PRINCETON — Laiken Johnson and Je’Dah Palmer had a similar vision: a vision to create a peaceful place, a space where people could speak their minds.

The United for Justice Peaceful Vigil was that space.

“Je’Dah and I actually didn’t know each other before this; but, we had a similar vision and Lori McKinney really just took our vision and took it to the next level and brought us together,” said Johnson during her welcoming speech. “So, we were able to collaborate and come up with this beautiful event to share art and spoken word and music, and really just uplift our community in a time that has weighed heavy on everyone’s heart and a very emotional time.”

The vigil included messages from faith leaders and community members, performances by local musicians, poetry readings and spoken word.

“It is about lifting voices that need to be heard and creating space for people to express themselves,” said Lori McKinney, a local community member who helped facilitate this event. “This event is an opening of dialogue to talk about things that we’ve needed to talk about for a very long time; and, this moment is just kind of catalyzing that conversation.”

The Sunday, June 7, afternoon vigil began with an opening prayer brought by Bishop Barry Early, followed by a moment of silence.

Palmer then welcomed everyone before performing a song she wrote “The Dreaming Child”:

“As human beings, we won’t always agree, but my hope for today is that we can put aside our differences and join hands, I pray we can all have an open mind and an open heart.”

She continued, saying, “This is a song I wrote while constantly thinking about how I change the world and for a while, especially right now, everything has been so heavy; but, I believe if we all take a step back, breathe, and be guided by our hearts, and be compassionate and listen, a lot of things would be different.”

Following Palmer’s performance, Bishop Barry Early and Pastor Earl Thompson gave messages of hope, change, and love.

“One particular thought that has stuck with me during this time and that thought is ‘Truth crushed to the ground will rise again’ . . . what I’ve found out is that many times we get caught up in the moment and we feel like things are going to go forward and change is going to come, but it dies down, we forget about it and it is not until something else takes place . . . I’ve got a new hope that this will be different from yesterday,” said Bishop Barry Early during his message.

Pastor Earl Thompson said, “The change is going to have to come through you all... until we let the Holy Spirit rise up in us and begin to make a change, then there is no change coming. We are going to have to create a system within a system to cause change... and it will have to come through you young people.”

Performances included music by Allen Smith and Derian Mills, Ary’an Mills and Kayla Lynn; dance by Maddi Jackson; poetry reading and spoken word by Susan Boyd, Shannon “Smoove” Smith, Lori McKinney, Laiken Johnson and others.

Messages were also given by Tina Russell, who is running for the West Virginia House, and Lacey Watson, who is running for Congress.

Tina Russell said during her speech, “ We have to start being in each other’s communities more and bonding more with each other... what I need everyone here to do is when this ends, let the work begin. Please go out and try to talk to people you normally don’t talk to, go to churches you normally don’t go to, go into communities you normally don’t go in, show up to barbeques you normally don’t show up to.”

During his speech, Lacy Watson said, “What does social justice look like? Social justice is when people of every race and ethnicity can live well and have equal opportunities. Social justice is fairness in all for society. Social justice is ensuring the basic needs of life — the right to life, liberty, health care, a living wage, freedom from discrimination, access to opportunities and wellness. This should be for all, not just the wealthy few. Social justice is a basic human right.”

Two organizations — the A - Palm Center and the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) — were also present providing information about their organizations and taking donations.

Having created a space where people could express themselves, Johnson and Palmer were overwhelmed by the community support and proud of the community for opening their hearts and listening to one another.

Heather Hamilton is a freelance reporter for the Princeton Times. Contact her at

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