Born in Byhalia, Mississippi in 1933, Bishop Henry Hearns, mayor emeritus of Lancaster, came from humble beginnings and was keenly aware of racism towards African Americans. The son of sharecroppers, and only a few generations removed from slavery, he encountered prejudice in many ways.
He recalls being soaked by urine from fellow white students and reading racist epithets among the lessons of his used school books. “I began to grow toward a hate for anyone who was white, as a black kid you accepted you were far less than them,” he explained.
Despite his many encounters with racial hatred, it was because of the kindness and love of white people Hearns learned to love others and look for the good in all circumstances. Hearns said it was by the “grace of God” he was blessed with a different perspective.
To celebrate Black History Month, Santa Clarita Christian Fellowship (SCCF) is honoring Hearns Sunday. Hearns will share his life story and journey to Christ. The message will be followed by a signing for his book How Odds Even through Grace.
“Young people often don’t have a sense of history, we want to pass that on,” said Julius Harper, Pastor of SCCF. “We can understand how Black Americans are an important part of history. Faith was a key element to help African’s survive slavery.”
Turning hate to love
Hearns shared he struggled with opposing ideas of hate, after encountering racism, and kindness from white people. His mother tells him he was saved during childbirth by her white employer Ada D. McRory, who insisted she mother receive care from her very own doctor.
His family was blessed by a plantation owner who loaned his mom money to support the family while his father was in the Army during WWII. After enlisting in the army himself, Hearns faced instances of racism. During a trip home, a bus driver insisted he move to the back of the bus, but white soldiers demanded the bus driver move on without enforcing that rule.
“Those white boys didn’t know me as anyone else, but an equal,” said Hearns.
He later met a man who played football for Tennessee State, and taught Hearns to play. With his encouragement, Hearns passed his GED and college entrance exam. He attended engineering school at Tennessee State on a football scholarship, earning a BS in Agricultural and Civil Engineering. He later earned a Masters Degree in Environmental Engineering from USC.
Harper explained the church chose to have Hearns speak and honor him because of his unique experiences with both racism and faith.
“He is an individual who had a black experience in a way many of us didn’t understand,” said Harper. “He is a tremendous representation of faith and grace.”
During basic training in Missouri, Hearns went AWOL before deployment. Afraid of not returning, he visited his girlfriend “one last time.” Expecting court marshal, he was surprised by Captain Greene’s response. Instead, Greene put Hearns in charge of the platoon. He called on him to “bring them through and show them how to care about each other” once they were deployed.
“That Captain changed something for me,” said Hearns. “My attitude began to change and I started to see how God was shaping me.”
During deployment to Korea he was on a boat for nearly a month. One day he began to play checkers with Bob, another solider. Bob asked, “Do you know the Lord Jesus” and began to share his faith.
“I began to want to change at that point,” said Hearns. “I started to look at people because of who they are, rather than white or black. My whole life turned around.”
Hearns plans to share his story of race and faith with the church Sunday. He said his life is an example of how God uses grace to help, teach and love others.
He plans to share other examples of God molding his life, from plantation life, the army, football, as an engineer with Edward’s Airfare Base, a pastor of a local church and in his nearly 20 year career as a politician in Lancaster.
“The grace of God helped me to overcome those adversities and to love people no matter what color, what gender or what lifestyle,” said Hearns. “None of us can make it without his grace.”
Hearns will speak at the 8 and 10 a.m. worship services, followed by free breakfast and book signing. Santa Clarita Christian Fellowship is located at 18541 Soledad Cyn Rd., Canyon Country.