Family members printed 1,200 programs for the funeral of 14-year-old Dajae Coleman, the Evanston Township High School freshman who was fatally shot in what police said was a case of mistaken identity last week.
Thirty minutes before services began at First Church of God Christian Life Center, every last program was gone, handed out to the nearly 2,000 mourners who gathered for his funeral Saturday, Sept. 29.
Known as “Dae Dae,” the honor student was fired at four times by a 20-year-old Evanston man with gang connections, police said, who was arrested and charged with first degree murder this Friday. Police described the shooting as “a retaliatory act upon an innocent group of teens.”
Based on the crowds gathered at the church just four blocks from the intersection where Dajae died, it was clear that his short life and early death have had an impact far beyond his circle of immediate family and close friends.
"Ball in Peace, Dae Dae"
Long before the funeral began, a throng of mourners lined up in front of the church, stretching around the side of the brick building to end halfway down the next block. Amid the quiet sea of men and women in black suits and skirts, a cluster of teenage boys wore red shirts reading “B.I.P. Dae Dae”—the letters standing for “ball in peace,” a nod to Dajae’s love of basketball.
His friends from the youth basketball and football teams he played on described him as caring and funny but serious on the field or on the court. He had a “great personality,” got good grades, and hoped to play for the basketball team at Evanston Township High School.
Friends from the Chargers football team in Rogers Park said Dajae had decided to focus on basketball instead of football when he entered high school this fall, and planned to try out for the Wildkits squad. He wanted to join the NBA one day and idolized LeBron James — the pro basketball player who recently tweeted about Dajae’s passing.
“It felt good when LeBron tweeted at him,” said Jordan Williams, 14. “I wish Dae Dae could have seen that.”
If Dajae could have seen the scene at First Church of God, the church he once attended with his family, he would have observed more people packing the 1,500-seat space than he likely could have ever imagined. Every seat inside the church was taken, while classmates from Evanston Township High School, friends and neighbors lined up shoulder to shoulder in the vestibule. Somehow, the church expanded to fit more and more as mourners crowded in from the steps outside.
Dajae Described As A Leader Among His Peers
“Today we come to celebrate the life of a young man, and we don’t worry ourselves about the events surrounding it,” Pastor Kenneth Cherry told the crowd as the service began. “Today we come to celebrate.”
Along with local pastors, Dajae’s family and , spoke of an honor student with good manners, a good heart, and a generous smile.
White recalled the Facebook message Dajae had sent him one day before he was shot, when White’s father was very sick and about to die.
Dajae said he was sorry, and asked if there was anything he could do for White.
“I’m thinking, 14 years old, what can you do, go to McDonald’s?” White said. “But that’s the kid we’re dealing with.”
For White, their relationship was not just about a coach teaching a young man but a young man teaching a coach, he explained.
District 202 Superintendent Eric Witherspoon praised Dajae as a leader, calling his character a testament to a family that “was doing it right.”
Quoting Martin Luther King, Witherspoon exhorted the young people in the church to make something from a death that was otherwise a senseless loss.
“The time is always right to do the right thing,” he said. “Young people, do the right thing.”
'A Dae Dae Movement' Begins
Speaking on behalf of Dajae’s family, Rodney Harris said one relative had described the response to Dajae’s death as “a Dae Dae movement.”
“What kind of movement?” he said. “A movement that was represented by a young man of character.”
“A movement that was represented by a man that didn’t sag his pants all the way down,” he said — bringing thunderous applause from the crowd.
“A movement that was represented by a man that got up early in the morning to go work out with his grandfather,” he continued. “A movement where you take care of business and you come home and you study and you say, ‘Yes, sir;’ you say, ‘Yes, ma’am.’”
“You want to say that you are Dae Dae? You want to say that you’ve got wisdom? You’ll get with this movement,” he continued. “You put your guns down, you put your knives down. You put the malice that stands in your hearts down.”
First Church of God Pastor Monte’ Dilliard Sr. said he had been trying to make sense of Dajae’s death all week.
“What happens when somebody does all they’ve been asked to do and still loses their life?” he asked.
“Cliché’s don’t work,” he continued. “‘God took him ‘cause he was ready,’ just doesn’t take the pain away.”
If nothing else, Dajae’s death had touched the whole community, Dilliard said, and brought them together.
“We stand united across cultural bonds, across socioeconomic bonds, that this community will always be a place where our children are safe.”
Community Hopeful That "Senseless Death" Will Bring Change
As the service ended in song, the crowd poured slowly out onto the sunny sidewalk, family members wearing red roses on their lapels. Police directed traffic on the blocked-off street as one mourner after another placed a bright orange “Funeral” sticker on their dashboard to head toward the internment at Sunset Memorial Lawns in Northbrook.
Standing outside the church in a shirt with a photograph of Dajae and the words “R.I.P. Dajae,” ETHS freshman Kierra Jackson remembered her friend as handsome and sweet with a beautiful smile.
“I never knew any person that did not like him,” she said.
Peggy Hood, a neighbor, said she did not know Dajae personally but came to show her support for his family. She was amazed by the crowd at the church.
“I’m so glad that everybody feels so strongly,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Wearing his Chargers jersey along with a half dozen other members of the youth football league Dajae played on, Jordan Williams, said his friend was the last person he would expect to die from gunfire.
“I wouldn’t expect it out of all people, not Dae Dae,” he said.
Waiting for a ride to the internment, Dajae’s grandmother’s cousin, Beverly Ray, described her relative as “a young gentleman.”
“It was ‘Yes ma’am’ and ‘No ma’am,’” she said. “He was raised the old fashioned way, with lots of love.”
“He did all the right things,” Ray continued. “That’s what makes it hard.”
But, she said, she was heartened by the way Dajae’s death had gotten the entire Evanston community talking about violence — all the churches, all the neighborhoods.
“If anything good does come of it, it’s that they’ll work together,” she said.