The school cook’s body lay in a white suit inside a white casket, the expression of serenity on his face belying the national symbol he has become for America’s troubled race relations.
Under the grand dome of the Cathedral of St. Paul, thousands of mourners, diverse in race, gender and age, gathered Thursday to pay respects to Philando Castile, a 32-year-old black man shot to death by a police officer during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights.
In a day that capped more than a week of rising tension around the country, the theme inside the stately building high atop a river bluff overlooking downtown St. Paul was one of peace and hope.
“Greetings and blessings, my brothers and sisters,” the service began, with Sounds of Blackness music director Gary Hines and his singers standing in front of the altar. “The person next to you? Give ’em a hug,” he said before the group kicked off the noontime service with a song urging the congregation to “Be Optimistic.”
The ceremony, vacillating between spirit-moving Baptist preaching and reverent Catholic ritual, drew local dignitaries that included St. Paul’s mayor, the state’s governor, two U.S. Senators and a congressman.
It came more than a week after the scene of a bleeding and dying Castile spread instantly and worldwide when Castile’s girlfriend live-streamed video of the shooting aftermath from the passenger’s seat, her 4-year-old daughter in the back.
Castile’s death followed a police-involved shooting in Baton Rouge, La., of another black man, Alton Sterling, whose killing also was captured on video.
The shootings drew protests around the country and prompted a black Army veteran, seeking retribution, to gun down five white officers who were protecting protesters demonstrating in Dallas.
But controversy quieted for those gathered Thursday to honor Castile in a procession, funeral and later, reception at J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School in St. Paul, where he had worked.
The crowd spilling into the aisles at the cathedral came “as people united in the hope that God intends the future to be better than the present,” said the Rev. John Ubel, who pointed out waves carved into the cathedral’s walls, “symbolic of the raging storms of life that surround us on all sides.”
“If today’s service provides even a tiny measure of peace,” he said, “then today — this day — will have been a good day.”
The Rev. Steve Daniels Jr., of Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, addressed Castile’s death more directly, saying: “Once again we have the death of an innocent black man whose life was taken at the hands of an officer due to his wide-set nose.”
After witnessing civil rights struggles in the 1950s and ’60s, Daniels told the crowd that he understands the frustration of people today.
“The Black Lives Matter movement does not suggest that other lives don’t matter,” he said. “It does not suggest that we don’t have our own issues in our race. Every race has issues.”
The movement, he said, “simply implies that we want to be respected — valued in the same light as other ethnic groups.”
Later, he added: “I am grateful that I live in a country that has rules and laws, and we must learn to respect the law and thank them for their services,” he said. “We’ve got to find ways to work together.”
Castile’s casket was carried to the cathedral on a horse-drawn carriage, with dozens of mourners lining the sidewalk, some on bikes and some carrying umbrellas under dark skies. Some fell in and joined the 40-minute procession under escort of a police squad car.
Demetrius Bennett, 35, displayed a portrait of Castile, dressed in a shirt and tie, tattooed on his forearm. Bennett went to high school with Castile and last saw him at a July 4th barbecue, he said. Castile was killed two days later.
“I’m glad my brother’s name is in lights, but he should be recognized for his work for those kids,” Bennett said. “That’s why his name should be in lights.”
Cindy Bevier, who lives in St. Anthony Park, arrived at the cathedral with a bouquet of flowers. Bevier, who is white, was recently pulled over for speeding in the same Falcon Heights neighborhood as Castile. She didn’t get a ticket, and the guilt pains her.
“I was just praying like crazy that the officer that pulled me over wasn’t the one that shot Philando,” she said. “I couldn’t have been treated better by this officer.”
Derrick Sanders brought his daughter Amore’A, almost 2, “because even though she may not remember, one day she’ll understand,” he said.
Amore’A, wearing a red skirt and Minnie Mouse shirt and sucking on a pink pacifier, toddled in the grass outside the cathedral.
“I’m a dad and this is my baby, but it could have been me,” Sanders said.
Jenny Wrenson wore a black T-shirt with a heart, on which she wrote, “Phil was my co-worker.”
As a special education teaching assistant, she said she got to know Castile in the school lunchroom and was thankful for his calm demeanor and hard work.
“I know Phil only from that setting. He was really, really, really good to me and the kids,” she said, crying, after following his casket to the cathedral. “I’m really here to deal with my grief.”
Attendees in black suits and white gloves lowered Castile’s casket off the back of the carriage while family members went inside the cathedral through one door and the public around to another ahead of a two-hour visitation before the service.
A line of people waiting to pass by Castile’s open casket stretched outside the church and down the front steps. Friends hugged and wept as they looked at Castile for a final time. A line of attendants, also in white, handed tissues to onlookers while an occasional wail echoed off the marble walls.
‘Opened their eyes’
Castile’s relatives wrote in an obituary pamphlet handed out by ushers that his death had meaning.
“You made history, you opened their eyes,” wrote his sister, Allysza.
“His death is not in vain,” wrote his aunt Shirley. “The message sent across the world was a catalyst that will bring about reformation, justice and peace. Something good is going to happen.”
The pamphlet told of how he “loved playing video games, reading about his Egyptian heritage, and thinking in solitude.”
After the congregation sang, “How Great Thou Art,” Castile’s body left the cathedral with a reverent crowd surrounding him, pallbearers raising their fists as they carried his casket down the stone steps.
“Justice for Philando” one man yelled.
“Love you Mr. Phil,” a woman called out.
Castile’s casket was placed back on a horse-drawn carriage bound for a private burial. Before it departed, a black man and a white woman reached across the top of it together to rearrange a spray of red and white roses.
Staff Writers Libor Jany, Hannah Covington, Mara Klecker, Paul Walsh and Abby Simons contributed to this report.