They appeared out of nowhere on that warm March evening, choking off traffic as they poured from every direction into Delano’s riverfront downtown. A hundred people would have been a welcome turnout at the hastily organized vigil. Instead, more than 1,000 packed in shoulder to shoulder, lit candles and took a stand against racism, expressing their shock at the most visible hate crime in the town’s long memory. It was a powerful, stirring demonstration of a community united. And that was the easy part.

The candlelight vigil was a visceral reaction to an event that shook the town, when a black family’s home was broken into and defaced with painted swastikas and racist messages. The family moved out soon after what local people call “the incident.”

Now, as the afterglow from the emotional demonstration fades, dozens of residents of Delano and neighboring Wright County communities have pledged to grapple with the hate they’ve seen beneath the tranquil surface of this Crow River town.

They know it won’t be easy, not in a place where people joke that a mixed marriage is when a German Catholic weds a Polish Catholic. Although they’re not certain what lies ahead, they’ve signed up for the journey.

There have been small steps. A task force has been formed, with scores of residents turning out for the new cause. A black minister has spoken to crowds of students and townspeople, sharing the searing racist experiences of his Mississippi childhood. Teachers have posted rainbow signs in their classrooms, signaling acceptance of all.

What comes next? Nobody is quite sure.

“There’s no guidebook or road map for this,” says Mayor Dale Graunke, 63, a lifelong resident who’s seen Delano change from a sleepy country town to a Twin Cities bedroom community. “It happened. Being that it happened, you’d better respond to it and see what you can do to rectify the situation.

“There’s racism — someone might tell a joke. But this is hate. This is absolute hate.”

Graunke, a retired custom-home builder, acknowledges the challenge of keeping momentum alive after the fever of the moment subsides.

“Everybody’s there upfront, and then they go about their business. It’s human nature,” he says.

But in Delano, he promises, things will be different: “People are not going to let this be forgotten.”

The push for unity in Delano comes against the backdrop of a changing Minnesota. More than a million people of color live in the state, about 20 percent of all residents. That percentage has been growing steadily for the past 25 years, and demographers expect it to continue.

But the growth in the minority population isn’t spread evenly across the state. Western Hennepin County and most of Wright County remain overwhelmingly white — about 96 percent in Delano and 93 percent in Wright County.

‘Small towns just don’t get that exposure’

People in Delano say that kind of homogeneity can foster misunderstanding of those who are different among the white, straight, conservative majority.

“I really believe that small towns just don’t get that exposure, and it’s unfortunate that they don’t,” says Tamie Kugler, 56, a Delano resident and a school nurse in nearby Watertown for more than 30 years. “It feels like we should be past discussing racism. We’ve been fighting this battle for such a long time. It really feels like we should be further along.”

That small-town exposure is slowly increasing with the arrival of people like Monique Coleman, a 45-year-old hairstylist who moved to Delano three years ago. Coleman sports tattoos, is married to a woman and has a 17-year-old biracial daughter. And in Coleman’s view, the challenge of adjusting to differences cuts both ways.

“We didn’t realize it would be such a culture shock,” she says. The family moved from Crystal to Delano for its acclaimed schools, but Coleman says her daughter, Bri, often feels isolated as one of the handful of minority students at the high school, despite support from teachers and staff.

“The principal has been great,” she says. “He tells us, ‘You guys are just ahead of the curve.’ ”

Patti Loftus grew up amid the social turmoil of the 1960s and ’70s, but she was too young to be involved. Now, at 62, she figures it’s time.

Loftus teaches preschoolers at the Blake School in Minneapolis and lives in rural Wright County. She joined the task force not only to take a stand against what she calls “a hateful racist act,” but also to show others that their neighbors are defending the rights of all. She’s one of a dozen who volunteered for leadership roles on the task force.

Some longtime residents worry that their town will be unjustly portrayed as an intolerant enclave.

“I certainly don’t want Delano cast as a racist community,” says Dale VanderLinden, 85. A retired aerospace engineer, VanderLinden has lived in Delano since 1968 but jokes that he’s still considered a newcomer.

He attended both the vigil, calling it “a moving experience,” and the first meeting of the task force, expressing his desire to help the community move forward.

“But I’m also concerned about too heavy a reaction,” he adds.

The daunting task now facing the group is bringing to life their vision of a more accepting community. The answer, they realize, is still far from their grasp.

‘Don’t even know yet what we need to know’

Kristi Koziolek and her husband moved to Delano two years ago from Minneapolis to expand her gardening business. Both natives of rural Minnesota, they escaped as soon as they could from what Koziolek described as a shared experience of bigotry in their small-town childhoods.

The couple moved to Delano with the belief “that it is different and can be different,” she says. “We moved here with high expectations of it not being a typical small town.”

Those expectations haven’t always been met, says Koziolek, 33. She and her husband, Ryan Dunlop, attended the first task force meeting but don’t plan to be regular members, preferring to fight back in their own way.

“You’re at the bar and you hear things: racist jokes, racist undertones, [negative comments about] women and gay people,” Koziolek says. “I can say proudly that I challenge those people.

“That makes me happy. But it’s all I know how to do.”

Adds Loftus: “We don’t even know yet what we need to know.”

