For Chicago parents, 6-month-old Jonylah Watkins' funeral a cautionary tale

CHICAGO — Six-month-old Jonylah Watkins laid lifeless in a pink dress as her parents saw her 3-foot casket close Tuesday, saying “goodbye” for the last time.

As two big screens flashed photos of Jonylah, large funeral arrangements read “Mom” and “Dad,” while a drawing towered over her tiny coffin reading “God’s Angel: Jonylah Watkins.”

It’s a reality Jonathan and Judy Watkins never wanted to experience. Last week, Jonylah sat on her father’s lap in a van in the Woodlawn area on the South Side of Chicago when a gunman approached and fired shots, striking both.

Police say the bullet that struck Jonylah and made its way through five organs in her body could have been intended for her father over an apparent gang dispute. According to police, Jonathan Watkins has an extensive criminal background and is affiliated with a gang.

Jonathan Watkins was seriously injured as a result of the shooting.

Last year, more than 500 homicides happened in Chicago, many as a result of gang violence, police say. As Chicago continues to fight its gang issue, parents are using the incidents as a cautionary tale for their kids.

Geraldine Clair, 53, who has lost family members to Chicago gun violence, said after her grandchildren saw news of Jonylah’s death, they had plenty of questions for her. As a result, “I’m teaching them to stay off the streets, stay in school and find some [activity] to get into,” she said.

Holding a sign that read, “Mothers are not supposed to bury their children,” Cynthia Grant, who attended the funeral, said she’s teaching her teens more about being aware of their surroundings.

“When I found out about that, I wanted to hug my youngest grandbaby,” said Nadine Williams, who served as an usher at Jonylah’s funeral. Having one of her three children die nearly 20 years ago to asthma, she said no matter the circumstance under which a child dies, “You never get over the death of a child. I was heartbroken. My son’s been dead over 19 years and it still hurts.” Williams said she wants to teach her grandchildren more about safety. Her youngest grandchild already knows to drop when she hears gunshots, she said, at just 6 years old.

Samantha Thomas, 31, who wore a black sweatshirt reading “Team Jonylah” in pink letters on the back, said she told her kids “Sometimes, bad things happen to good people,” and is using the incident to teach them about making good decisions in life.

Spreading a message of change, Rev. Corey Brooks urged those involved in violence, drugs and destructive lifestyles to start a new life in his eulogy. “I want to challenge you to get clean, change,” Brooks said, “and that change starts with believing that you can change.”

After the funeral, Brooks lead parents Jonathan and Judy Watkins out of the church while they sported white sweatshirts with Jonylah’s face on them.

Judy’s mother, Mary Young earlier read a poem saying, “Our youth is in danger on the streets of this town with the forced code of silence while they shoot each other down.”

Chicago Rev. Marshall Hatch, pastor of New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in West Garfield Park, said Jonylah’s death goes beyond the streets of the South Side.

“All of us need to apologize to her for not doing our best to make this world a better place,” Hatch said. “There is power in the blood of the innocent. If the blood of this baby does not change our lives, our lives are beyond change.”

Jonylah’s shooter is still at large. Chicago Police Department Supt. Garry McCarthy said Monday that police are closer to making an arrest.

Renita D. Young is a Chicago-based multimedia journalist. Follow her on Twitter @RenitaDYoung.