By Greg Gelpi
Although many hadn't even known her name until recently, her funeral stirred a community and packed a church with friends, family members and political figures.
Janice Cunningham, 54, was found dead more than a week ago at the vacant Riverdale gas station where she lived and her death has since united the community.
The Rev. Creflo A. Dollar, the pastor of World Changers Church International where funeral services were held Monday, entitled his sermon "Touched by an angel" to honor Cunningham for the lives that she touched and the community she brought together.
"I'm not saying she was an angelic force, but she carried out a similar assignment," Dollar said.
The church, nearly full, danced and chanted to an enthusiastic gospel church band in the "going home" ceremony as the pastor turned the event into a cause for celebration, rather than tears. Flowers of every color were displayed alongside the casket.
Word of Cunningham's death spread quickly as Riverdale residents passed by the gas station and didn't see her. As word spread, a makeshift memorial of flowers, stuffed animals and other items grew.
"She made such a difference in my life and in the lives she met," Sandra McAllister said at the funeral.
McAllister met Cunningham in the mid 1990s, finally working up the courage to speak with her on Mother's Day one year.
"I told her all I wanted was for her to be my mother that day," she recalled. "For a long time, I thought it was only her family and myself who cared."
Many of those at the church met each other only after learning of Cunningham's death, although each had shared a common friendship with her for years.
Clayton County Commissioner Wole Ralph expressed his sorrow, but added astonishment at how "extraordinary people can take an ordinary life and do such with it."
"Every day in life we pass people and we don't smile or we smile, but we don't care or we care and don't love," Ralph said. "I want you to know how much she means to us."
Erskine Warrior expressed how much Cunningham meant to her, telling of a time she saw her in the parking lot of a fast food restaurant reading the Bible.
"I really felt like Janice was part of my family," Warrior said.
Cunningham's family extended beyond blood relations, although she leaves behind four children and four grandchildren.
"We have churches that have resources," Dollar said. "We have governments that have resources."
With the resources of one person with few material possessions she effected more change than many churches and many governments, Dollar said.
"She demonstrated how far the power of love can take you," he said. "In heaven there is a house; there is a mansion for her."
The "power of love" moved Riverdale's mayor as well.
"Ms. Janice Cunningham was our beloved angel of Riverdale," Riverdale Mayor Phaedra Graham said. "She will be missed, but we will never forget the love she symbolized for our city."
Police arrested Henry Sheffield, 34, at Friday's vigil for Cunningham and charged him with her murder. According to a GBI autopsy, Cunningham was strangled and sexually assaulted.
Sharon Owens said she called 911 when several at the vigil noticed Sheffield "acting real strange, kept moving and acting weird."
A chase ensued, and Myrtice M. Shelton followed him in her car as he ran away, Owens said. A few minutes later, police apprehended him.
According to police, Sheffield later confessed to the killing.