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Bruce, You Would Give the Shirt Off Your Back to Help Others

where your treasure is

My wife, Polly, is the daughter of an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) preacher and his wife. Polly’s family on her mother’s side is littered with preachers, missionaries, and evangelists. Her grandfather was a United Baptist preacher. Most of my experience with Polly’s family over the past forty-seven years comes from Polly’s parents and her mother’s close family. One thing that I noticed is that while Polly’s mom and dad, along with her grandfather, aunt, and uncle were gracious, kind, and helpful towards IFB family members, they weren’t the same towards people outside of the family. This always troubled me. Why were they so hesitant or unwilling to help people who weren’t “blood?”

In 1989, our two oldest sons and a girl from the church I was pastoring at the time, attended the Licking County Christian Academy — a ministry of the Newark Baptist Temple, the church pastored for fifty years by Polly’s uncle, Jim Dennis. We would carpool the children to and from school, a thirty-mile drive each way. One day, it was the girl’s father’s turn to pick up the kids from school. Before arriving at the school, Harold picked up a homeless man and brought him to the Baptist Temple, thinking the church would help him. He quickly learned that the Baptist Temple was nothing like the church he attended. The church turned the homeless man away.

Harold wrongly thought all Christians were the same; that the Baptist Temple would treat poor people the same way we did at Somerset Baptist Church. Surely, the Baptist Temple, a Bible-believing, Bible-preaching church, would follow the teachings of Christ, Harold thought. At Somerset Baptist, we fed and clothed the poor and the homeless. We paid the rent and utility bills of people in dire straits, even though Somerset Baptist took in only one-thirtieth the money each year the Baptist Temple did.

Jim and I got into an argument one day in his office over material wealth. We were struggling to pay our school tuition bill. I wanted to find out if there was anything the church could do to help us. The answer was no. I have never forgotten what Jim told me: “it is never God’s will for a Christian to live in poverty.” In other words, he was telling me that I was not doing the will of God. I retorted, “this would be news to Jesus, the disciples, and countless other Christians.” Our meeting ended on a sour note. Our children finished the year at LCCA. By the start of the next school year, I had started Somerset Baptist Academy — a tuition-free school for church children.

Was Jim a bad person? Of course not. He grew up in a middle-class home. He had never experienced poverty or doing without. I, on the other hand, had real-world experience with poverty. He and I had very different life experiences, and these lived experiences affected how we viewed the world and ministered to people. I have always been sensitive to the needs of the poor. Most of the people I pastored over the years were working-class poor or on public assistance. Sure, I pastored several millionaires and upper-middle-class families, but they were the exception to the rule. And quite honestly, poor church members tended to be more gracious and giving than affluent members. As a Baptist church, we believed Christians should give ten percent of their income to the church. It was the church, then, that decided how to spend donations. One millionaire wanted to control where his tithe went. He told me the church couldn’t be trusted with his money. No control, no donation. You can guess how that turned out. Not well. He later left the church.

I co-pastored Community Baptist Church in Elmendorf, Texas in 1994. After returning to Ohio and then moving back home to rural northwest Ohio, we started a new Baptist church in West Unity. Months after we started the church, a family from Community Baptist contacted me about moving to Ohio to be part of our church. I said yes, and began making plans for them to move from Texas to Ohio. A preacher friend and I drove to San Antonio to help them move. I rented a car for our trip, paying for our gas and meals. I also helped pay for some of this family’s moving expenses. All told, I spent almost $2,000 out of pocket to help them move. I sold my firearms to help fund this trip, a decision I deeply regret.

The family moved into the church until they could find employment and housing. The congregation went out of its way to help them. The family didn’t stay. I had warned them about how different it would be for them as a Hispanic family living in white rural Ohio. They assured me that this wouldn’t be a problem. It was. They missed their family and culture. I was disappointed (and angry, at the time) that they left, but years later I understand why they did.

One day, Polly’s mom and dad happened to be visiting our home. Polly and I were discussing moving this family from Texas to Ohio, when Mom interjected, “Bruce, you would give people the shirt off your back.” We just stared at her, wondering why this was a problem. It seemed to be the Christian thing to do; the way we had lived our married life from the get-go and still do to this day. Realizing how bad that sounded and that she had “stepped” in it, Mom added, “not that that is a bad thing.”

