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New Bethany Home for Girls: The Dogma that Followed Me Home

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I first published this post by my dear friend Cat Givens years ago. Edited for spelling, grammar, and readability.

When I was growing up in northeast Ohio, my family attended a Baptist church. It was one of those places where you’d meet every Sunday morning and then again Sunday evening. Bible study on Wednesday night. Soul-winning every Tuesday evening. Thursdays were youth group nights, and on Friday or Saturday we may have some other activity and then back again on Sunday.

We learned about heaven and hell. They preached a lot about hell.

I can remember being taught as a young child to tell everybody I came in contact with about Jesus and how to be saved. If I neglected to tell someone, then on Judgment Day this would happen: the person I did not tell would be led before the Lord God. I would be sitting behind God with the rest of the saved people. God would turn the person I neglected away, saying he did not know them. As they were led away, they would see me behind God and scream, “WHY? Oh, WHY didn’t you tell me?” And as they were led away to be cast into eternal fire, damned for all eternity, their blood would be dripping from my hands. Pretty heavy stuff for a kid, huh?

I was a bit of a rebel in my teens, and I’d run away when I got the chance rather than face the consequences at home for my actions. Finally, when I was almost fifteen, my parents were at their wit’s end. I was in the Detention Home for running away yet again, and they sought out help from the “experts”. A nice lady at the United Way told my parents that doctors were having success with rebellious children by hospitalizing them and giving them intense psychotherapy.

My parents met with the doctors, then the doctors met with me. “Yes, they could help me,” they assured my folks. They told Mom and Dad I could be transformed into a willing obedient child and would change my “criminalistic way of thinking”.

I was sent to a local hospital’s psych ward, housed with mostly adults (this was 1974, and there were no children’s wards at that time here). I was locked up with a bunch of strangers. I was shot full of “behavior modifying” drugs which made my physical movement robotic. I also received electroshock therapy treatments. Thanks a lot, Dr. Vallaba! Some of the men abused me while I was in there. I thought I fell in love with a man who said he and Bob Dylan shared a soul.

After the doctors had used up all my parents’ insurance money, they wanted to send me to another hospital in Connecticut. However, Mom and Dad had been talking to the preachers. They had another idea. Off to a girl’s home in Louisiana for me: New Bethany Home for Wayward Girls. I would remain there for a year.

Surely, this would save my soul and make me a compliant teenager, my parents and preachers thought. Unfortunately, at New Bethany, the same type of hellfire and brimstone attitude prevailed. I was not allowed to wear pants, as that was considered a sin. I couldn’t listen to any music besides Southern Gospel, as that was also a sin. I couldn’t talk about my past, as I had no past. I had to be called by my first and middle name because I was to become a new person.

There was an Evangelical preacher who ran the place, Rev. Mack Ford — an acolyte of Lester Roloff. He and his wife, Thelma, founded the home, taking in rebellious teens from all over the country. They also took in the unwanted girls whose parents abandoned them there. We were required to comply with every rule. Not doing so resulted in us getting whipped with a belt. That was the easy punishment. If a girl acted out, often she would be forced, after lights out, to stand in the hallway on her tiptoes with eggs or tomatoes under her heels. If she slipped and squished one, she’d get a whipping with a belt or hit with the switch. Runaways from the home were usually caught, and then, after a sound whipping with a belt from Bro. Mack would be handcuffed to their beds, and a ‘trusted girl” would be given the key. Their meals were served at their beds. These rebellious girls were only uncuffed for bathroom and shower breaks. Once Bro. Mack determined they had sufficiently repented, the cuffs were removed.

Everything we did was strictly controlled. We were told not to trust our conscience, as the Devil could be in there, so only trust the Bible. And trust Bro Mack.

Every day after chores, we would have chapel. There we would learn about hell, how the love of God brought us to this place, and how we must repent of our evil ways and change. Then we had breakfast. After more chores, off to school — a trailer down the street with one teacher and learning packets. It was an ACE school . . . Accelerated Christian Education. (Please see My Life in an ACE School.) After school, it was time for chapel again, and then lunch. Then chores and free time, and then chapel and supper. Even our bathroom breaks were timed, and we actually had to count the toilet paper sheets, begging for more through the bathroom door if we needed it. We were often awakened in the middle of the night. Sleep deprivation — what Brother Mack called “breaking down the will” — was the norm. I could go on and on, but I think the picture is clear. This was a brainwashing Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) cult, and we were the subjects.

After nearly a year, I got to come home. And yes, I was changed. I was a good little obedient Baptist teenager who addressed her parents and all adults as “sir” and “ma’am.”

At my new Christian high school, I was more conservative than most of the staff! We would only have chapel once a week at this school, unless it was “spiritual emphasis week.” During “emphasis” week, we would have chapel every day. Chapel was where we were told about how the devil tries to get every teen to be worldly and do evil. We were ripe for the danger of hellfire! We must be saved. We must repent if we do anything displeasing to god. I recall Mr. Russell, the gym teacher, leading us in prayer, asking God to kill us rather than let us live to set a bad example!

Throughout high school, I loosened up quite a bit. I still believed the dogma, but wasn’t quite so hung up on the rules. I began to read the Bible for myself. It didn’t read the same on my own as it did with a preacher interpreting it for me.

After graduation, I began to think more for myself.  I sought out a therapist who helped me overcome the guilt and confusion.  Gradually, I was losing the dogma and forming my own spirituality. I found god in nature and other human beings. I read about other religions and philosophies, realizing there are many paths to enlightenment. I enjoyed comparing the teachings of my youth to the myths and stories from other cultures and religions. I saw beauty and truth in many forms and rejected the hellfire and brimstone from my upbringing. Or so I thought.

