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Bruce, the Teenage Bible Thumper

bruce gerencser 1971
Bruce Gerencser, Ninth Grade, 1971

I attended Central Junior High and Findlay High School, both in Findlay, Ohio from 1970-1974, with brief excursions away from FHS in the spring of my sophomore year (Rincon High School, Tucson, Arizona) and the fall of my junior year (Riverdale High School, Mt. Blanchard, Ohio). All told, I attended Findlay city schools for three and one-half years — my longest enrollment in any school district.

After attending Calvary Baptist Church for several months, our family decided to attend Trinity Baptist Church, then located on Trenton Ave. Trinity was a fast-growing Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) pastored by Gene Milioni, a graduate of the inaugural class (1953) of Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Missouri. Ron Johnson served as the church’s assistant pastor, and Bruce Turner — who came on board several months after we started attending Trinity — was its youth pastor. (Please see Dear Bruce Turner.)

As I reflect on the years I spent at FHS and Trinity Baptist, I see two Bruce Gerencsers, with a born-again experience separating the two. Before I became a Christian, I was an ornery, temperamental teen. While I attended church every time the doors were opened, my behavior, language, and dress reflected a young man who didn’t know the IFB Jesus. It was not uncommon for me to wear a white tee-shirt, frayed Levis, and combat boots to midweek prayer meeting — definitely not IFB approved dress. I wasn’t afraid of using expletives when with my church friends. One time, while attending a youth hayride at the home of Bob and Bonnie Bolander, Bob hollered at me for horsing around. I replied, fuck off. Needless to say, that didn’t go over well. I loved having fun and playing practical jokes, irritating those who expected better behavior from church teens. One Saturday, I was helping paint the walls in the church annex. Pastor Milioni stopped by to “admire” my work, I mean criticize my painting. I stood up, threw my roller in the paint pan, and told Milioni that he could do it himself if he didn’t like my painting. From these incidences and others, my pastors and other church adults concluded that I was an angry, temperamental teenager. It was evident, to them, that I needed Jesus.

In the spring of 1972, after fourteen years of marriage, my parents divorced. Several months later, my mother married her first cousin, a recent parolee from the Texas prison system, and my father married a nineteen-year-old girl with a baby. My parent’s divorce and remarriages upended my life. Making matters worse, Pastor Milioni performed the wedding ceremony for my father and his teenage bride. Both of my parents, along with my two siblings, stopped attending church. I, however, continued to attend church every time the doors were open. Trinity provided me a stable family of sorts. Most of my friends attended the church.

In June of 1972, I celebrated my fifteenth birthday. In September of ’72, I had a life-changing experience. Evangelist Al Lacy held a meeting that fall at Trinity. I attended every night of the week-long revival. One night, as I sat in one of the left side pews with my friends, I came under conviction. At that moment, I knew I was a sinner, and I knew I needed to be saved. So when the time came for the invitation, I stepped out of my pew and went forward. I was met at the church altar by Ray Salisbury, one of the church’s deacons. I told Ray why I had come forward. He led me through what is commonly called in IFB churches the Romans Road, and then I prayed the sinner’s prayer, asking Jesus to forgive me of my sins and come into my heart to save me. At that very moment, I was a changed man. The next Sunday, I was baptized, and several weeks later, I stood before the church and declared that I believed God was calling me to preach. It was not long after that I preached my first sermon.

The changes in my life BC (Before Christ) and AC (After Christ) were instantaneous and dramatic. I started reading my Bible and praying every day. I started dressing up for church, and I no longer used swear words. Every aspect of my life was transformed. I was an on-fire, born-again Christian.

I want to illustrate this transformation with several stories. As you shall see, “Jesus” had transformed my life.

I started carrying my Bible to school every day. I also tried to evangelize my classmates, inviting them to attend church with me. Overnight, I became an insufferable Fundamentalist. I remember writing a paper for one of my classes about Baptists being the true church. I got an A on the paper. My teacher wrote the word “interesting” at the top of my paper and underlined it. I suspect she defined “interesting” differently from the way I did. I would give the correct answers on tests in my biology class and then write the “Biblical” answers below. I do not doubt that I irritated the hell out of my teacher.

I took seriously the interpretations of the Bible preached by my pastors. I was all in. Wanting to be morally pure, I made a list of dating rules for myself. My goal was to remain a virgin until my wedding day. My dad found my dating rules on top of the refrigerator, read them, and then laughed at me. Sure, my rules were funny (and delusional) but him laughing at me only caused me to hate him more.

