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Midwestern Baptist College: A Character-Building Factory — Part Two

midwestern baptist college sophomore class 1977
Sophomore class, Midwestern Baptist College, Pontiac, Michigan 1976. Polly is in the first row, the first person on the left. Bruce is in the third row, the eighth person from the left

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From the fall of 1976 to the spring of 1979, I attended Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. Midwestern — an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) institution — was founded in 1953 by Dr. Tom Malone for the purpose of training men and women for the ministry. Dr. Malone called Midwestern a character-building factory. Midwestern’s goal was to produce men who would pastor IFB churches and women who would be pastors’ wives. A small number of graduates would go on to become evangelists, missionaries, and Christian school teachers, but the primary objective was to train God-called men for the ministry.

Dr. Malone was a graduate of Bob Jones College and Wayne State University. While serving as chancellor of the college, he also pastored Emmanuel Baptist Church — one of the largest churches in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. Dr. Malone was a native of Alabama and his southern style of preaching appealed to many of the southerners who had migrated to the north to find work in Pontiac/Detroit area automotive plants. Looking for some spiritual home cooking, these southerners flocked to Emmanuel to hear one of their own preach.

polly shope bruce gerencser 1977
Polly Shope and Bruce Gerencser, February 1977, Midwestern Baptist College Sweetheart Banquet, the only time we were allowed to be closer than six inches apart. This picture was taken days after we got engaged.

My wife, Polly, while still a student at nearby Oakland Christian School (she graduated second in her class), enrolled at Midwestern in January of 1976 and began taking classes. I enrolled eight months later. Polly’s uncle, James Dennis, pastor of the Newark Baptist Temple in Heath, Ohio, graduated from Midwestern in the 1960s. (Pleas see The Family Patriarch is Dead: My Life With James Dennis.) Her father, Lee “Cecil” Shope — called late in life to be a preacher — graduated from Midwestern in May of 1976. After graduation, Lee moved to Newark to be James Dennis’ assistant. He would later, with my help, start a church in nearby Buckeye Lake — Emmanuel Baptist Church. After Emmanuel closed its doors, Polly’s parents returned to the Baptist Temple. Polly’s mom attends the Baptist Temple to this day, as did her dad until he died two years ago.

The dorm at Midwestern was a two-story building with a finished basement. It was named after IFB giant and editor of the Sword of the Lord John R. Rice, and was home for single students. All single students — unless they lived locally with their parents — were required to live in the dorm. The men lived on the first floor and the basement. Women lived on the second floor. The north men’s wing was called the party wing and the south men’s wing was called the spiritual wing. The basement was called the pit. I, thankfully, lived on the party wing.

The dorm supervisors were Ralph Bitner and his wife Sophie. A young, inept couple, the Bitners had no idea how normal, heterosexual young adults thought and lived. Their job was to make sure we kept the rules, including keeping our rooms clean. Ralph was also responsible for the Sunday night Devotional/Singspiration held in the dorm common area.

Two older single male teachers lived in the dormitory. One was a man who suffered from some sort of mental illness. As long as he took his medications, he was fine. Sadly, thinking that God would help him live a “normal” life, this man would often stop taking his medications. This resulted in bizarre behavior, which at the time seemed quite funny. The other was a closeted gay man who lived on the spiritual wing. He was quite effeminate, which was odd considering that Dr. Malone had zero tolerance for “sissy” men. This man had a young student who lived with him.

Midwestern strictly regulated every aspect of dormitory life. Students were required to adhere to a puritanical dress code. Midwestern also controlled who students could date, when they could date, and where they could go while on a date. Rule-breaking resulted in infractions being written on a demerit slip and turned into the dean of men. If students were written up, they were required to appear before the disciplinary committee to answer for their “crimes.” Most infractions were minor, but other infractions — such as breaking the six-inch rule — could result in students being expelled from the college (please see Thou Shalt Not Touch: The Six Inch Rule).

