GORDONVILLE — Forty-five years ago, Richard Harris and Kenneth Stephens would have had no reason to be friends — other than remarkable forgiveness and the miraculous grace of God.
The associate pastors at Good Hope Missionary Baptist Church, an historically Black church in a bedroom community between Bartow and Eagle Lake established by freed slaves, have both struggled with and overcome racism in their lives.
Stephens, who is Black, was devastated by the murder of his older brother, Jonathan, killed in 1986 by two white men.
“For a long time, I didn’t trust white people and had anger,” said Stephens, 57. “But through — and I say this — through forgiveness, through grace and through communications, I was able to get through that because I couldn’t harbor that and live my life with that. That enables me to sit in a pulpit or to be in a classroom with the ex-Grand Dragon of the KKK.”
From the age of 16 until he was 20 years old, Harris belonged to the Indiana Ku Klux Klan, including two years as the state’s Grand Dragon — the head of the organization.
“But then I met Jesus and my life transformed, and ever since then I have been out of the Klan, denouncing racism,” said Harris, 62.
The two men, who met and became colleagues about 15 years ago at Southeastern University, recently shared their story in the hope to better race relations.
Harris was a sad and angry kid, the target of bullies at his Kokomo, Indiana, elementary school. His father was a successful businessman who paid the attorneys fighting to keep Kokomo’s schools separated by race in the 1960s.
“So, he led the charge,” Harris said. “My parents were segregationists. Now he was not a member of the Klan — he actually discouraged anyone from joining an organization like that — but he was a segregationist. There were never any non-white people ever in our household, ever, growing up. And they would not have been welcomed. But he also didn’t sit us down and teach us, ‘You know, you should hate Black people or you should hate Hispanic people.’ He didn’t have to — he modeled before us what we were expected to do, so yeah, I grew up segregationist.”