And that’s OK, says Kathy Quick, an associate professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota who also serves as academic co-director of the U’s Center for Integrative Leadership.

Quick studies how communities can build consensus to address social issues. She’s been a facilitator for the city of Falcon Heights as it has worked through the anguish and controversy surrounding the shooting of motorist Philando Castile by a police officer last year. Quick says the people of Delano are wise to move slowly.

“Sustained change is a long process,” she says. “It takes attention, and it doesn’t happen on its own.” The community’s intent to work on the issue carefully and thoughtfully “seems really smart to me,” she says.

A key, Quick says, is reaching out to the community in many ways. Not everyone can or will come to a weeknight meeting.

“It helps to have multiple channels,” she says. “Everything from little book groups that people have in their living rooms, to big community events to promote healing, to lists of books you can read and movies you can watch, to partnerships with churches and schools. There’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all solution.”

Since the incident, the town has been buzzing with speculation and theories about who might have been behind the vicious attack. Swastikas and racial slurs were spray-painted on the walls of the house. Furnishings were damaged and stolen, and garbage was strewn inside the home.

“Next time it will be fire,” read one painted message. “Get out,” commanded another.

The Wright County Sheriff’s Office has made no arrest and won’t comment on the progress of its investigation. But even should a culprit be identified, and it turns out to be someone from outside the community, city leaders say Delano will benefit from a closer look at its views on race, sex, gender and other flashpoints in an increasingly diverse society. As Quick points out, incidents like the one in Delano often bring to the surface things that already have been happening under the radar.

Killing ‘Mockingbird’

Talk to residents, and they’ll tell you about those things. A highway sign painted to look like a swastika; a black man threatened with harm if he played in a local basketball league; teenagers driven to despair and suicidal thoughts by the taunts of classmates simply for being different.

For Joe Lawrence, the eye-opener came in the most recent school year, when he caught flak from students and parents over his teaching of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the classic tale of racial injustice in the American South.

“This year I’ve had more pushback about things I say or am talking about to kids than I’ve ever had before,” says Lawrence, a high school language and theater teacher who was a 2016 finalist for Minnesota Teacher of the Year. Lawrence had his students write about institutional racism and how it affects society.

One student wrote “that I’m a race-baiting idiot and should stop teaching this book,” Lawrence recalls. “And his parents feel the same way.

“A lot of our community thinks that if we talk about [racial injustice], then we’re somehow attacking the police, or the military, or people who have conservative views,” Lawrence says. “I like cops. One saved my life. I was at the [World] Trade Center on 9/11 and a Port Authority cop pushed me and 100 other people onto a train.”

Another kind of push came last month, after members of the teachers union put rainbow-colored signs in their classrooms to promote acceptance. After some parents complained, the school district asked the teachers to remove the signs, then reversed itself and allowed them to remain.

God’s spirit called

When you talk to Larry Brazelton, you’re talking to 5 percent of Delano’s black population, which stood at 21 people out of 5,500 in the most recent census. Brazelton, 68, a retired biomedical engineer, moved to Delano 15 years ago and loves it. “I wish I had moved here 30 years ago,” he says.

He and his wife, Chris, who is white, have developed fast friendships in their neighborhood, going on cruises with several other couples. Yet when he first moved to town, Brazelton says, “I used to get pulled over by the cops all the time.” A local business owner once made racist comments, not knowing Brazelton was within hearing distance.

“He tried to apologize,” Brazelton says. “I just told him I consider the source.”

Even before the racial vandalism, Brazelton was part of an ongoing community conversation, with people meeting in each other’s homes to foster understanding of differences. It was one of several groups already working to promote harmony, including one organized by area ministers.

“God’s spirit had called us to say, ‘We need to look at this,’ ” says the Rev. Matthew Sipe, a Delano native and pastor at Delano United Methodist Church for nine years. When the incident occurred, Sipe’s group was prepared to quickly mobilize a response. Sipe, who left his Delano parish this month to take over a congregation in Minnetonka, helped organize the community task force to chart a path forward.

‘It’s a long game’

The first meeting of the task force draws more than 50 people on a rainy weeknight. Breaking into small groups, participants share their experiences with racism, sexism and homophobia. Many talk about living elsewhere and how they were influenced by exposure to other people and cultures.

By turns candid, earnest, analytical and impassioned, participants jot their thoughts and ideas on oversized tablets and bring them to the larger group.

Graunke talks about his gay son. Aaron Sorenson, a local minister, says that he and his wife have considered adopting a nonwhite child.

“Frankly, this incident makes us a little nervous,” he says.

As others share their thoughts, an informal consensus begins to take shape, pointing toward a vision that reaches beyond racism, addressing the larger picture of justice and equity for all.

“It’s a long game for our community and our families,” says Kelli Johnson. “We don’t want a ‘we’re fine’ mentality.”

As the meeting draws to a close, Kristin Lindskog stands up in the center of the room. A 68-year-old bookkeeper, Lindskog has lived in Delano since 2004.

“This racial vandalism has been talked about as ‘the incident,’ ” she says, turning to gaze around her. “It’s time to label it and call it what it is: racial violence. It is a hate crime.

“Stop trying to water it down and be nice white people,” she says, her voice rising. “It’s time to stand up.”

As she finishes, the room breaks into applause.