When dorm students left the college campus they were required to put their names and destinations on the sign-out sheet. This sheet was religiously checked by the Bitners. Students quickly learned how to manipulate the sign-out sheet so they would never be in violation of the rules. Dorm students were not permitted to go beyond a ten-mile radius from the college campus (an exception was made for work). Single dating was banned and couples could only date on Saturday and Sunday evening — and only then with permission from school administrators. Weekends were often a scramble as dating couples tried to find other couples to double date with. Dating couples who had problems keeping the six-inch rule would seek couples with a similar rule-breaking mindset. Most of the dorm students broke the no-touch, six-inch rule. Copping a feel for a Midwestern dorm student meant trying to secretly hold a girl’s hand.

Midwestern was an unaccredited college. Students were not eligible for federal or state financial aid. As a result, most students worked one or more jobs. Polly worked at several restaurants, cleaned offices, and did house cleaning for a rabbi and his wife during her college career. I worked numerous jobs, mostly second shift factory jobs. I also worked at several grocery stores, sold Kirby vacuüm cleaners, pumped gas, worked as a mechanic, and drove a truck for a local dry cleaner. I changed jobs so often that I was threatened with expulsion if I changed my job again. These jobs paid between $3.00 and $5.00 an hour.

One of the teachers — knowing that I worked on automobiles — asked me if I was interested in a mechanic’s job. This teacher worked part-time for Anderson Honda on Telegraph Road, and my job there would be an entry-level position. (Please see Short Stories: Anderson Honda.) I would primarily be responsible for prepping new cars, oil changes, and doing minor repairs. My starting wage was $7.00. After working for Anderson Honda for a few weeks, Dr. Malone called me into his office and told me that I would have to quit my job. He told me that I would just have to trust him, and that working at Anderson Honda was not good for me. I later learned that the Andersons used to attend Emmanuel Baptist, and left after having a falling out with Dr. Malone. I would later learn that the teacher — a married man — who offered me the job was having an affair with a woman who worked at Anderson Honda. That woman just so happened to be the wife of Midwestern’s dean of men. Both couples would later divorce.

bruce and polly gerencser 1978
Bruce and Polly Shope Gerencser, May 1978

Polly and I started dating a few weeks after I enrolled at Midwestern. We tried our best to keep the six-inch rule, but it soon became impossible for us to keep our hands to ourselves. That said, we did not kiss each other for the first time until we had been dating for four months. Our first kiss took place during my visit to Polly’s Newark, Ohio home during Christmas break. Polly’s Mom asked her to go down to the laundry room and check to see if the clothes were dry. I went along with Polly to help her check on the laundry. Amazingly, it took forever to ascertain if the clothes were dry.

Needless to say, when we returned to Midwestern in January of 1977, we had a huge problem on our hands. Let me explain it this way. It was like going to a Dairy Queen the first time for a milkshake. The milkshake was tasty, but after sampling that delight, every time you drove by a Dairy Queen you wanted to stop and get another milkshake. Kissing for Polly and me was like drinking a milkshake at Dairy Queen. Once we started we didn’t and couldn’t stop. For the next eighteen months, Polly and I lived in fear of being caught — knowing that such dangerous living would likely result in us being expelled from school if we were caught.

In the spring of 1977 — six months after we started dating — I asked Polly to marry me. She said yes. I bought Polly an “expensive” diamond engagement ring. It had a 1/4 carat diamond and cost $225.00 at Sears and Roebuck. Years later, the diamond fell out of the cheap setting and it was lost. We sold the ring for scrap when gold prices started escalating. Our engagement only served to add fuel to the physical fire. Weekend dates became make-out sessions — times when we were free from the ever-watchful eyes of teachers, dorm supervisors, room monitors, and students who were saving their kisses for their wedding night.

During our sophomore year, Polly and I were caught breaking the six-inch rule. I played on the college basketball team. During practice one day I slapped at a basketball and severely dislocated the middle finger on my left hand. I had to go to the emergency room to get the finger put back in place (an excruciatingly painful procedure). Male students were required to wear a necktie to class, and thanks to my injured finger I was unable to tie mine. Polly and I would meet each weekday morning in the common room so we could walk together to classes. Unable to tie my necktie, I asked Polly to tie it for me. She did so, and we then walked to our classes. Unbeknownst to us, someone saw us break the six-inch rule and turned us into the disciplinary committee. Ironically, the couple that turned us in were notorious six-inch rule breakers. It was rumored that they had rounded the bases and slid into home. Today, this couple is faithfully serving Jesus as pastor and pastor’s wife at a Southern Baptist church.

