WILLISTON, N.D. — A sea of small bobbing flames illuminated the pavilion at Harmon Park after the sky fell dark on Friday, Nov. 8. About 150 mourners gathered at the grassy patch in the heart of Williston to hold a candlelight vigil for five of their own who were murdered in northern Mexico earlier this week.
Williston residents Rhonita Maria Miller and her children Howard, Krystal, Titus and Tiana were among nine U.S.-Mexico dual citizens killed by gunmen on Monday, Nov. 4. The victims were all members of a fundamentalist Mormon family that has a long-established presence in Mexico, according to The Washington Post.
The brutal attack sent shock waves through the city in northwest North Dakota. A funeral for Miller and her children was held in Mexico on Thursday, Nov. 7, according to The Washington Post.
Several extended family members, including Ashley Langford, attended the candlelight vigil, which began at 7 p.m. Langford came with her four children and described the feeling of losing her husband's relatives as "complete brokenheartedness."
Williston residents Joanni Luna and Kendle Dierman, who had never met each other or any members of the family, proposed the candlelight vigil on a Facebook page for local mothers. Luna, who recently moved to Williston from California, said she felt compelled to help organize the event after hearing of the attack and the family's local connection.
"There's a lot of bad that happens in this world, and you can't be there for all of it, but you can be there for community," Luna said. "[The family] needs a lot of love and compassion. I've seen more of that in the five months I've been in Williston than I ever did in California."
Attendee Kym Smith, who went to church with Rhonita, said the Miller family is deeply ingrained in the fabric of Williston. She estimated about 50 extended family members live in the city.
"[The family members] seem very secure in their faith, and that will get them through this," Smith said. "And they have each other."
The local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of which the Millers are members, held a memorial for the family the night prior to the vigil. Many of the church's members are related to the deceased and Howard Miller Sr., Rhonita's husband, who works in the Oil Patch and was in the U.S. during the attack. Luna was invited to attend the memorial after organizing the vigils.
"I have no ties or have I ever met any of the family members before tonight, but I will forever hold them dear to my heart," Luna wrote in a Facebook post. "Witnessing their pain and love was a huge lesson on how precious life is and how quickly it's taken away."
Before a solemn rendition of "Amazing Grace" brought an end to the vigil, the church's bishop, Pete Isom, said the community must remember the bravery of the women who tried to shield the children from the gunmen.
"We can never forget what these three mothers did," Isom said. "We can always remember their valiant acts of motherhood."