Life in Rural Northwest Ohio: Committing Social Suicide

jesus-flag

Local home flying the team flag. Go TEAM JESUS!

I have spent most of my sixty years of life living in rural Ohio. I was born in Bryan, Ohio — a small community in Northwest Ohio. My dad’s parents immigrated to the United States from Hungary in the 1920s and settled down on a hundred acre farm a few miles south of Bryan. Dad and his siblings attended schools in the very district my wife and I now call home. We live in a small spot along State Highway 15. Ney, population 345, has two bars/restaurants and a convenience store/fast station. Dad graduated from Ney High School in 1954. I attended elementary school for several years west of here in the flashing-light, spot-in-the-road town called Farmer. Dad frequently moved us from town to town, unable, for some inexplicable reason, to pay the rent. It wasn’t until junior high that I got a taste of “big” city life.  For three and a half years, we lived in Findlay, the home of Marathon Oil. This allowed me to attend the same school for three straight years. I actually had the same friends from one school year to the next!

Divorce and Dad moving us to Arizona turned my happy world upside down. At age sixteen, I returned to Findlay for my eleventh-grade year. I then returned to Bryan to live with my mother. Lots of drama, including Mom being locked up in Toledo State Hospital, resulted in my siblings and me being uprooted and moved once again to Arizona. By then, I had dropped out of high school. In the fall of 1975, I moved back to Bryan and took a job working at a local grocery store. A year later, I left Bryan to attend classes at Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. I returned to Bryan three years later, pregnant wife in tow.

Polly and I spent much of our married life living in small, rural communities. The churches I pastored were, for the most part, attended by white, working-class people. In 1995, we moved back to the flatland of rural Northwest Ohio. I pastored two nearby churches, moving away from the area to pastor a church in rural Michigan, along with a move to Yuma, Arizona. In the end, like the proverbial bad penny, I seem to always make my way back to Northwest Ohio. In 2007, we bought our house in Ney. Our six children and eleven grandchildren (soon to be twelve) all live within twenty minutes of our home.

There are times when Polly and I yearn for the big city; for the anonymity that living in such places provide. But, we love our family, and when we bought our home, we committed ourselves to living here until death do us part. This is the place and people we call home. We love the slowness of life, and when we need a big city fix, Fort Wayne and Toledo are but an hour away.

I write all this to say that my roots run deep into the soil of rural Ohio. No matter how often I fled the scene, looking for excitement and diversity, I always seemed to come right back to where life started for me. Polly was a city girl, but forty years of country living have turned her into a small-town girl who has embraced the rural way of life. Would we live where we do if it weren’t for our children and grandchildren? Probably not. And the reason for this is simple. While both of us feel quite at home in rural Ohio, our beliefs have changed greatly over the past two decades. This change of thinking puts us at odds with most of our neighbors — politically, religiously, and socially.

Rural northwest Ohio is the land of God, Guns, and the Republican Party. Hundreds of conservative churches dot the landscape, and virtually every public office is held by a Republican. In Defiance County where I live, the Democratic Party has fielded two winners in the last decade, neither of whom is currently in office. Living here means that I must accept  the monoculture of my surroundings, a society where it is assumed that everyone thinks and believes the same way. Someone like me, a socialist/pacifist/atheist, is a rare bird. While I have met more than a few people with similar views (particularly young adults), there are no liberal/humanist/atheist/secular groups or meet-ups in rural Northwest Ohio. People who don’t fit the rural Ohio political and religious mold exist, but few are vocal about their liberalness and unbelief. Why? Doing so would be socially suicidal.

One of my sons and I were talking about this tonight — about how being an out-of-the closet unbeliever or liberal leads to social suicide. While I am often lauded for my outspokenness about local politics and religion, my position has come at a high cost socially. I have in the past pondered whether, if I had it to do all over again, I would have been so vocal early on about my atheistic beliefs. I know that my outspokenness (and my age and disability) has made me unemployable. I own a photography business. When locals are given a choice between an Evangelical photographer and me, guess what? They usually choose the God-fearing one (regardless of the quality of work).

Over the past fifteen months, I have made a concerted effort to, outside of this blog, to tone down my public pronouncements. At times, I feel guilty for doing so; feeling as if I am a sell-out or a hypocrite. Everyone should be able to be who and what they are, right? Sure, but small-town life demands at least some modicum of outward conformity to tribal political, religious, and social beliefs. Disobey and you will pay the price. And for my family in particular, I don’t want them being socially and economically punished for who their father is. Some of my children may agree with me, but their futures depend on them not committing social suicide. Rarely does a week or two go by without one of my children telling me that someone at work — a boss, fellow employee, or customer — was inquiring about whether they were related to me. My children have become experts at fielding such interrogations, knowing that they are always free to say, Hmm, Bruce Gerencser? Don’t know the guy.

