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An Example of How I Indoctrinated Children as an IFB Pastor

bruce gerencser street preaching crooksville ohio
Bruce Gerencser, street preaching, Crooksville, Ohio, with his young son Jaime.

I pastored the Somerset Baptist Church in Mt. Perry, Ohio for eleven years, from 1983-1994. I started the church in a storefront with 16 people. The church later grew to more than 200 people. In 1989, after stopping our multi-county bus ministry due to costs, I started a tuition-free non-chartered Christian school for church children.

For five years, Polly and I, along with a handful of dedicated church members, got up early each morning and made our way to Somerset Baptist Academy (SBA) to teach our church’s children. Best described as a one-room schoolhouse, SBA had fifteen students. Most of the students were lacking academically, and though in retrospect some aspects of our school program were lacking, when it came to the basics, we excelled.

During this time, I was introduced to street preaching by Evangelist Don Hardman. Annually, Hardman would come to our church and hold a fifteen-day protracted meeting — the highlight of the church calendar year. Hardman and I later had a falling out due to my embrace of Calvinism. (Please see the series, My Life as a Street Preacher.)

Several times a week, I would take the church children with me to Newark and Zanesville where I preached and they handed out tracts and attempted to evangelize passersby. After a few years of doing this, I stopped due to increasing criticism from locals, suggesting that it was wrong (cultic) for me to use the children in this manner. While I wholeheartedly objected to their assertions — how was selling school raffle tickets any different? — I recognized that their continued participation was harming the church’s “testimony.”

What follows is a story written in 1990 by then Newark Advocate writer Kathy Wesley (behind paywall). The main character in the story is Shawn Nelson, a ninth-grade student at Somerset Baptist Academy.

You Never Realize How Wicked the World Is by Kathy Wesley, a features writer for The Advocate. Published September 16, 1990

NEWARK– The summer breeze is playing tricks with Shawn Nelson’s sandy hair, blowing it to and fro like wheat straw.

The sun is bright, the afternoon warm, the streets full of people. But Shawn sees darkness around the Courthouse Square.

“You never realize how wicked the world is until you get out there and see it,” the 14-year-old says, glancing around. “You see women in these short skirts, and men wearing no shirts at all, yelling and cussing at their kids.”

While many of his friends are back on the public school playground tossing footballs or dribbling basketballs, Shawn is toting his well-worn Bible in a race against evil on the Courthouse Square.

He spends three hours a week on the streets of Newark and Zanesville with 11 classmates from Somerset Baptist Academy, handing out tracts and opening their Bibles to anyone who will listen.

“It’s fun,” he says, shifting his Good Book from one hand to another and fingering his quarter-inch-thick packet of tracts. “You get to show people how to go to heaven.”

A well-dressed woman passes by, brusquely refusing Shawn’s tract, which asks on its front cover, “Where are you going to spend eternity?”

“It’s OK,” he says afterward. “You get used to it.”

Shawn’s been on the streets since May, when a traveling evangelist sold his pastor, the Rev. Bruce Gerenscer [sic], on street ministering. It felt strange at first to walk up to complete strangers and push Bible tracts into their hands, but Shawn is now a pro.

The latter-day apostle knows all the ropes: don’t give people a chance to say no, don’t step off the sidewalk. “As long as you’re on the sidewalk,” he explains, “you’re on public property and no one can arrest you.”

Like the other children, ranging in age from 9 to 16, Shawn has a Bible marked at the two verses they are to show to people who might stop to ask them for spiritual guidance: John 3:16 (” For God so loved the world … “) and Revelations [sic] 3:20.

In four months on the street, nobody’s asked Shawn to show them the way to salvation, but he’s ready. He’s in the midst of memorizing his Bible.

“I want to memorize the whole thing,” he says. “That way, when someone asks you a Bible question, you’ll immediately know the answer.”

There’s not a lot of Bible quizzes given on the streets of downtown Newark, but Shawn seems fairly confident already. His answers to questions of faith spill quickly from memory with childlike enthusiasm.

“In the old days religion was different,” he says. “Then men decided they wanted new religions, which had nothing to do with the Bible.”

“The Mormons and Presbyterians, among others, are in trouble with the Bible,” Shawn says. “They believe in a different way to go to heaven. Some say you have to work your way to heaven … but the Bible says the only way to heaven is through the Father.”

He’s not sure what it is to be a Christian, “except that you should obey the Bible and you shouldn’t sin.” But the details of those requirements seem to be a little hazy.

With the exception of his ambition to memorize the Bible, Shawn’s future is likewise fuzzy. He hasn’t thought about a career, although he acknowledges he has a fondness for automobiles and engines.

It’s fun for him to be on the street; he recalls with delight the lemonade a Zanesville street vendor gave him one day. But behind it all is his deadly serious mission.

