Life

My Thoughts on the Complicity of Rural America in the Election of Donald Trump

donald trump

I am appalled, as are tens of millions of other Americans, by the fact that Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election. I voted for Bernie Sanders during the primary season, believing that his progressive views were (are) the best way forward for the United States. Sanders’ inability to connect with older, rural, white Americans, and the Democratic National Committee’s attempt to derail him, doomed Sanders’ candidacy. While many Bernie supporters think that he would have beaten Trump had he received the nomination, I am of the opinion that this is little more than wishful thinking. Yesterday, I cast my ballot for Hillary Clinton primarily because I thought (and still do) that a Trump presidency will be disastrous for America. I was willing to overlook Clinton’s scandal-plagued career and her connection to Wall Street because I believed at the time (and still do) that electing Donald Trump would send the United States careening down a path that could lead to world war. A Clinton presidency would likely have been more of the same, a sameness that I could, if need be, stomach for four more years. As a progressive and a liberal, I’ve come to see that neither political party represents me. In 2008, swept up by promises of hope and change, I believed that Barack Obama would bring fundamental change to America. By 2012, I realized that idealistic hope and change had been swallowed up by an obstructionist Congress, lobbyists, big banks, and Wall Street. While President Obama talked a good game, his allegiances were still with corporate America. This became clear in the aftermath of the housing bubble collapse, when the Obama justice department failed to prosecute those who caused the collapse. The political élite ignored how angry middle America was over the pain and suffering caused by the last major recession. Having been ignored for decades, these older, white, Christian Americans see in Donald Trump a man who is willing to stand up for them; someone who speaks their language and empathizes with their pain; someone who doesn’t see them as deplorable. These are the people who swept Donald Trump into the White House. The majority of baby boomers and older people voted for Trump. Over eighty percent of Evangelicals cast their vote for the Republican nominee. Most of these people were never going to vote for a Democrat, so there is literally nothing that Trump could do that would turn them away from voting for him.

Next year, I will be 60 years old. Outside of a few years in California in the 1960s and Arizona and Michigan in the 1970s, I have spent my life living in Ohio. I have watched Ohio turn from a union-strong democratic state to a solidly red state where virtually every major political office is held by a Republican. As an Evangelical Christian and pastor, I was pleased to see Ohio move to the right. I suppose that, if I were still an Evangelical, I would be actively involved in trying to turn back the social progress of the past eight years. I have no doubt that I would have been working to criminalize abortion, shove gays back into the closet, reinstitute marriage as between a man and woman, force transgenders to use the bathroom that corresponded to their birth sex, and above all, I would been working to establish God and the Bible as the absolute authority in matters public and private. Fortunately, for me, my political and social views began to change in the late 1990s. While I was still conservative in many ways, my views began to creep leftward as I realized how hurtful and harmful many of my views were. By the time I left the ministry in 2005, I had moved to the far left of the evangelical tent, and had I not ultimately lost my faith I am sure I would now be a liberal Christian.

I now find myself quite alone in a sea of ravenous Evangelical Republicans. I know that there are numerous area residents who feel as I do. What do we do, now that our fellow citizens decided to elect a xenophobic, misogynistic, race baiting man unfit for public office? I live in Defiance County Ohio. Seventy-one percent of registered voters voted yesterday. Sixty-four percent of them voted for Donald Trump. Twenty-nine percent voted for Hillary Clinton. In nearby Fulton, Henry, and Williams counties, the splits were pretty much the same. Even worse, in Paulding County, seventy-two percent of people voted for Donald Trump, while Hillary Clinton received twenty-three percent of the vote. In nearby Putnam County, eighty percent of voters voted for Trump. A measly fifteen percent voted for Clinton.

While most rural Northwest Ohio counties have unemployment rates below state and national levels and jobs are plentiful, the fact is that much of the area has not yet recovered from the housing collapse. Yes, jobs are plentiful, but wages are not. My wife works for a large manufacturing concern who is having a hard time attracting new employees. If you find yourself looking for a job that starts out at $10 or $11 an hour, then move to rural Northwest Ohio. Housing is relatively cheap, as are groceries. If jobs are plentiful and housing and food are affordable, why do so many local residents still fear the future? One of the reasons is that wages are stagnant, and for those who work in local factories, after they reach a certain wage level all they receive are token, often laughable wage increases. The same workers have had to absorb scandalous increases in insurance costs. When my wife started with her employer in 1997, her insurance plan had a $300 deductible and a $1,200 maximum out-of-pocket. Today, her insurance plan has a $3,750 deductible and a $6,000 maximum out-of-pocket. During this time span, the amount that she pays for insurance premiums has gone up over 200%. Outrageous costs such as these are dragging many rural Americans right out of the middle class.