Our conversation moved on to other things, but her comments to me were a reminder that we lived in different worlds; that we had different beliefs about what it meant to be a Christian. What I always found odd is that Mom grew up dirt poor. Her parents were migrant farm workers. She had experienced poverty firsthand. Yet, once free of being poor, she had no interest in helping anyone outside of her immediate family. Was Mom a bad person? Of course not. That said, it is hard to read the Gospels and not have a heart for the poor and marginalized. And where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

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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    A Christian is not born full-grown. Though generosity is basic in the Christian life, it must be grown in us – as do most of the character traits that are the result of the Spirit’s transforming work. Our secular culture, the values we learned from our family, and our innate self-interest often vie against generosity. It requires that we apply ourselves to the Spirit and the Word to grow into the people God desires us to be.

    I paste this as a reminder.

    1 I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.

    2 And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.
    (Romans 12)

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      The thing is, Don, that if there is no god then, by definition, you must be wrong. I don’t accept that there is a god of any sort (ignoring silly definitions whereby anything is called ‘God’), so I reject your biblical exhortations. Generosity derives from the same place as do all of elements of human interaction, namely what human societies have found gives greatest benefit to most people, whilst also satisfying underlying instincts (some good, like generosity, some bad, like genocide).

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      Don, it turns out that there are good people who aren’t Christian or even religious. Now, when I was a Christian I would rationalize it as these people were open (unconsciously) to the Holy Spirit, and were moved to do good. But the fact is, there is no way to know why people are good who aren’t Christian as long as you assume only God is truly good.

      I have tried* to do more and more good with my life the farther I’ve gone from Christianity. But then again, the less Christian I became, the move I valued the biblical passages that emphasized love, joy, peace; doing unto others as you would have them do unto you; and etc. But these values aren’t strictly Christian.

      I don’t denigrate kind and loving Christians, and I have several Christian friends I’m still in touch with, and some of them are ministers of different denominations. But I have to tell you that they are striving to do good, and the differences in their beliefs are small when it comes to caring for people hated by fundamentalists. (You know, those “evil” gay people, Democrats, socialists, etc etc.) The fundamentalist/evangelical people have shown themselves to be mostly devoid of care and empathy for others, and their morality has been shown to be a sham. Their Christianity is like a filthy rag.

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    I wrestle with this topic, that is, who to help and when. As a Christian I want to help anyone and everyone without question. As a realist, I can hardly help myself at times.

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    MJ Lisbeth

    Until my high-school years, my family was lower middle-class, living between paychecks. So we didn’t experience poverty in the sense that many other people have. Still, I can relate when someone says, “I can’t afford.”

    Still, nothing prepared me for the experiences of teaching students who lived in homeless shelters, or who (or their families) were one check away from such an experience. I also wasn’t prepared for some of the young people I met in an LGBT youth group I co-facilitiated for two years. They were kicked out of their families’ homes when they “came out” or ran away after being bullied. I soon learned that at east a few of them were turning tricks or selling drugs within minutes after our sessions: What else can someone who doesn’t have a high school diploma, and even less education or marketable skill, do?

    Perhaps the one good thing about “coming out” as a queer person later in life is that I was able to get an education and establish some kind of legitimate work history.

    My point is that most people can’t truly understand poverty or any other kind of deprivation–unless they’ve lived it. And, in most mainline churches–and evangelical churches whose members are mainly middle-class–neither the congregants nor the clergy have had such experiences. Or they, like me, think they “grew up poor” but don’t understand why people in the most dire kinds of poverty do what they do–and why prayer, faith and studying the Bible won’t help them.

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      Before the pandemic there was this obviously young teen boy turning tricks in the gayborhood of Philly. It was obvious also that he was homeless. If we happened to see him my husband would ask if he was hungry, which he always was, so we’d get him some food. The first time he expected to have to pay off his “debt” but we told him we expected nothing other than a thank you and that he would be careful out there. Over time he told us about his home life and why he left and to say it shocked me is an understatement. We haven’t been over much but the last few times we stopped somewhere for a drink we didn’t see him. We hope he is okay and got some help. He is an intelligent kid with manners and had he had the right circumstances would be in college now.

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