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When the Shit Hits the Fan with IFB Family

bruce and polly gerencser 1978
Bruce and Polly Gerencser, in front of first apartment in Pontiac, Michigan, Fall 1978 with Polly’s Grandfather and Parents

There come seminal moments in your life as an atheist when you learn what your Evangelical family really thinks of you. Often precipitated by a crisis, the truth comes spilling out for all to see. Such a moment happened recently . . . and now I know what one extended family member — a member of an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) congregation in Newark, Ohio attended by Polly’s mom — really thinks of me and my wife.

Polly’s mother is dying from terminal cancer. Her death is imminent — days, weeks, or a month or two, at best. She is now living with our nephew and niece. While I won’t go into the details of what precipitated the shit storm, I can tell you my nephew — who reads this blog — recently spent twenty minutes screaming at me; repeatedly cursing at me; calling me names, including lazy fat ass, and threatening me with physical violence — twice. Of course, my atheism and this blog came up. Polly’s family doesn’t like the fact that I write about the IFB church movement and its intersection with family. When I mention family, I never use their names or any identifiers (unless they are public figures). Evidently, I have no right to tell my story. I was told several times to shut up; that I’m a “victim”; that I need to move on; that I need to mind my own business. And what I write next will only reinforce my nephew’s view of me.

As I have mentioned before, Polly’s mom has always treated our family differently from family members in Newark, where Polly’s late sister lived and raised three boys. Even when I was a pastor, we were treated differently; as outsiders; as people who didn’t quite “fit.” This led to all sorts of conflicts over the years, beginning days after our wedding day. For example, as I recently went over Mom’s finances, I noticed that she gave substantial amounts of money to her Newark great-grandchildren for their graduations, birthdays, and special events. She does not do this for our grandchildren. Granted, we live four hours away from Newark, but proximity (or lack thereof) should not preclude Mom from buying a card, writing a check, and mailing it to our grandchildren. It is literally the least she can do.

Let me give you another example. I was a pastor for twenty-five years. Every family holiday one of the preachers would give a short devotional as we all gathered in one family member’s home in Newark. Even the grandchildren from Newark were asked to give the devotional. Do you know who wasn’t? Me. Not one time. It is hard not to take such things personally. I have known my mother-in-law for almost forty-seven years. She opposed Polly and me dating, tried to break us up, attempted to derail our wedding, and voiced her disapproval and disappointment more times than I can count over the years. Out of respect for Mom, I loved her, but I didn’t like her.

In 2005, we finally had a showdown. Mom and Dad came up for Thanksgiving. As soon as Mom entered our home, she started doing her thing: moving furniture, ordering Polly around in the kitchen, and telling her how to cook this or that (Polly is a superb cook, by the way). Things got so bad that I told Mom to STOP; that she was a guest in our home. Mom called the next day and apologized, saying, “we always knew you were different.” Ah, there it is. Our relationship got better in the sense that Mom knew she could no longer bully us. In fact, Polly told her mom, “if you force me to choose between you and Bruce, I am going to choose Bruce.” Since then, Mom has taken a passive-aggressive approach to interacting with us.

Polly is widely viewed by our IFB family as an innocent, passive lamb; the submissive wife. Thus, I am always to blame for what happens in our life. Take our atheism. When we deconverted, we went from being barely a part of the in-group to being in the out-group; the group reserved for heathens, apostates, and reprobates. Over the past fifteen years, not one family member has had a meaningful conversation with us about our loss of faith. Not one . . . So my nephew’s phone call was the first time anyone has said anything to me about our atheism. Oh, they gossip about us, “pray” for us, mention us at church, and use us as sermon illustrations. But, talk to us? Naw, they leave that to God.

Until yesterday, Polly and I had been responsible for Mom’s finances. (We have since legally removed ourselves as agents.) We worked diligently to make sure her house was in order; so all her bills would be paid upon death. And then, for no good reason, Mom decided she didn’t want us to do these things anymore. She had our niece put on her account and moved all her money, $14,000, into her checking account. A large check was written to our niece. All of these decisions were made without our knowledge and consent. We had no choice but to end our legal duty to her. Over the years, Mom (and Dad when he was alive) has repeatedly asked for our help. When things don’t go as she thinks they should, she does her own thing and blames us for what happened. I have a business background. Twice, Mom and Dad, for a plethora of reasons, got themselves into serious financial straits. I helped them get their house in order. When things didn’t go as planned, she “fired” me, and blamed me when everything went south. Just remember, “Bruce is always to blame.” I am her scapegoat. This has happened so often, that we should have known not to involve ourselves in her end-of-life decisions. We did so because we love her and want what’s best for her. (According to my nephew, we are just poor people who want her money, just one of many accusations he hurled my way while verbally assaulting me.)