I recently found a movie that was shown to us “wayward girls” at New Bethany. It was about the communist takeover of the United States. I really wanted to see this film again as an adult without expecting a great revelation and insight. The movie, along with another about hell, arrived the other day and I watched them. The acting was way over the top, and the subject matter was absurd. There on the screen, a little boy had a bamboo stick driven through his ears so he could no longer hear the gospel. Communists on horseback terrorized citizens, and the blood and guts spilled! Demons tormented people in hell, and worms ate at the burning flesh of the damned.

What happened next is what shocked me the most. As the choir sang “Just As I Am” and the preacher pleaded with the congregation to come to the altar and get right with God, I felt uneasy and a little sick. Fear and dread took hold, and then the panic! What if it was true? Would my children go to hell and be tormented for all eternity because I chose to raise them as free thinkers?

Mind you, this is NOT how I believe, yet here it was, all this dread and fear and worry. I felt horrible and confused. It was as if a great wave had pummeled me, and I was breathless! I contacted a woman raised similarly and found that she, too, suffered from this occasionally. First, we discussed brainwashing and conditioned response, and then I began to examine more carefully what had happened to me (and others).

It was twenty-plus years of dogmatic teachings that took my emotions and spilled them out in front of me like many dice. I realized that this memory’s emotional effect needed to be changed. I found discussing these reactions with my therapist to be helpful, as were his words of encouragement.  I reminded myself that it was out of love for my children I chose to NOT subject them to this stifling negative dogma. And I’m glad of it, as I would never want them to feel the way I did right then!

What good is spirituality if it does not lift one up? I examined what I actually do believe, and did some reading from some positive authors. I watched the movies again with my husband, and we laughed and shook our heads. The effect was more benign but not gone away completely, so I shall work on these memories some more, bringing in more humor and love. Still, I am amazed this dogma has followed me for so many years.

Has anything like this ever happened to you?

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Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 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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You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

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Digging

Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

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There was once a Catholic priest with an inquiring mind. Perhaps not surprisingly, he was a Jesuit. He also believed that Christian teachings are just part of the answer to the question of what we came from and why — and where we could go. Science is another piece of that puzzle, and it could be joined with faith in philosophy, classical and current. Perhaps not surprisingly, he was French.

The Church authorities weren’t always pleased with his work and, while his books weren’t placed on the Index, some weren’t published during his lifetime. In the meantime, though, the prelates, in France and the Vatican, did whatever they could to detour his scholarly and scientific work. (Perhaps it had something to do with his use of the “E word” to describe human development, intellectually and spiritually as well as physically.) So, he went to China, where he joined a scientific expedition that included a fellow Jesuit.

This French priest would have a hand in what was considered one of the most important scientific discoveries of the time:  Peking Man, the oldest set of remains that were recognizably human found up to that time. Among other things, it indicated that the human race was about a quarter of a million years older than previously thought.

During the last three decades of his life, he would return to France only for visits with family and friends.  He devoted his time to research, which took him to Africa and the United States as well as China.  

So, what got me thinking about Pierre Teilhard de Chardin? The discovery of remains of Native Canadian children buried on the grounds of Catholic boarding schools funded by the government — and the priest sex-abuse scandals.

I’ll admit that it’s difficult for me not to think about the latter when I hear about the Roman Catholic Church:  I am one of many who suffered and survived that terrible history.  Although thousands of former altar boys and others who grew up in the Church have come forward during the past few years, we are still only a very small minority of those who endured exploitation by those who were seen as God’s proxies:  Many, many more didn’t live to tell their stories.  

Nor did those Native children who, although they died far too young, endured more and greater indignities than most people.  Those kids were taken away from their families and communities, and the schools’ curricula were aimed to, among other things, deracinate them: Their language, customs, spiritual beliefs, and everything else that formed their identities were taken from them. In doing so, the schools made the young people dependent on a church and culture that never would treat them as equals: In many Native cultures, teachings secular as well as spiritual have, as a purpose, making young people able to live off, and in harmony with, the Earth. But, even in its most benevolent forms, Christianity teaches the exact opposite: that humans have dominion over the mountains, rivers, seas, and the flora and fauna that grow, roam, swim, and fly in them.

I have read many reports about the discovery of those boarding school burial grounds. I also made what some would consider a mistake: I read comments that readers left in response. Some condemned the Canadian government and the Church. A few had ideas about what could or should be done. Then there were those who believed the reputation of the Church was being unfairly besmirched. One commenter wondered, “Why do they have to dig up the past?”

I wonder whether the person who made that comment consciously chose that phrase: “Dig up.” I saw it again on the Facebook page for alumni of my old Catholic school. They heard about the priest who abused me and, probably, other kids — and another priest (whom I knew) who took advantage of other kids. Some said, in effect, that those of us who told our stories were lying, which didn’t surprise me. They didn’t want their rosy memories of those “simpler times” beclouded by dark intrusions. In that sense, they were like another alumnus who asked the same question as the commenter on the story about boarding schools.

“Why do they have to dig up the past?” Church officials probably asked the same question about Pere Teilhard de Chardin and his fellow researchers. And, like some of my old classmates and people who heard the news about the boarding schools, they are doing what they can to deny what “digging” has uncovered — and to vilify us for daring to tell, not only our own stories, but those who didn’t live to tell theirs, whether they died twenty or two hundred years or millennia ago.  

