The funeral of Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, simultaneously deeply personal and star-studded, was a celebration of his life, public service, moral vision and his beloved city of Baltimore.
Cummings’ home church in Charm City, the New Psalmist Baptist Church, was packed Friday for the nearly four-hour service for which he planned all the details. He selected a range of people to speak about him, including two former presidents, two daughters, one presidential candidate, mentors, mentees and his own pastor, among others.
Following an Old Testament reading from Massachusetts Democratic senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, Bishop Walter Thomas sought to clarify for the crowd of politicians, friends and family that Cummings himself dictated the program’s speakers.
“Some might be wondering why they aren’t doing anything,” Thomas said about the attendees, to hearty laughter.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton fired up the crowd with her comparison of Cummings’ work in Congress to his prophet namesake from the Bible.
“Like that Old Testament prophet, he stood against corrupt leadership of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel,” Clinton said, to cheers and applause.
Clinton was one of multiple speakers who extolled Cummings’ commitment to governing and his respect for colleagues who put action and impact ahead of partisanship and division.
“He reminded us that you cannot get so caught up in who you are fighting that you forget what you are fighting for,” Clinton said.
While Clinton’s words could be seen as a veiled criticism of President Donald Trump or the deep partisanship roiling Capitol Hill, Cummings’ widow, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings laid it out plainly.
Acknowledging former President Barack Obama, she said Cummings was proud of him and proud to serve as his “chief defense attorney” on the House Oversight panel.
“But you did not have any challenges like we got going on now,” she said, referencing the impeachment inquiry into Trump. “So his job became harder over time.”
She didn’t stop there.
“Secretary Clinton, oh my goodness — he spent many an hour defending you. Against spurious claims! And now he had to go on to actually work to fight for the soul of our democracy against very real corruption,” she said.
She addressed Trump’s comments about Baltimore and Rep. Cummings head-on, saying that his work became “infinitely more difficult in the last month of his life,” due to “sustained personal attacks and attacks on his beloved city.”
Trump in July called the 7th District of Maryland “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess,” on Twitter while slamming Cummings as a “brutal bully.”
Cummings said that the attacks deeply hurt her husband and also changed how she decided to celebrate his life. She admitted that Cummings would not have wanted a memorial service at the Capitol, which took place Thursday.
“I felt very strongly that they were trying to tear him down, and we needed to make sure that he went out with the respect and the dignity that he deserved,” she told the crowd.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, thanked her for allowing Rep. Cummings’ congressional colleagues the honor of hosting the bipartisan ceremony and lying in state Thursday. Cummings was the first African American lawmaker to lie in state at the Capitol.
Pelosi addressed the crowd in her hometown, calling Cummings “my Baltimore brother in the House.”
The sentiment was poignant, especially because her brother, former Baltimore Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro III, died last week. She eulogized him on Wednesday in the same city that Cummings loved and served.
Pelosi also brought the official condolences of Congress to Cummings’ family, district and constituents, though turnout from lawmakers themselves was strong.
Obama lifted up Cummings as an example of honorable manhood, saying that he hopes his two daughters learn that being a strong man includes being kind and compassionate.
“There’s nothing weak about kindness and compassion. There’s nothing weak about looking out for others. There’s nothing weak about being honorable,” he said.
He noted that “honorable” is a widely used label, but said it meant something more for Cummings.
“This is a title that we confer on all kinds of people who get elected to public office,” he said, to laughter.
“But Elijah Cummings was honorable before he was elected to office. There’s a difference,” Obama said.
Speakers shared personal details of their relationships with Cummings, including birthday phone calls full of teasing, his love for “The Lion King” and that some in his family called him Bobby, not Elijah. Cummings was a regular at the 7:15 a.m. Sunday service at the New Psalmist Baptist Church.
Cummings’ daughters Jennifer and Adia spoke of his high expectations and deliberate messages of love. They brought the room, including Obama, to tears with anecdotes of Cummings’ support for them.
Former Baltimore health commissioner and former Planned Parenthood President Leana Wen told the crowd that after being mentored by Cummings for years, and his compassion when she miscarried, that she named her first child for him, “Little Eli.”
Congressional staffers past and present shared stories of their boss. Former staffer Jon Alexander told the crowd of one time that Cummings was late to House votes. Alexander was stressed, wondering where his boss could be. He heard later that Cummings was spotted on the side of the road between Baltimore and Washington helping someone change a flat tire.