Brandon Johnson walked into the church Saturday and saw his mentor’s body in a coffin. But the tears were slow to come.
“I’m still in disbelief,” the 13-year-old said, shaking his head. “It doesn’t feel like it’s him in that casket right now. I’m thinking, ‘That’s not Rody. He’s probably at work.’ ”
Everyone at the funeral Saturday seemed to agree that if the world made sense, Roshawn “Rody” Smith, 24, would not be dead.
He would have been at Dickie Brennan’s Tableau restaurant, where he worked as a cook. Or he would have been at home in the 7th Ward with his wife, Joanisha, and their three young kids, ages 8, 1 and 4 months.
Or maybe he would have been rehearsing with the choir at Abundant Life Tabernacle Full Gospel Baptist Church, where he was a deacon and where hundreds wore burgundy lapel ribbons bearing Smith’s smiling photo at Saturday’s funeral.
“This young man was such a role model. Such a perfect gentleman,” said Pastor Tyrone Jefferson, 42, who considered him “like a son of mine.”
To the overflow crowd who mourned him on Saturday, Smith’s death at the hands of an unknown armed robber earlier this month proved, yet again, how senseless New Orleans’ struggles with gun violence can be.
Because Smith was a guy who had never been in trouble. Never been arrested. Never gone to jail.
If you asked, he would give you his last dollar for a cold drink. He would walk down the street to get you something to eat at Burger King.
“Words can’t even explain how nice of a guy he was. His smile lit up the room,” said friend Joey Parker, 45.
His co-workers at Tableau recounted Smith’s ability to make them laugh, even when the kitchen was extra-busy and they were all hot and overworked. “I will always remember his smile and his funniness,” said Damien Brown, 36.
And every day, all day, Smith told all of his friends that he loved them, to the point where it made them giggle. “Always, he said, ‘I love you, my big sister. I love you, my big brother,’ ” said Jaleesa Chapman, 25, who sang with him in the church choir, where Smith was relentlessly enthusiastic even if he often swayed in the wrong direction or didn’t hit the right note. “He was bold for Jesus,” Chapman said with a grin.
“Rody was loud, very loud,” said Jaleesa’s brother, fellow choir member Jamal Chapman, recalling how Smith often repeated the pastor’s words or said “Yeah!” loudly to accentuate the pastor’s best biblical points. “He was like Pastor Jefferson’s hype man,” Jamal Chapman said, referring to the back-up rappers whose role it is to rev up crowds.
As he stepped behind the pulpit on Saturday, Jefferson smiled at the thought of his enthusiastic deacon. “Ro was a praiser. Ro was a worshipper,” he said, recalling how, if Smith arrived late or forgot something, he quickly apologized and expressed his love.
“He had such a personality that you couldn’t get mad with him,” Jefferson said as ushers in white blouses walked the aisles armed with tissue boxes, dispensing tissues to sobbing church members.
Many mourners said they were puzzled by Smith’s death on Feb. 1, near where St. Bernard Avenue slices into Republic Street in the 7th Ward.
The details were sketchy: They’d heard that Smith had left work and walked home. Just before midnight, he’d gone to a corner store to get something to eat and to cash his paycheck so he could pay his family’s rent.
But he never made it home. He was shot multiple times and died soon afterward at a hospital.
Friends who had tried to imagine the scenario thought the assailant must have been out of his mind because they couldn’t see Smith provoking a gunman.
“Ro would’ve just given the money to him. And he probably would have given him his business card and said, ‘If you need something else, call me,’ ” said David Hudson, 36, a close friend who had stood up with Smith at his wedding three years ago on Valentine’s Day.
Fellow choir member Deroin Holmes, 21, agreed: “Rody would have said, ‘You can have the money. Just let me live for my wife and my children.’ ”
Smith’s co-worker Ennaid Richardson, 31, couldn’t make sense of it either. “He wasn’t the type of person that this happens to,” said Richardson, who brought his son, Ennaid Jr., 13, to the visitation in an attempt to teach him a lesson about the city’s violence. “I wanted to show him how easy it happens, even to people who are doing right,” he said.
As the service heated up, Brandon Johnson, the 13-year-old deacon-in-training, sang his heart out for Smith, backed up by the church’s famed band and choir.
But for him, the day still seemed unreal.
“I just don’t get how bad things happen to good people,” Johnson said.