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Ney Village Limit Sign, Slightly Altered.

I plan to live the remaining days and years of my life in Ney, Ohio. As a committed liberal and atheist — who also wants to get along and be accepted by his neighbors — I have to find ways to be true to self while at the same time not being ostracized by locals. Everything, unfortunately, comes down to money. My wife and I need to earn money to live. Earning money requires acceptance by local employers/customers. While it would be wonderful to be a street-corner atheist (and some locals think I am way too outspoken, even at presently muted levels), I have to live here, and being one would be social suicide. The violations of separation of church and state are so common is this area that the Freedom From Religion Foundation could spend the next year or so filing lawsuits against local government agencies, schools, and businesses. Yes, I find these violations of the law egregious, and the street-corner atheist in me wants to call out and condemn their sins. But, I can’t, for in doing so I would cause great social harm not only to myself but to my wife, children, and grandchildren. If I made $40,000 a year blogging, things would be different, but as things now stand, I must swim in waters infested with Evangelical/right-wing Republican sharks, and being a lone fish is sure to turn me into a snack.

I have much hope in the belief that things are slowly changing here in rural Northwest Ohio. Local millennials are not as religious as their parents, and they most certainly don’t hold to the moral and religious values of their grandparents. It is in these young adults that I see promise. It is unlikely that this area will ever be as liberal as the West or East coasts, but I am hoping that there is coming a day when it won’t be social suicide to say that I am a liberal, a socialist, and non-Christian.

For now, I must choose my battles carefully, hoping that I can safely navigate the dangerous waters of rural Ohio. I have seen progress on this front thanks to my high school basketball photography. I have talked to more locals in the past few months than in the last ten years combined. I want them to see me as a family man, as a decent, kind curmudgeon who also happens to take really good pictures. I know that Google is not my friend, but there nothing I can do about the stories she might tell if someone asks her about Bruce Gerencser. Just last week, one my children ran into several people their age who were once members of a local church I pastored. These young adults have heard the gossip about me and read up on me, thanks to the Internet, but they still can’t understand how it is possible that the man they once called pastor is now a heathen. What happened? they asked, desperately trying to figure out how I ended up where I am today. Lost on such people is the fact that I am, in many ways, the same man I was when I was their pastor. Sure, I am a political liberal and an atheist. But, personality-wise I am pretty much the same guy. I am still a down-home friendly man with a wry sense of humor. I am…Bruce. [My editor commented, Your closing raises some interesting questions. Are you the same guy? I think it is hard for you to claim that you are. Sure, you are still a decent, hard-working man, but you have done an about-face in regard to many of your core beliefs of your prior life.]

I would love to hear from readers who find it difficult to navigate the waters of their communities. Please leave your thoughts in the comment section.

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12 Comments

  1. Becky Wiren

    I deal with it by not really being in any social group. All 4 of us are different from the culture, being liberal, non-conservative Christian or not at all Christian. Not long after we moved here I grew quite sick with fibromyalgia, and my life has never been thee same.

    I don’t have many friends and the ones I have IRL may have abhorrent political beliefs. So we connect in other ways. Now, when I worked I enjoyed my work friendships. Not working has been pretty isolating.

    I do connect with lots of liberals on Facebook. Too bad most of them are far away. C’est la vie.

    Reply
  2. Connie

    I live in a Baptist owned federally subsidized housing unit. The management team here has strict boundaries as to what they can and cannot promote. That said, the residents more than make up for managements lack of religion.

    As the token pagan it’s hard, especially when I’m pressed to join in on one of the many bible study groups. The assumption is because I’m pagan I’ve not heard their great news. I’ve yet to let loose my critical thinking skills about their faith because… well, social suicide. I totally get it.

    This last Christmas I had to tell my neighbor (again) that I’m not Christian. I’ve told her before but she can’t wrap her head around the concept that the nice lady who helps her out all the time isn’t a Christian. In her mind pagans do horrible things and since I’m nice there is no way I’m not Christian like her.

    I smile a lot. And I ran for office in the Resident Council. I figure I’ll hide in plain view for a while. It’s so much better than being homeless.

    Reply
  3. Steve

    I can so relate, as it is a nightmare here in NC; most people consider Trump either the incarnation of god or the second coming of Christ

    Reply
  4. Appalachian Agnostic

    It is kind of surprising that eastern Kentucky, where I live, does not seem quite as suffocated by Christianity as northern Ohio sounds. There are liberals here who don’t get ostracized for saying so. Still, you are assumed to be a Christian unless you say otherwise. Our county sheriff had “In God We Trust” put on police vehicles. At a civic club meeting I attended, he bragged about having done this and said it was fine because “everyone around here is a Christian” . In what I thought was a neutral voice, I replied “not everyone”. The room erupted in laughter. I guess they thought I was joking.