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Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 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.

Connect with me on social media:

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Just the Man for the Job

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Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

(Warning: Sarcasm follows!)

Rudy Giuliani’s law license has been suspended in New York. That means Donald Trump could be headed to prison . . . unless he faces a sympathetic judge and jury. In that case, he might be sentenced to community service.

Now, we all know that such a sentence works best when the person sentenced is given a job commensurate with his or her talents, skills, experience, and temperament. Now, I don’t know how many slots there are for guys who’ve destroyed everything in their path to build garish condominium towers and casinos — and stiffed everyone, from the ones who mixed the drinks to the banks who lent him the money. But I should think that there must be something out there for a reality TV host, spreader of alternative realities, and all-around huckster, I mean, communicator. And I can’t help but think there might even be a job for someone who, after James Alex Fields Jr drove his car into a crowd of people who were protesting the Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville (and killed Heather Heyer in the process) declared:

I think there is blame on both sides. You look at, you look at, both sides. I think there’s blame on both sides, and I have no doubt about it…you had people who were very fine people on both sides.

“Very fine people on both sides.” Hmm . . . That shows us the man is capable of fairness and even-handedness. And how he was persecuted for it . . . by atheist transgender liberal Democrats—who live in places like New York and San Francisco, of course. The calls for his impeachment, which began practically the day he was elected, only grew louder because, you know, they just don’t understand how much he’s done for them.

Well, waddayano: A vacancy has just opened up — and Mr. Trump is just the one to fill it. The Right Reverend Monsignor Owen Keenan, late of the Merciful Redeemer Parish of Mississauga. (Is that Canada’s spelling bee equivalent of Mississippi?) Ontario has just tendered his resignation to Cardinal Thomas Collins, Archbishop of Toronto. Father Keenan will be a tough act to follow, especially given the circumstances that led to his resignation.

Recently, 215 bodies were unearthed at the Kamloops residential school run by the Catholic Church in British Columbia. Canadians, being liberal socialists who speak French, folks who try to right wrongs past or present, were outraged. In a survey that followed, two-thirds of respondents said churches that ran residential schools should bear responsibility for the abuses that happened in them. One couldn’t blame them for expecting Father Keenan, who claims reverence for the man (whether or not he ever existed) who delivered the Sermon on the Mount, to address their shock and grief. That he did, with this tidbit:

I presume that the same number would thank the church for the good that was done in those schools. But, of course, that question was never asked. And, in fact, we’re not allowed even to say that good was done in those schools. I await to see what comes to my inbox.

Now tell me, who can possibly follow up someone who says “good was done” in schools where native children were isolated from their families and cultures, and stripped of their customs, language and spiritual beliefs? Of course: someone who realizes there was “blame” and “very fine people” “on both sides.” Such a man no doubt understands that there is the “flip side” to every story: the technological innovations of Nazi Germany, the Mafia’s eradication from Havana under Castro, and the sudden drop in crime rates 20 years after Roe v Wade. Oh, wait, he can’t mention that last one in a Catholic parish, can he? But at least we can rest assured that good will be done under his leadership, whether or not we acknowledge it.

That is, as long as he stays out of jail.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 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.

Connect with me on social media:

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Why It’s Personal For Me

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Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

Take history personally.

I gave that advice to one of my classes. I think that if you want to understand how not only “the world,” but also your immediate environment came to be, and what you can do about it, there really is no other choice.

For reasons I could articulate only recently, African American history has hit very close to home for me. While a sibling’s DNA test revealed that we have about 5 percent African blood—which, I imagine, everyone has, at bare minimum—almost nobody would ever take me for anything but a white person. It’s not just the shade of my skin or the color of my hair and eyes; my point of view and even tastes (including those in hip-hop artists) have been shaped, directly or indirectly, by being inculcated with Anglo-European-American values and culture.

Somehow, though, reading about the ways Africans were brought to these shores, and the brutal realities they have lived—and hearing stories of being subjected to or fleeing from hate-fueled violence, on recordings and in person—felt like hearing a voice from within myself. As an example, when I wrote about the Tulsa Race Massacre, I cried as if I were describing some experience of my own that I’d forgotten or suppressed in my waking life but rose up in dreams and nightmares like an air bubble in a stagnant pond. And mentioning Olivia Hooker felt like remembering some long-lost or -forgotten relative.

One reason why I so identify with the historic and present trials of African Americans is not simply empathy (though I’ve been told by more than one person that I have it). It has become clearer to me in two developments of the past few years: the ways in which churches have had to come to terms with their relationship to slavery and the revelation of long-suppressed accounts of sexual exploitation of children—including me, when I was an altar boy—and others who are vulnerable by clergy and others well-placed in religious institutions.

As best as I can tell, the only white Christian denominations or communities in the US that didn’t benefit from, or have some role in, declaring other human beings as property and using them as agricultural machinery or worse, are the Amish, Mennonites, and Quakers. In fact, the Southern Baptist Church—to this date, the largest Protestant denomination in the US—began from a rift with the larger Baptist church over slaveholding. And, at least one historian has argued that the Roman Catholic Church was the first corporate slaveholder in the Americas.

While the 1838 sale of 272 slaves by Georgetown University president Thomas Mulledy to pay off the debts of what would become America’s most prestigious Catholic institution of higher education has been known for some time, other purchases, receipt of gifts, sale and transfer of slaves by various orders of priests and nuns, as well as by parishes and dioceses, has only recently been coming to light. And, decades before Columbus landed at Hispaniola, Pope Nicholas V issued a bull instructing King Alfonso V of Portugal . . . to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever . . . [and] to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit . . .

