Inside Open Door Baptist Church, a steady stream of neighbors and relatives filed past the light-blue coffin where Helen Foster-El's "home-going" was held yesterday in the neighborhood where she lived and died.
Some touched. Others simply looked and whispered prayers and thanks, or kissed the 55-year-old grandmother who was fatally shot exactly one week earlier while ushering children to safety when gunfire erupted outside her home in the East Capitol Dwellings.
Yesterday, the air was filled with tributes and "Precious Lord." With praise for one woman's courage and heroism. With reflections on Foster-El's life. With thanks and memories. With Scripture. With hope and song.
Foster-El's death was part of a rash of violence that rocked the city last week, including eight shootings Friday--one of which resulted in the wounding of a Southeast woman and her baby.
But despite the effort of mourners to transcend the somber circumstances that had brought them by the hundreds to the sanctuary of the church, there were tears. Many tears. And with them the sober understanding that this was the time for mourning.
"We wish we could turn back the hands of time; and once again see your smiling face," read a poem by the family that appeared in the funeral program with a color portrait of a smiling Foster-El. "Our love for you gives us the strength to accept that you have gone on to a much better place."
Mourners at the noon funeral filled the church, which is less than a block from where Foster-El lived in the 100 block of 56th Place SE. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) also attended the service.
"I've come this morning to tell you that the death of Helen Foster-El has shook this city," Norton told the mourners. "And I've come to tell you that it must do more. Her death must inspire this town.
"Here was a woman so good that her instincts were not what ours would have been in the face of gunshots. The instinct is to hit the ground. Her instinct was to go for the children. Our instinct must be to go for the children.
"Mayor Williams is paid to do it. I'm paid to do it. But nobody paid Helen Foster-El to do it," Norton said, the congregation applauding and cheering. "She did it because she was a mother. . . . She did it because she was a good and God-fearing" woman.
Williams called Foster-El "a loving, courageous grandmother who died protecting the children of her community" and "someone who willingly made the ultimate sacrifice."
Foster-El was also remembered by members of Open Door Baptist Church, where she was a member and sang in the women's choir. The women's choir, dressed in black, sat behind the pulpit, a few feet away from Foster-El's coffin. It led the congregation in singing "Blessed Assurance."
A preacher read the 23rd Psalm and from the Book of Revelation.
Connie Samuel, a younger sister of Foster-El, spoke at the funeral. She said Foster-El, who had a heart ailment and wore a pacemaker, recently had wondered about her purpose in life. Then Foster-El had a dream, a teary Samuel told the congregation. In that dream, Foster-El told her sister, she was surrounded by children and a warm river. That was the Friday before Foster-El was killed.
Inside the church, friends and relatives wiped away tears. Many searched for solace.
"Helen Foster-El was no victim. She understood somebody needed to do something," the Rev. Bernard Taylor, the church's pastor, said in a fiery eulogy that brought the church to its feet. "She chose to get in the middle of it.
"I've often asked myself: How long, how many more must die?" Before "our government leaders and politicians stop just showing up to make speeches, but get mad enough to do what needs to be done?"
The congregation erupted, standing and applauding. Then the organ played, and the piano.
The choir sang: "Soon and very soon, we are going to see the king."
Pallbearers rolled the blue coffin out of the church, into the hot sun, past the flowers and onto the street where Foster-El's neighbors stood watching, some crying. One young woman sobbed.
The men lifted the coffin into a black hearse as the neighborhood said goodbye.
CAPTION: After the funeral of Helen Foster-El, her casket was rolled out the front door of Open Door Baptist Church.
CAPTION: D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) greet other mourners in attendance at Foster-El's funeral.