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Is Religion a Powerful Narcotic?

getting high on Jesus

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

— Karl Marx

One need only study world religions to understand that religion is a powerful force in our world — for good and evil. Marx rightly compared religion to opium — a powerful narcotic used to relieve pain, both physically and psychologically. Religion, in all its forms, is used by humans to find purpose, meaning, peace, and happiness. Ultimately, people worship deities because doing so benefits them in some way or the other. A good way to look at religion is from an economic perspective. Every religion has a cost attached to it. Sometimes those costs are clear: time, money, commitment. Other times, religion extracts psychological or emotional costs. Some religions, such as Evangelical Christianity, Mormonism, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, require an abandonment of self and total commitment to God and the church. I spent 50 years in the Christian church. Twenty-five of those years were spent pastoring churches in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. I can’t even begin to calculate the cost of my devotion to the Evangelical Jesus. Much of my time and money were spent in devotion to a deity whom I believed was the one true God, the creator and ruler over all. I abandoned self as I “followed the Lamb of God.” I willingly sacrificed my marriage and family, living in poverty and doing without for my God’s sake. Why would anyone live as I did?

Yes, serving Jesus was costly, but the benefits far outweighed the costs — or so I thought at the time, anyway. Through my religious beliefs, experiences, and practices, I found happiness, peace, and meaning. I had the privilege of preaching the gospel and teaching others the “truths” of the Christian Bible. I was loved and respected, and there never was a day when I didn’t feel God’s presence in my life. Oh, sometimes it seemed God was distant, but more often than not, the Christian deity was an ever-present reality.

It matters not whether Christianity is true; that its core beliefs are rational and reasonable. All that mattered, as a Christian, is that I thought these beliefs were true. Countless people believe all sorts of things that are untrue, but they believe them to be true, so in their minds, they are. While believing in the Christian God extracted from me a high cost, one I am paying to this day, for most of my life I believed the benefits of religious faith outweighed its costs.

Marx thought religion gave people false happiness. That said, he never underestimated its power, its ability to meet the deep needs of the human psyche. Atheists often wrongly believe that the solution to the ills of the world is for people to abandon their superstitions and embrace rationality rooted in reason, science, and intellectual inquiry. What atheists forget is that what humans want more than anything else is happiness. Until rationalists, freethinkers, and humanists show that their godless way of life leads to purpose, meaning, and happiness, we can’t expect religious people to buy what we are selling. We know that people don’t need to toke religious crack to feel happy and fulfilled, but we will never argue people into understanding this. Like it or not, feelings play a big part in the human experience. Life is short, and then we die. Religion offers a powerful drug that lessens the pain of that reality. We secularists must offer the same.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

Prayer Warriors

prayer

A guest post by ObstacleChick

There are a lot of people from my Evangelical past with whom I am connected on social media. A few of them never post anything at all that is religious. It is clear that some folks left Evangelicalism for a more progressive, inclusive Christianity. But there are quite a few who are still deeply rooted in Evangelical churches and beliefs. The majority of those who are still deeply rooted in Evangelicalism are also politically conservative. Not only are some of these folks posting about hell, but they are also supporting gun ownership, anti-immigration sentiment, and anti-abortion stances. Sometimes when I can’t take it anymore, I unfollow people.

All the Christians that I know believe in the power of prayer. They are convinced that their deity wants to hear from them and wants to help them with their issues, provided of course that the person praying is “right with God” and that whatever the person is asking is within God’s will. I don’t know any Christians who would state with certainty that they are “right with God” or that they know conclusively what is God’s will, but they certainly do throw their prayers out there in case all the right circumstances converge to produce the desired outcome. It’s a little like playing the lottery, except with the lottery someone will actually receive a payout at some point.

As someone who no longer believes in deities or the power of prayer, it is interesting to me to see what Christians post on social media when they are seeking a desired outcome to a situation. Some will post a cryptic notice to their “prayer warrior” friends that there is a situation requiring prayer. Inevitably, dozens of people will respond “praying,” while some include heart or praying hands emoticons. Others will post a specific event for which they would like their friends to pray, typically something to do with illness or financial/employment situation. The posts regarding cancer or terminal illness are the most heartbreaking for me to read, as the person posting often will state that they are putting their loved one’s well-being (or their own well-being as the case may be) in the hands of their deity. All of them do seek the best medical care that they can find or afford, so at least they are aware that physical treatments are necessary to treat disease. However, they ask for prayers for “getting an appointment soon,” “getting treatment right away,” “seeing the best doctor,” and so forth. Picking up the phone and talking with someone who can actually make that happen for you might be a better option than talking to an invisible deity and asking all your friends to talk to an invisible deity.

