Memorial Service Planned For Yingying Zhang
Because her body has never been found, there has never been a funeral held for Yingying Zhang. But a memorial service for the visiting scholar from China is being planned, and will involve her family. The service will be held on Friday, August 9 at 1 PM at First Baptist Church at Savoy, 1602 S. Prospect Avenue (corner of Prospect and Burwash).
First Baptist Pastor Chuck Moore, says the service was initiated by the Zhang family and the friends they made among Chinese and other Asian students, who are members of his church and also Hessel Park Reformed Christian Church in Champaign. It has been scheduled for August 9, after being postponed from earlier in the week.
Moore hopes the service can be a source of comfort for both family and friends.
“When you go through a tragedy like this, you’re affected in so many different ways," said Moore. "There’s a sense of anger, there’s a sense of shock, there are many questions that family and friends are left hanging with over the process of time. And we really want them to know that there is a God who understands."
Hessel Park Pastor Tim Bossenbroek echoed that hope that the memorial service can comfort the Zhang family and the friends they’ve made in Champaign-Urbana.
“I hope they get a sense that we as humans are not suffering alone, that there is a God who cares for us and is pained by our suffering and pain, and who comforts us,” said Bossenbroek.
Bossenbroek says Zhang’s father, Ronggao Zhang, is expected to deliver a eulogy at the 1-hour, bilingual service, and that a letter written by Zhang’s fiance, Ziaolin Hou, will also be read.
Yingying Zhang came to the University of Illinois from China in 2017, as a visiting scholar at the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. But on June 9 of that year, Zhang was seen on surveillance video getting into the SUV of Brendt Christensen, a former doctoral student. She has not been seen since. Christensen was arrested a few weeks later. And this summer, he was tried and convicted of kidnapping and murdering Zhang, and sentenced to life in a federal prison. Without a body, prosecutors based their case on DNA evidence found at Christensen's apartment, and the defendant's own boasting of having killed Zhang in a conversation with his girlfriend.
Yingying Zhang’s family and fiancé have made extended visits to Champaign-Urbana from their native China, in hopes of finding her, or at least bringing her body home for burial. In June and July, they traveled to Peoria for Christensen’s trial in federal court. After the trial, the family learned from prosecutors that Christensen said during plea negotiations that he had placed Yingying's remains in a Dumpster, from which they would have been taken to a landfill in Vermilion County. The Zhang family is now waiting on law enforcement authorities to decide if a search of the landfill is feasible.
Pastor Moore says the Zhang family felt it was important to hold a memorial service in Champaign-Urbana, because it was Yingying Zhang's home for the last few months before she was killed.
“So, they really felt that it was important to do this on our soil,” said Moore.
The memorial service is open to the general public, and Moore says it could attract an overflow crowd, judging from the response he's received from the initial announcement. He advises visitors to First Baptist Church at Savoy to avoid trying to reach the church via Prospect Avenue, due to highway construction. Instead, he advises motorists to travel by way of U.S. Route 45 (Neil Street in Champaign & Dunlap Avenue in Savoy), and turn west on Burwash Avenue to reach the church.
UPDATE: This story has been revised and update after the service was postponed from its original date and rescheduled. - JM 8/8/19