I am sure some of you will conclude I am leaving things out of this story. I am. I just can’t bear to rehash some of it. Maybe, someday I will. The drama and pain run deep. I was barely able to address these things with my therapist today. Here’s what I do know: this was the last straw; the period at the end of the sentence. We have done all we can do to be a loving, kind, helpful daughter and son-in-law. You can only be shit on so many times before you say ENOUGH.

I have never seen Polly so hurt, broken, and angry. As she left for work, she said “fuck all of them.” I concur. (And then she came home from work and drank beer — a first.) We have crossed the point of no return. Mom has made her bed, so to speak, with her “real” family. We have come to accept that we are not wanted; that we are outsiders; that Mom doesn’t trust or respect us due to our atheism. Polly was the dutiful, loving daughter, yet Mom could never accept and love her as she is. Mom simply could not accept that we were going to walk our own path in life. Every move away from the IFB church movement brought criticism, judgment, and estrangement. My children grew up, married, and had children. They also left Evangelicalism, got college educations, and are gainfully employed in managerial positions. Along the way, some of them got divorced, started drinking alcohol, and picked up colorful language. Recently, my youngest son came out as gay. Polly and I are proud of our children, and what they have done with their lives. We are grateful that the IFB curse has been broken; that none of our grandchildren will ever have to experience what Nana and Grandpa and their Moms and Dads experienced in the IFB cult. Yet, all my mother-in-law sees is sin, disobedience, and disappointment. From beer in the fridge to rock music on the stereo to “revealing” clothes to someone saying shit or damn, all Mom sees is what happens when people disobey her peculiar version of God and her peculiar interpretation of the King James Bible. She has no capacity to accept people as they are or love them unconditionally. Only her “real” family, her church family, are deserving of such things.

And you know who is to blame for all the choices our children have made? I am. If Bruce had only stayed in the ministry. If Bruce had only pastored the “right” churches. If Bruce had only done this or that, all would be well. Of course, one need only to look at our extended IFB family and Mom’s church family to see that such thinking is fantasy. Dysfunction and sin abound. They are every bit as fucked up as the rest of us. People are who they are, and the best way to get along in life is to accept people as they are. Polly and I have, without reservation, loved and accepted our IFB family. We would love to have meaningful relationships with them. Of course, that will never happen. Why? They are unable to compartmentalize their religious beliefs. It is. for them, a zero-sum game.

We are done with our IFB family. I am grateful that my nephew finally spoke out loud what the family has long thought about us. And when I say we are done, I mean in every way. As it stands today, we will not attend Mom’s funeral. She’s will be dead, so she won’t care. The funeral service will be all about Jesus and getting saved. The graveside service will be more of the same. The viewing will be a torturous night of dealing with Mom’s self-righteous church friends and people who despise us for daring to share secrets out of school; exposing the IFB church movement for what it is: a cult that causes untold psychological (and at times, physical) harm. (Wait until they see my upcoming podcasts about the IFB, including appearances by the former pastor’s wife, Polly Shope Gerencser. May the shit gloriously hit the proverbial fan.)

I am sure some readers may disagree with our decision to not attend the funeral. I know several of our children do. All I ask is that people understand that this is a story forty-seven years in the making. So much pain and dysfunction; so much heartache and loss. This is us saying no more, we are done. This is what is best for us. And at the end of the day, this is all that matters. We can’t control what people will think about this decision. All we can do is what will best help us sleep at night. I hope you will understand.

Have you had a messy breakup with your Fundamentalist family? Please share your experiences in the comment section. Better yet, share your story in a guest post.

Thanks for Reading,

signature

And then we are done.

36 Comments

  1. Avatar
    michaelbsmithjr

    I do hope you plan on writing a “Dear Ann” Part 2 letter – even if it’s written after she passes. I do feel for you and Polly. Been there done that got the T-Shirt, got the Hat. I felt that when I divorced my ex – her dad was a pastor and did absolutely nothing to reconcile us. It was a shock to some of my family that I did not attend the funeral – don’t know why. Needless to say when my ex-mother passed earlier this year, I didn’t show up. Maybe I should write my own version of the “Dear Ann” letter as a guest post if you are so inclined to post it. If nothing else, it would make for good therapy.

    As far as Polly goes, good for her, yet I do hurt for her and you as well. I really can’t wait to hear her on a podcast. Please keep us posted!

