly Robinson was one of the over 100 people who did not get the opportunity to enter, despite waiting in line for 90 minutes.
“It is painful because that means it is so many people involved in this situation, or care about this situation. I am a mother myself of 7 and 5 year-old girls,” Robinson said. “Just to see this situation go on, it can't be explained, it is time for a change, and for somebody to stand up and say this is enough, for real.”
Those who made it inside the church stood in long lines to see the infant in her 3-foot casket, dressed in an all-pink jump suit, shoes, and skull cap. Flowers and teddy bears lined the width of the altar, with about a dozen religious leaders seatedaround the casket. Nearly thirty journalists lined the back of the church with cameras almost constantly clicking. Close family members were dressed mainly in white, mostly in jeans or tights, with a variety of creative artwork showing Jonylah's name, picture, and goodbye slogans: “God Bless the Baby,” “Team Jonylah,” R.I.P Baby Smooch,” “Can't say goodbye to her.”
To loud applause, Jonylah's grandmother, Mary Young, read a poem.
“My neighbors of Chicago, what has thou done? It's now obvious the time has come, when killing one another, will no longer be tolerated by anyone,” she said.
Rev. Brooks stressed a lot of the usual messages of comfort, “God is working behind the scenes,” “Bad things can happen to good people too,,“ “God is still in control.”
He challenged the audience, “How would you act if you got the message that your kid is killed? What would you do?”
“Tragedy is not in your house yet, but is searching for you,” Rev. Brooks said. He then turned to the scripture and used David's example to say that in times of defeat, people need to move from “weeping to worship.”
“Even if you are in a dirty environment, you can still stay clean,” he said to loud applause.
Mourners had mixed feelings about the service. A father who buried his own 8-year-old daughter three years ago was heartened to see “people of different ages, old, young, all here for the same purpose. Tired of the killing in our community, especially our children.”
Yet a former gang member and drug dealer didn't see the same level of sincerity.
"It was nice to see spiritual and community support for the family. But part of it seemed like a media and community circus where people were advertising too much," he said.
As someone who spent 18 years in prison for murder, however, he did feel a certain level of introspection. ”To see the grieving process of families is terrible. I don't ever want to go to jail for taking nobody life again. Ever,” he said.
Another former criminal who went from armed robber to pastor reflected, "I want to do more to serve the youth.”
Many people in attendance spoke of their desire to see Jonylah's death inspire people to improve the condition on our streets. A member of Chicago Women Want Peace, a local anti-violence group, said the service reminded her of the need to "[come] together to make a better difference to save our children and city."
However, there are those who want to see justice for the slain infant—and not necessarily from the Chicago Police Department. A longtime friend of Jonylah's family said, "Somebody need to catch dude, whoever catch him first. It's game now. You can't kill my [sister] and think I am just gonna say 'okay, it's cool.'”
Dr. Peter K. B. St. Jean is the Executive Director and Founder of Peaceful World Movement, an adjunct professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Governors State University and University at Buffalo Department of Sociology, and the Coordinator of Pathways to Responsible Fatherhood at Haymarket Center, Chicago. He is also the author of Pockets of Crime: Broken Windows, Collective Efficacy and the Criminal Point of View