Updated, corrected, and expanded
It seems like yesterday . . .
The early days of Fall have arrived and the young preacher boy busily loads his possessions into a dilapidated, rusty Plymouth. It’s time for me to go, he says to his mom. He wonders what she thinks, her oldest son heading off to college, the first in their family to do so. They embrace, a rare expression of emotion, and the preacher boy quickly turns away, not wanting her to see the tears running down his face.
Soon the preacher boy is headed north and then east of Bryan, Ohio. Two hours later he arrives in Pontiac, Michigan, the community he will call home for the next three years. Midwestern Baptist College, A Character Building Institution, says the sign along Golf Drive. The preacher boy had planned to attend Prairie Bible Institute, but God had other plans for him.
The preacher boy parks his car in front of the dormitory, John R. Rice Hall, and quickly unloads his meager possessions. Tall and lean, the red-headed preacher boy, wearing a blue shirt with the number 75 and the name Rev. on the back, moves his possessions into room 207. The dormitory has two floors and a basement, with wings on either side of a common meeting room. The top floor houses the women. The first floor has two wings, one to each side of the meeting room. Students call one wing the Spiritual Wing, the other the Party Wing. The basement, for obvious reasons, is called The Pit.
The preacher boy lives on the Party Wing. There, he soon meets like-minded young men, filled with God, life, and recklessness. The preacher boy settles into the rhythm of dorm life at an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) college. Rules, lots of rules, and just as many ways to bend the rules to fit the desires of a youthful heart. The preacher boy would live in the dorm for two years, and in that time he would repeatedly run afoul of the rules. Told by many that he is brash and rebellious — a fitting description — he is said, by those who know him, to do his best to outwardly conform to the letter of the law.
The blue shirt the preacher boy wore when he arrived at the college was given to him by a girl who hoped he would remember her while he was away. Not long after, the shirt disappeared, as did any thought of its giver. If there is one thing that the preacher boy loves almost as much as God, it is girls. And here he is, enrolled at a college that will provide him ample opportunity to ply his charm. Little does he know that fate has a different plan.
The week before the official start of classes, a young, beautiful seventeen-year-old girl from Newark, Ohio moves into the dorm. The preacher boy mentions the girl to his roommate. Stay away from her, the roommate replies. Her father is Pastor Lee Shope. Unfazed by the stern warning, the preacher boy decides to introduce himself to the dark-haired beauty. He quickly learns she is quite shy. Not one to be at a loss for words, the preacher boy takes the girl’s backwardness as a challenge, one that he successfully conquers over the course of a few weeks.
Soon, all thoughts of the field fade into the beauty of the pastor’s daughter. The preacher boy quickly finds himself smitten. Come spring, he proposes and she, despite her mother’s adamant disapproval, says yes. Having known each other for two months short of two years, the preacher boy, now 21, and the pastor’s daughter stand before friends, family, and strangers and promise to love one another until death severs their bond.
Forty-three years have passed since the preacher boy and the pastor’s daughter pledged their troth. Under the proverbial bridge has flowed a shared life, one that has blessed them with a quiverfull of children and grandchildren. The grand plans of an idyllic pastorate, two children (a boy named Jason, a girl named Bethany), and a country parsonage with a white picket fence, perish in the rubble of the hard work necessary to parent six children and pastor churches in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Twenty-five years of working in God’s vineyard have left the preacher boy and the pastor’s daughter with deep, lasting scars. They have learned what it means to do without and suffer loss. Yet, they have endured.
Stoicism now defines them. As life has poured out its cruelties and left them wondering why, the preacher boy and the pastor’s daughter continue to hold one another tight, refusing to let adversity win. When their love for God wavered and then died a death of a thousand contradictions, the preacher boy and pastor’s daughter, now aged friends and lovers, joined their hands once more and walked into the dark unknown.
The full moon sits high above his home on this cold winter’s night. The clock on the nightstand clicks as each second passes by, a reminder that life is fleeting. The preacher boy, now a sixty-four-year-old atheist, turns his thoughts to the beautiful, dark-haired girl he met so many years ago. Who would ever have thought we would be where we are today? he says to himself. Yet . . . here we are, survivors, taking each and every day as it comes, without a prayer or a God to smooth the way. He wonders what tomorrow will bring, safe in the knowledge that whatever might come their way cannot defeat the enduring love of the preacher boy and the pastor’s daughter.
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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