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Chicago funeral for 6-month-old becomes tearful anti-gang rally

By Renita Young

CHICAGO (Reuters) - As Chicago parents Jonathan and Judy Watkins closed the casket of their 6-month-old daughter after she was shot dead while sitting on her father's lap in a minivan, family members and ministers at the funeral on Tuesday said the city's gang culture must change.

The funeral of Jonylah Watkins drew more than 500 people -- family members, friends and even strangers. Ministers spoke of finding the killer and turning away from street gangs and violence.

Police say the bullet that struck Jonylah on March 11 was intended for her father, who police say may have been affiliated with a gang.

No one has been arrested in connection with the attack.

"Our youth are endangered on the streets of this town with the false code of silence, while we shoot each other down," Mary Young, Jonylah's maternal grandmother, read during the funeral.

Reverend Corey Brooks, who is serving as the family spokesman, in his eulogy said Jonylah's death should be a catalyst for change. "I want to challenge you to get clean, change, and that change starts with believing that you can change," he said, apparently referring to gang members.

Jonylah's parents sat in the front row sporting white sweatshirts with their daughter's nickname, "Smooches," across the back. Stuffed animals, toys and large floral arrangements, two reading "Mom" and "Dad," surrounded the silver casket where Jonylah lay dressed in pink.

The baby was sitting on her father's lap in the driver's seat of a minivan when a gunman fired shots at the man. The gunman fled and jumped into a van that drove away, police say.

The single bullet that struck Jonylah made its way to five organs in her body, police say.

According to police, earlier reports that the father had been standing outside his van and using the front passenger seat as a changing table were false, as were reports that Jonylah had been shot five times.

Holding a sign that read "Mothers are not supposed to bury their children," Cynthia Grant, 40, said she used the incident to teach her kids more about safety and making better life choices.

Fighting among gangs has claimed a mounting toll of lives in some predominantly African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods of Chicago over the last year. Chicago surpassed 500 homicides last year for the first time since 2008. The deadly pace continued in January with 42, but subsided a bit in February.

A high school girl who had performed at President Barack Obama's inauguration, Hadiya Pendleton, was gunned down earlier this year at a park about a mile away from the Obama's Chicago home. Her death focused national attention on Chicago's murder rate, and First Lady Michelle Obama attended her funeral.

(Reporting by Renita Young; Editing by Greg McCune and Leslie Adler)

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