I feel for those who are reaching out for prayers. They are afraid, concerned, sometimes grasping with their last hope that their deity will show favor and perform a miracle to rectify the situation. Yet I just cannot bring myself to say that I am “praying.” I have not prayed in many years, even before I acknowledged that I was an atheist and no longer believed in any deities. I believe that if I say I am praying that it is a lie even though it is an expected response that might make the person feel better.

What prompted this post is seeing a series of posts from Evangelical Christians over the past few months regarding illness and death. A friend’s mother died after deciding to discontinue chemotherapy as her cancer had progressed too far. Another friend’s father died after years of cancer and remission; he was a pastor, which goes to show that the Evangelical deity does not favor his mouthpieces when it comes to cancer. Yet another person posted that her husband was experiencing unexplained blindness for which doctors, after several months of tests, have not found the root cause. My sister-in-law’s year-old grand-niece suffered a seizure, and doctors could find nothing long-term wrong with her. Another friend just posted yesterday that his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer and is starting radiation therapy today. And the most heartbreaking of all is a friend whose husband had surgery for a glioblastoma, was sent to Duke Medical Center to be evaluated for an experimental program, and the day before the appointment, was rushed to Duke where doctors performed emergency brain surgery to alleviate swelling where a new faster-growing glioblastoma has taken root. It took several days for the family to secure transport back home to Georgia so he could begin radiation treatment.

All of these people asked for prayers, and they received hundreds of responses such as “praying” or “praying for you,” or longer versions that include some sort of Bible verse and “praying,” or a long-winded monologue “lifting you up in the name of our Lord and Healer Jesus Christ.” Very few people actually offered something useful in return.

What I did notice was that hardly anyone who posted responded to those who commented “praying,” but everyone responded to my comments which usually involved saying that I hoped their medical team could find out what was wrong or made some other comment that had nothing to do with Jesus or prayer. My comments gave them the opportunity to express their thankfulness for their medical teams and to explain what had been accomplished so far. My goal when commenting was to show empathy, and I suppose that was also a goal of those who responded that they were “praying.” The difference is that I know and accept that there is very little actionable that I can accomplish to help these people with their issues while those who pray think they are doing something important and useful by appealing to their supposedly omnipotent, omnibenevolent deity. If the person does show improvement or recovery, the deity is thanked and held responsible for the “great things he has done.” Sometimes the medical team is thanked, but they are typically an afterthought in the process. And if the outcome is not favorable, then it is attributed to “God’s will, praise His name, glory hallelujah.”

In closing, I would like to mention the way a nonreligious friend is posting on social media about her husband’s bout with a brain tumor. They were on vacation in Italy when he collapsed. Hospital tests showed he had a brain tumor that required immediate surgery. When he returned to the US, he started radiation and physical therapy. All of her posts have been pictures of her husband with his medical team, with physical therapists, with friends and family who have visited, with many thanks for these professionals, family, and friends who are working with him. Not once did she mention a deity or ask for prayers.

If you are nonreligious, how do you deal with people asking you to pray for them regarding an issue? Do you tell them you are praying, or do you do as I do and mention how you are thinking of them and hope they have good resources? I would be interested to hear other ways that might convey empathy.

Quote of the Day: 50% of Catholics 30 years Old and Younger have Left the Church

good news

This is a top priority for our church, said Auxiliary Bishop Robert E. Barron of Los Angeles, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis, who is known for his website, “Word on Fire,” and for hosting the documentary series “Catholicism.”

In a June 11 presentation, the bishop said a group of experts who’ve examined why young people are leaving the faith in increasing numbers recently spoke with his committee about this and will share their findings during a lunch presentation at the bishops’ fall assembly in Baltimore.

“How many are leaving? The short answer is: a lot,” the bishop said, noting the sobering statistic he said many in the room probably were aware of — that 50% of Catholics 30 years old and younger have left the church.

“Half the kids that we baptized and confirmed in the last 30 years are now ex-Catholics or unaffiliated,” he said, and “one out of six millennials in the U.S. is now a former Catholic.”

Another statistic that particularly affects him is this: “For every one person joining our church today, 6.45 are leaving” and most are leaving at young ages, primarily before age 23. The median age of those who leave is 13.

“Where are they going?” he asked, and in response to his own question, he again gave a short answer: They’re “becoming nones” although some, in much smaller percentages, join other mainstream religions or evangelical churches.

