The sound of children's laughter drifted Wednesday night from the playground at East Hickory Baptist Church, a painful reminder for everyone gathered there of one child who was noticeably absent.
East Hickory Baptist Church hosted a candlelight vigil Wednesday evening at the church playground to honor missing 10-year-old Zahra Clare Baker.
"A child's life should be something of joy, of fun and laughter," said David King, chairman of deacons at East Hickory Baptist. "Not of tragedy that evidently has happened with this young child."
People of all ages came to the event, some breaking down in tears, while others quietly clutched their children and loved ones.
"Having kids myself, it's frightening," said Justin Helton, of Hickory, who attended the vigil. "You think, 'What if it were my (child)?' Bless this little girl's heart."
The Rev. Homer F. Greene quoted passages from the Bible, as well as well-known poet Emily Dickinson.
"Our God loves you," Greene told the crowd. "He cares for you, and he provides for you as he does for Zahra Baker."
People also offered prayers for Zahra's stepmother and father, who haven't been ruled out as persons of interest in Zahra's disappearance.
"That father and that stepmother, they need you too, Lord," King said during a prayer.
April Fairchild, who said Zahra is her step-neice, wiped away tears from her eyes throughout the vigil.
"I'm here to pray for peace for Zahra and her family," Fairchild said. "We're emotionally torn every which way."
King said the church entertained Monday the idea for a vigil, and once the idea was proposed, it grew exponentially.
"It started out as something small, and it's grown from there," he said. "The support from (the congregation) and the community has been overwhelming."
As the sun set Wednesday evening on the playground at East Hickory Baptist, everyone at the vigil lit their candles and shared their thoughts on Zahra and the ongoing investigation.
Many people expressed regret that Zahra's young life appears to be cut short, and others prayed for justice to be done.
"Until we know 100 percent, there's always that thread of hope," King said. "And we want to hold on to that thread of hope."
Most people, however, spoke about the joy and happiness children bring to their lives.
"I wasn't ready for a child," Marilyn Bohemier told the crowd at East Hickory Baptist. "But (my son) is the most important blessing in my entire life."
Bohemier encouraged people to treasure the children in their lives and never hesitate to contact law enforcement if they think a child is being mistreated.
"Speak out for the children," she said. "Be their voices."
Mother Shekina Lockwood, of Hickory, wondered what could have been done to prevent the pain and heartache in Zahra's life.
"Having kids, it's kind of emotional to hear what might have happened to her," she said. "It's heartbreaking. You feel like, 'What could I have done to help?'"
One after another, people spoke about Zahra.The prayers, comments and words of encouragement continued so long that the candles melted down to the wick, and the flames eventually burned out.