Both the Catholic and Southern Baptist churches, as well as others, are being prodded by individual members and, in a few cases, clergy members, to confront and make amends for their history of slaveholding. In both cases, as with other Christian churches, leadership has ignored or denied the problem, or tried to dismiss it by saying, in essence, “that was then.” But even if efforts by individual congregants and clergy members result in paying reparations to descendants of those who were bought, sold or used, it won’t erase centuries of trauma that have helped to perpetuate racial inequity.

If the plotline of this story, if you will, seems familiar, it’s because you’ve heard it recently, in another context, and with (mostly) different victims. You see, every one of those congregations (as well as the Amish and Orthodox Jewish communities) has been rocked by revelations of sex abuse by priests, pastors, deacons and other religious leaders. Moreover, they are reacting to allegations of everything from molestation of children to sexual assault of adults in the same ways they’re reacting to the “news” about slavery: denial or vilification of those who would “bring up the past” to “stir up trouble.”

What I’ve come to realize is that enslavement and sexual exploitation, whether by priests or plantation owners, often happen to the same people. (Example: Sally Hemmings) Most important, though, they happen for the same reason: A power dynamic that mainly privileges certain groups of people (usually, white men from the upper or middle classes) encourages them to see those with less power as less human. A child in this vortex, especially if he or she has not yet received Communion or Confirmation, is not a fully-formed human; according to Nicholas V’s bull, an African is and cannot be, by definition, one.

In other words, you can’t exploit or enslave someone who has as much power as you—whether that power is the result of wealth, rank in an organization, education, or that person’s actual or perceived status. That status, or lack thereof, can derive from race or gender as well as achievement. (Contrary to popular perception, rape is more commonly done by white men to non-white women than by non-white men to white women. ) Whatever its source, those on the bottom didn’t ask to be there and got there, usually, through no choice or fault of their own.

While I would not compare even the worst experiences I’ve had to anything enslaved people (or, in too many cases, their descendants) have endured, they and I were exploited, and had parts of our selves taken away, for essentially the same reason: Someone who had more power saw us less than human, or simply less human than themselves. And the way churches are dealing (or not) with the aftermath of our exploitation is, unfortunately, all too personal.

Talking about my sexual abuse by a priest was a step in claiming my identity as a transgender woman and reclaiming myself as a subject rather than an object in my history, and within whatever histories I’ve been a part. Likewise, confronting a church’s, or any other institution’s, role in or relationship to slavery is nothing less than a way for descendants of the enslaved to reclaim their personal and collective histories as well as to claim their current identities. If that isn’t personal for me, I don’t know what is.

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Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 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.

Connect with me on social media:

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Justice For Tulsa — And Olivia Hooker

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Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

He cradled the baby girl in his arms.  But he did not beam with pride; instead, his face took on the sober look of someone who realizes how much responsibility he has.

“Redemption,” he rasped.  “She is my chance at redemption.”

He’d killed.  It was not a boast or a threat ― or even a confession.  Just a statement of fact:  “I killed.”  Several times, many people ― about 600, by his reckoning.  That the murders ― yes, he called them that ― were sanctioned by his country and ordered by someone above him on the chain of command did not matter, he said.  They were murders, pure and simple, he said.

“I killed.  There’s no other way to say it.”  He didn’t wait for me to take in what he’d said.  Truth is, I couldn’t have, not until much later.  “And there’s no justice, there can never be justice,” he continued.  “If you are a human being, there’s no way you can justify killing another human being.”

He glanced at the baby in his arms.  “All I can do is to love her, give her the best life I can.”  That, he said, was his only hope of “redemption” and the only “step” he could take “toward justice.”

One reason why his words have stuck with me is that he is the sort of man he was:  a blue-collar guy from a blue-collar background.  His family went to church every Sunday but weren’t terribly religious otherwise.  He went to Vietnam, he said, “without much faith, with only a vague belief in God” and “came back with none.”

I thought about that man, long gone, when I heard about the events in Tulsa and Charlotte.  I am no historian, but somehow I sensed that the news, well, wasn’t new.  Like too many other American cities, both are simply re-enacting long-standing fears and resentments between white and black, police and civilians, and those who have and those who have not.

All it took was a few minutes on Google to confirm my suspicions.  Although Charlotte would witness neither the peaceful demonstrations nor the angry protests of the Civil Rights movement that rocked nearby Greensboro, it was a very troubled city, at least according to accounts like the one James Baldwin gave in The Fire Next Time.  

Like Charlotte, Tulsa also did not host peaceful protests or erupt into riots during the turbulent 1960s.  But the self-proclaimed “Oil Capital of the World” was the stage for one of the most destructive race riots in the history of the United States.  That conflagration, like too many others that came before and after it, was sparked by “ black ram is tupping your white ewe” rumors.

On the morning of 30 May 1921, 19-year-old shoeshine “boy” Dick Rowland rode an elevator in the Drexel Building with a white woman named Sarah Page.  You can guess what happened next:  Accounts of the incident changed from one telling to the next, each taking on a layer of lurid exaggeration spun from stereotypes about violent, priapic black men.  The next day, Tulsa police arrested Rowland and began an investigation.

