It was meant to be a day to celebrate race unity.

Instead, hundreds gathered at Whanganui's Majestic Square on Saturday, united by grief and shock.

With the horrors of Friday's mosque slayings still sinking in, people's faces expressed a range of emotions as they tried to come to terms with what Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has called "one of New Zealand's darkest days."

An impromptu chalk mandala was one of the many ways people expressed themselves at Saturday's Unity gathering. Photo: Simon Waters
An impromptu chalk mandala was one of the many ways people expressed themselves at Saturday's Unity gathering. Photo: Simon Waters

Fifty people were gunned down dead at mosques in Christchurch and more than 40 others were left wounded as New Zealand's innocence was ripped away in a terror-attack that nobody could imagine would visit these shores.

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Adalynn Fergusson, 5, draws as the adults listening to a range of speakers. Photo / Simon Waters
Adalynn Fergusson, 5, draws as the adults listening to a range of speakers. Photo / Simon Waters
Sarah Hutton, 10, shows her origami skills. Photo / Simon Waters
Sarah Hutton, 10, shows her origami skills. Photo / Simon Waters

Organiser Vijeshwar Prasad from the Whanganui Multicultural Society called for an end to hate.

"Those who are full of hatred at not well, they need help, please encourage them to seek help," he said.

People were invited to sign a grievance book, write letters or draw, all of which would be sent to Christchurch as a sign of support.

The Wanganui male Choir was in fine voice.

"Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me," it sang.

The lyrics of the Vince Gill song had special meaning in the wake of the attacks.

The gathering had been scheduled as one of a number of special events leading up to the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on March 21.

Faces of unity

Organiser Jacqueline Brand-Holt said it was important to go ahead with the event as planned and celebrate Whanganui's cultural diversity.

"We started with a minute's silence and at noon we stopped to face the East where people would be praying at that time.

"It was important to add that solemnity to the occasion but also to celebrate what we have here in Whanganui."

Islamic Association of Whanganui president Mukarram Mairaj spoke to the gathering at the beginning of the proceedings.

"He said that his feelings about New Zealand have not been tarnished by the shootings in Christchurch and said he still perceives it as a welcoming place."

Brand Holt said people brought floral tributes for the Christchurch victims and they were taken to the Masjid-E-Bilal mosque in Whanganui East after the event.

"The written tributes will be sent to Christchurch and I took photos of the chalk decorations in the square to send to Christchurch also."

At the conclusion of the gathering, people threw coloured chalk pigment into a circle as an adaptation of a Holi (Festival of Colours) Hindu spring festival ritual.

"The ritual is a celebration of Spring but it is also intended to dispel evil," says Brand Holt.

"People who did not want to participate in the Holi had the option to leave but others chose to participate as a healing ritual."

Whanganui Iwi will conduct a riverside karakia for the Christchurch victims from 6.30am on Monday morning, March 18 at Putiki slipway and there will be a candlelit vigil on Friday night.

On Thursday, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination will be marked with a Whanganui screening of Human Flow - Ai Weiwei's award-winning film exploring the modern day forced migrations of everyday people.

Human Flow will screen at Confluence in Watt St at Confluence, 15 Watt St at 6.30pm. Tickets $10 at the door.

People can join the vigil at the Handspan peace sculpture in Queenspark from 6.30pm on Friday, March 22.