SAN FERNANDO VALLEY, Calif.—Nearly 300 people packed the sanctuary of West Valley Christian Church and School last night to honor two girls no one in the room had ever met.
The school was supposed to be the destination for 29 students and five teachers from China’s Jiangshan Middle School. But on Saturday, the plane carrying them from a layover in South Korea to San Francisco crashed on landing, leaving 180 passengers injured, and two of the students, Ye Mengyuan and Wang Linjia, dead.
In the sanctuary, 34 candles lit up the stage, representing the guests that never arrived, and two school desks, covered in flowers, sat empty in memory of the two dead girls. The church set up the vigil in Mandarin and English for a livestream aimed at the students’ Chinese families. A choir from a local Chinese church sang “Amazing Grace” in Mandarin, and a woman translated the speeches and prayers given in English.
“I hope they see that we genuinely care,” said Derek Swales, West Valley school administrator. “None of these people knew them, but we all came out to show our honor, love, and respect.”
The students were supposed to arrive at the school this week for a 3-week language and culture program arranged by Jianshan Middle School. The students were to have stayed with host families, many of whom attend West Valley Christian Church. Swales said he did not know if the students were Christians. West Valley merely provided the facility.
As more details about Ye and Wang appear in news reports, Eliu Elisara, the chairman of the school’s board, said the girls sound much like his own 17-year-old daughter. Ye loved Latin dance and music, even serving as a DJ for her school’s radio station. Wang was an artist, a master of table tennis, and the school’s valedictorian. A friend of the two posted on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter: “We three were the besties. I don’t know what to do, that they left me so suddenly. How long does it take to meet friends like you again?”
Elisara said the school and host families prepared for months for the students to come, and in the blink of an eye, everything changed. In the midst of confusion and tragedy, “we do what we always do, we pray. We pray about direction, we pray about about grace, we pray about healing, we pray about whatever God needs us to do. And that’s what we do tonight.”
West Valley students, many the same age as the girls, paid tribute by creating a video for them, reciting a poem, and praying for their families. Afterwards, attendees wrote messages to the Chinese students on banners the school plans to send to the families, along with care packages and a plaque.
“As parents of teenagers, I feel the pain these parents are going through losing their precious daughters,” said Maggie Yong, who attends a local church. “I hope this memorial will be something to honor them, a way to share a part of God’s love for them.”
All around the sanctuary, families sat together, some with tears in their eyes, others lifting their hands in prayer. Elisara asked the question in many people’s minds: “So why do we feel so strongly about two girls we haven’t even met?” He pointed to Matthew 22, where Jesus tells his followers the greatest commandment is to love God, and then to love their neighbors. “It’s because God wants us to. God commands us to. If you follow the first commandment, the second one is natural.”