Unlike his predecessor Paul, who spread the story of Jesus of Nazareth in the streets of downtown Ephesus in the First Century, Shawn doesn’t have to dodge spears and unfriendly government officials. He just has to put up with the rejection of people who walk a half block out of their way to go around him, and the taunts of children his own age who pass on bicycles.

“Sometimes they ride by and they mock us,” Shawn says, “and I don’t like it.”

But not, he says, because they hurt his feelings.

“I don’t like it,” he says quietly, with the firmness of childhood certainty, “because I know they’re going to die and go to hell.”

— end of news story —

Shawn was what I made him. I regret doing so to this day.

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

    When you really get down to brass tacks, being a “pastor”, which is etymologically derived from “shepherd”, is ultimately leading sheep to be either fleeced or slaughtered.

    It is unfortunate that religion is foisted on children. Without the full faculties of reason and skepticism that come with adulthood they are unfairly spoon fed a value system without full understanding or cross examination.

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    Yep. Get em while they’re young. The malleability of some children is almost beyond imagining. A one time foster child of mine was briefly in the care of evangelical foster parents. It came to light when she was heard talking Evangelical jargon, that the foster parents were indoctrinating the child. A complaint was made to authorities and when confronted, the foster parents said, paraphrasing, If we can’t give her our religion we don’t want to foster her. They boldly confessed that fostering children was a scheme to indoctrinate them. What they did was so effective that in a few weeks, that child, then 8 years old, was indoctrinated so fully that today at 54 years of age she remains a devout evangelical. I can only think of it as child abuse. In my own difficult childhood, that is one type of abuse I did not experience. At least one blessing in a cursed childhood is better than none at all.

  3. Avatar

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen a street preacher. The nearest I see are the stalls set up by Jehovahs Witnesses advertising bible classes, and manned by sometimes as many as four attendants. I’ve seen them in conversation with people but I’ve never seen them ever positively approach anyone.

    My impression of the street preachers I see on TV news or in fictionalised form is that they perceive themselves as losers, with huge chips on their shoulders. They deal with this in the only way they can understand, which is to advertise why they are better than other people, that they are going to be the winners in eternity, everyone else a loser. They have no interest whatsoever in actually converting people (which explains their insanely low success rate), only in putting on as big an exhibitionist show as possible.

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    Did you ever keep track of any of those kids to see how they turned out? I wonder if Shawn and any of the others were able to break free of Christianity–hope so!

      • Avatar

        Wow! Can I get the power to split hell open to? I mean, that’s serious power! Imagine, Sage, the abomination shows up in hell and my mere presence splits hell. That would really piss of god and Satan.

        But alas, I guess the honor is for Ozarksgal. It really wouldn’t be good to have multiple splitting hell open.

      • Avatar
        Yulya Sevelova

        Sorry to say this, but you’re just not qualified to have a position assessing who’s going to ” split hell wide open.” Why is this,you may ask? Your previous conduct on this blog site makes such a statement irrelevant. Because of such behavior, your prayers may not be answered either. Have you ever considered this possibility, RF ??

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    I feel so sad about the system of Fundamentalist evangelicalism that views humans as inherently depraved, deserving of eternal physical torture in hell just for existing, and that a deity had to become human and be sacrificed to its ghost self and resurrected in order to pay for the sin. Additionally, the humans must believe in and accept the story in order to spiritually live forever, worshipping the ghost deity, its other ghost deity self, and its physical self. I am sad that fearful adults scare children with this story so that the children “get saved”.

    I wonder what happened to Shawn? Did he become a mechanic? I hope he is living a nice life now.

  6. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    I have the same question as OC: What happened to Shawn? He would be a middle-aged man now.

    I mention that last fact because, from time to time, I think about the boys I taught in an Orthodox yeshiva. Did any leave that bubble? If they did, they—like Shawn—would have been ill-equipped to navigate the world.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      Shawn has three younger brothers. Two of them are gay, and only one of them attends church at an open, affirming Methodist church. Shawn and the brother closest to him want nothing to do with me (and I don’t blame them). I’m friends with the youngest two.

      • Avatar
        Yulya Sevelova

        Wow. Street preaching isn’t something to bring little kids to. I’ve seen street preachers a few times here in Cali, but no kids came with them. Looked up this ” brother Jed”, and I have to ask, why those crazy clothes? Why care about sanitary supplies at all ? You don’t have to be a nutcase to be a preacher. So I just don’t get it. Jed’s style was definitely Southern. Anyway, I wish you,Polly and your family a nice Fourth. Happy 4th, everybody!

      • Avatar
        Yulya Sevelova

        Er, I’d LOVE to know just what the disgusting comment was, that Reviled was compelled to ‘ poop out.’ He doesn’t intimidate anyone. He’s simply a homely incel, trapped in isolation. Has too much time on his hands, yet nothing to live for. Unable to marry, he’s THAT unappealing. Even among other neurotic Fundy types.

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