How do you say goodbye, forever, to a child?
Not with a funeral, said the pastor.
Funerals are for the old. Funerals are for people who get more days on this planet than the 1,915 days that 5-year-old Payton Benson got.
Funerals aren't for children who are just sitting at their kitchen table on a seemingly ordinary day when a bullet, fired from a block away, shatters the morning calm.
And so Omaha bid farewell on Thursday to this girl photographed in polka dots not with a funeral, but with a service called a “Celebration of Life.”
“We want to celebrate the time we had with her,” explained the Rev. Portia Cavitt, pastor of Clair Memorial United Methodist Church, where Payton was remembered.
Tabatha Manning, Payton's mother, called the service “my baby's last party.”
“Thank you for being here,” a tearful Manning told more than 270 people who gathered at the blond brick church on 55th Street and Ames Avenue.
The service drew an array of people, from Mayor Jean Stothert to community activists like Vickey Parks.
Ushers handed out tissues. And plenty were needed.
A framed photograph of Payton stood at the front of the church, and pictures of her short life flashed on a big projection screen.
Here she was: an infant in a sleeper. A chubby baby sucking on a binky. A toddler sitting in a restaurant high chair. A preschooler, feet dangling from a too-big adult chair.
Payton was pictured with her big sister, Viktoria. With her brothers, Isayah, LaTrelle and Xavier. With her mother. With her father, Marvin Benson.
She once sat on a red train. She pushed a red scooter. She clung to the gold pole of a carousel as she rode a white pony.
The images were all too fleeting, like her young life.
Payton died Jan. 15 after a gunbattle near 44th Avenue and Emmet Street sent a bullet flying into what should have been sacred, safe space: her home. Tabatha had been right there. So was little Xavier, age 4.
They were eating breakfast one minute. The next, Tabatha had scooped up her baby girl and rushed her outside.
Her minivan tire was flat. An ambulance rushed Payton to Creighton University Medical Center, where she was pronounced dead.
Yet a day later, Payton's parents appeared at a press conference and called for forgiveness and love and an end to violence.
That message continued Thursday as Payton's father asked for simple kindnesses.
“I would like all this stupid, nonsense violence to quit,” Marvin said. “It just starts by one person doing one thing. Do little things to show people you care.”
To make sense of the senseless, the ministers on the altar drew from faith in God and turned to Scripture.
“Let not your heart be troubled,” the Rev. Lorenzo Fincher read, from the Gospel of John.
“Help us, Lord,” said the Rev. Martin Williams.
“A child shall lead,” said Pastor Portia, quoting the prophet Isaiah.
Then she explained how Payton Benson could lead the city out of its shock and grief.
First, she said, Payton — who was slow to talk but quick to listen — showed an attentiveness. When Payton did start speaking, her voice was soft like a whisper.
“Learn to listen,” the pastor said, “to the still, small voice.”
Second, learn. Payton liked to lug around a backpack even though kindergarten was months away. She practiced her letters and numbers. She was excited at the prospect of school.
“Anybody in here,” Pastor Portia asked those gathered, “want to learn?”
Payton's final lesson was love.
“Love is patient. Love is kind. Love believes all things,” Pastor Portia said. “It's love that will change things in our society.”
Everything you need to know, she said, you can learn from a child.
So what will we learn from this one — from Payton?