— Carol Zimmerman, Catholic News Service, June 13, 2019

The Fundy World Tales — Part One

the-fundy-world-tales

One of the questions I am often asked is how I went from being an Evangelical pastor to an outspoken atheist. It is not uncommon for people to drift away from Evangelicalism as young adults, only to return years later with spouses and children in tow. And it is not uncommon for adults in their 20s and 30s to become so disaffected that they abandon Evangelicalism, never to return. Religious trends in the United States show that an increasing number of Millennials are self-described “nones” — people who are atheists, agnostics, pagans, or indifferent towards organized religion. Study after study reveals that for U.S. people under the age of 50, religion increasingly plays a less and less important role in their lives. However, for people over the age of 50, particularly Baby Boomers and the Greatest Generation, religion remains vital to their day-to-day lives. Once people reach the latter stages of life, they are less likely to abandon religious beliefs and practices. While older people certainly have questions and doubts about their chosen faith, thoughts about death and whether there is an afterlife often keep them from seeking answers for that which troubles them. One old southern gospel song talks about coming “too far to turn back now.” That sentiment is what keeps countless older Evangelicals in the pews, regardless of the level of their disaffection. Throw in the fact that being a member of a church is similar to being part of a flesh and blood family, and it is not surprising that many older people cannot or will not leave Evangelicalism.

By the time Evangelicals reach their 50s, they have experienced decades of religious indoctrination. How is it that otherwise smart, educated people can believe the earth is 6,023 years old and accept as fact absurdities such as the virgin birth of Jesus and his resurrection from the dead? How is it that otherwise smart, educated people can believe that an ancient religious text written thousands of years ago by sheepherders and fishermen was supernaturally written by God and is without errors or contradictions? How is it that otherwise smart, educated people can believe that Jesus walked on water, magically turned water into wine, walked through walls, and worked the miracles attributed to him in the New Testament? One of the thoughts people who deconvert from Evangelicalism often have is this: how in the world could I have ever believed such bat-shit crazy stuff? The answer is quite simple: intense, long-term religious indoctrination. Starting as toddlers in the nursery and going all the way to the silver-hair-dominated Senior Saints Sunday school class, older Evangelicals systematically and repeatedly have their beliefs reinforced. Told Sunday after Sunday for four, five, or six decades that their beliefs are the “way, truth, and life,” is it any surprise that older Evangelicals are certain that they are right, and are unwilling to entertain anything that challenges said beliefs?

Here in rural northwest Ohio, we have what are commonly called “weed trees.” These weeds grow quickly and are almost impossible to kill. One of the reasons for their hardiness is that they have rugged, deep roots. The only way to kill them is to remove the roots. I have had to dig down four feet to reach the root end of some weed trees. Cutting them off at ground level takes care of the immediate problem, but the following spring they return. Older Evangelicals are quite similar to weed trees. Their religious roots run deep, and unless they are willing to dig deep into the ground to remove the tap root, their worldview will continue to flourish. Thus, the older Evangelicals become, the less likely it is that they will ever abandon their beliefs. Why, then, did I, at the age of 50, walk away from the ministry and later file for divorce from Jesus? What made me different from other older Evangelicals?

Let me clear. I was in no way “special” or of superior intellect. That said, I can look back over my 62 years of life and see how certain circumstances and experiences set me on a path that ultimately led to atheism. While the ultimate reasons for my deconversion were intellectual in nature, I would be amiss and less than honest if I did not say that other considerations played a part in my loss of faith. Live long enough and you will experience things that make a mark upon your life. Some of these things make deep, lasting, and even painful scars on our psyche. I know, at least for me, these scars altered my thinking and the trajectory of my life. Many of you know what I am talking about. Your lives were on a certain path, yet something or many somethings happened that changed your direction. If you had asked me in 2005 if there was anything that could happen that would result in my wife and me walking away from Christianity, I would have laughed in your face. You are kidding, right? I would have said, I may be frustrated with Christianity as a whole, but I love Jesus and I would never, ever leave or forsake him! Yet, here I am in 2019, explaining to thousands of blog readers why I am now an apostate, a godless heathen, a hater of God, an atheist — people I once considered no better than murderers and child molesters. Who in their right mind would abandon a way of life that had given him purpose, meaning, and personal satisfaction? Yet, on a late November day in 2008, I walked out the door of the church house, never to return. Thousands of sermons preached, yet I would never again stand before a group of people and say, Thus saith the Lord . . . Fifty years of Sundays dominated by worship, singing, praying, and preaching, yet now I sleep in on the Lord’s Day, enjoying the comfort of godless living. From my teen years until age 50, I read and studied the Bible, humbly putting into practice that which I learned. Today, I live a life governed by self and the humanist ideal. How did I get to the place where the Bible no longer mattered to me? Is my life a cautionary taleas IFB preacher Ralph Wingate, Jr, said it was? Is my life a warning to Evangelicals who dare consider walking a similar path? Perhaps. I would like to think, however, that my story is in some way helpful to people with doubts and questions about Christianity; that perhaps in a small measure some people might find the account of my life encouraging or inspiring. I can’t control how people respond to my writing. All I know to do is tell my story, leaving people to do with it what they will. I hope you will find this series instructive.

