In 2007, the atheist firebrand Christopher Hitchens wrote a book titled, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. While I think Hitch painted with too broad a brush, I can say Fundamentalist Christianity does, indeed, poison everything — especially the stench of Fundamentalism found in Independent Fundamentalist Baptist churches.
As I mentioned in a previous post, Polly’s IFB preacher father died on Sunday. Polly’s parents have attended the Newark Baptist Temple in Newark Ohio for the past forty-five years. Dad left to start a church in Buckeye Lake for eight years, but returned after the church shut its doors. Mom and Dad have remained loyal members of the church ever since.
The Baptist Temple was pastored by James (Jim) Dennis for over four decades. Both Dad and Jim graduated from Midwestern Baptist College, the IFB institution Polly and I attended in the 1970s. Jim retired from the ministry in 2017 and died from complications of myasthenia gravis in 2018. Mark Falls is currently the pastor of the Baptist Temple.
Jim Dennis and I, for more reasons than I will ever publicly share, had an adversarial relationship. (Please see The Family Patriarch is Dead: My Life With James Dennis.) Jim was a typical IFB preacher: always right, arrogant, and self-righteous. I wasn’t much different back in my IFB preaching days.
Ten years ago, Polly and I decided to stop attending family holiday events in Newark. Polly’s family is littered with IFB pastors, evangelists, and missionaries, and their families. Imagine being the only out unbelievers in a room full of IFB preachers and their families. Not fun, to say the least.
We decided that we would only attend weddings and funerals, especially if they were held at the Newark Baptist Temple. I told one of my sons this: imagine if you were abused as a child, yet you are expected as an adult to return to the house where you were abused for family events; that your abuser still lives in the house. That’s how my wife and I view the Newark Baptist Temple and some of its leaders and members. We refuse to put ourselves in positions where we have to come in contact with our abusers. Behaviors have consequences, and unlike Pastor Mark Falls and the fine folk at the Newark Baptist Temple, we don’t have to forgive or forget. Forgiveness comes only when there is accountability for past bad behavior; admissions that the “saints” so revered by the congregation were/are anything but.
We have moved on, but we haven’t forgotten, and in moving on, Polly and I have decided to not put ourselves in positions that dredge up bad memories and experiences. That is, until Polly’s father died.
Earlier this year, I took Mark Falls and the Baptist Temple to task for their refusal to cancel services in light of COVID-19. (Please see IFB Pastor Mark Falls Tries to Use Bible Verses to Guilt People into Attending Church during Coronavirus Pandemic and No Need to Wear a Face Mask: When it’s My Time to Die, I’m Ready to Go.) Polly and I were, and still are, worried about her parents contracting COVID-19 and dying. We learned not long ago, that Polly’s mom had lied to us — for obvious reasons — about attending in-person services and Christian school events. The Baptist Temple has had members contract the virus, including the pastor and his family. Yet, services continue as if everything is normal. No pandemic to see here, praise Jesus. Our God is still on the throne.
One young family member, who faithfully attends the Baptist Temple with his family, told one of my sons that Falls and the church really do take COVID-19 seriously. Just to make sure that I was not operating on outdated information, I viewed hours of videotaped church services and school events — fast forwarded, of course. My original assessment of the Baptist Temple stands. From choir members spitting out for the glory of God, to unmasked staff members and congregants in the first six rows, I saw little evidence for the church doing all they can to keep people from getting infected. I saw the same behavior as I did in March. Ten months of knowledge about COVID-19, but all that matters is Jesus.
Mark Falls was wearing a mask, so kudos to him for doing the right thing. But, as the CEO, boss, and pastor of the Newark Baptist Temple, he refuses to require church members to wear masks. I assume he knows studies conclusively show church services are super-spreader events. And choirs and choir practices? Some of the worst virus spreaders of all. By not putting an end to such practices and by refusing to demand congregants wear masks, he’s shown that he doesn’t take the virus seriously; that as the Libertarian that he is, he values personal freedom over social responsibility; that he puts little value on the health and safety of not only his congregation, but his community.
And that brings us to Dad’s death and the funeral on Saturday. As you might expect, Mom is having a full-blown give-Jesus-the-glory funeral for her husband at the Baptist Temple. I believe there will be meal of some sort afterward. And then, there will be a outdoor, family-only graveside service.
Before Polly first talked to her Mom after her father died, our nephew called to talk to us about the funeral — assuming that we were on board with a church funeral. He quickly learned that, no, we aren’t fine with group gatherings, we are not fine with public visitation, and we are not fine with masks not being required. We told him that we informed Mom months ago, that due to our own serious health problems, we would not attend any group gatherings — including funerals. At the time, speaking of her own funeral, she haughtily replied, “I don’t care, I’ll be dead.” Months later, and now the proverbial shit has hit the fan.