    In my generation (born in the 60s) people here are all about God, guns, UK basketball, and oddly, since Kentucky was a border state in the civil war, the confederacy. Millenials are more likely to engage in critical thinking and this is encouraging.

    Reply
  5. Randy

    I was a staunch atheist in the late 80s and throughout the 90s in the middle of Arkansas – a stronghold of Christianity. I never really felt a stigmatism from it. But I did not hang out in religious circles and even had friends that were atheists and agnostics, even some New Agers. I was the editor on my campus newspaper for a year and never had any backlash from faculty on expressing my (non) religious views in my writing.

    I’m firmly in the Christian camp now, and I try to be understanding of those who are not. I believe America is a land of multiple cultures and religions. It’s tied up in our First Amendment rights. I still have friends that do not believe as me, and I do not shove my beliefs in their face and we actually have some positive conversations about our beliefs at times.

    My question is this from reading your article – are you okay with people choosing Christianity? Or do you think they should abandon their beliefs and adopt yours? I hate the word “tolerance” and prefer acceptance. I strive to accept people as they are. If they want to dialogue about their beliefs then I’ll do it. I hated people shoving their religion down my throat when I was an atheist. I was willing to accept they had their beliefs and only wanted them to accept I had mine. I guess ultimately I’m asking are you looking for acceptance, or would you rather see Christianity eradicated in your community and everybody adopt non-theistic beliefs?

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Adults are certainly free to believe what they want as long as their beliefs do not oppress or harm other people. Believe it or not, I am indifferent to religion as long as it does not violate my personal space or cause harm. It is the causing harm, especially with children, that I have an issue with. Christian parents can and do cripple their children intellectually by not exposing them to other beliefs and not teaching them critical thinking skills. Classes at the high school level on World Religions, Philosophy, and Logic should be required. Of course, Evangelical parents don’t want their children taught such things. They rightly fear that if their children learn the truth about Christianity they wouldn’t remain believers.

      I know that I am being illegally discriminated against when it comes to employment opportunities — due to my outspoken atheism, political views,age, or disability. Can I prove this? No. I was an employer when I managed restaurants. I hired hundreds of people. It is easy to discriminate as long as you never publicly give your reasons for doing so. I believe this is what is happening in my case.

      We all live according to archetypes. We each believe ours is right. Of course I want Christians to abandon their religion in favor of humanism. Of course I think atheism/agnosticism is preferable to religious belief. That said, people find it difficult to change archetypes. Change is hard. Coercion — often practiced by Evangelicals with their altar calls and evangelistic sermons — is not the way to bring conversion. Thus, I write, exposing Evangelicalism and its lies, half-truths, and psychologically harmful beliefs and practices. This is all I can do in a free society. If people embrace my writing, deeming it to be true, and they deconvert, I am happy. But, I am also happy when Evangelicals are helped through my writing. That’s what is great about being an atheist. I don’t have any eschatological reason to evangelize for atheism. I am just one man with a story to tell; one man who writes about his journey. If people join with me, that’s fine. If not, that’s fine too.

      Reply
      1. Matilda

        ”…Adults are certainly free to believe what they want as long as their beliefs do not oppress or harm other people. Believe it or not, I am indifferent to religion as long as it does not violate my personal space or cause harm…”
        I suggest many of us who deconverted, agree with that. Trouble is, fundies are so indoctrinated by what Captain Cassidy calls ‘being the designated adult in the room for the rest of us..’ and knowing that they must ‘share the faith’ with the whole world, they cannot understand that we have no desire to ‘witness’ to our new-found philosophy/ethics etc any more. We may write about or talk about our non-beliefs, but not with the evangelising zeal we once thought was so vital and consumed and motivated our lives.

        Reply
        1. Randy

          Fundamentalism seems to have a deeply entrenched belief that their view is the only acceptable view and that anyone who does not abide by their particular flavor of Christianity is incapable of doing good deeds or making moral decisions. The first church I belonged to was an SBC church but the pastor would have fit in better with an IFB church. I learned about spiritual abuse there but fortunately got out. I attribute that to the critical thinking I developed during my years as an atheist. Unfortunately, many are trapped in fundamentalist churches and completely brainwashed by the dogma. As an atheist I eventually arrived at a live and let live attitude. I started out pretty zealous in Christianity primarily due to the influence that first church had on me, but I’m working to be a live and let live Christian now. I know too many non-Christians that are good people to say it’s impossible to develop those attributes outside of my religious paradigm. Extremism bothers me, from any side. I think if we can live at peace and have reasonable dialogue with each other we would all benefit. Bruce often recommends Bart Ehrman’s books and I personally enjoy them. I don’t agree with all that Ehrman writes but he is brilliant. The big problem is we surround ourselves only with people and things that back our beliefs and I think that is generally unhealthy. I hope to see us all learn to accept each other more, but I’m afraid it’s still a long way off.