The Fundy World Tales will be a cogent examination of my life, from my ignoble birth in Bryan, Ohio in 1957 to my present blessed life as a husband, father, grandfather, and atheist. From this series will FINALLY come my book. I am “feeling” my mortality these days more than in times past, so if I intend to leave behind for my grandchildren a written accounting of my life, I best get to it. Here’s to hoping I complete this series before death calls my name.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

Should Christians Keep the Old Testament Law?

keep-gods-commandmentsWarning, snark ahead!

I have long argued — even from my Christian days — that Christians are obligated to keep Old Testament law. Christian apologists and theologians use all sorts of hocus pocus and hermenuetical wrangling to make such a demand go away, but the Bible is clear: the Old Testament law is valid, in force, and binding on all Christians today. Jesus is quoted as saying in Matthew 5:17-18:

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.

See Bruce, Jesus came to fulfill the law. Now that Jesus has died and resurrected from the dead, the Old Testament law is no longer in force. Not the Ten Commandments? Not the prohibitions against homosexuality? Well, uh, you see, well, uh, anyway, how about them Cowboys? 

Notice what Jesus said: Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Go outside, stand in your yard, and look up to the sky. Are heaven and earth still standing? Yep, so that means that Old Testament law is still in force. Remember, when Jesus spoke these words, his “Bible” was the Old Testament. There was no New Testament, no gospels, no writings of Paul. Jesus, the good Baptist that he was, carried with him and read a leather-bound Oxford King James Old Testament.  Which is odd when you consider that Jesus was God and he, through his spirit sidekick the Holy Ghost, spoke the words of the Bible into existence. (2 Peter 1:21 and 2 Timothy 3:16-17) Or so Evangelicals say, anyway.

Oh, Bruce, you are nuts. Christians are saved by grace and live under the New Covenant. Hmm, are you saying, then, that the people in the Old Testament were saved differently; that they were saved by works; by keeping the Law of God? Well, uh, you see, well, uh, anyway, how about them Raptors? Bruce, surely you know that God’s law is broken up into three categories; Moral, Civil, and Ceremonial. Really? Where can I find such divisions in the Bible? I’ll wait. Go look. Keep looking. Can’t find anything? Come on, how hard can it be? Don’t quote John Calvin or Rousas Rushdoony. I want it straight from the inerrant Word of God. No luck?  How about admitting you are just making shit up to distance yourself from the clear implication of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5: that all Christians are under and obligated to practice Old Testament Law; and that failing to do so is a sure sign that someone is not a follower of Jesus.

Evangelicals, in particular, love to call themselves “people of the Book.” Supposedly, the Bible, from Table of Contents to Concordance, is the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God. If this is so, why don’t Evangelicals keep the Old Testament law? Why do Evangelicals, in fact, pick and choose what they want to believe from the Old Testament? Why do Evangelicals clamor for the posting of the Ten Commandments on public classroom walls, yet don’t actually believe all ten commandments are binding and in force today? When’s the last time you’ve seen an Evangelical “remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy? Going to church for an hour or two on Sundays AIN’T keeping the Sabbath holy. Sorry Baptists, no NFL on Sundays for Sabbath keepers. Well, wait a minute, isn’t the Sabbath from Friday to Saturday?  So, NFL football is okay, but not college football. No Ohio State, Alabama, Texas or USC. Man, talk about suffering for Jesus.

Centuries ago, Christians had the opportunity to distance themselves from the Jewish Old Testament. Instead, they appropriated it for their own, and it hangs around their necks like a millstone to this day. I bet they wish they had a do-over on that one.

Bruce, you are certifiably crazy. Yes, but that’s beside the point. I am sure you are wondering if I have any proof for the assertions made in this post. Quote one theologian who believes this, you say, thinking you got me right where you want me. Well, get ready to have your hemorrhoids massaged, Buddy.

Eminent New Testament scholar Dr. Bart Ehrman recently wrote a post titled, Should the Old Testament Even be in the Bible? Here’s an excerpt:

First I must deal with the all-important prior question I have already alluded to. If, very early in their history, Christians chose to bypass precisely the laws and instructions the Bible enjoins on the people of God, why did they see any utility of having the Old Testament at all? If it was outdated, why not simply jettison it altogether?

Early Christians took a number of different approaches to that question. One view can be assigned to the historical Jesus himself and his very earliest followers – the disciples and their converts.

These were Jews dedicated to following the will of God as expressed in the Law of Moses.  The Hebrew Bible was their one and only Scripture.   It was to be kept.   Yes, it had to be interpreted – every legal code has to be.  But it was absolutely, and literally, to be followed.  All of it: circumcision; Sabbath observance; kosher food laws; festivals.

