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 almost impulsively, as if it were a bad memory.
Joe Bednarsky Jr. has plenty of both.
People filed into the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Millville with a “Hey, Joe” before heading off to the spaghetti and meatballs, and Bednarsky smiled and said hello with a mastiff’s timbre he also 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 called them the N-word, and 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 in the church last week. “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 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.
“We’re brothers,” they said in unison.
Bednarsky said he grew up in the Wade East apartments in Millville, about 45 miles south of Philadelphia, fighting with black teens on and off the bus. An interest in photography led him to take pictures of a Confederate flag on a neighbor’s porch. That man was in the Klan, and Bednarsky, who wasn’t close to his own father, was slowly pulled in.
“He had children that were my age and I spent a lot of time there and I tell people that’s when the brainwashing starts,” Bednarsky said. “They tried to sell the Klan as a patriotic thing, as people who were proud of their race that did things for the white community.”
The hate came later, he said, after he became a full Klansman at 18. He worked as a general contractor and traveled to rallies all over the country, donning the white hoods, then later, more colorful ones that marked his higher rank. He said he stood in circles in dark fields with other Klansmen and their families, the forest behind them illuminated by a massive burning cross.
For years, Bednarsky’s name showed up in the Inquirer and local newspapers in rural Cumberland County. Many of the stories were about a rival who had plotted to kill him. In 2006, Bednarsky told the Daily Journal of Vineland that the Klan would protest the New Jersey State Police after he and another member were arrested handing out pamphlets at a harvest festival.
“We’ll show up in our robes,” he said at the time. “We’re going to have a protest.”
Bednarsky had seen the light long before that, but it didn’t come from above. It was a flash of pain when a brick thrown through a truck window fractured his skull. He spent months in the hospital, but the attack, in Millville, just made him more angry and left him with short-term memory loss.
One night there in 1996, he shot a black woman in the leg with a slingshot. She was holding a baby. He was later charged with assault and, he claims, was one of the first to be charged with a hate crime in New Jersey. He served just under a year in the Cumberland County prison.
“I was either going to end up dead somewhere or end up in prison for the rest of my life,” he said.
God first called to Bednarsky to change his ways in 2005, he said, but it didn’t stick and he went back to the Klan, becoming one of its highest-ranking members. It was hard, he said, to give up the power, to realize he had used hate to inflate his ego, when the truth was that he didn’t like himself very much.
“You get on this power trip and this hatred inside you grows and grows,” he said.
When Bednarsky resigned for good in 2007, he burned most of his KKK gear and sold his purple robe and hood through an auctioneer. “I donated the money to a church,” he said.
He has been harassed by other white supremacy groups and has received threats, both to him and the church, after speaking publicly about his change of heart. He says he’s not scared.
Bednarsky is a third-degree black belt in tae kwon do. He claims he fought, bare-knuckle, in a meatpacking warehouse in South Philly, bouts that ended “when the other guy didn’t get up.” Although he’s permanently disabled from a bad back, the skull fractures and several surgeries, his frame would be the first thing a gunman storming Bethel would encounter.
“I can still hold my own, I think,” he said.
Wilkins said Bednarsky is a living testament to everything he tries to teach his 185 congregants. It’s been tough for them, he admits, but if they can forgive a former Klansman, they can forgive anyone.
“I have people in my church who don’t trust him. I’ve got white people in the community who don’t trust him. He’s got it on both sides. I’ve got ministers in the community who preach the gospel of forgiveness but haven’t been able to get past his past,” Wilkins said. “Joe’s heart is real. He comes to my home. He eats at my table.”
Bednarsky said he has apologized to many people he hurt, though he never again saw the woman he shot with a slingshot. He knows that many in Millville may never trust him, that each day he has to prove himself.
“I know inside that God has forgiven me, but I’m always apologizing,” he said. “People want to see a change, though. They want to see the change in action, and I live the same way at home, seven days a week, that I do in church. I’m not a Sunday saint and a Monday ain’t.”
Bednarsky, who is divorced, passed his biggest test by winning over Wilkins’ late wife, Laura. She called him her “Teddy Bear,” and they hugged at every service. On his visits with her last fall at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, where she was dying of cancer, she’d raise her thumb when he whispered, “Hey, sister.”
“She caught Joe off guard and she caught the church off guard. She wasn’t afraid of anyone and she taught everyone in this church a lesson every time she interacted with him,” Wilkins said. “He was there every day in the hospital for her, as much as my family. He’d sit in the waiting room, alone, and sometimes I’d catch him crying. That meant the world to me. He was there for me. He held me up when I walked out of the hospital.”
Both men sat silently for a moment in the pew, looking at each other with tears in their eyes, in the only place where Joe Bednarsky has felt at home since leaving hate behind.