  2. Avatar
    Karuna Gal

    “I can tell you my nephew — who reads this blog — recently spent thirty minutes screaming at me; repeatedly cursing at me; calling me names, including lazy fat ass, and threatening me with physical violence — twice.” Such Christian charity on your nephew’s part. ☹️So sorry that you have to deal with this. Best to you and Polly.

      • Avatar
        Davie from Glasgow

        As ever, I just don’t know how you manage to listen to this stuff day in & day out and stay sane.- But you do. And as for the funeral – it’s Polly’s mother. If she has decided that she does not want to go then that should be the end of it for all involved.

  3. Avatar
    Jack Greene

    Bruce, I am so sorry that Polly and you are going through this! In my opinion, you’ve made the right decision. It’s taken me years of therapy to realise that one needs to put their own mental health first. Sometimes I still forget.

    My life partner and I had a similar experience when my mother died some seventeen years ago. I remember going to a baptist church in Blue Ash, Ohio for her so-called ‘funeral service’; it was really more of a hellfire and damnation sermon that seemed to be directed at me and (to a lesser extent) my partner. I have a somewhat volatile temper; we left the church early. I wished that I’d never gone to the funeral in the first place.

    Unfortunately, fundies don’t give up. My youngest sister (six years my senior) is in her final months of life. We’ve been estranged for over fifteen years and in some ways I wouldn’t mind seeing her again. Sadly, it’s not going to happen. She has decided that her last duty on this earth is to bring me back to the ‘loving’ arms of christ, and has enlisted the aid of at least two of our other sisters to accomplish her mission. I have neither the strength nor the inclination to deal with one of their nonsensical christian interventions. I don’t believe that I’ll go. I reckon that it will give my therapist and I something to talk about for the next few weeks…

  4. Avatar
    missimontana

    I’ve had a similar experience with toxic family members, though not for religious reasons. My 2 older sisters died during the pandemic (not of COVID-19). We had an extremely toxic relationship. I was so glad there could be no funerals. I couldn’t deal with it. You are right to cut the toxic IBF family out of your life, and to stay away from the funeral. People can only take so much abuse. You are under no obligation to put up with their crap. It’s sad, but they exposed their true character.
    You and Polly move on and enjoy your lives.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      Fundamentalism is a cancer that kills everything it touches. My children believe and do all sorts of things I disagree with. Shit, my one son is a Evangelical right-wing militia member and a QAnon supporter. I’m a leftist; a socialist; a pacifist, yet we both find ways to love each other. We compartmentalize our lives. We don’t talk about religion or politics. And when he violates this, I don’t bite. (Even when I want to.)

      At the end of our days, it will be our families that surround us. I want all of my children/grandchildren (and hopefully great-grandchildren) around me when I die (unless I’m hit by a truck, then I hope I’m by myself 🤣 ). Sadly, Polly’s mom doesn’t see this the same way I do. I find this disheartening.

  5. Avatar
    CJ

    Any time my family brings up how I’ve destroyed our family I just remind them that it is actually Jesus who is doing it – Matthew 10:34-36

    Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.
    And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.

    See, this is Jesus’ plan!

  6. Avatar
    Merle

    “Her peculiar version of God and her peculiar interpretation.” Yes, but if I can play devil’s advocate, God himself is telling her she is right, or so it seems to her. And so, who is she to go against what God himself tells her? It’s odd, but things like this that come across as arrogant to us seem like humility to the fundamentalist. She hears from God and humbly does what God says. And if you don’t hear the same thing from God? Then obviously you aren’t listening!

    I’ve been there. I too once heard from God, or so it seemed to me. And what came across to me as humble obedience to what God himself told me, came across as arrogance to those who weren’t hearing the same thing.

    The root problem, in my view, is that people interpret their inner voice as being God. If they are convinced it is God, then they become convinced they are never wrong about those things the inner voice says. The result is often complete discord.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      Sure, but some of her behavior is definitely not Christian. How should believers treat their enemies? Shouldn’t Christian demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit in their lives? Yet, the Bible says that the “truth” will divide mothers from daughters. Most Fundamentalist Christians value commitment to perceived “truth” over harmonious relationships with unbelieving family.

      • Avatar
        Merle

        Understood. Her behavior is wrong. It violates basic human decency and does not demonstrate the fruit of the spirit.

        But that does not necessarily mean she is innately bad. Religion can take a person with normal human feelings and cause that person to behave unethically.

        When the pattern of behavior is such that we cannot see that person as ever treating us with respect, then one has a right to expect such behavior will continue, and hence, to realize that continued contact with that person is not to one’s advantage.

        • Avatar
          BJW

          Sorry. People who act viciously or unkindly to those they denigrate aren’t good people. Wanting them to be so is in defiance of the fact they are willing to hurt others because only they can be right.

