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Mourners Bid Farewell to Beloved Congressman

Rep. Donald M. Payne laid to rest today

Mourners gathered Wednesday at the Metropolitan Baptist Church to pay their respects to Donald M. Payne Sr., the longtime congressman who died last week after serving more than two decades in Washington.

Gov. Chris Christie ordered flags at all state buildings to be flown at half-staff Wednesday in honor of Payne, who represented the 10th District until his death March 6. He was 77. 

The district includes Newark as well as parts of Hudson and Union counties. 

A who's-who of the state's political elite lined up alongside ordinary citizens whose lives were touched by Payne, best remembered for his work on social justice issues domestically and for sponsoring legislation to aid developing nations. Members of the South Sudanese delegation to the United Nations were among the hundreds of mourners attending Payne's funeral in Newark Wednesday morning.

Among those speaking at today's service were the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Christie, former President Bill Clinton, Mayor Cory Booker, Lisa Jackson, head of the US Environmental Protection Agency, and US Attorney General Eric Holder. Also providing testimonials were some of Payne's relatives, including his son Donald Jr., the president of the Newark Municipal Council.  

Other funeral attendees included Newark leaders like poet Amiri Baraka and members of the Newark municipal council. 

Payne, who became New Jersey's first African-American member of Congress when he was elected in 1988, was also fondly recalled by ordinary citizens of Newark, the city where Payne was raised.

"He's always been active in the community....I would say he was a great person," said Roncia Hutchinson, a Newark native. "When you saw him he would make himself available to you."

"He was very well respected," said Dorothy Mitchells, who lives near Metropolitan Baptist Church and was watching funeralgoers enter the church with her husband Wednesday. "I like the fact that he was for everyone."

Mitchells said she watched the procession Tuesday afternoon when Payne's casket was transported from the Historic Essex County Courthouse to the Springfield Avenue church and said the event was "very moving, very dignified."

Payne was also remembered as being one of the last members of an old guard of African-American politicians who seized the reigns of power following the riots that burned through Newark in 1967.

"The state and the federal governments really didn't want to help us" following the disturbances, said state Sen. Ron Rice (D-28), a former colleague of Payne's when he served on the Newark Municipal Council who knew Payne for more than four decades. 

Motioning to the area around Springfield Avenue as he stood outside the church Wednesday, Rice credited Payne with helping lead the city's turnaround.

Payne's death is "a tremendous loss," Rice added.

"He was as comfortable at his headquarters on Bergen Street as he was in Rwanda," said former Newark Mayor Sharpe James, "and we loved him for that."

Not just in Rwanda did Payne make in impact but also in Liberia, the West African nation founded in the 19th century by freed American slaves. 

"He was the voice of Liberia in this country. He fought for undocumented Liberians and gave us amnesty," said James Savice, who serves as president of the Northern Convention of Liberians in New Jersey. "He was a voice for stability, peace and unity in Liberia." 

Savice was among a small group of Liberian-Americans waiting outside the church today near a truck draped with the Liberian flag and bearing a huge poster of Payne. The group also wore T-shirts with Payne's likeness. 

"He promoted peace in Liberia, even before Charles Taylor was in power," said Othello Brandy, referring to the former dictator. 

Diana Stewart, a volunteer with Sojourners, a social justice organization, fought back emotion as she left Payne's service today. She described how, last year, Payne worked with the group to win the release of a man incarcerated by immigration officials after the man admitted he was afraid to return to his country. 

"We are so grateful Donald Payne did the right thing and heard us and helped  us," Stewart said. 

"I wanted to come here and be inspired by his life."

Payne will be buried in Bloomfield.

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