PAOLI — Peace vigils in response to Saturday’s violence in Charlottesville, Va., took place in cities across the country Sunday to spread a message of peace and unity.
In Paoli, 540 miles away from the city where white nationalists and counter protesters clashed and three people were killed, members of the community held candles and sang songs on the town square.
They gathered to not only express a message of peace, but also to let the world see their Paoli — the Paoli that is accepting and welcoming to all and not a community associated with promoting racism.
“Paoli is being labeled. When you look at some of the comments, people are saying, ‘What do you expect, he lives in an all-white podunk town,’ but that is not what we are,” said Cristy Ford, who has lived in Paoli for 25 years.
The he she is talking about is Matthew Himebach, a Maryland native who moved to Paoli and is a leader in the white nationalist movement. He was at the center of Saturday’s protests in Virginia, seen in photos wearing a black helmet and surrounded by protesters. In news accounts of the event, Heimbach, who sees white identity, culture and religion as increasingly endangered by a diversifying America, was frequently mentioned for his role in the protests and being from Paoli.
“It was no surprise to me that he was associated with it, but it breaks my heart that Paoli, Indiana, is brought up with it. I don’t feel he represents Paoli or Orange County … he just moved here, he didn’t grow up here, and now we have the stigma of his party associated with our town,” said Stori Sullivan of Paoli.
Sullivan helped organize the Paoli vigil, which was attended by about 75-100 people.
“Having our town’s name in the newspaper associated with Charlottesville made us want to react as swiftly as possible,” she said. “It was a vigil of love, not hate.”
Seeing the violence in Charlottesville and then seeing its leader connected to Paoli was a punch to the stomach for Sullivan and others who attended the vigil.
Ford attended with her three children, ages 14, 9 and 6.
“I am shocked someone felt so empowered that the thought of taking lives was OK, and I am very disappointed in the president that he didn’t denounce the hatred,” Ford said. “I’m a transracial parent; this hits home with me very hard. I’m white and my two youngest children are black and adopted. I fear for their safety, whether they are in school or somewhere else, and I want to teach them that their voice will be heard.”
Sullivan is also a transracial parent and felt the vigil was important to let her children know that communities can stand up to hatred.
Dessica Albertson, a Paoli resident for 33 of her 36 years, helped Sullivan plan the vigil. It’s not the first community event that Paoli has held to promote unity. Following the presidential election, signs declaring “We are One” were distributed, and volunteers invited the community to a picnic in the park.
“We were saddened by what had happened in Charlottesville, and we wanted to stand in solidarity with our community. We’ve worked really hard to make sure people of our community are connected. We don’t want anything to divide us,” Albertson said.
In a town of just 3,600 people, most of them white, the volunteers said the vigil made an important statement.
“For it to have been such an impromptu thing, it was nice seeing people sing the songs and to be reminded what our community stands for,” Albertson said.