This view never completely died out.  We know of Christian groups who adhered to it for centuries.  Some still do today.  It is a view placed on Jesus’ lips in Matthew, the very first book of the New Testament, in passages typically overlooked by Christians both ancient and modern who don’t believe that Jesus could possibly urge his followers to keep the Jewish law.  But in fact he does, in no uncertain terms – nowhere more clearly than in the famous Sermon on the Mount (ironically, perhaps, revered throughout history by even the most virulent Christian opponents of Judaism):

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish, but to fulfill…..   Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  (Matthew 5:17-20)

How many of the commandments found in the Jewish Scriptures need to be followed?  All of them.  Even the least of them.  No exceptions.   In fact, Jesus’ followers have to follow these commandments more scrupulously than the famously scrupulous scribes and Pharisees.

Jesus continues in the sermon to explain just how his followers are to be more righteous than the Jewish religious leaders of their day.   Needless to say, it will take special effort.   The law says not to murder?  You need to go a step farther: you shouldn’t even get angry with someone.  It says not to steal your neighbor’s spouse?  You shouldn’t even want to.  It says to be just in your judgment, and make the penalty fit the crime (“an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”)?  You should instead show mercy (“turn the other cheek”).

Christians have tended to read these “Antitheses” as Jesus’ abrogation of the law, but that is precisely wrong.  He does not get rid of the law or absolve his followers of the responsibility of keeping it.   He does not say: “The law says you shall not murder, but I say you should.”  Instead he accepts the literal interpretation of the law and then makes it both more difficult and not simply a matter of external observation.  Literal adherence is not enough: doing the will of God as found in the law requires a heartfelt commitment that affects even attitudes, emotions, and desires.  But one still has to follow the literal law.

….

Snap, Skippy! Best be reading the Old Testament Law and putting it into practice! Your eternal destiny depends on you keeping every jot and tittle of the Law. I didn’t say this, Jesus did. To quote the plethora of apologists who have dumped loads of raw sewage on this blog, your problem is not with me, it’s with God. I’m only God’s mouthpiece.

Thus saith Bruce Almighty.

If you are not a member of Dr. Ehrman’s blog, I encourage you to join today. $24.99 a year, all proceeds go to charity.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

Quote of the Day: Atheism is not a Philosophy by Sam Harris

sam harris

Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious. In fact, “atheism” is a term that should not even exist. No one needs to identify himself as a “non-astrologer” or a “non-alchemist.” We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.

— Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (2006)

You can purchase Letter to a Christian Nation here.

Black Collar Crime: Southern Baptist Student Intern Benjamin Widrick Accused of Rape

benjamin widrick

The Black Collar Crime Series relies on public news stories and publicly available information for its content. If any incorrect information is found, please contact Bruce Gerencser. Nothing in this post should be construed as an accusation of guilt. Those accused of crimes are innocent until proven guilty.

Benjamin Widrick, a student intern at Long Hollow Baptist Church in Hendersonville, Tennessee, stands accused of three counts of statutory rape involving a church minor. Widrick is a student at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia.

The Tennessean reports:

The sexual abuse occurred while the former intern was serving 10 weeks with the student team at Long Hollow’s Gallatin campus, Gallaty said. A student pastor first heard rumors in December and immediately notified the Gallatin Police Department and the church’s leadership team, he said.

The Sumner County Sheriff’s Department is now is handling the case and an arrest was made on Tuesday, June 4.

….

he details are still unfolding, Gallaty said, but the church is sure the incident did not happen on church property nor at their summer camp.

“Regardless of the time and location, the fact is that an intern who was representing our church abused their position of influence with a student,” Gallaty said. “That is unacceptable to us. We will continue to work closely with law enforcement in every way we can.”

Gallaty said he reached out to the victim and her family on Thursday. He asked for prayers for all affected.

“As we grieve for the victim, we are also deeply saddened that an event like this took place, especially with a student who was entrusted to our care,” Gallaty said. “It sickens me that our processes and safeguards didn’t prevent this from happening. Long Hollow is a place where we take moral integrity and accountability seriously, and nowhere is that more crucial than on our staff.”

The church requires that interns pass a background check and an interview process before serving at Long Hollow, Gallaty said. The church is trying to figure out how the relationship developed and figuring out how to prevent it from happening again, he said.

They are stopping interns from connecting with students on social media, the church has updated its transportation policies and improved its training process. Church leadership has developed a child protection policy, too.

….

According to online court records, a bench warrant for three counts of statutory rape by an authority figure was issued for Benjamin Widrick, 24, on May 10. Widrick was arrested June 4 and arraigned June 5. A church spokesman confirmed Widrick is the former intern.

Widrick’s bond was set at $20,000, which was posted on June 4.

All three acts of statutory rape took place on Aug. 1, 2018, according to the court records.