The housing collapse destroyed local property values. While values have improved in recent years, they are still below what they were in the 2000s. My wife and I bought our house in 2007 at the height of the boom market. Over the past 10 years we have made $25,000 of improvements on our home, including a new roof, windows, doors, and major inside remodeling. Yet, if we sold our house today, I doubt that it would bring much more than $10,000 over what we paid for it. Three houses across the street from us have sold in the last two years. All of the sellers were forced to reduce their prices in order to sell their homes. That said, housing prices are cheap, often hundreds of thousands of dollars cheaper than similar homes in cities and on the East and West Coast.

During the Obama administration, environmental regulations have been used to saddle local residents with increasing water and sewer costs. In nearby Defiance, residents are having to deal with water and sewer bills that could, when all the forced EPA mandates are met, reach $200 a month. While the EPA is absolutely right to force Defiance to stop dumping shit in local waterways, I do understand the frustrations of local residents who are forced to pay ever-increasing utility bills without any meaningful wage increases. The small community I live in had to install a sewer system for similar reasons. Fortunately, the project was shovel ready and the village received over $1 million of TARP money to pay for the new system. If the village of Ney had not received this money, our water and sewer bills would be much more like those of Defiance.

Rural Northwest Ohio is religiously dominated by Evangelical, mainline Lutheran, Methodist, and Catholic churches. These sects are decidedly white, conservative, anti-abortion, anti-homosexual, and Republican. They are an aging population who think that the 1950s were the best times of their lives. Farms dot the landscape, and the latest election results show that farmers overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump, even though, if Congressional Republicans have their way, drastic cuts will be made to farm programs.  Quite frankly, the only thing that will turn rural areas such as this one towards a more progressive path is for there to be a lot of funerals. Until grandma and grandpa die off, rural Northwest Ohio will continue to be a bastion of Republican values. I will do what I can to be a voice that counters their delusions, and I know many others will do the same, but we do not have sufficient numbers to make a meaningful difference in the short-term. Our best approach is to begin helping the millennial and gen-x generations find their political feet. Both the Democratic and Republican parties attempted to co-opt younger Americans for political gain. These young voters bought into Barack Obama’s message of hope and change. Eight years later, many of these same voters believe that the two-party system is broken beyond repair. It is for this reason many young Americans supported Bernie Sanders, hoping that he would split off from the Democratic Party and run an independent campaign. Disheartened by Sanders’ pragmatic refusal to do so, many of these disillusioned young voters stayed home on election day, allowing idealism to trump pragmatism. It remains to be seen if the millennial and gen-x generations will continue to support the two-party system, or will instead opt to burn the house to the ground and start a political revolution. I think Bernie Sanders is right when he says what America really needs is revolution. Perhaps after four years of being ravaged by an orange-skinned monster, America will be ready for a real hope-and-change revolution.

I am often asked why I continue to live in rural Northwest Ohio. Why would an atheist with socialistic/progressive/liberal values continue to live in an area dominated by God’s Only Party? The short answer is that this is where my children and grandchildren live, but there is more to my living here than just my love for family. First, I was born here. My father’s parents were Hungarian immigrants who settled in this area, operating a hundred-acre farm until both of them died in the 1960s. Both my mom and dad were raised on the farm. While my dad was raised in Ohio, my mom spent most of her younger years on a farm in Missouri. My rural country roots run deep. Polly and I recently celebrated our thirty-eighth wedding anniversary. We have spent most of our married years living among rural people. The slow, lazy hum of rural life suits us. Good schools surround us and we have few of the fears that many city-dwellers face. While we lock our doors and cars out of habit, if we didn’t it is likely that nothing would happen. We know our neighbors, even though we have little in common with them. We are surrounded by wildlife and greenery, and the shores of Lake Erie and Lake Michigan are but short drives away. We know little of traffic jams, and when we go to the big cities of Toledo and Fort Wayne to indulge in that which only they can provide, we are always glad when we return home; and that’s the key word…home. Yes, I am angry that my fellow country folk played a big part in electing Donald Trump. I totally get the anger that many of my blue state friends have towards rural America. Their anger is warranted, but I hope they will remember that not every country hick or hillbilly is a Republican. This is my home, and I will, from my little corner of the universe, do what I can to make sure that Donald Trump is a one term president and that his harmful policies are kept from fruition. As disheartened as I am today, I know that I cannot remain silent. If my goal remains a better future for my children and grandchildren, then I owe it to them to muster what strength I can to defeat political ideologies that want to roll back progress. Throwing feces and writing screaming blog posts will gain me nothing. I must do what I’ve always done, and that is to be a loud voice for progressive values and the humanist ideal.

