Slain Washington, D.C., cabinet member Wanda Alston was mourned today in a crowded church that overflowed not only with local officials but also with hundreds of gay, lesbian and transgendered citizens and other activists who connected with Alston through her years of advocacy and political organizing.
Women in church hats and men in business suits sat among dreadlocked, same-sex couples who clung to each other as they sobbed in the church in the capital's Northwest. Alston's elderly mother, several siblings and other family members sat in one of the front pews. In another, her partner Stacey Long was comforted by friends.
D.C. Council Chairwoman Linda Cropp recalls Wanda Alston's life at the funeral service for the slain city official.
(Jennifer Crandall - washingtonpost.com)
Senior city officials shared space with uniformed Metro bus drivers, police officers and paramedics. Except for two members who were out of town, the entire D.C. Council came to pay respects. They were joined by Mayor Anthony Williams and D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton.
D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) looked out at the 1,000 or so people at All Souls Unitarian Church in Columbia Heights and recalled that one of Alston's sisters had expressed surprise over the weekend at how important Alston had been in District, gay and feminist circles.
"I didn't know Wanda was that big," Cropp quoted the sister as saying. "Well, now you know," she continued, as laughter rippled through the sanctuary. "Wanda is big."
Williams (D), who three years ago named Alston his liaison to the District's gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community, described her as a shepherd of the disenfranchised -- someone who could reach out to people struggling with racism, drug addiction or discrimination because of their sexual orientation and make them feel a part of a greater political movement.
"It was a ministry . . . bringing them into the flock, and bringing them toward a destination," Williams said. "That was Wanda. That was her shepherdship."
Alston was stabbed to death last Wednesday, allegedly by a neighbor who knocked on her door in search of money to buy crack cocaine. She was a few weeks shy of her 46th birthday.
Authorities have charged William Martin Parrott Jr., 38, with first-degree murder. On Friday, he was ordered jailed without bond pending a preliminary hearing.
Alston's career in political organizing began some 15 years ago, after she overcame a cocaine addition and began working as a volunteer for the National Organization for Women. She became executive assistant to Patricia Ireland, who headed the women's organization.
Over four years, Alston organized five national marches and helped lead a NOW delegation to the World Conference on Women in Beijing.
Today, Ireland elicited laughter and applause from those in the church as she described her protege's energy, drive and remarkable ability to gain entry to and organize any political gathering. Ireland and others joked that Alston usually took charge.
"I was the president; she held various offices. I was supposed to be her supervisor," Ireland said. "That was not how it happened."
Norton (D) described Alston's ability to inspire those who were struggling.
"We will never know how many lost souls Wanda saved by her boldness that inspired, especially, young, black gay people who, to our shame, all too often have been driven to the borders of society -- unwelcome and put down at home, in school, and even in our churches," Norton said.
One soloist sang "Amazing Grace." Another sang "To God Be the Glory." The crowd stood for the civil rights anthem "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing."
Then Alston's mother, Arabelle Alston, who at the start of the service had tenderly covered her daughter's face and trademark dreadlocks before the top of the casket was lowered, leaned on her walker and followed the casket down the center aisle.
As music played, city leaders and community activists filed behind her.