 

Black Collar Crime: Mother of Alleged Victim of Evangelical Children’s Pastor Matt Tonne Speaks Out

matt tonne

The Black Collar Crime Series relies on public news stories and publicly available information for its content. If any incorrect information is found, please contact Bruce Gerencser. Nothing in this post should be construed as an accusation of guilt. Those accused of crimes are innocent until proven guilty.

In January 2019, Matthew “Matt” Tonne, associate children’s pastor at The Village Church in Flower Mound, Texas, was accused of indecent contact with a child. The alleged contact took place at the Mt. Lebanon Retreat and Conference Center in Cedar Hill, Texas. The Village Church is pastored by Calvinistic Southern Baptist luminary Matt Chandler.

Baptist Press reported at the time:

Matthew David Tonne, the 35-year-old accused, was dismissed as associate children’s minister from the Southern Baptist megachurch on an unrelated matter in June, senior pastor Matt Chandler said Jan. 24 in video and printed comments at thevillagechurch.net. The alleged crime occurred at the Mt Lebanon Retreat and Conference Center, a Baptist ministry in Cedar Hill, Texas.

“We want to state clearly that there are no persons of interest in this investigation that have access to children at The Village Church,” Chandler said. “We would not let anyone who is under investigation for a crime like this be near any of our children at TVC.”

Tonne, a husband and father of three, had been out of jail since Jan. 9 on $25,000 bond. His original court date of today (Jan. 29), has been rescheduled to Feb. 7, based on documents filed in Dallas County District Court.

The Village Church is making at least one change in its ministry to children, Chandler said in the website comments.

“We have decided to no longer do overnight events with elementary children based on counsel from MinistrySafe,” Chandler said, referencing the ministry founded by attorneys to help churches, camps and ministries protect children from sexual abuse. Additionally, the church has hired a director of care, Summer Vinson Berger, whom Chandler described as a licensed professional counselor skilled in trauma care.

“She is helping us evaluate all of our current practices and will help us further strengthen our ministry here,” Chandler said. “We view physical and emotional safety as a top priority and will continue to pour resources into that area.”

….

No details of the 2012 incident were available, other than a statement about the health of the victim and the victim’s family.

“Earlier this year, the minor came to a place where it was possible to verbalize the memory of what happened for the first time through ongoing therapy. (Cedar Hill Police) Detective (Michael) Hernandez has been investigating the case since that time,” Chandler said. “It took courage and strength for the child and the family to share this information, and we want to support them in any way possible.”

The church has no other reported incidents of abuse at the 2012 camp event, Chandler said.

“We have been working with the family and Detective Hernandez to do all that we can to bring healing and the light of justice to this situation,” he said, “including the decision to make this investigation public now.”

Parents and children at The Village Church have no need to fear for their safety from sexual predators at church events, Chandler said.

“We are committed to doing all that we can to protect our children,” he said.

Pastor Chandler might want to pay attention to the news (or this website). Parents have EVERYTHING to fear when it comes to entrusting Evangelical churches with their children. Sexual predators are deeply embedded within Evangelical congregations. Thoughtful, protective parents ought not to let their children out of their sight. Chandler can’t know for sure if there are other predators lurking in the shadows of the Village Church. Is his “word” good enough?

You can read the church’s press release here.

Tonne maintains his innocence. Recently, the mother of the girl allegedly abused by Tonne spoke to the New York Times:

Christi Bragg listened in disbelief. It was a Sunday in February, and her popular evangelical pastor, Matt Chandler, was preaching on the evil of leaders who sexually abuse those they are called to protect. But at the Village Church, he assured his listeners, victims of assault would be heard, and healed: “We see you.”

Ms. Bragg nearly vomited. She stood up and walked out.

Exactly one year before that day, on Feb. 17, 2018, Ms. Bragg and her husband, Matt, reported to the Village that their daughter, at about age 11, had been sexually abused at the church’s summer camp for children.

Since then, Matthew Tonne, who was the church’s associate children’s minister, had been investigated by the police, indicted and arrested on charges of sexually molesting Ms. Bragg’s daughter.

Ms. Bragg waited for church leaders to explain what had happened and to thoroughly inform other families in the congregation. She waited for the Village to take responsibility and apologize. She waited to have even one conversation with Mr. Chandler, a leader she had long admired.

But none of that ever came.

“You can’t even take care of the family you know,” she remembered thinking as she walked out of the large auditorium. “Don’t tell more victims to come to you, because you’re just going to cause more hurt.”

….

At the Village, one of the most prominent Southern Baptist churches in the country and a bedrock of Texas evangelical culture, Ms. Bragg said leaders had offered prayer. And at times she was grateful, and she tried to respect their decisions.

But as months passed, she came to believe their instinct to protect the institution outweighed their care for her daughter or their interest in investigating the truth.