Better to Try and Fail Than Not Try at All?

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People who suffer with chronic illnesses are often accused of giving up or giving in. Irrational hyper-optimism has so infected the American psyche, that those who embrace their lives as they are often are looked down upon. Put mind over matter; never give in; be pro-active, always hope for a better tomorrow; these and other cheap clichés are often recited to the chronically ill, implying that their illnesses are somehow their own fault. If they would just take this drug, have this treatment, or see this doctor, then all would be well. An unwillingness to do these things is often viewed as laziness or giving in. Often, people take their own experiences and project them onto others, thinking that their outcomes would be the same for everyone if they would just follow the same course of treatment. People who think in this manner can often oppress and hurt chronic-illness sufferers, even when they don’t intend to do so. A recent health-related dust-up on social media has left me wondering if I should continue to write about my health problems and my battle with chronic pain. While I find writing about these things to be psychologically and physically helpful, sometimes the responses from readers can undo any of the health benefits gained from the writing.

I’ve repeatedly been told that I need to keep trying; that it is better to try and fail than not try at all. While I am sure people who say this to me mean well, I wonder if they have ever considered how such cheerleading can actually hurt those who are struggling just to make it to another day. I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia 18 years ago. Since then, the laundry list of health problems I have has continued to grow. No matter how many doctors I see, how many tests I have, or how many different drugs I try, I still wake up every morning in pain. I know that there is no cure on the horizon. No magic potion is going to undo the damage done by two decades of fighting with the medical equivalent Mohammed Ali.

I have moments when I pretend that I can ignore my body and do what I want. Thanks to a decade of medical treatment, we are swimming in medical debt. Because of changes in our medical insurance, twenty-five to thirty percent of our income is spent on medical bills — mostly mine. I find it almost unbearable to watch Polly walk out the door every day, knowing that 25% of that day’s earnings will go towards my medical expenses.

Recently, I once again ignored reality and decided that I would get a job so I could help pay the medical bills. I need employment that will allow me to sit while I work and take frequent breaks. Showing up for an interview in a wheelchair or haltingly walking with a cane usually results in the interviewer telling me, thanks for applying. We will keep your application on file. So, as I did recently with an interview with Meijer, I pretended that I am not a cripple. And just like that they offered me a job. Would they have offered me the job if I was in a wheelchair or walk with a cane? I doubt it. I’m sure if I told them that I have arthritis of the spine and can only stand for 15 or so minutes at a time, they would have politely told me that they had no job for me. Yes, the law says employers must accommodate the handicapped, but in the real world a 60-year-old cripple has little chance of winning a job over a healthy 25-year-old. Discrimination against the handicapped and older prospective employees happens without employers ever saying a word. I try to remember back when I was young man responsible for hiring employees for the various companies I worked for. Young and able-bodied were always preferable to old and crippled. In the case of Meijer, they are so desperate for workers, that they were willing to hire a broken-down old man such as I. As my orientation day drew near, Polly and I had a heart-to-heart talk about whether I could really do this job. Mentally, I told myself, sure, I can do this. But, knowing that I can’t stand for longer than 15 minutes at a time means that it’s impossible for me to work the floor or run a cash register at Meijer. Polly, who knows better than anyone (including myself) what I can and can’t do finally persuaded me to not take the job. As is often the case when it comes to my health, she has a lot more sense than I do. I can deceive myself into thinking that I can do something, when Polly knows I can’t. This is not me giving up or giving in as much as it is accepting things as they are.

After turning down Meijer, I decided to try my hand at a work-from-home job with Amazon. I entered training with grand ambition, thinking that I had finally found something that I could do. Amazon’s training was quite extensive and grueling, yet I passed all the exams and was in the top five percent of my class of 650. Based on several conference calls with other new hires and management, I determined I was by far the oldest man in my group. Most of the new hires were in their twenties and thirties, as were many of the members of management.

