As the lights dimmed and mourners' voices hushed Saturday at the Legacy Funeral Home in St. Paul, Tou Ger Xiong's voice played through the speakers.
The rap "Go Hmong Boy" by the popular Hmong comedian and activist, kidnapped and murdered last month in Colombia, played as a video created by his nephew ran through pictures of Xiong speaking in classrooms, traveling the world, and embracing family and friends.
His was a life that inspired people in Minnesota and across the United States, and one that attracted hundreds of mourners to the first day of his three-day memorial service.
Cars filled the parking lot and lined streets around the funeral home, forcing some mourners to park on the grass. Inside, the scent of white and pink flowers drifted from bouquets surrounding pictures of Xiong.
People shared memories of Tou Ger on pink and white papers that hung from a faux tree. Trophies and achievements Xiong collected were displayed, while across the room family and friends shared letters of remembrance on a photo wall.
"When you were just a baby, I was the one who took care of you," read a letter penned by Mai See. "I cannot believe you are really gone ... I hope that one day we will be brother and sister again."
Many shared their memories of Xiong during Saturday's service, including Gov. Tim Walz, Attorney General Keith Ellison and U.S. Sen. Tina Smith. U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar did not attend the memorial, but a representative from her office read a letter she wrote for the service. Their stories drew laughter and tears from many of those gathered who found humor in Xiong's spirit — and grief in his passing.
"He gave me the courage. He lifted my spirit. He gave me a sense of belonging. And, most importantly, he gave me a voice," state Rep. Ethan Cha of Woodbury said. "Tou Ger is a North Star for us Hmong-Americans."
Xiong, 50, was found dead in Medellín, Colombia, on Dec. 11 after being kidnapped by a group of men who demanded $2,000 from his family. He was killed before abductors collected the money. Xiong is among dozens who have been kidnapped in Colombia, marking a trend that authorities say is rising.
The Associated Press reported Jan. 19 that two men and a woman were in custody after being charged with aggravated kidnapping and aggravated homicide in Xiong's death, and that a juvenile male also was charged in the case. The adult suspects denied the charges at a hearing.
Many said Saturday that Xiong's death left a void in their life that couldn't be filled. St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter told mourners that the two had been friends for 20 years, and that he found it difficult to suppress the "mountain of anger" he felt after learning of his death. But he challenged those gathered to continue the work his late friend had started.
"It's hard for me to push through this intense feeling that my friend Tou Ger gave so much more to the world than, in the end, he ended up getting from us," Carter said.
"And if the story stops there, then it's one of the most horrific injustices that I've heard. But the blessing for me, and the blessing for you, is that we still have [his] lessons."