Young and old the mourners arrived, trudging to Roanoke’s Second Presbyterian Church in the cold on Wednesday morning, with hundreds overflowing the overflow chapel.
Then, Wednesday night, more than 600 packed a gym at Radford University’s Recreation and Wellness Center.
Many had parked blocks away for both the church memorial service and the university vigil — to honor the life of 20-year-old Alexa Cannon of Roanoke, an RU psychology major who was killed in her Radford apartment last week.
Waiting to enter the gym, senior Chris Bowell, 22, of Richmond said Cannon’s death was “heart-breaking.” That another student is accused of killing her “has put a lot of fear” into the campus atmosphere, Bowell said.
Bowell said that he had not known Cannon personally but thought it was important to attend as a classmate and fellow psychology major.
“For me it’s support for my community,” Bowell said.
Sam Taylor, 23, agreed. A graduate teaching assistant in communication studies, Taylor said that Cannon’s death has been a constant discussion topic in classes for the past week.
“The reason I’m here tonight is so we can stick together as a family,” Taylor said.
A procession of speakers at RU remembered Cannon’s love of dogs and music, her cheerful way with friends, and her bravery in coping with epilepsy.
“You will forever be a light in our hearts,” said Stirling Barfield, an assistant professor of psychology.
Sam Welch, a classmate, recalled Cannon capturing “every moment she could” to share on Instagram — a reminiscence that ushered in a slideshow of pictures of Cannon with friends and family as Hillsong United’s song “Even When It Hurts (Praise Song)” played.
When it ended, the crowd moved outside for a remembrance walk across campus.
Outside the vigil, Carson Keith, a junior from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, said she was friends on social media with Cannon. “I’m here because she’s one of us and I wanted to support her,” Keith said.
“In a way I think it has brought us closer,” Keith continued. “We are all much more aware of each other than we were trying to get over this tragedy together.”
Meanwhile, earlier Wednesday at the church, in the vestibule, a man took out his phone so he could read along to the hymns. There were not hymnals enough.
“Our family’s grateful for the outpouring of support from this community,” said Sam Cannon, Alexa’s father. He told congregants not to dwell on how and why she died, but to focus on her life and how people could learn from it. Her life included a medical hardship that he said was important to remember.
“We do need to touch on Alexa’s struggle with epilepsy,” Cannon said. While at Patrick Henry High School one day, she heard students laugh after she had had a seizure. The next day, she got up and went back to school. She persevered.
Her smile and laughter, he said, were selfless.
“When you were in front of her, you were what was important,” Cannon said.
George Anderson, senior pastor at Second Presbyterian, highlighted Alexa Cannon’s penchant for art.
“It seemed like she filmed everything because she loved capturing moments,” he said. She was also a photographer, with sunrises and horizons a frequent subject.
“They are both about what she was about,” Anderson said. “The future.”
“It is fitting this service is filled with music,” he added, because “Alexa loved music.”
In addition to hymns, a soloist and organ music, the Patrick Henry choir performed a South African prayer for peace, sung in Zulu.
At the beginning of the memorial service, Anderson acknowledged Luisa Ines Tudela Harris Cutting, the 21-year-old Radford student and Alexa Cannon’s friend, who is charged with second-degree murder in Cannon’s death. Cannon’s family wanted Cutting, of Culpeper County, included in prayers as well, he said.
“They need prayers,” Anderson said of Cutting’s family.
In his remarks, Sam Cannon invoked the butterfly effect and the first law of thermodynamics, that energy can neither be created nor destroyed.
“Use Alexa’s brief life to think about how we can cultivate some change in our lives,” he said, urging people to use the energy of Alexa’s life, and ripples from her death, to change for the better.
“If each of us woke up with gratitude and love” everyday, he said, “don’t you think the universe would change?”