Polly and I made our required appearance before the disciplinary committee to answer for our crime. The disciplinary committee consisted of two men — Gary Mayberry, the dean of men, and Don Zahurance, a recent Midwestern graduate. These “pious” men told us we had committed a serious breach of the rules. Zahurance even went so far as to suggest that I got some sort of sexual excitement from Polly tying my necktie. Each of us was given fifty demerits and warned that any future infractions would result in us being campused — not permitted to leave the campus or date — or expelled.

Dr. Tom Malone thought having puritanical rules — similar to those he experienced at Bob Jones — would keep students from engaging in more serious sexual behaviors. Dr. Malone was quite naïve, and outside of a few a self-righteous rules-keeping students, dating couples, with passion and fear, broke the six-inch rule. Whether it was in the back seat of a car while on a date or in an out-of-the-way corner of the college campus, dating dorm students found ways to act on their basic need for human connection and touch. I have come to understand that Midwestern, regardless of their intention, taught an aberrant, crippling form of moralism. Instead of quashing passion, it stoked it. Learning nothing from the countless moral failings of the past, Midwestern still enforces a strict moral code of conduct (Please see The Midwestern Baptist College Handbook).

Midwestern prohibited freshmen students from marrying. Dorm students could not marry until the summer of their sophomore year. Students who broke this rule were required to drop out of school for one year. Needless to say, come the summer of our sophomore year, there were a number of couples who got married — Polly and myself included. Due to the difficulty in arranging housing, the college allowed couples who were planning on being married in the summer to look for housing before school let out in May. One couple rented a house that quickly turned into a place for couples to have sex. While Polly and I never went to this house (really!), the couple who rented it were friends of ours and we knew that they, along with other couples, used the house for secret booty calls. Some of these couples are now in the ministry, and several are luminaries in the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement. I find myself amused when I read their moralizing sermons and websites, remembering the time so many years ago when they gave in to biology and passion and lost their virginity.

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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  1. Avatar
    Karuna Gal

    I really enjoyed reading about your Midwestern Baptist College experiences. I chuckled over the secret sexual hanky-panky going on among those “godly” students. 😄 Hey,almost all of us have worshiped at the altar of the goddess Aphrodite/Venus sometime or another. She has been around a heck of a lot longer than Christianity. She is mighty strong and will not be denied. And what a cute couple you two were! So young and sweet. And was that suit of yours you’re wearing at the Sweetheart Banquet really that red color? Ah, 1970s stylin’ again.

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    My Adventist Christian college was called Atlantic Union College, located 40 miles west of Boston, in the country. (It closed about 5 years ago.) It also had puritanical rules, although not all the same. No guys in the girls dorm rooms and vice versa. My husband and I used to go into the chapel in the men’s dorm and we actually did Bible study and prayer. I’m pretty sure that the deans kept sending in students to check on us. A couple guys would pop in and no matter when they came in, we were yes, studying the Bible! LOL. We were allowed to drive a ways in our vehicles. Still, we managed to make it all the way until our wedding before sealing the deal, so to speak.

    And all the puritanical nonsense you had, and we had, did make a perverted sexuality. And of course people sneaked around, and I’m pretty sure there were couples having sex. I will say this: when we were at some kind of talk about sexuality, the dean of the nursing school said if we had strong desires, we should just masturbate! Pretty blunt and I’m sure there were faculty who got pissed.

    You and Polly were a very nice-looking couple. Of course young too! (Weren’t we all?)

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    Tom Herres

    By setting up any contact with the opposite sex as the ultimate forbidden fruit, they practically guarantee that these kids will get married when they’re both too young and so dirt poor that they haven’t got a pot to piss into or a window to throw it out. And with no degree from an accredited university, or even credits that can transfer to an accredited university, and no real job skills, mercenary religionism becomes the only way in which they can feed themselves or a family. Wrong in so many ways.

