The stage beneath the blue-and-white church steeple in Maryland was not where Richard Collins III was to be celebrated this week.

The young lieutenant, who had just been commissioned in the U.S. Army last week, should have marched across the stage at Bowie State University’s graduation ceremony Tuesday to claim his diploma, in mortarboard and flowing black robe.

Richard Collins III (Reuters)

Instead, hundreds of students, family, friends and fellow soldiers gathered Friday morning at the First Baptist Church of Glenarden to honor the young man who was fatally stabbed in College Park at the University of Maryland.

The 23-year-old’s death — now being investigated by the FBI as a possible hate crime — baffled and devastated both campuses at a moment of heightened racial tension in America. The seemingly random killing at the threshold of Collins’s military career drew condemnation from lawmakers around the state and an immediate promise from the University Maryland to launch a comprehensive plan intended to “combat hate.”

Pauletta Handy, a 53-year-old Bowie resident and mother of a Maryland graduate, didn’t know Collins, but she felt like she did.

“I’m a black mother,” she said at the church, her eyes glassy. “To have a good kid like that, somebody who wanted to serve our country, and for him to get taken out not in Iraq but right here in our own country over racism.”

Collins’s body arrived just before 8 a.m in a black hearse bearing the seal of the U.S. Army. White-gloved comrades in their dress blues quietly marched Collins’s casket into the church as four others stood at the entrance in silent salute.

Wearing dark sunglasses, Collins’s mother clutched a handkerchief as she accepted hugs and condolences from friends, uniformed service members, politicians and police.

The service was joyful at points, with cheers, applause and chants of hallelujah from the crowd.

“Our pain, our grief, our suffering is very, very deep,” said Pastor Steve Pierce. “Let us work together for peace and justice.”

The funeral comes six days after Collins was killed in what police said was a “totally unprovoked” attack while at a bus stop with two friends on the University of Maryland campus in College Park. Collins was visiting the campus when police say Sean Christopher Urbanski, a U-Md. student, approached the group at about 3 a.m. Saturday and told Collins to move. Collins refused before Urbanski stabbed him in the chest, police said.

Mourners embrace prior to the funeral of Richard Collins III at First Baptist Church of Glenarden in Upper Marlboro. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Urbanski, 22, of Severna Park, Md., has been charged with first- and second-degree murder and first-degree assault. Urbanski’s attorney has said that drugs and alcohol may have played a role in the case.

Prince George’s County police picked up Urbanski about 50 feet from where Collins had collapsed, court papers state. Police recovered a knife from Urbanski’s front-right pocket, police said. He remains jailed on a no-bond status.

The attack rattled both universities, which have been in the middle of spring graduation celebrations. Collins’s slaying has stoked fear and concern among students and administrators at the College Park campus, where racially motivated incidents already had unsettled the community in recent months.

Sean Christopher Urbanski (Reuters)

Collins was black, and Urbanski is white. Although police initially said the attack did not seem to be racially motivated, authorities announced Sunday that they had launched a hate-crime investigation after they said they learned Urbanski appeared to have some involvement with a social media page called “Alt-Reich: Nation.”

“We’re not supposed to be here,” the Rev. Darryl L. Godlock said before the funeral service, insisting that people “stop hating one another, stop attacking one another.”

On Wednesday, U-Md. President Wallace D. Loh announced “an action plan to combat hate and create a safer campus.” The plan includes dedicating $100,000 for diversity and inclusion programs and the creation of a “trained, rapid-response team” offering services to the community hate-bias incidents.

“How could this happen to a young man with so much promise?” Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III wrote in a letter that was read during the service. He quoted John 15:13: “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Baker added that he hoped Collins’s “sacrifice inspires us all to drive out hatred, racism, and intolerance within our communities.”

The audience — which included U.S. Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen and Former NAACP president Ben Jealous — interrupted the reading with standing applause.

One speaker suggested that Collins was standing up against bigotry the night of the stabbing.

“When he said, ‘No,’ he said, ‘This war is not going to be one that I’m going to lose,’” said Artie L. Travis, the vice president of student affairs at Bowie.

Travis said he longed for a day when he would not have to look over his shoulder in fear, simply because he was a black man, a comment that resonated with Vicky Bruce.

“That’s something I’ve never had to feel as a white person,” said Bruce, who lives in the community where Urbanski resides.

Bruce, 50, didn’t know Collins but attended the funeral along with women from Anne Arundel County Indivisible. In Collins’s honor the organization is pushing anti-hate legislation in the county, where a noose was recently found hanging outside of a middle school.

“If you let these racist groups survive and fester, it’s like a cancer in our society,” said Bruce.

Throughout the services, Collins’s family, commanding officers and colleagues spoke fondly of the young man who loved lacrosse and soccer, who helped a relative build a robot for an engineering class and who wanted to serve in the military to follow the footsteps of his father and grandfather.

Members of Bowie State University's ROTC program carry the casket of Richard Collins III into First Baptist Church of Glenarden in Upper Marlboro, Md. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Major Gen. Christopher Hughes, head of the U.S. Army’s Cadet Command, said Collins kept the highest academic and physical test scores among his class while also encouraging other colleagues to succeed.

Collins would pick up fellow cadets from the Metro station in the morning so they could make their physical fitness tests.

“He helped his fellow cadets reach their dreams and their goals, and I gotta tell you, that is pretty lofty for a man of a mere 23 years of age,” Hughes said.

Collins’s cousins described him as a fiercely opinionated person who was always eager to defend his beliefs. They shared stories of their mischief, including the time he cut a younger cousin’s hair. “He was the fun coordinator,” his oldest cousin, Kristal Godfrey, said, but he was also the preacher when they “played church.”

Godfrey told the gathered crowd to honor her cousin’s memory with love, remarks that drew swelling applause.

“I want to challenge you to love,” she said. “Not the hippie kind of love. I’m talking about that fierce, unrelenting love. . . A love that stands up for what is right. . . that does not allow hate to persist.”

Services ended Friday with Collins’s mother accepting an American flag on her son’s behalf, in a gesture akin to her husband’s days earlier when he had walked across the stage at Bowie State’s graduation to accept their Richie’s diploma.

Luz Lazo contributed to this report.