VERNON -- As cities clutched-in-bedlam across the nation fight dutifully for answers to conflicts over diversity and democracy, a number of Vernon citizens held to unity for their community Tuesday evening.
The event's theme was "United We Stand." The message, implicit, but simple: Vernon is Vernon -- a rural place where social tension "isn't really a thing."
"We can all come together as a community, as a whole – regardless of race, sex, religion," Vernon City Councilman Kalan Miller, who organized the event, said to the crowd gathered at Vernon High School.
Partly inspired by his five-year-old son who “just sees friends, sees people,” Miller later said, in Vernon “people is people.”
“(I) just wanted to kind of organize something to really just bring people together and look past all of the race war and just pretty much negative drama on social media and everything else,” he said.
Together, families and individuals, prayed, sang songs and listened carefully as speaker after speaker offered comforting words -- encouraging the crowd to continue to be vigilant, to remain a unified community.
"We’ve never seen race, creed or color – that’s what makes Vernon, Vernon," said Washington County Commissioner Tray Hawkins. “That’s how it's always been here in Washington County, that’s how it’s going to stay here in Washington County.”
Organizers pointed to the role social media plays in creating negative and hostile real-world situations.
Vernon Mayor Tina Sloan - also Miller’s mother - challenged the crowd to resist sharing offensive social media posts and cast down derision by refusing to comment on such posts.
“This is one of the days that makes me proud to be from Vernon,” Sloan belted out as her voice cracked from holding back tears. “Don’t let hate win.”
James Pate, pastor at Poplar Head Freewill Baptist Church, recalled when he was five years old and "got in trouble" in Bay County for drinking from a "coloreds-only" water fountain at a gas station. The station attendant warned him not to do that ever again. The memory was etched in his mind from childhood.
“One of the biggest blessings you and I have is we’ve been born in America and we’ve been free, but we’ve neglected to use our freedom to stand up for what’s right,” Pate said. “My thought is all lives matter -- black or white, Hispanic.”
By sunset, the event had come to a close. American flags glowed from the rays that peaked over the school’s building. The somber crooning of a guitarist rang in the air over friendly chatter from attendees bidding their final farewells to friends, family and neighbors.
“I am just here … to support a great cause, especially what’s going on right now in our country – as far as the wars of the races, religion, all of that,” said Lela Anderson, 30, keeping an eye on her three-year-old daughter who played a couple of feet away.
“I love small towns,” she added. “I love how we get together to do things like this.”
Teetering from side to side, the rosy-cheeked toddler innocently reached for her mother's face -- perhaps for a kiss. Red clay was smeared on the palms of her little hands from digging in the ground at the edge of the pavement in front of Vernon High School's weight-lifting building.
"Everybody is equal," Anderson said, eluding the toddler's clayed hands, yet still managing to warmly embrace her. “You shouldn’t look at anybody no differently.”