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      Quite the cynical attitude you have there. I know pastors who are experienced and fully capable in various trades where they could make a lot more money and work a lot less than they do being a pastor. I think Bruce would have done very well as an author all of his life as he certainly has the skills for it now………but if it went that way, he probably would not have married Polly and may or may not have been blessed with a wonderful family like he has now. It would not surprise me to see “The Life And Times of Bruce G.” as a New York Times best seller.

      There are some holy men of God in this world, believe it or not. The best you can do with them is to say they are insane fanatics believing and spreading lies about Jesus Christ.

      You are displaying an attitude which limits your own knowledge and understanding. When there are no more holy men of God in this world, be sure the closet thing to all Hell breaking loose will engulf the world. Any fool can see it’s very close to happening now exactly as that ancient hated book and some if it’s people like me say it will happen….and many people who disdained prayer will pray to the rocks and mountains begging them to fall on them in hope of ending the ferocity of their trial.

      • Avatar
        Bruce Gerencser

        I can assure you, having known scores of preachers, none of them are “holy men.” Not one of them met the Biblical qualifications for becoming a pastor in I Timothy 3.

        Evangelical pastors, especially those in the IFB church movement, are grossly underpaid. Many of them learn their degrees (and work experience) are worthless in the real wold.

        Personally, I think every pastor should get a real job; that paid, full-time professional clergy cause great harm to the church.

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    Brian Vanderlip

    I like Tom’s term, mercenary religionism, first because it is both hands filled almost to the brink with syllables and second, because it is a mouthful of telling-it-like-it-is: Fundamentalist evangelicalism (even more syllables!) is the mercenary aspect of religion as I see it. It seeks to convert for the great reward instead of the punishment of failure in battle. All that matters is the victory, another notch in my Bible…. Doesn’t really matter if the ‘victim’ has their spirtuality deepened; only that they are onboarded! Bruce’s school was a boot camp. So is every Baptist Sunday School if one honestly views what is being said to children there.

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    davey crockett

    Character building on how to stay out of trouble with the malonites and their hierarchy by lying, being compliant and pretending, covering your backside, sneaking, having the right friends, and trusting virtually no one. What a monster to call a christian school!!! What a joke that was played on me and so many others. I was not going to play their games. One semester of that shit was enough. I still can’t believe the difference between what was promised by their goon preachers and what that short sighted close minded crony staffed mercenary school delivered. Bruce, your stories are funny and so true but only now many years later can I laugh about that disastrous time. I couldn’t then. I’m glad the school is gone.

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    Very interesting, Bruce, striking close to home for me. I’m don’t blame you for exposing the “sins” of IFB leaders, and I honestly appreciate it. They indeed should be exposed. I attended one IFB church where the pastor was in bed with his secretary, and when the truth came out there were other adulterous couples exposed as well. Being a man who knows and loves the truth, I knew there was something seriously wrong with that pastor by his own statements from the pulpit. I don’t want to say too much about myself as I will avoid publicity as much as possible as long as I can, but I did attend some of “The Doc’s” services and the logic I heard from him inspired me to accurately tell my siblings and at least one of my parents our future if we did not change our ways……and along with some extra tragedy, it came true exactly like I said it would.
    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe something in the faith (or lies you may say) of the Bible was logical enough to compel you to proclaim it yourself as a pastor.

    I would like to read your “salvation testimony”, assuming you had to present something like that in a way acceptable to be admitted into Midwestern……and if you like, I will share mine. I really would like to see the difference though I’m sure you will insist there is no difference.

    I have no desire to pick apart your life and or character. I am, and will always be on this side of eternity, an Independent Fundamental Baptist. Fortunately I have found churches where the pastors have been open like you and actually practice what they preach. I’m sure you will trash them if they stink and I will appreciate it if you do. Sadly, some of them have enough character to withstand any attacks and accept being thrown to the lions. Too bad for them, eh?

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Bruce Gerencser