Hundreds of mourners packed into the historic Courthouse Square in Prescott, Arizona on Wednesday to honor Kayla Mueller, the 26 year old aid worker killed while in the captivity of Islamic State militants.
Friends and family wore pink ribbons and held candles as speakers reflected on Mueller's courageous life and work, focusing on her joyful spirit and compassion. Kayla's brother, Eric Mueller, was among those who spoke, encouraging attendees to continue his sister's work by reaching out to those who are suffering in the world.
"You were my first friend, my best friend, my only sister," he said, his voice shaking as he read words he had written for his sister. "My heart aches for you and what you went through. I have a hole in my soul that will never be replaced. I miss you. I love you."
He added, "Let Kayla's heart live on through all of us and the people that she has touched in her life," he said. "Do what she would do. If you see somebody struggling, you see somebody upset, go give them a hug. ... Make the community even stronger. That's all it's going to do."
Carl and Marsha Mueller, Kayla's parents, were also in attendance, but did not address the crowd. However, when Eric finished his tribute, his father rose and met him at the edge of a stage, wrapping his son in a tight embrace.
Mueller, who is the fourth American killed while held captive by the militant group, had traveled to Syria to help children affected by the nation's bloody civil war. However, in August 2013, she was kidnapped by the Islamic State while working at a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Aleppo. On Feb. 6, the militant group claimed she had been killed when bombs destroyed a building where she was staying. Her death was publicly confirmed four days later.
While in captivity, Mueller sent her family an emotional letter, sharing how her experience had strengthened her faith in God.
She wrote, "I remember mom always telling me that all in all in the end the only one you really have is God. I have come to a place in experience where, in every sense of the word, I have surrendered myself to our creator b/c literally there was no else....+ by God + by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in freefall."
She added, "I have been shown in darkness, light + have learned that even in prison, one can be free. I am grateful. I have come to see that there is good in every situation, sometimes we just have to look for it. I pray each each day that if nothing else, you have felt a certain closeness + surrender to God as well + have formed a bond of love + support amongst one another."
Ron Merrell, a pastor at the Heights Church, said he hoped the memorial service would provide strength and encouragement for her grieving relatives.
"I would hope you feel loud and clear tonight that you are not alone anymore," Merrell said in a speech addressed to the Mueller family. "Now you've got an entire community here that just declares (that) we love you. And all of our love and our resources are here at your disposal."
In concluding his speech, Eric Mueller thanked the community for its support and expressed gratitude that his sister is no longer suffering.
"May God keep you from any more harm, any more hurt. You are in His hands now," he said. "You do not have to suffer anymore. Only now will you be able to see how much you really did and truly did for this world by looking down on it from above."
He added, "I still feel your touch. I still feel your hugs. I know you are protecting us. God works in mysterious ways, ways we don't agree with, ways we don't understand. ... Sometimes He takes his angels home early."