The fears that shaped those re-tellings of the story found a platform in an incendiary article in  the Tulsa Tribune that sparked a confrontation between black and white mobs around the courthouse, where the sheriff and his men barricaded the top floor to protect Rowland. Shots were fired and the blacks, badly outnumbered, retreated to the nearby Greenwood district.

At the time of this conflict, the “Harlem Renaissance” was taking shape.  If Harlem was the Florence of Black America, the Greenwood District of Tulsa was ― as it was often called ― the Black Wall Street.  There was, perhaps, no greater concentration of African-American wealth than was found in the banks, hotels, restaurants, jewelry shops and other businesses in the area.  

The white mobs pursued the blacks into Greenwood, shooting at them and rampaging through homes and stores.   Tulsa’s police chief then deputized hundreds of white residents to descend upon the neighborhood commandeered gun shops to arm them.  He also commandeered private planes to drop bombs in the area.

It is no exaggeration to say that, twenty-four hours later, the Greenwood district had been wiped off the face of the earth.  Reports from the time said that 100 to 300 people were killed, but the exact death toll will probably never be known.  Bodies were bundled into trucks and shoveled into mass graves by the Arkansas River.  

The Greenwood district obliterated, the story of its destruction didn’t make it into history  books. I minored in history, but only learned of the Tulsa pogrom accidentally, when doing ― you guessed it ― a Google search on another topic.  Attention has come to it only during the past few years, as the lawsuits for reparations on behalf of the few remaining survivors have been filed.

One of those survivors is Olivia Hooker, 101 years old.  The next time you hear someone say that African Americans should just “get over it,” tell that person about Ms. Hooker. She earned a bachelor’s from Ohio State University, a Master’s ten years later from Columbia and a PhD in Psychology from the University of Rochester.  That, after becoming ― at age 6 ― one of the thousands of people left homeless from the massacre.  Oh, and she was the first African American woman to join the Coast Guard ― after the Navy refused her because of her race.

She is not seeking reparations for herself, she has said, as much as she is trying to ensure that the terrible events of Tulsa are not forgotten.  That is not surprising when you realize that during her life, she has been an educator (both of her parents were teachers) as well as a psychologist and advocate ― and that she joined the Coast Guard, she says, not because she was interested in a military career but simply to break down a barrier.

In other words, she wanted to achieve justice.  And that is what she still wants.

If the birth of a child can be someone’s chance at redemption, could it be that we are gifted with the very old to give us opportunities, however fleeting, to achieve justice?  If this is the case, people like Olivia Hooker are our last opportunities to do so, at least for those whose lives were destroyed by a racial pogrom in Tulsa in 1921.  And for those whose lives have been ended, or upended, by the tensions that have simmered and, at times, flared up during the near-century since those terrible days in Tulsa.

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Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 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.

Connect with me on social media:

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Catholic “Dominoes” Falling?

dominos falling

Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

In 1968, I served at the funeral mass for someone who was killed in Vietnam. I knew him fairly well: He was the older brother of a classmate in the Catholic school I attended.

Though people said I was a “smart” kid I couldn’t, for the life of me, understand what my classmate’s brother was doing in a country none of us would have heard of had young men like him not been sent there. I tried to understand the explanations I heard from adults in my family, school and church, and in the media. The word “domino” often came up: supposedly, Vietnam was one. According to that narrative, if the country fell to the Communists, others would follow.

I don’t have the expertise, or the inclination, to debate such a theory. What I am willing to say is that another “domino” phenomenon may be at work today, half a century later. And I must say that I am glad to see the fall of the “tiles” I’m about to describe.

For a millennium after Roman Empire disintegrated, the Roman Catholic Church exercised power that’s hard to imagine today if you’re not living in a theocracy. The monarchs of Europe “reported,” if you will, to the Pope, so a challenge to royal authority was, in essence, an attack on the Church. That is why Henry VIII’s “divorce” from the Church and the French Revolution were such cataclysmic events. Henry, in breaking away from the church and starting his own when the Pope wouldn’t grant him an annulment, effectively declared himself the Pope of England (to this day, the Queen or King is the Head of the Church of England, a.k.a. Anglican Church); when French revolutionaries lopped off the heads of their monarchs and nobles, they were effectively cutting themselves off from ecclesiastical authority, which was intertwined with their class system.

From there, the Church’s influenced weakened, however gradually: France and other countries passed laws that eliminated or limited religion from politics and other public discourse. In a few countries, however, the Church continued to exert its authority. Among those countries were Spain, Ireland and Poland, all of which were known, until recently, for their staunch Catholicism.

One could argue that in Spain, the unhooking of the Church from the nation’s culture and politics began in the late 1970s, after the death of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, who maintained nacionalcatolicismo as part of his dictatorial system. Today, while most Spaniards are at least nominally affiliated with the Church (it doesn’t let go of you easily!), they—especially the young—attend mass at rates on par with their peers in the Netherlands and Norway, which aren’t exactly known as ramparts of religiosity. (But, hey, they’re ahead of the UK, France, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Estonia!)

Ione Belarra is the Spanish Minister of Social Rights and the 2030 Agenda. Three weeks ago, she made her debut in Parliament. She wasted no time in expressing what too many of us have known and borne in silence. “It must be said that the Catholic Church has been and accomplice too many times in this country,” she pronounced. The Church has been “covering up sexual violence against children,” she elaborated. Such a denunciation of the Church would have been unthinkable a generation ago and possibly fatal a generation before that. Where it will lead, I don’t know, but I don’t think Spain will return to being the sort of country that got a special dispensation from the Pope Urban II for its role in the Crusades, or even the one whose “neutrality” in World War II was protected by Franco playing nice with Hitler and Mussolini.