  7. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    Bruce and Polly, nothing that I can say is in any way close to adequate regarding this situation. Fundamentalism kills. It kills relationships, love, equality, common sense, and the list goes on and on. I am so sorry that things have come to this.

    I have a couple of Fundamentalist relatives that I try to maintain a relationship with by NOT talking politics or religion……it’s hard, but people are more important in the long run….

    (This isn’t Fundamentalism related, but we found out a few months,ago that my mother-in-law had blocked my phone number and email for YEARS. She had never responded to my calls or texts, always claiming she didn’t get them, claimed not to know why. So my husband took her phone and found that she had blocked me, and she claimed not to know how that happened, blah blah blah. Meanwhile I am the only daughter-in-law who has lasted, with her oldest son divorced 3 times and her youngest son divorced once….and of course all those women were c$%&s because her sons are perfect and can do no wrong…..So now her middle son is pissed at her…)

  8. Avatar
    przxqgl

    it can go wrong without religion, as well… in fact, take out religion and change a few minor details and your story could just as easily be my story. i can definitely relate.

    • Avatar
      ObstacleChick

      I thought of another thing – funerals. Funerals exist primarily for giving closure to the living when someone dies. The dead person isn’t there, doesn’t care, and of course their remains need to be handled in a hygienic way. But the ceremony and ritual are exclusively for the living. If it isn’t helpful or healthful for you, the living, to be at a funeral, and other living people have made clear they don’t want you there, why should you go? It’s more mentally healthful for you NOT to go and to memorialize the person in a way that’s constructive for YOU!

      • Avatar
        Sheila F (@HeathenWoman)

        What I came to say. I no longer go to funerals unless I wish to personally give my love to deserving and loving immediate family of the deceased. I now skip more than I attend. I find American funerals morbid, disturbing and phony. (Upon death the deceased always becomes a “good” heaven bound person.) I also absolutely refuse to be proselytized at ever again. Some ministers can’t seems to stop themselves. I will stand and walk out. I much prefer cremation and informal celebrations of life. That is what I will do for the loved ones I may lay to rest.

  9. Avatar
    BJW

    I am so sorry, Bruce. You are right, you can only be shit upon so many times. And I hope you and Polly can find the love and comfort you need from your children and grandchildren and friends, who do accept you. There is zero reason to subject yourself to this abuse, and I hope you no longer subjected to it.

  10. Avatar
    Jennifer Gagnon

    I can’t say I had a messy breakup-I just ghosted them when I left for university over 30 years ago. The family in question is my aunt and her husband the pedophile* preacher.

    I have her hidden on my Facebook feed and go over once in a while to torture myself. This year on my birthday she posted a meme saying “One of the hardest things you will ever have to do, my dear, is to grieve the loss of someone who is still alive.”

    I wish he could be a part of the Black Collar Crime series. Alas, the two times he molested a church teenager no charges were pressed. The information I have is third hand. If I had the money and inclination I would hire a PI to corroborate the story and confront him with it.

    I’ve also toyed with the idea of using a burner email address to send him a Black Collar Crime link every single day until he loses his mind. If anyone here has the know-how, kindly respond! 🙂

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      There are numerous free anonymous email services. I will use them on occasion when I don’t want to expose my email address to someone. I made a mistake two years ago when I used my real email address to respond to a Christian troll. He been sending me nasty 🤮 emails ever since. Lesson learned.

  11. Avatar
    apostatedaughter

    Heartbreaking. My thoughts are with you and Polly. Kudos to you both for your support of all of your children – zero judgment, actual unconditional love. The church has no idea how its done. We originally questioned everything when our 13 year old son was mercilessly attacked by the youth pastor and the worship leader because he wanted to play drums and guitar in other venues, and was truly a free spirit they could not understand. He and his siblings, now adults are serene atheists living satisfying lives without a god.

    This all-in (for 50 years) pastor’s daughter is also now a deeply grateful atheist. Dad died a year ago and while sitting along next to him in the nursing home (none of the pastors he had mentored as a denominational leader visited him in his stay there though it was in the largest city in the State with numbers of pastors just a few miles away) he emotionally said to me, the child who had been by his side in ‘ministry’; “You are doing old age (I’m 66) far better than I.” I knew what he meant. He had been ignored by the church after he was no longer strong and viable, had to be separated from his demented wife (my mother) who had made his life miserable their entire married lives, and was now cared for by strangers who showed more compassion than those who claimed Jesus as the answer ever did. He also knew I, the one atheist in the family, would go to bat for him in everything, from making sure the bills were paid to sitting by him in ER twice when he fell, supplying clothing and toiletries, and running interference with all of his medical care. But when he died most of his proud siblings (my uncles and aunts) would not send me a sympathy card because I no longer ‘believed’. What did I know of the after-life? Why would I care? Hadn’t I willingly chosen hell when I left the family belief system? One uncle made sure I knew where I am headed. I think I have learned more about the true value of this very precious life than they ever will. I wouldn’t trade their surface lives and their grand redemptive family narrative for anything. Life has never been sweeter, even without most of the people I once knew in religion. Thanks again for your brave and honest writing. Hugs to Polly.