I loved listening to preaching. In the fall of 1972 or 1973, Trinity hosted the monthly meeting of the Ohio Baptist Bible Fellowship. I skipped school that day so I could hear the big-name IFB preachers preach. I was enamored by these men of God, thinking I would one day be just like them.

I also learned at this meeting that preachers could be hypocrites. After one of the preaching sessions, I was standing outside with Pastor Turner and several other preachers. I hung on every word these pastors said. I looked up to them. One of these preachers told a joke about lust. He told us that lust was looking at a woman, turning away, and turning back to look again. And then he said, “just make sure your first look is a long one!” Everyone laughed, but as a devout, committed IFB Christian, I was troubled by his “joke.” For the first time, I learned that what preachers said from the pulpit they didn’t necessarily believe. I knew that I didn’t want to be like that pastor.

Bruce, the teenage Bible thumper went on to become Bruce, the IFB college student, and Bruce, the pastor. I preached my first sermon at Trinity in the fall of 1972. Thirty-three years and 4,000+ sermons later, I preached my last sermon (at Hedgesville Baptist Church in Hedgesville, West Virginia).

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 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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    It’s the young and vulnerable who get taken in by these groups. I think some are much better than others (by groups I mean any group of Christians of any denomination) but it seems the stricter they are, the more adherents they have. I remember as a freshman at Univ of Cincinnati the Church of Christ group tried to impress on those of us interested, that we needed to go to every meeting. Now, I was taking music and believe it or not, with practicing hours a day, taking music theory (IT’S HARD LIKE MATH OR SCIENCE), playing in different music groups, and taking a total of 18 credit hours, I didn’t see doing that.

    Then I was caught by another, different but strict group a couple years later that also believed in the Bible literally, but interpretations differed from some beliefs. But if the Bible isn’t inerrant, then you can’t prove any one group is better or righter. I think when I realized that LGBTQ people were good people was when I was finished with that idea.

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    Karuna Gal

    Bruce, after seeing this old picture of you I immediately thought about my mom. If you had been my friend in those days she would have given you a no nonsense make-over. She would have grabbed you by the collar and taken you somewhere to get a decent haircut. And get you better-looking glasses. And would have told you sternly that red hair does NOT go with red clothing. 😄 By the way, she is still alive and kicking at 90 and as opinionated as ever.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      Remember, I came from a poor family. My glasses were “welfare” glasses. As soon as I could hustle enough money, I bought a pair of wire rimmed glasses. I HATED those black glasses. Everyone knew I was a welfare kid.

      Same goes for clothing. My dad rarely bought me clothing. I either bought or shoplifted my clothing.

      • Avatar
        Karuna Gal

        Whether you were rich or poor she would have spiffed you up, believe me! And given your patents the fish eye. 😄

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    I identify with teenage you, Bruce. I got converted and baptised at 13yo, from a non-church family. I asked my best friend, whose family was Brethren what I should do about my cinema going. We got cheap seats for 4pm shows after school and the films were pretty harmless, but no, her dad said they were ‘worldly.’ As were my ballroom dancing classes on Saturdays…and IIRC, high heeled shoes, make up and girly teen magasines. I was so holy. I threw myself into the Christian Union at high school. We questioned a visiting evangelist who said that if we prayed hard and witnessed hard….by wearing flat shoes etc presumably, a rich harvest of souls would be ours. He told stories of other schools where such miracles had happened. Looking back, I should have got out of x-tianity then….the claims, the promises just didn’t add up. I think I converted because of my dysfunctional home, my general teen angt and self doubt so I needed a security and certainty I thought I got from jesus.

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    MJ Lisbeth

    BJW, you are so right about evangelical churches and the vulnerabilities of young (and, sometimes, not-so-young people. The same can be said for any immersive organization or institution that expects people to leave their “old” selves. Such organizations and institutions-which include any ultra-orthodox religion, the military and many graduate schools (all of which I have been a part of) are, in short, cults.

    Matilda— I think most of the things that make us cringe when we look back on them are things we’ve done out of insecurity. Whether it’s because of dysfunctional families, the “cool” kids or some adult who’s always reminding us of our shortcomings, we buy stuff, join cults or do other things to “fit in” because we don’t have, or know about, alternatives.

    Karuna Gal—Your mother sounds like a real hoot. She reminds me of an older trans woman I met when I was starting my gender-affirmation process. Her advice to me: “Don’t wear cheap shoes!”

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    Bruce, I feel for the 15-year-old boy whose life had been turned complete upside down and inside out. It’s no wonder he was looking for the stability and certainty that the IFB promised through Jesus and a set of strict rules.

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Bruce Gerencser