We made it clear that we wouldn’t be attending the funeral, visitation, or meal; that we would attend the outside graveside service as long as it was family-only. Our nephew passed this on to Mom, and when Polly called her, she refused to talk to Polly about the funeral plans. The next afternoon, Polly’s mom called to let her know what the plans were. Since then, some of my sons who take seriously the virus and hadn’t planned on attending the funeral were guilted into being pallbearers. I understand this, I really do. They love their grandparents dearly, so it is hard to say no. Polly and I, however, love life more than we do her parents. I apologize if that seems callous and blunt, but we are not willing to sacrifice our future with our children and grandchildren for a church funeral.
Our relationship with Polly’s parents has been hanging by a thread for years. We walked away from Christianity twelve years ago. Since then, Polly’s parents have had not one meaningful conversation with us about why we left the ministry and later left Christianity. All we get from them are thoughts and prayers. Everyone, of course, at their church knows that we are unbelievers. Mom told Polly that “people” were praying for us. Well, you know what THAT means. IFB funerals are never about the deceased. It’s all about Jesus and evangelizing the heathens — the Gerencsers — who will be in attendance. I am sure Baptist Temple members, its pastor, and Fundamentalist family members think that maybe, just maybe, Polly and Bruce will gloriously come back to Jesus and the one truth faith. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this happened on the day of Polly’s father’s funeral? Way to go, Pastor Falls, uh, I mean Jesus. You reached those atheists for God! That ain’t going to happen, and even if we were so inclined, we wouldn’t recommit to Jesus at the Newark Baptist Temple.
On Memorial Day, 2005, Polly’s sister was tragically killed in a motorcycle accident. Here is what I wrote about Kathy and her funeral:
It’s a sunny, spring day, Memorial Day weekend.
Utica, Ohio is having its annual ice cream festival. A woman and her husband decide to attend the festival. Hopping on their Harley, off they drive to Utica.
The traffic is busy, and the husband knows he had better be careful.
But off in the distance, a woman grows impatient with traffic. She’s in a hurry, wanting to get home. She makes a decision that will have catastrophic consequences a few seconds later. She quickly makes a u-turn, and much to her horror there is a motorcycle coming right at her.
It’s already too late. The husband does what he can to avoid the oncoming car, but his wife, the mother of his three children, is thrown from the Harley and her head hits the pavement.
And just like that, she’s dead.
Every dream, every hope, and every opportunity of tomorrow is now gone.
Being a Christian family, we turn to our God and ask why. We pray for strength and understanding. The heavens are silent, and they remain so even to this day.
In a moment of anguished religious passion, someone says, if one soul gets saved through this, it is worth it all.
No, it’s not. How dare we reduce the worth of a life, this one precious life, to that which God can use for his purpose. A husband has lost his wife and his children are motherless. Her grandchildren will never know the warmth of her love. Her sister and parents are left with memories that abruptly stopped the moment their sister and daughter hit the pavement.
No, I say to myself, I’m not willing to trade her life for anyone’s salvation. Let them all go to hell. Give us one more day when the joy and laughter of family can be heard and the family is whole. One more day to enjoy the love and complexity she brought into our life.
One more day.
Polly’s mom let her know that we shouldn’t expect her (and the Newark family) to ignore Dad’s love for Jesus, the church (though I could tell stories about his “love” for the Baptist Temple — but I won’t), the Bible, and witnessing. We would, of course, never expect her to do so. This is how she has translated our willingness to attend the funeral. It’s our atheism and agnosticism that’s the problem. I wonder who put that idea in her head?
I should the note that her pastor has been front and center in all of the funeral preparations. Mom, fearing that we would not respect her funeral wishes — again, where’s that shit coming from? — typed out exactly what she wanted funeral-wise for her funeral and Dad’s. She sent us a copy and filed a copy for safekeeping with her pastor. Read into that what you will.
Several years ago, when Mom and Dad started having serious medical and financial troubles, we gently suggested they move to rural northwest Ohio and let us care for them. We thought this would also give them a better opportunity to know our grown children and grandchildren. Our offer was rebuffed, just as it was in 2005 when we told Mom and Dad we would stay in Newark if they asked us to, putting aside the fact that all of our children and grandchildren lived hours away. Mom and Dad pridefully said no, telling us to do what we wanted. Fine — weeks later we returned to northwest Ohio, bought a home, and have spent the past fifteen years enjoying the lives of our six children and thirteen grandchildren — and preparing to die.
During Polly’s discussion with her mom about moving here, Mom told her in no uncertain terms that her church mattered to her more than her only living daughter. These words crushed Polly, unlike anything in our forty-two years of marriage. To Mom (and Dad) Jesus and the Baptist Temple were what really mattered to them. They had their “saved” family near them, and got to see them see them every Sunday. Those Gerencsers are atheists, agnostics, Catholics, and the like — nothing like the saved, sanctified sister, nephews, nieces, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren in Newark. My God, the Gerencsers curse, drink beer, wear pants, attend public schools, and watch mature-rated TV. Worse yet, several of those Gerencser boys have been divorced. That’s what happens when you leave the one true faith.
