In Wooster Public Square on Sunday, in the middle of a swarm of people, Verna Horvath set up to paint.

Within an hour, her canvas was drenched in a glowing orange hue. Against the backdrop stood a black-and-white Jesus with his arms outstretched and wearing a T-shirt that said, Free Hugs.

Horvath, 68, who lives in Smithville and is a member of the Gateway Church in Wooster, said shes become increasingly concerned over the growing instances of hatred in the country.

I just felt compelled to do something, and all I know how to do is something visual, Horvath said. Its what I felt like I needed to bring with me today.

Horvath was one of several hundred people to show up to the CommUNITY Rally on Sunday night with visuals and words of love in an attempt to combat hate showing up right in their backyards.

John Clay, president of the Wooster/Orrville NAACP, and other local organizations planned the rally after East Coast Knights of the True Invisible Empire recruitment posters were found around Wooster earlier this month. Some were on the ground, others hanging up in plastic baggies with candy in them.

The East Coast Knights is an arm of the Ku Klux Klan that claims not to be a hate group, condemning violence toward other races on its website and emphasizing instead its focus on white pride.

Terry Greathouse, a member of the East Coast Knights, confirmed on Thursday that the group is actively recruiting in Ohio, particularly in Wayne and Holmes counties. No East Coast Knights members were noticeably present at Sundays rally, but Greathouse said the group is planning on holding its own rally in Ohio sometime next month.

The hundreds of people who gathered at the public squares gazebo, though, were determined to send the message that no arm of the KKK or any person spreading hate is welcome in the city.

True group effort

Many residents and organizations were involved in planning the rally, including the College of Wooster, the Wooster Area Interfaith Partnership, Indivisible Wooster and Concerned Citizens of Wayne County. The Wooster Police Department was also involved, sending about 10 officers to close off part of Market Street and be on duty if any violence arose.

Wooster Police Chief Matt Fisher said things remained peaceful throughout the night and there werent any counterprotesters.

Clay of the NAACP said the rally was meant to be nonpartisan, as evidenced by its list of speakers, which included Wayne County Republican Party Chairman Doug Deeken, Wayne County Democratic Party Chairman Betsy Sheets, College of Wooster President Sarah Bolton, Wooster Mennonite Church pastor Jacob Dodson, College of Wooster chaplain Alex Serna-Wallander and Clay himself.

Many speakers expressed the need to continue joining together as they did Sunday to speak out against racism in the community.

Deeken spoke about technology, pointing out that people now have a huge resource of knowledge at their fingertips in smartphones but use them instead to create echo chambers and surround themselves with similar opinions.

Im here to tell you thats wrong, Deeken said.

Yeah, thats right, Keith Smith, 41, shouted back.

Smith, the pastor and founder of Gateway Church, said he was shocked to hear about the flyers, but he and his wife, Mia Smith, knew they needed to attend the rally to demonstrate love.

Weve got to keep moving, Keith Smith said. I hope this is a catalyst for us to build real, meaningful connections.

All ages, backgrounds

Members of the audience were as varied in their backgrounds and views as the speakers. People of all ages and races showed up, many with signs condemning hatred, racism and even President Donald Trump.

Kenny Sampson, 37, stood with a handgun strapped to his pants, wearing a camouflage hat and carrying an American flag. Beside him was his friends 15-year-old daughter, Kat Pritchard, who wore a rainbow gay pride flag like a cape.

Being a veteran, I fought for the rights of everybody, said Sampson, who lives in Wooster.

Sampson, a sergeant in the Marine Corps, said he served two tours in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2003, and then in Iraq in 2005. He said he flies both flags at his househis American flag, and Pritchards gay pride flag.

Regardless of political views, everyone should be against racism, Sampson said. Violence shouldnt be the way to go.

Theresa Cottom can be reached at 330-996-3216 or tcottom@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @Theresa_Cottom.