For years she trusted that her church’s top leaders had acted in the best interest of the congregation, and that if she disagreed, the problem was hers. She had a spiritual reason: to doubt them was to doubt God.

….

ut her daughter’s ordeal showed her a different side of her church. The Village, like many other evangelical churches, uses a written membership agreement containing legal clauses that protect the institution. The Village’s agreement prohibits members from suing the church and instead requires mediation and then binding arbitration, legal processes that often happen in secret.

The Village also uses an abuse prevention company called MinistrySafe, which many evangelical churches cite as an accountability safeguard. Ms. Bragg assumed that MinistrySafe would advocate for her daughter, but then she learned that the group’s leaders were the church’s legal advisers.

The Village permanently removed Mr. Tonne from the staff within weeks of learning his name from the Braggs. To this day, the Village denies he was fired because of a sexual abuse allegation.

Mr. Tonne’s lawyer said his client had been falsely accused.

The Village declined to answer a list of detailed questions about the matter from The New York Times, and Mr. Chandler declined multiple requests to be interviewed.

….

Unable to wait any longer to hear from church leaders, Ms. Bragg asked for a meeting with them. The first opportunity, the church said, would be several weeks away, three months after the family had reported the incident.

 

At the meeting, none of the church’s top three pastors were present. Ms. Bragg and her husband brought a list of 15 questions, asking about church policies and the camp. They received no clear answers.

Ms. Bragg raised the possibility that the perpetrator could have been someone from the Village. That was impossible, she recalled being told by Doug Stanley, a senior director at the church, because leaders followed the church’s moral code, enshrined in the membership covenant.

She turned to her husband as they walked out. “Thank God” for the police detective assigned to the case, she said. “If we were relying on our church to give us information, we’d be leaving empty-handed.”

….

As summer ended, Ms. Bragg got welcome news. The police detective had filed the case with the Dallas County district attorney’s office, and the Village was finally ready to make a public statement. Relieved, she prepared a family statement to accompany the church’s announcement, which was posted online.

Then, on a Sunday in September, Mr. Chandler told the congregation that an allegation of sexual assault had surfaced. He did not name the suspect. “It took courage and strength for the child and the family to share this, and we want to support them in any way possible,” he said.

What he said next infuriated Ms. Bragg. “We want to clearly state that there are no persons of interest in this investigation that have access to children at the Village Church,” he said. “We would not let someone who is under investigation for a crime like this be near any of our children at T.V.C.”

It was a technicality. Mr. Tonne had already been removed.

….

You can read the entire feature article here.

Pastor Matt Chandler denies doing anything wrong, says a report in Commercial Appeal.

Black Collar Crime: Evangelical Pastor Douglas Rivera Sentenced to Six Years in Prison for Sexually Assaulting a Child

pastor douglas rivera

The Black Collar Crime Series relies on public news stories and publicly available information for its content. If any incorrect information is found, please contact Bruce Gerencser. Nothing in this post should be construed as an accusation of guilt. Those accused of crimes are innocent until proven guilty.

In February 2018, Douglas Rivera, pastor of God’s Gypsy Christian Church (website no longer active) in Glendale, California was accused of sexually assaulting a preteen girl.

CBS News reported at the time:

Douglas Rivera, the pastor accused of sexually assaulting a preteen girl at a Covina hotel last week, turned himself in to police Sunday morning and was out on bail by early afternoon, CBS Los Angeles reports. Police have confirmed that Rivera, accompanied by his attorney, turned himself in to Covina Police Department at 11 a.m. local time. He was out on bail by 2 p.m.

Rivera, 40, was accused last week of assaulting a girl visiting from China at the Vanllee Hotel and Suites, located at 1211 E. Garvey Ave. North, Wednesday night.

The pastor of God’s Gypsy Christian Church in Glendale had been on the run since Friday. Later in the day, he posted a video to social media claiming his innocence.

Police said Rivera drove through the parking lot of the Vanllee Hotel late Wednesday, stopping to peer into a room where two girls were staying during a school trip from China.

Rivera allegedly masturbated outside the room, then pretended to be on the phone for about 30 minutes. He then entered the hotel and knocked on the girls’ door. Thinking he was their chaperone, the girls opened the door. Police said Rivera then entered the room and sexually assaulting one of the girls, police said.

After images from the hotel’s security footage were made public, Rivera was identified as a person of interest in the case.

Police raided his Baldwin Hills home Friday, towing a truck similar to the one seen in the security video.

According to a neighbor, Rivera was painting that truck black with a roller and paintbrush Thursday.

Late Friday, Rivera, whose congregation shares a building with Glendale City Church, posted a video to Instagram from inside a vehicle in which he said he “was at the wrong place at the wrong time.”

