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A congregation buries a child and prays for change

They filed into church by the dozens — kids in patent-leather shoes, former gang members paralyzed by bullets, elderly women wearing their Sunday best on a Friday. They sat in tidy rows on simple chairs, their eyes fixed on a little white casket buffed to a shine and covered with carnations, fighting to find some sense, some purpose, in the death of a 5-year-old boy.

Nearly 400 people gathered at the City of Refuge Church in Gardena to say goodbye to Aaron Jerel Shannon Jr., who died after he was shot in the head on Halloween while modeling his new Spider-Man costume.

Aaron was raised in South Los Angeles and Compton, communities that have seen their share of heartbreak. Still, his violent death has become a Rubicon of sorts, even here. Aaron’s grandfather, 55-year-old William Shannon, said as much on Friday — noting to the crowd that Aaron’s death has become bigger than one family, or one neighborhood, could contain.

“The world gained a son,” William Shannon said. “He belongs to everyone now.”

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The funeral was a deeply religious affair, though Aaron’s death seems to have tested the limits of faith.

“We come before you, Lord, with few words,” said Seth Gaiters, a church elder. “We know not what to say.”

Relatives passed around a program that gamely reflected Aaron’s life, as if he’d reached maturity.

It noted that he had attended a preschool in Compton called Little Lambs, that he’d recently begun kindergarten at Caldwell Elementary School. A boisterous extrovert, he was flourishing at school, and the program noted everyone he’d grown close to — his classmates, his teacher, the crossing guard. His favorite movie, the obituary noted, was “School of Rock,” and he frequently complimented friends when he liked their outfits.

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Caldwell Principal Fredricka Brown recalled rushing to the hospital when she heard word of the shooting.

“I felt like that was almost my child,” she told the crowd.

Brown said she prayed: “Lord, can you make this change?”

Doctors declared Aaron dead on Nov. 1, the night after he was shot.

Arvis Jones, a grief counselor who works with gang intervention and violence-prevention agencies in the interior of Los Angeles, called Aaron’s death “a turning point.”

She noted that police, intervention workers, gang members and community members worked together seamlessly after Aaron’s death. Interventionists controlled rumors and prevented retaliatory shootings while gang members and community members communicated openly with investigators — unusual in this part of town — resulting in quick arrests.

Two alleged gang members have been charged in Aaron’s death; their arraignment is scheduled for later this month. Investigators believe the men crossed South Central Avenue into a rival gang’s turf, looking for young men to shoot in retaliation for an earlier shooting.

They picked Aaron’s family, which was spending time in the backyard of an East 84th Street duplex owned by Aaron’s great-grandmother. William Shannon was scheduled to take Aaron to a Halloween party at a friend’s house a short time later. The family had no gang ties, police have said. Aaron’s uncle and grandfather were also wounded.

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“Aaron’s name will go down in history as being a child whose life and death meant something,” said Jones, whose own son was shot and killed in 2008. “It worked this time — like this,” she said, interlacing her fingers.

In a passionate sermon, City of Refuge Minister Hosea Collins said Aaron “did more good in five years than some of us will do in 50.”

“You will only be remembered for two things — the problems you solved and the problems you created,” he told the crowd. “Little Aaron did not have a life that was wasted. Because of his life, somebody is going to get off their behind today and be part of the solution.”

A short time later, the casket was opened; Aaron was dressed in a white suit and a white brimmed hat. Mourners filed past, some crying quietly, some clutching their chests, their cries echoing across the massive sanctuary.

Once everyone had said goodbye, Aaron’s father wheeled his casket to a waiting hearse. One well-wisher stood in the parking lot, holding five balloons decorated with Spider-Man.

Aaron was buried a short time later at Inglewood Park Cemetery.

scott.gold@latimes.com


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