A giant of a man sat quietly on a folding chair by the door of a soup kitchen, trying to go unnoticed, rubbing a small tattoo on his hand.
People filed into the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Millville with a “Hey, Joe” before heading off to the spaghetti and meatballs, and Joe Bednarsky Jr. smiled and said hello with a mastiff’s timbre he couldn’t hide.
Mostly, his blue eyes followed the pastor serving food, but when Bednarsky stood to hug a man struggling with depression, his 6-foot-6-inch, 330-pound frame made him look like a marble pillar.
“I love you, brother,” he told the man, who clung to him.
Bednarsky, 49, didn’t hug black people when he was younger. He hurt them. He burned crosses on their lawns and referred to them with a racial slur. It took him a long time, some of it in jail, to figure out what made him do it.
“I was incapable of loving others because I didn’t love myself,” Bednarsky said. “So many people today are unhappy with themselves and don’t love themselves. I had that anger in me. I told people that I’d shoot you, your kids, your wife and think nothing of it. That’s how bad it was.”
The simple, crude tattoo on Bednarsky’s hand is just three small letters in a circle: KKK.
Today, Bednarsky has an unlikely job for a man who once was a leader in New Jersey’s Ku Klux Klan. He’s the head of security at Bethel A.M.E, a predominantly black church where he’s known by parishioners as “Chaplain Joe,” and his closest friend is the church’s leader, the Rev. Charles E. Wilkins Sr.
“I was sent here by God to protect Pastor Wilkins,” Bednarsky said as he sat beside him. “I would take a bullet for him.”
When Bednarsky started showing up at the church’s soup kitchen for meals in 2009, everyone noticed.
“Oh yeah, you know, he was eating alone,” Wilkins said. “The first thing is that he stuck out, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh God, what is this big white boy up to?’ I definitely noticed him, and everyone was telling me who he was, but I was thinking, ‘He’s here, so something’s going on.'”
Wilkins, 63, said he was no saint growing up in Chicago, so he talked to Bednarsky and sized him up when most of the others just wanted him gone.
“We started talking, and I think the first time I really took note and realized something was different was when he said, ‘Brother, where there’s God’s grace, there is no race.’ And I’m thinking, ‘OK, that sounds good,'” Wilkins said. “He told me God changed his heart and if I don’t believe that, I need to get another job. I had to take him for his word, until I saw differently.”
Wilkins had a backup plan in case Bednarsky hadn’t fully shaken the hate.
“I guarantee I would have hit him with a chair before he got to me,” Wilkins said.
Both men laughed.
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SOURCE: Tribune News Service; The Philadelphia Inquirer, Jason Nark