In Ireland and Poland, Catholic domination of culture and politics endured a bit longer, in part because Catholicism served as a touchstone of identity as those countries were subsumed by colonial powers (England in Ireland and Prussia, Germany and the Soviet Union, among others, in Poland) that tried to erase all vestiges of their culture, including their language.

It’s been said that the first crack in the Berlin Wall opened when a shipyard electrician in Gdansk—guided, he claimed, by his Catholic faith—organized a strike that challenged the Communist regime in Poland.

Lech Walesa would later serve as the first President of his newly-independent country. In that post, and in his life afterward, he fought to liberalize the economy and protect human rights—of some humans, that is. While presiding over his country, he signed a law that sharply restricted abortion rights and said, of LGBT people, that he didn’t “wish for this minority,” which he “tolerates and understands” to “impose itself on the majority.” That’s the sort of language you hear from conservatives who don’t want to sound like bigots but who see equality as “special treatment.” Also under his presidency, publicly-funded catechism classes were introduced in the country’s state-run schools.

His expressed views on LGBT rights have moderated, which may reflect another change underway in Polish society, particularly among the young. In the most recent census, 96 percent of Poles were identified as Roman Catholics. While they attend church at higher rates than in other countries such as neighboring Czech Republic (which has one of the world’s lowest church attendance rates), if pressed, many—especially the young—find other things to do with their Sunday mornings and say they were “raised” Catholics but hedge, or give negative answers when asked about their current church affiliation. And, as in other countries, some claim to attend church more often than they actually do.

Activists contend that many people are counted as “Catholic” because they tick the box without thinking or because other people, such as their parents, fill out the forms for them. Now the “Chce sie liczyc” (“I Want To Count”) campaign seeks to encourage Polish people to think about their identity and, if they are so inclined, choose other answers such as “Christian,” “Deist,” or “Atheist.” That previous census counts presented a “very monolithic and homogenous Poland,” in the words of campaign leader Oskar Zyndul. That gave governments since Walesa’s the rationale—however unjustified—for passing and enforcing laws that restrict abortion access, in vitro fertilization, and LGBT rights, in contrast to the wishes of increasing numbers of Poles.

Could Poland join other former Catholic bastions like France, Spain, Belgium and Ireland, which have legalized same-sex marriage and removed most or all restrictions against abortion? If we look at the Irish Republic, such a scenario in Poland may not seem so far-fetched. In 2015, the country James Joyce described as a “sow that eats its young” became the first in the world to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote. (Other countries and US states had mandated marriage equality through executive decrees or votes by legislative chambers.) Three years later, it finally lifted its ban on abortions. That same year, Pope Francis’s visit wasn’t greeted with anything like John Paul’s visit some four decades earlier. And pundits, Catholic and secular alike, talk about the “waning influence” or even “demise” of the Church in Ireland.

Ireland, like Spain and Poland, has been convulsed by revelations of decades, or even centuries, of priests sexually abusing children and all sorts of other horrors in Catholic monasteries, orphanages and hospitals. And the young, with more formal education and access to information and contacts with people who look, speak, dress, eat and worship—or not—differently from themselves—simply have less use for the Church than their parents or grandparents had. Those countries might be the next Catholic “dominoes,” and any attempt to stop their “fall” will be as futile as the efforts—and lives, like that of my classmate’s brother— expended to keep Vietnam from becoming a “domino” in another game.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 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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Praying — For What?

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Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

I am praying for Derek Chauvin.

I overheard that pronouncement yesterday. Had I been inclined to butt into the conversation of the person who made it, I would have asked, “What, exactly, are you praying for?”

What Derek Chauvin did to George Floyd is murder. It can’t be called anything else. Though Floyd had been arrested and served jail (not prison) time before his fatal encounter with now-former officer Chauvin, he was not, as Candace Owens and others claimed, a “violent criminal.” Even if he’d fit Owens’ label, how would Chauvin have known as much unless he did a background check on him? And, even if he were as much a menace to society as Owens tried to paint him, it wouldn’t have warranted Chauvin planting his knee into Floyd’s neck. Former police department colleagues and supervisors said as much in their testimonies.

So, I think it’s fair to say that, like anyone else who was murdered, George Floyd died unjustly. Therefore, I believe, justice is not possible, even if it were possible to return Floyd to his place among the living. (That, by the way, is one reason I have opposed capital punishment for as long as I’ve known what it is.) While Derek Chauvin will be punished, as I believe he should be, nothing that can be extracted from him—time, money, even his life itself—can compensate for what he took from George Floyd.

I would assume that anyone who would pray for Derek Chauvin, or anyone else, believes that the God to which they pray is at least just, and possibly merciful. Given what I’ve said before, I can’t understand how a just God would allow George Floyd to die as he did. Although I don’t think an unjust being can also be merciful, I imagine that some people who are praying might want mercy on Derek Chauvin. They’d trot out a seemingly all-purpose Bible verse like John 3:16 or, if they’ve actually read the Book, something like Matthew 5:7 or 7:12—or James 2:13. The problem is, of course, that it appealing to God for mercy on Chauvin turns him into the victim, or at least the person in need of succor.

