ELKHART — A lot has changed since the Rev. Theodis Hadley moved to Elkhart in 1966, a heated time marked by racially fueled riots and “other ungodly things.”
Hadley, who will turn 92 years old in March, was born in Alabama and later preached at three churches in Michigan before coming to Elkhart, where he was the pastor at Canaan Baptist Church for more than 30 years. Outside the church’s doors, racial discrimination was rampant.
“Otherwise, it was the land of opportunity for a person to serve God,” Hadley said, adding that he worked tirelessly to keep the black congregation at his church unified and strong despite social turbulence.
But rather that dwell on negativity that blemished the past, Hadley said he prefers to focus on the promise of the future.
“We learned to work together a lot better, and we find it a lot easier to work together now than we did then,” Hadley said. ‘We now know more about how to recognize the importance of others and the good deeds that they’re doing.”
Hadley, who retired from the ministry in 2000, humbly accepted a lifetime achievement award from the People’s History of Elkhart the weekend before Martin Luther King Jr. Day. He never met the legendary civil rights leader, but Hadley said King’s legacy should be remembered and celebrated.
“There are so many lessons to be learned from him, and one is to take the lives and actions of others and use them in a positive manner,” said Hadley, a lifetime member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Burnita Barnett, one of Hadley’s daughters, said the honor, called the Drum Major for Justice Award, was well-deserved.
“He does so much for the community, and he’s helped so many people,” said Barnett, who attended the Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration with her father. “He stands for peace and justice. He’s a good communicator, a very wise man.”
Mark Johnson, pastor at Life Tabernacle Church, said he has known the Hadley family for more than 12 years.
“He’s a great preacher and friend,” Johnson said about Hadley. “I have been welcomed at many a family event or meal without regard to a 45-year difference in age, and I am white. Skin color mattered little to him because we all bleed red. He didn’t believe heaven was going to be divided by color, so we might as well get used to being together down here. I have always admired him and his commitment to the Bible as God’s inerrant word. He loves to talk about God’s word.”
Jesse Love, a deacon at Canaan Baptist Church since 1959, said he was immediately impressed with Hadley’s knowledge of Scripture when he first met the reverend nearly 50 years ago. The two visited and prayed together recently during the reverend’s stay at a local hospital.
“It’s always a joy to listen to him speak,” Love said. “He’s full of wisdom, and he always has something to say that will inspire you.”
Edwin Newsome, pastor at Kingdom Impact Christian Cultural Church, described Hadley as his “spiritual father.”
“I grew up in a single parent home, and Rev. Hadley was the only male figure I had in my life at an early age, so I gleaned a lot of my mannerisms from him, so in essence he kind of showed me how to be a man,” Newsome said. “His integrity and character and bold stance for righteousness, that’s what really helped me see myself as a leader and how to be a person of honesty.”
Family members look up to Hadley for his words of wisdom.
“I think the greatest thing that I’ve always admired about my dad is that he is the closest example, as far as I’m concerned, of God that any man could be,” said Clara Hadley, one of the reverend’s daughters. “He would preach the word of God and lived what he preached.”
Warren Bratton said Hadley has been more than a father-in-law to him over the years.
“He’s been a mentor and an adviser,” Bratton said. “He’s been a benefactor of great wisdom.”
Daryck Barnett, who married Hadley’s daughter Burnita 32 years ago, said there is no shortage of kind words to say about the reverend.
“He lives what he preaches,” he said. “In America, we have a tendency to have heroes, but sometimes elders are not really viewed that way. He is a true hero, and he continues every day to encourage people and uplift them in any way he can.”