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A Town In Quiet Shock As It Mourns Local MP Jo Cox

"She didn't care about religion, she cared about dignity, community... She didn't care about our colour – her interest was in people."

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At 8pm on Thursday night, the bell of St Peter's church in Birstall rang out 42 times – one for each year of Jo Cox's life. The local Labour MP should have been celebrating her birthday this weekend; instead hundreds of local residents were gathering at the church in horror and shock to mourn her violent death, which had taken place just a few hours earlier.

"People's emotions are high," a local whispered as she shuffled into the foyer of the church, which sits at the top of a small hill at the lower edge of the West Yorkshire market town, surrounded by thick trees and a small lake.

St Peter's was packed, with many of the 500 or so attendees spilling out into the hallway as the service began. Some had arrived from the local mosque, others had travelled from Leeds, and a few people were dressed all in black. Candles dimly lit the front of the church during the service, and gentle sobbing could be heard as the room fell quiet for prolonged moments of silence throughout the service.

Reverend Paul Knight, who led the vigil, spoke fondly of Cox. He stressed the important role she played within the community, and, like so many others in the church hall, he remembers her well.

"When she was first elected, she came to a meeting of members of local churches and faiths in the area," Knight told BuzzFeed News after the service. "She was excited, veracious, so enthusiastic to make a difference in this area because she was a local girl. Yes, she's been living in London, but she was determined to make improvements up here."

Knight stood and comforted several locals who came up to him after the service in floods of tears. While most people trickled out of the church to head home, some people stayed behind to drink tea served by volunteers, swapping their memories of Cox.

Among them were two young Muslim women who gave their names only as Hanifa and Shasta, and who had stood grief-stricken at the back throughout the vigil. Several people offered them a cup of tea afterwards, but they politely declined, reminding the people they were currently fasting for Ramadan and couldn't stay for too long.

The two women, who had met Jo many times and supported her campaigns, said she was well-liked within their Muslim community. Hanifa reeled off a list of Cox's list of charitable achievements: "Her CV was exceptional. She did work for Oxfam, and cared about countries like Syria, and delivered what she stood for. She didn't care about religion, she cared about dignity, community... She didn't care about our colour – her interest was in people."

That sentiment had been repeated over and over throughout the afternoon in Birstall as local residents struggled to take in the news. The normally busy market square in the heart of the town was cordoned off by police tape around the spot where Cox was shot and stabbed as she arrived at a constituency surgery at the local library, and the mood there was quiet and sombre. But the mention of Cox's name to any passerby would elicit an outpouring of admiration and emotion. She was a person, they would stress, who "always put others first", a "lovely, caring, and genuine politician", a "force of good".

Everyone had their own story to tell about Cox, even though she had been their MP for barely a year: Jo helped them find a better council home, Jo helped their restaurant business stay open later hours, Jo visited their school and taught the children. People recounted fond memories of the hands-on leader who visited their nearby school, mosque, or community centre. For many, it didn't matter if they knew Cox personally or not, nor if they'd even met her before – she was trusted, and made everyone feel as if they'd known her for years.

"I drove here when I heard about Jo," Ishmal, who works in Leeds and lives outside of Birstall, told BuzzFeed News as he stood in the marketplace holding a sign that read "RIP Jo Cox, An Angel has flown today".

"She was a good person, she was a unifier," he said. "She epitomized what being British means, she was a humanitarian, she was everything this country could be."

"It's just a little town here," Russell, 42, said as he walked past the line of police tape. "You don't ever think something like this would happen in your home. Jo was such a good person. And, I mean, I didn't think it were dangerous to be a politician."

Cox's passionate investment and commitment to improving relations for the Muslim community was echoed by many. But a few glimpses of local interactions hinted at underlying tensions.

In the late afternoon, across the street from the crime scene of Cox's murder, a young Muslim father carrying his son and walking with his wife was confronted by a young man with several friends. After several minutes of shouting and pushing, the family rushed past and continued to hurry their way down the road.

"They're always kicking my door," the father, who did not want to be named, told BuzzFeed News, appearing distressed. "'He's stupid, he's a bastard.' I said nothing, and he said 'hi dickhead'. He always tells us to go away, to go home."

But the overwhelming mood was of unity and a shared sense of loss. "When one of the teachers at school heard the news, she burst into tears," Chloe Padgett, 17, told BuzzFeed News. "She said that whoever passes away during Ramadan, they're an angel. She said Jo did so much, and they don't know what they'll do. She said that Jo was an angel."

Back at the vigil, Rev Knight said he was unsure on how Birstall would move forward from what it had gone through that day, but stressed it would find a way, because Cox would not want people "to be damned by the incident".

"When these types of things happens, it's always a first, and people will ask us why do these things happen," he said. "I believe in each of us there's the potential for good and bad. Jo was one of those who showed the good."

Rossalyn Warren is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Rossalyn Warren at rossalyn.warren@buzzfeed.com.

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