This is the problem with the Christian notion of forgiveness–which, I would guess, some people would ask for Chauvin in their prayers. Some have had the audacity and arrogance to say that Floyd’s family should “forgive” Chauvin and “move on.” How anyone can see a murderer—especially one who has been entrusted by his community and country with the power of life and death over another human being and, more important, with the trust that he will use that power rarely, judiciously and with the utmost restraint—as a victim in need of “forgiveness” is beyond me. (I say that as a long-ago Army Reservist who, thankfully, never exercised lethal force, except against a rattlesnake.) And who has the right to tell Floyd’s family how they should deal with their loss? If they choose to “forgive” Chauvin, whatever that means to them, that should be their decision alone.

In brief, although I don’t know what someone might pray for when praying for Derek Chauvin, I can only conclude it most likely has to do with making it easier for him to bear his guilt, and not to ease the pain of George Floyd’s family and loved ones, let alone to afford his life the meaning it had and thus to truly acknowledge the tragedy and horror his death really is.

So why didn’t I butt into the conversation of that stranger who offered a prayer for Derek Chauvin? For one thing, I’m a New Yorker, and we have a reputation for minding our business, or at least pretending to. For another, asking what the stranger meant by that comment would have been pointless, really: If that person’s God were truly merciful and forgiving, Chauvin wouldn’t have murdered George Floyd, whether or not he was aware of Floyd’s mostly-petty crimes—which, of course negates the need to pray for mercy or forgiveness, or anything else. Oh, and I have long since stopped believing in that person’s God, or any other, especially one who allows such injustices as Derek Chauvin using the power entrusted to him to murder George Floyd.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 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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You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

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Reacting Against the Inevitable

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Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth

This year’s Easter/Passover/Ramadan season has been interesting. For one thing it’s the second such holiday cycle during the COVID-19 pandemic. For another, it witnessed two developments that, at first glance seem contradictory.

The first: A Gallup poll revealed that fewer than 50 percent of Americans identify themselves as members of a church, synagogue, mosque or other religious institution. That is the smallest proportion since 1937, when Gallup first asked the question and 73 percent claimed to be so affiliated.

The second: Arkansas’ state legislature overrode Governor Asa Hutchinson’s veto of a bill that would bar transgender girls from participating in school sports program and would keep health-service professionals from providing transgender-related health care to minors. Similar legislation is on the table in other states, and in others even more draconian measures are under review: Health care professionals who help young trans people get the care they need could face long prison sentences and the revocation of their licenses and certificates.

Although those two developments seem at odds with each other, it actually makes perfect sense that some states are trying to keep young transgender people from affirming themselves at the same time more Americans are dissociating themselves from churches.

Why is that?

Any time a major cultural or societal change is underway reaction to it can be fierce and even violent. Think of the Counter-Reformation, or the way cops and everyday citizens—let alone Klan members—tried, brutally, to resist the Civil Rights movement.

The bad news is, of course, that reactionary people and movements foment fear and hatred, and inspire or even embolden haters to all manner of violence, including murder. The silver lining, if you will, is that the virulence of their reaction is a sure sign that they are ultimately on the wrong, and losing, side of history.

At the dawn of the Civil Rights movement, for every white American who participated in a lynching or cross-burning, there were many more who accepted or rationalized Jim Crow laws as well as other, subtler kinds of discrimination. They might not have chased a black kid off their block, but they didn’t want the same black kid to date, let alone marry, their kid. They knew, deep down, that change was needed but “the time wasn’t right.”

Slowly, such people became aware of their own deeply-held, and often unconscious, assumptions and realized there was no rational basis for them. Moreover, they came to realize that the American system of apartheid was not only unjust and irrational; it benefited no one. The Loving decision not only righted a wrong; it aligned with the Constitution and simply made logical sense. The social order would not be broken by people marrying people of “different” races any more than it would be when members of those “different” races—or faiths or gender identities– entered schools, professions and neighborhoods that, previously, had been off-limits to them.

So, racist beliefs could no more be defended than rigid ideas about gender roles, identities and hierarchies with science, logic or law. The Loving decision deemed that “miscegenation” laws violated the Constitution; four and a half decades later, Robert Shelby, a conservative Republican judge in Utah, would declare that state’s laws defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman as unconstitutional (a pivotal moment, I believe, in the fight for marriage equality). In a similar vein, Asa Hutchinson—a Republican– vetoed an anti-transgender youth bill because, he said, its restrictions were “government overreach.” By the time those actions were taken, people had come to realize that gender identity and sexual orientation cannot be legislated or medicated away, and that racial purity is a myth at best and a lie at worst. (The human race began in Africa. That’s Anthropology 101.)

Those events, of course, have everything to do with Americans’ loosening relationship to churches and such: Nearly all of organized religion—especially Evangelical Christianity—is predicated on racial/ethnic hierarchies and rigid gender identities and roles. It’s pretty difficult to tell a woman to submit herself to a man, in her home or in a church, when she’s running a business or graduating at the top of her law school class. Even if it were possible or even feasible, there just isn’t any rational reason why a woman should stand back if she knows better about something than her male spouse or colleague—or why she should align herself with an institution where she is, at best, a second-class citizen and, at worst, a mere incubator.

Those who benefit from such systems of oppression are, of course, not happy to see the edifices that hold them up being dismantled, brick by brick, or eroded. They also worry that people, especially the young, are not interested in upholding those structures or institutions. The young make up a large portion of the religiously unaffiliated (“nones”), Gallup found.