It is evident, at least to Polly and me, that Mom and Dad — mainly Mom, Dad said very little — treated our family very different from that of their IFB/Evangelical family. We came to accept that this is just how it is. I know that Mom never wanted me to marry Polly, that she blames me for every bad thing that has happened in our lives. I have helped Mom and Dad numerous times over the years — personal matters I am not comfortable sharing. And when things didn’t turn out as expected? I was blamed.
You would think that things would have gotten better after Polly defied her Mom and married me anyway; that the good life we have made over the past forty-two years would merit a bit of praise or recognition that we have done well. Instead, I am the man who ruined Polly’s life. This was made crystal clear, yet again, when Polly was talking to her Mom about WHY we couldn’t/wouldn’t/shouldn’t attend ANY group gatherings, including the funeral. Mom replied, “well, if Bruce didn’t come to the funeral, you could come, right?” Polly retorted, “absolutely not.”
The running belief in Polly’s patriarchal IFB family is that she is a lemming, a follower; that I am the head of the home and she only does what I tell her to do; that she doesn’t think for herself; that she doesn’t make her own decisions. That “may” have been true thirty or so years ago, back in the days when I was an Evangelical preacher, but those days are long gone.
Yes, I am an outspoken, strong-willed, passionate man, but these character traits should not be translated into me dominating and controlling Polly’s life. These days, our marriage is quite egalitarian — look the word up Fundamentalist family members who are reading this post. Sure, we still have somewhat of a “traditional” marriage –whatever the Hell that means. We are children of the 1950s. However, Polly is her own person. After we left Christianity, Polly went back to college and got a degree. She has been a supervisor at work for years. She is, in every way, a modern woman who still dotes on her husband and children. She’s quiet and unassuming, but don’t think for a moment that she doesn’t have her own opinions. I didn’t force her to leave Christianity, she left of her own accord. In fact, Polly is more hostile towards Evangelical Christianity than I am. Learning about how she viewed our years in the ministry and her role as the pastor’s wife, has been a real eyeopener for me. Her perspective is very different from that of a man who was beloved by congregants and the center of attention.
Fifteen years ago, Polly had a frank discussion with her mom — one of few such discussions. There had been a huge blow-up at our home on Thanksgiving Day. Afterward, Mom called and told me that I needed “help,” that they always knew I was “different,” and that they always “accepted” me. Polly told her mom, “don’t force me to choose between you and Bruce. If you do, I will choose Bruce. I will always choose Bruce.” This blow-up greatly improved our relationship with Mom and Dad. Mom realized she had crossed a line that she better never cross again. Sadly, Dad’s death has reopened ugly wounds, and pushed our relationship up to that invisible line once again. It would be so easy to walk away. We won’t, of course, because we deeply love Polly’s mom.
I told my son that the hold the Newark Baptist Temple has over Polly and I will soon be broken. One death down, and one to go. We will, of course, honor Polly’s Mom’s last wishes, settle the estate if Polly is still the executor by then, and then wash our hands of Baptist Temple. It will be a glorious day when we no longer have to concern ourselves with the Baptist Temple. While, in different times, I would love to share my feelings about my father-in-law at the funeral, I suspect my words are unwanted. You see, I actually knew the man. We worked together, both at the church we started and doing construction projects. Man, do I have a lot of funny stories to tell, stories that would horrify our Fundamentalist family. Dad and I had open, frank discussions about life, about marriage, about his days on the railroad, his tenure as assistant pastor at the Baptist Temple. I shall not tell these stories. They are not mine to tell. These stories go to the grave with Cecil “Lee” Shope, a man I dearly loved and will miss the remaining days of my life.
A funeral service for Rev. Cecil “Lee” Shope, 84, of Newark, will be held at 10:00 a.m. Saturday at Newark Baptist Temple, with Pastor Mark Falls officiating. Burial will follow at Wilson Cemetery. Family will receive friends from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday at the church, 81 Licking View Dr., Heath, Ohio 43056.
Lee passed away November 8, 2020, at Licking Memorial Hospital. He was born September 21, 1936, in Sebewaing, MI, to the late George Washington and Luisa (DeLawder) Shope.
Lee was an Army National Guard veteran, and a member of Newark Baptist Temple. He loved his family, enjoyed reading the Bible, crossword puzzles, woodworking, sharing the gospel, nursing home ministry, and pastored Emmanuel Baptist Church in Buckeye Lake.
He is survived by his wife of 63 years, Bonnie Elenora (Robinson) Shope, whom he married on September 1, 1957; daughter, Pauline (Bruce) Gerencser of Ney, OH; son-in-law, James Hughes of St. Louisville; sister, Dorothy Heider; grandchildren, Jason, Nathan, Jaime, Bethany, Laura, Josiah, Cyle, Christopher, and Adam; and 22 great-grandchildren.
In addition to his parents, he was preceded in death by his daughter, Katherine Hughes, and brothers, Earl, Elmer, and Frank, and sister Bertha Dorsch.
Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen 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.
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