  12. Avatar
    tenosce52

    I have been lucky thus far. My children are deep into the IFB religion they found after becoming adults. They know I no longer believe but still come around to see the old man. I guess they were raised to be accepting of people with different ideas. Oddly enough, three of my grandchildren profess to be Atheists. They will tell you that they saw the cult practices and behavior for what it is. They attended IFB school until the last couple of years of their education.
    Just finished reading Broken Faith about the Word of Faith Fellowship. If only 50% true most of these people belong in jail. I am so sick of cults and their lying ways.
    Much love to you and Polly. I guess it will still hurt Polly but as the Turks say, “Geçmiş Olsun!”
    I have not attended three funerals of friends the past couple of years because I was afraid I would stand up and call the preacher out.
    Our kids have strict orders when we die – no preachers if they decide to have some sort of funeral service. Music to be classic rock. Maybe pass around a jug.

  13. Avatar
    Karen the rock whisperer

    The way religion separates family members is truly horrible. The way religious funerals or memorial services subjugate honoring the dead in favor of pestering the living is fiercely irritating, even without the required altar call in Evangelical services.

    My parents arranged and paid for their caskets, mausoleum spaces, funeral home services, and so forth, far ahead of time. My mother died first, and she’d specified wanting the pastor of her Catholic church to conduct the funeral home service. By the time he was done preaching about God, Jesus, redemption, and how we all needed to get right with God–while barely acknowledging Mom by name–I was ready to go up there and punch him.

    Half a decade later it was my father’s turn to be honored. Dad was a lapsed Lutheran rather than a Catholic, and the (Protestant) funeral home pastor talked me, only child, into giving his eulogy. Mind you, by that time I was firmly an atheist, though I expected most attendees other than my husband to be at least nominal Christians. But at that point I was a capable public speaker, I knew I’d be numb for at least a few weeks after the funeral, and I eulogy-crafted my heart out. In the end, I wrote and gave a very good eulogy that did, indeed, mention God but didn’t dwell on religious concepts.

    I also wished to borrow a TARDIS from the next passing Time Lord/Lady to go back in time, actually punch that priest, and give my mother the eulogy she deserved. Despite our differences, she tried her best to be a good person and a great support for others in ways she understood as commands from God, and deserved to be honored properly. Alas, few Time Lords/Ladies seem to hang out in my corner of the planet.

    Polly and Bruce, my heart goes out to you. Rejection by parents is fiercely hard on your psyche, even when you know why. That mom I wanted to eulogize in hindsight was someone I had serious issues with for many years, because her upbringing and chronic anxiety made it fiercely difficult for her to accept me for the person I am. We never more than sort of made up, although I provided a whole lot of support to both my parents in the last years of their lives. My difficult relationship with Mom haunts me to this day, nearly 21 years after her passing.

    Dad died 16 years ago, we had an excellent relationship, and I still miss him fiercely some days. I don’t miss my mother. I grieve the potential for a mother-daughter relationship that never was. Sometimes, that’s the best we can do.

  14. Avatar
    cy

    I do understand that you and Polly will not attend the funeral. The number of years that you’ve been treated badly is truly sad. (How did you guys turn out to be so nice?!?!)

    Really, thanks for writing about this. I care about you and your family, but I have to admit, your writing illuminates some of the hurt times and hurt feeling I’ve experienced from family and friends. And not just for religious reasons. I learn a lot from your writings about my own crushing experiences from some of those I love and supposedly love me. I guess we all get through it, but at what cost?

    I think that your decisions are not only understandable, but also necessary in order to maintain some peace of mind. I’ve never been able to act on the “turn the other cheek” advice. All that does is work to the advantage of the people who behave awfully.

    I hope you go on and find lots of happiness–I try to do that. “Living well is the best revenge,” has always been my motto.

  15. Avatar
    amy b

    I’ve long thought Polly’s mother is a pretty awful human, from what I’ve read of her on this blog. My sympathies to both of you.

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Bruce Gerencser