It means that, deep down, religiously affiliated and reactionary folks know they aren’t going to find replacements for themselves among their children. So, they know that whatever they feel the need to do, they’ll have to do more of, with more intensity, for as long as they can. Their behavior will become more extreme, and they will do whatever they can to hold to their notions of gender, marriage, family and society. That means forcing those notions on everyone else through irrational prohibitions. The only way to get people to support such bans is to stoke their fears by invoking stereotypes, junk science and outright lies. And the only way to enforce those bans is through force. What I have just described culminated in Donald Trump’s judicial appointments: He chose jurists who oppose what most Americans want, including safe and legal access to abortion, the right to marry whomever they wish and to live in accordance with whatever they know to be true about themselves.

Those judicial appointments, the law Asa Hutchinson tried to stop and other retrograde actions and policies are thus part of a reaction against the inevitable: the secularization of the United States of America. Somehow it’s fitting that they came together during the Easter/Passover/Ramadan season.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 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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You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Robert Aaron Long Is A Symptom

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Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

Even after the Trump (mis)administration and a seemingly endless string of mass shootings, Robert Aaron Long’s killing spree shocked me. But it also stirred up other reactions that I’m just now sorting out.

On one hand, I felt disgust at Long because he attacked members of an ethnic group that is under siege. Within a few days, within a few miles of my apartment, Chinese and other Asian people—including a woman in her 70s—were brutally beaten. Moreover, his victims were also further marginalized and stigmatized because they were sex workers. Very few people actually choose to make a living that way: More often, they are paying off a debt to a smuggler, drug dealer or pimp, or simply find themselves cast adrift with no other skills or means of survival. I think now of the young queer people in the LGBT youth group I co-facilitated for two years. Some were kicked out of their homes when they “came out,” or ran away from home because they were bullied. A few, I knew, were turning “tricks” minutes after our group sessions ended.

So, perhaps, I could say that I took Long’s actions personally, not only because of those young people, but also because my status is not much greater than theirs, at least in the eyes of some people. As a transgender woman, I have been falsely accused of all manner of sexual misconduct by people who knew they could invoke stereotypes and caricatures to exact revenge against, or simply bully, me.

At the same time, while I do not condone what Long did, what I feel about him is more complicated than what I felt about, say, Dylan Roof. I had an easier time condemning and—dare I say it?—hating Roof because he seemed to act on a purer kind of hatred and bigotry: He admitted he killed nine African Americans because he wanted to start a race war. And, quite honestly, from what I learned about him—not much, I admit—he and I seemed to have little in common.

In contrast, I can find some points of comparison, if not identification, between myself and Mr. Long. While I don’t think I’m a sex addict, whatever that means, I can understand, at least somewhat his anxiety over his sexual desires and impulses. Though mine, I imagine, are and were very different from his, I think we share this: Our desires (and, in my case, my identity) were seen as “sinful” by the religious communities in which we participated, as well as by the secular authorities (his, via his family and community; mine, products of the time and places in which I grew up) that ruled our lives.

I was raised as a Roman Catholic half a century ago. Later, I would “answer” what I thought was a “calling” from “the Lord” (which I now realize was a kind of breakdown) by “accepting Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior” and becoming with an Evangelical church and organization. In reality, what I needed were a good therapist and a support group. The particulars of Long’s religious life were surely different from mine, but I believe we shared this: Inculcation with an intense belief in an implacable being that caused us no end of anxiety.

As someone who was sexually abused by a priest, I can attest that one of the ways the church gets its “hooks” into young people is by filling them with guilt about their biological and psychological impulses, however common they may be. Those impulses conflict with their fealty to the Divine, according to the teachings of the Church, and must therefore be extinguished (via celibacy) or sublimated into a sanctioned relationship that leads to the production of more future church members. But whether you celibate (I know, you’re not supposed to verb adjectives) or procreate, your faith can never be enough.

I suspect that something like what I’ve described is at work in other Christian churches. Certainly, it was in the Evangelical church in which I was involved, and from which known and suspected homosexuals, smokers and other “sinners” were expelled. The fear of losing one’s community (and possibly family) compounds the anxieties someone might have about not being “saved” and being thus consigned to eternal torment.

Now, I won’t pretend to know the exact nature of Mr. Long’s sexual desires. He says he was an “addict.” His claim begs this question: Was he always so? Was he—or anyone—born to be a “sex addict?” Or did suppressing his desires in the name of faith cause him to occasionally “binge” like students on Spring Break in South Beach after being cooped up all winter? Could William Blake have had someone like Mr. Long in mind when he wrote, “Prisons are built from stones of law/Brothels from bricks of religion”?

One thing I know: Having to deal with suppressed desire, and anxiety over a seemingly implacable God and church, makes quite a load to bear. Especially if you are young. (Modern neuroscience shows us that the human brain doesn’t fully develop until about age 25.) Especially if you have been surrounded people and institutions that inculcated you with anxiety about your destiny and shame about your desires.

As I mentioned earlier, I neither condone nor excuse what Robert Aaron Long did. But he is not the only villain in that tragedy. He must be held to account but he also needs help as much as–again, dare I say it?—I needed it when I was abused. As I needed counseling and therapy (which, to be fair, almost nobody in that place and time knew how to do), Robert Aaron Long needs some serious de-programming, not only from a belief in the need to please an unpleasable imaginary being, but also from the notions about gender roles and racial hierarchy that enforces. So do many other young people; so did many of us: We got the same kinds of indoctrination, reinforced in similar ways. Unless those are dismantled, indicting and punishing Robert Aaron Long will serve no other purpose than to indict and punish Robert Aaron Long.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 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.

Connect with me on social media:

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Bruce Gerencser