After Joy McManaman had played her last tremolo, removed the violin cradled into her neck and took her seat in the front pew, a man in a red shirt and black vest shuffled over to the podium.
DC Dunkel leaned into the microphone hesitantly. Everyone before him had eloquent things to say about his nephew. Now it was his turn.
“I didn’t really plan anything to say up here,” he said.
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His face was that of a tired young man fulfilling a dreaded responsibility. He admitted he was only up here so his sisters wouldn’t have to be.
“I’ve been busy this week,” he muttered, the crowd nodding their heads, some murmuring quietly, “Of course, of course.”
Dunkel spoke softly. He mumbled a sincere thanks to everyone for coming.
“I tried to make it as nice as possible today for Sha’hiim,” he said, turning to his left to glance at the small white casket, on top of which sat a photograph of a smiling boy. “He was like my little brother, the one that I never had. The one I still don’t have, I guess.”
Inside the Schenectady Pilgrim Holiness Church on Saturday, windows were lined with construction paper art, pictures of Sha’hiim Nelligan, and vases of roses and baby’s breath wrapped in red bows. The pews were full, as was a row of folding chairs lining the sanctuary’s back wall. Small children in puffy jackets arrived late, standing in the back. One of the older boys grabbed a tissue from a box near the guest book, dabbing his eyes before stuffing it into a pocket.
Sha’hiim was alive for only 8 years, but his impact on the Schenectady community was visible Saturday at his funeral, and on the faces of his friends and family, his Sunday school teachers, and his school friends.
Police say the boy died at the hands of his grandmother and legal guardian, Gloria Nelligan. The 43-year-old woman had cared for him since he was 2 , taking him into her Mynderse Street home to live with her and her three daughters when his own mother could no longer care for him.
The community knew her as a religious and caring parent who had some physical problems. And then on Feb. 24, the community was shocked to learn that police alleged she beat Sha’hiim to death over a prolonged period of time just one day earlier, enraged over him having stolen a pack of gum, according to one source. She is now facing one count of first-degree manslaughter and being held in the Schenectady County jail.
A week later, on Saturday, Joseph McManaman broke into a wide grin.
“This song you guys might know,” he said, eyes twinkling. “We’ve sung it many times in church and it was Sha’hiim’s favorite. If you know this song, sing it with him now.”
Over an organ, the congregation sang: “I saw a little worm, climbing up a tree. He wiggled here, he wiggled there, he wiggled right at me. I put him in a box. Stay right there, I said. But when I opened up the box, a butterfly instead. I couldn’t do it, even if I tried. Only God in Heaven could make a butterfly.”
Sha’hiim, a boy with big eyes and a missing baby tooth, loved to sing.
“I am sure that you will remember his exuberant singing,” said the Rev. Donald Myers. “Someone told me once that when they sang downstairs, and I could never hear him because I was up here, they could always hear him singing above everybody else. You will never forget his captivating smile.
“And,” he said, smirking as he leaned in close to the microphone, “I may not have known him extremely well, but I have picked up from friends and family, I wouldn’t be surprised he may have been mischievous a few times.”
The congregation laughed as he added: “And I love that. You know why? Because he was a boy. Boys ought to be mischievous. They ought to learn how to be mischievous, and know when to be mischievous. Yeah, he was light on his feet. But I want to tell you something else, and I use these words from Brother Joe, this little guy was incredibly polite — pleases, thank yous. It’s too bad we don’t have 1,000 of him to spread around our city.”
Sunday school teacher Charlotte Hallenbeck was glad to have known the “nice little boy” in her class.
“He was nice to me,” she said. “He would come to me for a hug sometimes. And we could all use a hug sometimes. Sha’hiim was a caring little boy.”
Hallenbeck cried when she recalled her grandson’s first few Sundays at church.
“He was very shy, and it was Sha’hiim that would come up and call him a friend,” she said.
A few years ago, when he was a student in Joy McManaman’s Sunday school class, Sha’hiim would show up every Sunday in his dress clothes and with two quarters to give to God.
Class usually began with McManaman handing out sheets of paper for the kids to color on as they settled in. Sha’hiim, whom teachers have called a bright student with a strong vocabulary, would flip his coloring paper over and write down words he knew how to spell.
“At first it was just his name, and then his siblings’ names, grandma, mom, and other words he knew,” recalled McManaman. “And he would proudly read them when he finished. He enjoyed learning Bible stories, too, and he would remember from week to week what the stories were about. I could always count on him to be the one who shares and participates in a lesson.”
He was always happy to wear a crown or costume when they acted out lessons, and quick to volunteer to hand out animal crackers and drinks. McManaman was most touched by what he did at the end of each class, though.
“Each Sunday, we would often make a project to go along with our lesson, and there were often times when instead of taking his project home he wanted to give his away. He gave it to Mrs. Porter and to the Millers and other church members. He loved them and he showed them his love by giving his things to them.”
His friends and fellow church members returned that love in similar form Saturday. In the windows of the squat brick church was colorful construction paper art cut into red and pink butterflies, blue and green flowers, hearts drawn in marker.
On one, a message written in a child’s handwriting was titled “Amazing Sha’hiim” and read: “Amazing Sha’hiim, how sweet the boy that we will miss forever. He’s in a better place now. Don’t be sad. You will see him in your heart for the rest of your life. Love, Team Akili.”