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Memorial honors Kayla Mueller

Kayla Mueller's memorial service was held Saturday. Les Stukenberg/The Daily Courier

Kayla Mueller's memorial service was held Saturday. Les Stukenberg/The Daily Courier

PRESCOTT - Friends and family recalled both Kayla Mueller's service to others and her personality at her family's public memorial service Saturday morning, March 7, at the Yavapai College Performing Arts Center.

An audience of around 500 paid tribute to Mueller, 26, of Prescott, who was killed while a captive of the Islamic State group in Syria.

In addition to her friends, family and community members, the memorial service drew the attendance of U.S. Sen. John McCain; Lisa Monaco, U.S. homeland security adviser to President Barack Obama; Yavapai County Supervisors Craig Brown and Rowle Simmons; and Prescott Mayor Marlin Kuykendall

"This is what Kayla would do for those who are hurting, to show her compassion," said Clovis Barnett, pastor at Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church.

Militants abducted her Aug. 3, 2013, on the return trip from the northern Syrian city of Aleppo to the Turkish-Syrian border.

After 18 months in captivity by the Islamic State group, she was reported killed Feb. 6. Her captors claimed her death was the result of a Jordanian airstrike. U.S. officials, however, have not confirmed those claims, and questions remain unanswered surrounding the circumstances of her death.

Speakers at the memorial service Saturday morning based their remarks on Mueller's words, penned in a letter believed to have been written in late 2014 while she was imprisoned, and smuggled out by a fellow prisoner.

Mueller's mother Marsha struggled to repeat the words of the letter, which reads in part, "I have come to a place in experience where, in every sense of the word, I have surrendered myself to our creator because literally there was no one else and by God and by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in freefall. I have been shown in darkness, light and 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 am grateful. I have come to see that there is good in every situation, sometimes we just have to look for it."

Kathleen Day, who heads the United Christian Ministry at Northern Arizona University, and who worked with Mueller on several service projects, described some of her attributes, including courage, steadiness and grace.

"Kayla was grounded in sacred scripture," Day said.

She cited a passage of the Old Testament that calls on believers to "act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" and another in the New Testament that tells Christians to first love God but also to "Love your neighbor as yourself."

"I think perhaps Kayla's greatest fear was living a life without meaning," Day said. "Despite overwhelming hardship, Kayla retained her belovedness and she poured it out."

After concluding with the Beatitudes in the fifth chapter of St. Matthew, the same Biblical passage she referenced Feb. 18 at a candlelight vigil at the Yavapai County Courthouse Plaza, Day added, "Blessed are you, our beloved Kayla, and blessed are we for the gift you are to us, and the gift you are to the world."

Sen. John McCain choked up briefly as he shared short remarks and condolences to Kayla's family and friends.

"Our lives have dignity, meaning, purpose. Kayla knew that," McCain said. "She didn't just profess it; she lived it. She lived it wherever she went at home or abroad, to help the suffering, to answer their cries, to share their troubles and respect their dignity."

McCain said the singular purpose in life is to love others and be loved in return, as he said Mueller had done.

"What can we do to repay her? Not enough" he said.

"We can try to give her justice. We can try to give justice to her murderers, other victims and their families. But even if we succeed in our retribution, swift and complete, we could not equal the rebuke that Kayla's life gave to the cultural death that robbed her of it."

McCain said the best way to honor her would be to share the love she shared in her life.

"Our faith may assure us that she is in a better place, but it is hard to say goodbye and to imagine living without the company of such a giving, affirming, loving presence," McCain said.

"What an extraordinary young woman. What a fine life she lived. What a powerful example to follow," he said. "I never knew Kayla - that's my loss. But I'll never forget her - that's my privilege and my responsibility."

Mueller's family brought a lighter side to the service, recalling the fun aspects of her life.

Her brother Eric and father Carl shared the podium in sharing memories of their sister and daughter.

Eric Mueller said his sister would not have worn dark colors nor even neutrals to her memorial, as he donned a brightly colored tie and scarf. Mueller's father removed his jacket to display a pair of rainbow suspenders and shirt sleeves, and lifted the leg of his pants to show rainbow-striped socks he found in his daughter's room.

Carl shared his appreciation of the community, particularly the county Sheriff's Office and Sen. John McCain.

He shared words Mueller wrote in a letter to him in March 2011, "Some people find God in love; I find God in suffering. I've known for some time what my life's work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering."

Eric welcomed memorial attendees to greet the family following the service.

"If anybody needs a hug," he said, "if anybody needs condolences, we're here too."

Greeters at the service handed out along with the program a seed packet, bearing Mueller's words, adapted from Thich Nhat Hanh's writing on mindfulness: "The gardener knows how to turn garbage in to compost. Therefore, our anger, sadness and fear is the best compost for our compassion."

The wildflower seed packet carried an invitation from Mueller's family to share the "seeds of compassion, kindness and peace" and welcomed contributions to Kayla's Hands, a nonprofit her family created.

Follow reporter Les Bowen on Twitter @NewsyLesBowen

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