          Reply
  6. Rebecca

    I think this problem of intolerance is everywhere. I’m sure that conservative or libertarian people who live in more politically progressive places such as parts of Oregon and Washington state also can feel like fish out of water and discriminated against. I, personally have relatives so politically progressive and also judgemental in their view, that they cannot even tolerate the thought of moving to the rural East at all.

    For many people, their political and social views are so much a part of their identity that they feel threatened, disrespected, or even personally attacked if people in any way challenge this, or think differently.

    I would definitely choose my battles wisely, and also do my best to show respect, and to get into the head of the opposition to more deeply understand their position. I would attempt to seek common ground, and go from there.

    Of course, this is easier said than done. To give one example, from what I’ve seen through my discussions and observation is that there is a difference between how progressives, and those who are more conservative would interpret the establishment clause of the constitution, and how this should play out. Both seem to be able to come up with examples from history to support their conclusion.

    All that I can say Bruce, is that this is not easy.

    Hopefully, at least some people in your local area will be able to sense your good heart, and best intentions, and will
    engage with you in ways that are positive and productive. Maybe there are some things you could do to build bridges apart from all these differences.

    Reply
  7. ObstacleChick

    I live in northeastern NJ 20 minutes outside Manhattan, so diversity is greater here than on the outskirts of Nashville where I grew up. My brother lives about 45 minutes outside Nashvolle, and their culture is much like yours in NW Ohio: they love Jesus, guns, Trump, and the GOP. My kids feel like they are visiting another country when we visit and love taking photos of the roadside crosses.

    However, even in diverse NJ most people believe in a deity even if they aren’t active in religion. I have a lot of friends who are Catholic, going to mass as much as necessary until all their kids go through confirmation. I have some Jewish friends who go to temple until their kids all complete their bar or bat mitzvah. I have a handful of atheist friends but we aren’t vocal atheists. Most millennial at work are either nonreligious. Interestingly the large Korean population are mostly religious with several mega churches in NE NJ. Except for Catholic churches most are failing with older populations, and they rent space to Korean or Latino church groups. Most of my kids’friends are Catholic so despite my kids’ Irish last name they claimed Protestantism to avoid answering why they weren’t in CCD. Now they say “we aren’t doing religion right now”.

    But I don’t tell my TN family that we are atheist as I don’t want to destroy our relationship. We told my Catholic-raised father-in-law who is now super religious, anti-abortion, Trump’s #1 apologist that we were atheist and that didn’t go well. So we haven’t told Catholic mother-in-law yet….we just put up with prayer at meals and talk of her “God box” and told our teens not to make fun of her. She has 5 grandkids being raised Catholic (though 1 is hay and she is upset at that) 2 grandkids whose parents are divorced and their mom is trying to raise the kids Jewish while their dad is trying to raise them Catholic (a battle of “my mythology is better than your mythology”). She might freak out at her remaining 2 grandkids being atheists. ….

    Reply
  8. oldbroad1

    Here in lovely North Charleston SC, it’s easier to be non religious as this is a large city for SC. Still, I cantor at a RC church and pay lip service to keep my position. I love singing and love the ritual as it is calming to me. Catholic Zen? Don’t believe god exists, but can understand why others need to believe.

    Reply
  9. Admgator

    It’s interesting that the majority is assumed to be in the right. Here in Utah, the LDS rule the rooste for the most part. I can relate to Bruce’s situation because I’m facing the same thing. Having been an active Mormon most of my life, the ostracism is pretty swift if you leave the church. People can’t grasp that you can be anything but evil & wicked if you leave, but an atheist is surely doomed to the devil. Evangelicals have nothing over the Mormons when it comes to social “murder!” For me, my husband & children love me and respect my beliefs as an atheist while I respect theirs as Christian. My neighbors and friends that have known me for years, not to mention my extended family is a different matter. So I continue to treat everyone the way I always have, unless they become abusive in the need to “save” me or “call me to repentance.” Then the gloves come off.
    I’ve always been well-read in World Religions and views. The past two years I’ve studied the writings of many atheists as well so I can hold my own in a conversation without getting emotional.
    I don’t feel like a hypocrite because I have to live with the crazies around me. I love reading Bruce’s & everyone’s comments on this blog. It helps me keep my footing, so thanks.

    Reply

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