MANATEE -- The Rev. Bill Bailey of Happy Gospel Church saw a little girl in the crowd raise a candle, and he put his hand over hers.
It was one of most poignant moments Sunday during an evening set aside to pray for 11-year-old Janiya Thomas.
Janiya was reported missing about 10 days ago after the Manatee County Sheriff's Office's Child Protective Investigations unit came to the apartment of Janiya's mother, Keishanna Thomas, in the Village of Cortez, to remove her five children after a report of child abuse.
Only four of the children could be located.
An emotional Bailey spoke from his heart during the vigil to an estimated crowd of 400 people who had gathered in the 5000 block of 21st Way East in Manatee County to honor Janiya, whose body may have been found, pending further testing, in a freezer eight days ago.
"The Bible says three things remain," Bailey told the gathering in front of a home that belongs to members of Janiya's extended family. "They are faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love. That's what is enduring tonight, faith, hope and love."
Many in the crowd said a spirit of love, not anger, permeated Janiya's special night. That, perhaps, was fitting because Palmetto resident Wayne Washington, who organized the vigil, has given Janiya the nickname, "Angel."
Many referred to her at the vigil as "our angel."
Keishanna Thomas, 31, remains in jail, refusing to answer a judge's repeated questions about her daugh
Family members told authorities that Keishanna Thomas had brought a freezer to their house with a lock on it. Investigators say more testing is needed to determine if the remains are Janiya's.
Some in the crowd had messages of love, not hate, for Keishanna Thomas.
The most profound was from Tonia Martinez of Rubonia, a mother of four.
"My prayers go out to the entire family but also to Keishanna," Martinez said. "My prayer is that God touches her heart and she will open up and she will give the people the information they are asking, that she will just let justice be served for her daughter."
"It is so sad, and I pray that we as a community can come together and help each other so this does not happen to another family so we might not have to gather like this," Martinez added. "Our gatherings should be friendly gatherings because we love one another."
Then, Martinez wanted to speak directly to Thomas.
"Keishanna, I want to say regardless of what happened, I forgive you," she said. "Please, if you have any heart at all, give the answers. Not only do they need it, but your family needs it, your children need it and most of all to set your soul at rest, you need it."
Washington, the vigil organizer, was recently given the Unsung Hero Award by the Manatee County chapter of the NAACP, according to his wife, Annie Armstrong-Washington, who also lit a candle for Janiya.
The Rev. Frank Jenkins of Faith Temple Church of God and Christ in Palmetto said he was convinced that God has a plan, and part of that plan is to bring people to 21st Way East on Sunday night who did not know each other but would meet and change things for the better in the world over the days to come.
"God and Janiya are hard at work in many lives," Jenkins said.
In another tender and spontaneous moment, the Rev. Charles Taylor, backed by singers and musicians, sang an old-fashioned Gospel melody about love, and the crowd joined hands and arms and strangers swayed.
The Rev. Dexter McDonald of Community Outreach Word of Deliverance Ministry prayed for young African-Americans and their families. McDonald is president of the Manatee County Community Pastor's Fellowship.
"We came out to embrace this family and this community, and we are working on many things within our community to help our families," McDonald said.
The Pastor's Fellowship is starting a mentorship program within the Manatee school district with an after school tutorial program, McDonald said.
McDonald also told the crowd about the "100 Men for Change" that has an open meeting at 6 p.m. every Tuesday at 650 27th St. E., Bradenton, to help make the community better, McDonald said.
Shavon Reed drew applause when she told the crowd that many people just don't take the time to see what is going on in the life of Manatee County's young African-Americans.
"Many times, there is a reason for what is happening, if people would ask," she said.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter @RichardDymond.