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Short Stories: The Church Christmas Tree

somerset baptist church 1989

In July, 1983, I started a new Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church in Somerset, Ohio. I would remain the pastor of Somerset Baptist Church until March 1994. Somerset was a community of 1,400 people located in Perry County — the northernmost county in the Appalachian region. It was here that I learned what it meant to be a pastor; to truly involve yourself in the lives of others.

The membership of Somerset Baptist was primarily made up of poor working-class people. Most church families received some form of government assistance — mostly food stamps and Medicaid. In many ways, these were my kind of people. Having grown up poor myself, I knew a good bit about their struggles. I deeply loved them, and they, in return, bestowed their love on me.

In 1985, the congregation bought an abandoned Methodist church building five miles east of Somerset on top of what was commonly called Sego Hill. After months of remodeling, the sanctuary was ready to use. Built in the 1830s, the church had oak floors, colored glass windows, and a 25-foot vaulted ceiling. The building was classic for its era, one of the oldest church buildings in the county. Purchased for $5,000, the sanctuary and annex required $15,000 in improvements, including two gas furnaces to replace the coal-converted-to-propane monster in the basement. We would later install a wood/coal furnace after propane costs skyrocketed one year.

December, 1985 was our first Christmas in the new building. I decided that we would purchase a Christmas tree and put it in the back of the sanctuary. After discussing with several congregants whether to get an artificial or real tree, one man spoke up and said, “preacher, I can get us a real Christmas tree and it won’t cost us anything.” I replied, “that would be great.”

A few days later, the man showed up at the church with a huge Christmas tree in the back of his 1960s Ford pickup. The man unloaded the tree, carried it into the church, and propped the monstrosity in the back corner. Proudly, he asked, “preacher, what do you think?” as I looked at the scrawny pine tree — 12 feet in height. I thought, “man, this tree sure is scrawny. I wonder where he bought it?” I told the man, “looks great! — a lie to be sure, but better than wounding the man’s spirit. He was so proud of doing this for me that I didn’t want to discourage him. It’s just a tree, I told myself. No big deal. “Where did you get this tree?” I asked. The man replied, “oh I went up on Route 13 and cut down one of the trees growing along the highway.” “You WHAT?” I alarmingly replied. “You do know that those trees are government property?” The man genuinely seemed clueless about the ownership question.  And then, without missing a beat, he replied, “well, preacher, those trees belong to God!”

This tree would be the first and last Christmas tree in the sanctuary. Two years later, I came out against Christmas and its excesses, putting an end to any sort of tree or decorations in the sanctuary. In their place, the sanctuary rang with sermons against Christmas and the excesses of the season. I am sure, compared to my guilt-inducing sermons, congregants missed the scrawny Christmas tree, regardless of its provenance.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 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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7 Comments

  1. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    I guess it’s hard to argue with the reasoning that the tree belongs to God. Just like your congregant who dumped harbagecin a ravine, this guy thought he was doing the right thing by helping out the church, oblivious to breaking the law. I wonder what other laws your congregants wittingly or unwittingly broke?

  2. Avatar
    Matilda

    I love these stories too. When my husband was a pastor way out in the sticks, an elderly member from a village even more out in the sticks donated a huge and magnificent marrow (Zucchini to you I think.) as the centrepiece of our Harvest Festival display. She told us she was praising jesus cos she couldn’t think of a way of getting it to us as the neighbour who brought her to church was away on the day that the display was being put together. Then the lord gave her a wonderful thought. Every week on that evening, a ‘Bingo bus’ went round those remote villages to take folk to Bingo in a town. The marrow-owner had got the Bingo bus driver to drop off her marrow at the church. Funny that playing Bingo was frowned upon by the x-tians there, a satanic gambling activity…but for years afterwards, hubby and I grinned at Harvest Festival when a marrow appeared and said we wondered if it came by Bingo bus!

  3. Avatar
    Brian Vanderlip

    Great-looking old church…. re-purposed, it would make a great little restaurant, art gallery, senior’s space, gym etc. Wonder what the real estate value is now…
    Your reminiscence makes me wonder about the dirt-poor believers and how they willingly give up some scratch to Jeeesus.
    From Mark 12: ‘Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.’
    It was always taught that this was such an honor, such a faith, such depth of heart, to give like this old woman.
    Later, after the wool was pulled from my eyes, I saw this story quite another way. What treasury worth supporting takes the last money of a vulnerable citizen, even one willing to give the last of her cash? What church worth its bricks takes essential sums from poor folk in order to maintain a big structure that stays empty most days of the week.
    Its a mockery of the human heart, an abuse of the brain, an offense to basic Reason. The Jesus who was to most, the friend of the poor, was pointing out the willingness of this supporter, the cheerful giver etc. but was she cheerful? Am I to believe that she offers her last to the treasury in speaking-in-tongues ecstasy? God loves a cheerful giver, goes the old saw…
    Poor old woman became a tool for Jesus’ message… Wow, what a load of donkey shit he sold… This is one of those tales that I doubt came from the the miracle man at all but was more likely added to help line the pockets of charlatans.

  4. Avatar
    BJW

    Aw. This reminds me of the first tree Bob and I got for our apartment. I think he had permission to cut it, but it was skinny and branches were far apart. Of course, with lights and ornaments it improved.

    The Adventist Church wasn’t anti-Christmas at all. Although there were movements within in who probably were top pure to celebrate it.

  5. Avatar
    Autumn

    I knew a family that loved their spindly “Charlie Brown” Christmas trees, but they would dig up the whole root ball, put it in a pot and bring it home, taking tender care of it all through the holidays. Then, after Christmas they would take that tree back into the woods and put it back where the found it! Up here in Northeast Nowhere thiss isn’t hard to do, plus they owned a good bit of land!

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Bruce Gerencser