Hundreds of people poured into Mount Hebron Church in Prichard this afternoon to pay their respects to Hiawayi Robinson and her family.
Flowers adorned the church’s sanctuary while a projection screen displayed a slideshow filled with pictures of the smiling young girl, full of life.
An arrangement with pink flowers and a stuffed Hello Kitty doll was placed beside Robinson’s open white and gold casket.
By 1 p.m., the line of those wishing to pay their final respects extended out into the foyer, where visitors could write notes and sign their name on a large poster with Hiawayi’s picture.
As more people arrived, the line continued to grow quickly and eventually spilled outside, where Mount Hebron Church’s senior leader Joseph “Pastor Joe” Johnson greeted and comforted those around him.
“I looked and the line kept get longer and longer, and about five minutes out, I just felt that the Lord was saying, ‘Look, you go out and you pray with them and continue to reassure them that they may be looking at a body but her spirit is resting with Me,’” Johnson said. “So we prayed and we cheered, and I asked them to grab their neighbor’s hand whether they knew them or not … we are each other’s keeper, as the Creator would say.”
Hiawayi attended Mount Hebron’s after school program about two years ago, he said.
“The more times [the community] can come together and just let God, through people like you and I, love on each other, then that whole comforting and healing process just continues,” Johnson said.
Meanwhile in the parking lot, as people began exiting the church and conversing with one another, parents seemed to hold onto their children a little tighter.
“Just to have a child done like this, it’s just messed up,” Melvin Nettles said as he held his 3-year-old son’s hand. “I just couldn’t imagine what the parents think. It’s very, very, very sad. And there’s nothing no one can do about it or anything. You don’t know if they’re ever going to catch that person. They’re still out here.”
Nettles, who lives off Dauphin Island Parkway, said he does not know the Robinson family personally, but he felt compelled to pay his respects. He also praised the Prichard community for supporting one another during such a trying time.
“I’ve never seen Prichard come together like this,” he said.
About three miles down the road from the church, Antwan and April Nelson worked to change the letters on a marquee sign outside of Fry Daddy’s restaurant. Just before the visitation, the sign wished Robinson a happy birthday. She would have turned 9-years-old Sept. 24.
Now, the sign reads, “Hiawayi forever our love.”
The Nelsons, who have five children ranging from age 7 to 14, said the Prichard community has undoubtedly become more cautious and protective of their children and their surroundings.
Fry Daddy’s sponsored an event Wednesday in honor of Hiawayi’s birthday, and April Nelson said parents did not let children out of their sight or even allow them to get an arms-length away.
“It’s really opened a lot of parents’ eyes,” she said.
Antwan Nelson said he believes everybody should take more precautions to prevent cases like Robinson’s from happening.
“Everybody, not just us in the community,” Nelson said. “That’s everybody in the world.”
Authorities have remained quiet about the investigation since Robinson’s body was found Sept. 18 near a vacant warehouse in Prichard.
Despite rumors and speculation swirling in and out of the Prichard community, officials have not released any new information regarding the case.
Prichard Police chaplain Patrick Munnerlyn, who has been a constant presence for the Robinson family since day one, was also present at the visitation. Asked if he or the Prichard community felt more information about the case should have been released by now, he replied with the following statement:
“We just prayed about it and asked the police that if their investigation unfolded something between now and tomorrow, they should hold onto it,” he said. “Let’s get through this celebration. Didn’t want to put a damper or cloud over this celebration tomorrow, which would destroy mom and dad, whatever they would find out. Whatever the findings are, we don’t know that. I don’t know if they have anything, but we just made that request that if – there’s no truth to any allegations or anything that’s being said in the community, I don’t know what they are, but as far as the briefings that I’ve had with FBI, my chief here in Prichard and the family, of course my contact is because of the family, we haven’t gotten anything like that.”
The funeral for Hiawayi is scheduled to take place 11 a.m. Saturday at the Sunlight District Auditorium in Prichard.
“Today and tomorrow is about that angel in there,” Munnerlyn said. “Nothing else. That’s it. That’s our focus.”