When it came his turn to pay respects at the casket of 6-year-old Aniya Allen, her grandfather first lingered at a collage of photos next to the open coffin, as if preparing himself for the sight that awaited him. Inside lay the once bouncy kindergartner, wearing a sparkling tiara with several stuffed animals propped against her folded arms.
After a few minutes, K.G. Wilson finally looked down at the body of his granddaughter, who died last month, days after being caught in a shootout on a north Minneapolis street corner. Wilson began talking to her, as several relatives patted his back in support. As he walked back to his seat, he ran into Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo. The two men stopped and embraced, with the chief telling Wilson that he needed to "take care of himself." After a deep sigh, Wilson responded in his growling baritone: "I'm trying."
Aniya's death on May 19 and the shootings of two other young children have become a rally point, drawing attention to the senseless violence gripping parts of the city. Authorities have offered a $30,000 reward to help solve the three incidents.
Later in the memorial service Wednesday at Shiloh Temple International Ministries, Wilson and other speakers reminded the several hundred people in attendance to trust in God's plan. They also urged the community to come together so that Aniya's death would not be in vain, and asked for anyone with information about the case to come forward.
"While we understand, God, that life was cut short, we also know that what the devil means for bad, you can turn around for good," said the Rev. Jerry McAfee, of another North Side church, New Salem Missionary Baptist.
Aniya and her mother had just left a McDonald's on the night of May 17 and were driving through the intersection of N. 36th and Penn avenues when they were caught in the crossfire of two rival gang members, police say. Relatives and police said that at least one of the bullets pierced the car, narrowly missing Aniya's mother, Antrice Sease, but striking the little girl in the head as she sat in the back seat eating a Happy Meal.
No arrests had been announced as of the time of the service.
Aniya was the third young Minneapolis child shot in recent weeks, prompting pledges from politicians and community leaders to hold accountable those responsible for the recent violence.
On April 30, Ladavionne Garrett Jr., 10, was shot while riding in a car with his mother and father. Ballistics testing matched shell casings recovered from the scene to at least five different shots-fired incidents in the city in April, court records show. Two weeks later, 9-year-old Trinity Ottoson-Smith was at a friend's house jumping on a trampoline when a car pulled into the alley and someone inside fired several shots at a nearby house, striking her in the head. She died of her injuries 12 days later.
Police said they have assigned extra detectives to the cases, and enlisted the help of federal law enforcement partners like the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Amid surging gun violence, the deaths of Aniya and Trinity are among 34 homicides in Minneapolis this year, compared with 18 this time last year.
On Wednesday, one speaker after another remembered Aniya as a playful, energetic youngster with a gaptoothed smile who loved going swimming and movie nights, a fact underscored by a poster at her service that featured characters from the Disney movie "Frozen." At the same time, relatives said, she took seriously the role of big sister, helping look after her younger siblings, and always volunteered to help with chores around the house, even if she was too small.
Antri Sease, Aniya's other grandfather, recalled how she always pleaded with him to let her help wash dishes until he relented. Go pull up a chair, he would tell her, because she still couldn't reach the sink.
"We have to step up, for the simple fact that this is the future; she may have had the cure for cancer," he said. "We'll never know now because she's gone."
Aniya's mother always stressed education to Aniya and her five siblings, several speakers said, and the little girl had developed a love for school. A tribute video set to the Mariah Carey song "Always Be My Baby" featured a photo of a beaming Aniya in a white graduation gown as she finished Head Start. She was in kindergarten at Cityview Community School at the time of her death.
Others lamented the senselessness of a life taken so soon.
"I'm so sorry this happened to you. The violence needs to stop," said her aunt Curtina Wilson to a round of applause.
Her words were echoed by Trahern Pollard, who runs a violence prevention group called We Push for Peace.
"It's up to you and the community to tell them that enough is enough," he told the audience.
He was followed by Wilson, Aniya's grandfather and a longtime peace activist, who took a moment to compose himself.
"Them demonic devils who took Aniya from us, I need to tell them, I hope someone's recording, because I need them to see it, you only took the body, because the spirit is right here with us," he said, his voice crescendoing. He said her death had tested the pledge he made a long time ago to leave behind the street life, but that after some soul-searching he decided to continue his work in her memory. "I'm hurt, I'm angry, but I do know that when it's all over with, I still gotta realize where God brought me from."
Several dozen family members and friends packed one section of the airy auditorium, many of them wearing white shirts with Aniya's picture on the front and a poem on the back. Across the aisle, the front row was packed with local political luminaries, from Gov. Tim Walz and state Sen. Bobby Joe Champion to the mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul.
After a rousing rendition of Stevie Wonder's "Ribbon in the Sky" by gospel star Jovonta Patton, a native North Sider, the ceremony was brought to a close by Bishop Richard Howell, who reassured the audience that Aniya was in a better place.
Aniya, whom he referred to as a "little giant," because despite her small stature she had had an outsized impact on those in her life.
"Yes, this little girl was our giant, because her legacy will live on," he said, while reminding those gathered that she was only beginning her life. "We can learn from her legacy, as short as her life was."
The gunman who took her life, he said, had robbed her of "more time on this earth to eat Happy Meals, to ride in a car, to jump on a trampoline, to make TikTok videos."
He added: "She's safe now in the arms of Jesus."
As he spoke, several jumped out of their seats and swayed back and forth, their arms raised to the ceiling. Some clapped along. Volunteers darted around, with boxes of tissues.
After the service, the crowd walked outside, where Aniya's family released blue and white balloons. They then began a slow march down West Broadway, led by a horse-drawn carriage with her miniature coffin — a reminder to the community, her family hoped, of her tragic loss. She was buried later at Lakewood Cemetery, near Bde Maka Ska, where she used to play, her family said.