He went on to say the accusations against him were false, asking people to keep him “in prayer.” He also said he planned to turn himself in to police Wednesday accompanied by his attorney.

In April 2018, Rivera pleaded not guilty to committing a lewd act against an eleven-year-old Chinese girl.  Rivera insisted he was innocent, saying “I did not do nothing wrong. I was at the wrong place at the wrong time.”  An NBC-4 report stated at the time that Rivera exposed himself to two minor girls and inappropriately touched one of them. Video evidence puts Rivera at the scene of the alleged crimes. Rivera’s bail was set at $1.1 million.

Yesterday, Rivera entered a no contest plea to a felony count of committing a lewd act on a child. Rivera was sentenced to six years in prison for his crime.  Rivera was also ordered to register as a sex offender.

Black Collar Crime: Catholic School Teacher Samantha Brasses Charged With Sexting

samantha brasses

The Black Collar Crime Series relies on public news stories and publicly available information for its content. If any incorrect information is found, please contact Bruce Gerencser. Nothing in this post should be construed as an accusation of guilt. Those accused of crimes are innocent until proven guilty.

Samantha Brasses, a teacher at St. John Nepomuk Catholic School in Yukon, Oklahoma, stands accused of unlawfully communicating with a minor by use of technology.

Fox-25 reports:

On May 9, 2019, officers responded to 600 Garth Brooks Blvd. to a private Catholic school in reference to an inappropriate relationship between a teacher and a student.

Samantha Ann Brasses, 30, was arrested for unlawfully communicating with a minor by use of technology. Officers seized the victim’s phone and conducted forensic evidence to find the inappropriate conversations. Brasses and the 14-year-old victim reportedly communicated through Instagram, sharing inappropriate proposals, pictures, and referring to each other as “babe.”

 

Black Collar Crime: Pastor David Ray King Charged Sex Crimes Against Children

pastor david ray king

The Black Collar Crime Series relies on public news stories and publicly available information for its content. If any incorrect information is found, please contact Bruce Gerencser. Nothing in this post should be construed as an accusation of guilt. Those accused of crimes are innocent until proven guilty.

David Ray King, pastor of an unnamed church in Odessa, Texas, was arrested last Friday and charged with indecency with a child, a third-degree felony, Yesterday, King was rearrested and charged with two counts of continuous sexual abuse of a child, a first-degree felony. King is accused of sexually assaulting eight boys numerous times. The boys were aged ten through sixteen.

The Odessa American reports:

King reportedly had the boy expose his genital and buttocks. The 11-year-old stated King would remove him from the shower, while his genitals and buttocks were exposed and dry him off with a towel. The boy stated it made him feel uncomfortable and weird.

King was brought into ECSO for an interview and after he was read his Miranda Warning, he admitted to being engaged in conduct with the 11-year-old that led him to be sexually gratified multiple times, the affidavit stated.

King also reportedly admitted to engaging in conduct that led him to be sexually gratified with seven other boys between 10 and 16 years old.

King stated he’s currently been involved with a 12-year-old boy off and on for the last year and half, the affidavit detailed.

During the interview, King also reportedly admitted to being in possession of multiple images and videos of child pornography on his phone and computers at his residence, an ECSO release stated.

King was arrested, charged and transported to the Ector County Sheriff’s Office. He posted bail on Saturday for $15,000 after he was charged with indecency with a child, jail records show. King has two bonds after he was charged with continuous sexual abuse of a child totaling $150,000 and was still in custody as of Tuesday morning, jail records show.

Black Collar Crime: Evangelical Pastor Mitchell Conte Accused of Sex Crimes

mitchell conte

The Black Collar Crime Series relies on public news stories and publicly available information for its content. If any incorrect information is found, please contact Bruce Gerencser. Nothing in this post should be construed as an accusation of guilt. Those accused of crimes are innocent until proven guilty.

Mitchell Conte, pastor of Oceanlake Christian Church in Lincoln City, Oregon, was charged last week with two counts of third-degree sodomy, two counts of contributing to the sexual delinquency of a minor, second-degree sex abuse, first-degree online sexual corruption of a child and luring a minor.

KATU-2 reports:

The brother of the victim found Instagram messages between the victim and Conte that were sexually explicit, and wasn’t sure what to do. Later, the brother noticed the victim’s window open and no one inside, so he went in to her room through the window and found more exchanges over Instagram between the victim and Conte. The brother confronted the victim in the morning, and the victim said she was with Conte at the beach.

The victim told police she snuck out five times to see Conte, and that they were alone other times when Conte would pick her up from work or she would babysit Conte’s daughters, who were 4 and 6 years old.

When police arrested Conte, he said he knew the victim was around 15 years old.

Conte’s bail was set at $295,000

Two teen boys were instrumental in exposing Conte’s alleged criminal behavior. You can read their interview here.