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Dejah Joyner, slain Hempstead girl, mourned at wake, funeral at her church

Mourners console each other on Friday, Oct. 23,

Mourners console each other on Friday, Oct. 23, 2015, at the Union Baptist Church in Hempstead at the wake and funeral for Dejah Joyner, the 12-year-old Hempstead girl who was shot and killed in her living room a week earlier. Credit: Howard Schnapp

The 12-year-old girl in the closed white coffin evoked tears in a packed Hempstead church Friday -- and calls to take action before more innocent lives are lost.

"Twelve-year-olds ought to be riding their bikes. Twelve-year-olds ought not to be going to the cemetery," the Rev. Sedgwick Easley, pastor of Union Baptist Church, told mourners.

Many attending Dejah Joyner's funeral brightened the traditional shade of mourning with splashes of bright pink -- her favorite color -- reflected in scarfs, bow-ties and shirts.

Triggering a wave of outrage, the seventh-grader known for her sparkly personality was shot in the head Oct. 16 by a stray bullet fired from outside her Hempstead Village home.

Easley remembered his congregant as a confident child who loved to play school -- and always had to be the teacher. He called her "our little princess."

But Dejah, he said, was a "little ship" caught in "the middle of a storm."

Hempstead is plagued with gun violence, struggling schools and a scarcity of youth activities and resources, Easley said. He urged those in attendance to rise up and work for change.

"The question is what are you going to do when you leave the cemetery?" he said. "We've got to roll up our sleeves . . . get our hands dirty, so that we don't lose any more of our children."

Dejah, a Girl Scout who attended Alverta B. Gray Schultz Middle School, was in her Dartmouth Street living room when a single bullet pierced the window, authorities said. She died the next day.

Police said she was not the intended target and that the shot likely happened during a gang-related argument or a drive-by shooting. Authorities are offering a $75,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.

"She was only 12 and lost her life to the streets and she wasn't even in the streets," her sister, Zala Johnson-Rice, said during the service, reciting a poem she had written in Dejah's memory.

The Rev. P. Allister Rawlins, rector at St. George's Episcopal Church in Hempstead, doesn't know the family but came to show support, saying Dejah's death "sends shock waves through everybody -- especially parents. It could be anybody's child."

Rawlins said he is struggling to come to grips with the tragedy.

"We don't know what the potential of this child was, what she could've meant to the village . . . how much she could've contributed to the country," he said.

"This was a baby that hadn't harmed anyone," said Jacquelyn Ancrum of Hempstead, a Union Baptist member. "My heart is heavy right now."

During the service, Easley said: "Something about Dejah was different. She had a way that you could not help but to love her."

The youngest of five children, Dejah attended vacation Bible school at Union Baptist. She was a member of Girl Scout Troop 1134, also based at the church.

Troop members stood at one point during the service to recite in unison the "Girl Scout Promise."

Dejah's coffin rested by the pulpit, near a floral arrangement bearing the "Hello Kitty" character -- another favorite.

In his eulogy, Easley encouraged young children in the pews to honor the 12-year-old through their achievements. "If she was your friend, you ought to study hard," he said.

Then he leaned over and said: "Dejah, you don't even realize how much you were loved."

Six pallbearers later loaded the coffin into a glass-walled, horse-drawn carriage for the trip to Greenfield Cemetery in Uniondale.

A hearse fit for a princess.

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