Emotional candlelight vigil held in Fergus Falls in remembrance of 6-year-old who died of abuse
FERGUS FALLS, Minn.—An impassioned candlelight vigil was held in remembrance of Justis Rae Burland Monday evening at Hilltop Celebration Church.
Grief, anger and, most notably, hope were emotions heavily prevalent in the numerous attendees gathered in the chapel.
A week ago, the 6-year-old boy residing in Fergus Falls passed away, leaving behind a mourning community here and in his home state of Washington. In the following days, there have been more questions than answers surrounding the young boy's life, particularly about the abuse he had allegedly suffered at the hands of his caregivers.
The chapel wasl filled to capacity, with folding chairs being brought out for the influx of mourners at Hilltop.
Shawna Zelinsky, who started The Blessing Closet with her mother, Emily Zelinsky, organized the vigil for Justis as he and his twin brother were frequent visitors.
"I hope people walk away feeling better than when they came in," Shawna Zelinsky said. "I hope they leave feeling hopeful and that we can make a difference in our community."
She began the vigil with a testimony and a message of hope in the face of tragedy.
"We need to start learning from our mistakes, we need to stop pointing fingers at the other side and we need to stop bringing even more division into our world," Shawna said.
Those in attendance were invited to share memories of Justis, with each one who had met him personally mentioning the little boy's bright smile and the happiness he and his brother exhibited.
Some of the twins' family had traveled from Spokane, Washington, to attend. Justis' cousin, Kayloni Nelson, spoke of fond memories helping to raise the boys when they were small, saying they had lived with her family from the time they were 2 months old until they were 2 years old.
"It breaks my heart," Nelson said, before sharing memories of the boys and their curly hair bouncing as they bobbed to music.
"We want change. We want this not to be in vain. We want a change for CPS (Child Protective Services)," Nelson said. "My aunt started a Change.org petition to start a nationwide CPS database so that no one can go unanswered anymore."
Nelson hopes that no more children will "fall between the cracks anymore."
Other family members shared similar sentiments, urging change.
With tensions and emotions high, the vigil became briefly unhinged in the middle, with some in attendance shouting out their accusations before being reined in by the Rev. Jeremy Mueller who reminded them the purpose of the candlelight vigil was hope, and not blame.
"Some of us had a chance to meet him and many of us didn't and we would like to hear as many good things as we can about his short life," Mueller said.
Shortly thereafter, the attendees began to sing "Jesus Loves Me," the popular children's hymn, before lighting their candles in a somber moment of remembrance.
At the end of the vigil, Shawna announced that donations were being taken to both construct an angel memorial for Justis and also to give to his twin brother.
For those who would like to donate and could not attend, contact Shawna Zelinsky via the Fergus Falls Families in Need Facebook page or Hilltop Celebration Church at 525 MN-210, Fergus Falls, Minnesota, 56537, or 218-736-4529.