Inside the church walls, the preachers talked about God.
God is perfect, they said. He does not make mistakes.
Before them lay a tiny child of 8 named Paris Whitehead-Hamilton. Her casket was the color of cotton candy, and she shared it with Minnie Mouse, a soft bunny and a tiara.
She wanted to be president one day. Instead, she died in a fury of gunfire and street gangs.
Hundreds of mourners inside New Mount Olive Primitive Baptist Church pondered this for 2 1/2 hours Saturday.
Bishop Wallace Bennett assured them of God's plan.
When she fell, righteousness stood up.
Her schoolmates and friends gathered, no bigger than she. Paris was so smart, they said. She would have been a good tutor. She was the class diva who loved to dress fancy, and everyone knew it.
Ukari Register, 8, thought he was lucky to know her.
A white boy and a black boy swayed side by side in a pew.
When she fell, black, white, gentiles and Jews came together.
Paris loved to dance, and her mourners lifted their feet in the aisles. From a seat halfway back, someone pulled out a tambourine and started banging.
A woman in a fuchsia blazer fell to the floor and lay prone in a sweat as a circle of women held hands in a halo above her.
When it was time for her to go, you brought about a resurrection to the community to let us know what needed to be done.
Public officials spoke. State Rep. Darryl Rouson hugged his five children tight Friday, he said — especially his 8-year-old. St. Petersburg council member Wengay Newton called himself a product of the same region that claimed the girl. And Paris shook the community from a slumber in a way Commissioner Ken Welch had never seen.
A traveling businessman named Ed Kimbrough heard about Paris on the news from his hotel room. At the funeral, he pledged to raise money to support Paris' family campaign to end street violence.
We thank you for your mercy. It could have been us.
A teenager smoothed down her sister's hair. A college student spoke of past mistakes he'd made growing up in the streets. So many have faltered, he said.
What the devil made bad, God turned it around.
Paris gave everyone an opportunity, said Pastor Tony Bradley. He invited people to step up. To promise to change the way they were living.
They trickled to the front and settled before the pink casket and the roses and the oil paintings of a child with almond eyes and cheeks like apples.
She's not dead. Jesus says she's just sleeping.
They bowed and prayed and lifted their hands. A young woman who had spent the service in the far back shadows of the church walked forward, succumbed and let free a guttural shriek that echoed through the room.
When she went down, she went down in victory.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8857.