Encouraged by Polly and my counselor, I continued to slog through the training even though I was worried about remembering everything I had learned. Both of them told me they were sure I could do the job.  After completing the  training, I was deemed a newly-minted customer service representative — ready to start taking live calls. I thought, I know I can do this. A part of me knew better, but all I could think of was our increasing debt, so I pushed my better judgment aside and answered my first call. The call started well — a man wanting to know why his order hadn’t been delivered — and then what I feared would happen, did. I couldn’t remember what I needed to do next. My mind literally froze — covered with a pain-laden, fatigued cloud. The customer became frustrated with me and hung up. After emotionally regrouping from my failure,  I took another call only to have continued cognitive problems. I could not remember what I needed to do. This customer, instead of hanging up on me started screaming, so much so that I hung up on her. After this call, I mentally collapsed, knowing that I was unable to do what the job required. Several days later, Amazon and I agreed that it was best if I resigned, and so I did.

The Amazon catastrophe has caused great psychological damage and pain. Pushed to the very edge of the abyss, my thoughts turned to suicide. While the suicidal thoughts faded after a couple of days, the assault on my mind remains the same. It’s hard not to feel worthless, that I am little more than a burden on my wife and family. They will certainly tell me that I am not, but it’s hard not to think that I am. This is usually the point where well-meaning people interject one of their cheap clichés about making lemonade when life gives you lemons. I am always polite when people say one of their Oprah-like maxims, but there are days when I want to tell them, until you’ve walked in my shoes, shut the fuck up.

If you’ve noticed in recent months that the volume of my writing has diminished, now you know why. Things are better than they were a month ago, but I’m far from being ready to tackle another job opportunity. I do have thoughts of trying to make some money using my photography skills. In particular, I am considering starting a real estate photography business. Several of my children have recently bought homes, and the common denominator with all the homes they looked at was that the property photographs were terrible. I mean a-w-f-u-l. I plan to send out letters to local realtors offering to do their property photography. Several years ago, I applied for such a job with a local realtor only to be told by her that I was so overqualified that she didn’t believe I would keep the job for long. I tried to explain to her that she need not worry about that, but her mind was made up.

I hope this new business venture will prove to be viable and profitable. If it’s not, we will be forced  to make some serious cuts in our budget. Hoping for a better day doesn’t change the fact that there are bills to pay. It used to be that it was easy to work out payment plans for medical debt, but now the physicians group my doctors are a part of will only make a payment arrangements for up to 12 months. After that, they demand you borrow the money to pay the debt. Last year, we had to borrow $5,000 to pay for my previous round of tests and procedures. While I’m not ready to throw in the towel, the daily pressure of these things makes it hard to focus on a better tomorrow. For those who have walked a similar path, you know what I’m talking about.

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1983: Smelly Carpet, Sprite, Psycho Bruce, and a Christmas Tree

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Christmas tree at another New Lexington house, 1984

In July 1983, I planted a new church in Somerset Ohio. I would, for the next 11 years, pastor Somerset Baptist Church, starting in a storefront and later holding services in a 150-year-old brick church building purchased from the Methodist Conference. I would learn a lot about myself during the time I spent pastoring this church For a few years, the church experienced rapid numerical growth, leading to scores of professions of faith. And then, just as quickly, the church numerically receded, returning to a typical country church of 50 or so people. I could spend months writing about my experiences as pastor of this church, but for now I want to focus on a house we lived in on Water Street in New Lexington, Ohio.

When I started the church, we lived in Buckeye Lake, 25 miles north and west of Somerset. Wanting to live in the area where I would be ministering, we sought out housing in Somerset. Unable to find housing, we rented a house in New Lexington — a community built on a hill nine miles south of Somerset. After moving into the home, we noticed the carpets had a smell. The longer we lived there the worse the smells became. I mentioned this to the owner. He said the previous tenants had animals and that’s why the carpet smelled. Determining that we were likely going to move if he didn’t do something about the smell, the owner had the carpets replaced in the living room and main bedroom. Despite the fact that the owner replaced the carpet, the house still had a faint smell of animal urine. I suspect the urine and had soaked into the wood floors underneath the carpet, and as anyone who has ever had to deal with such a problem knows, once this happens either the floors must be sanded and refinished or shellacked to seal in the odor. Six weeks later, we would move to a ramshackle farmhouse northeast of Somerset, near Glenford, Ohio.

There are several stories I would like to share from the few months we spent living on Water Street. I have always been a pop (soda) drinker. My drink of choice was/is Pepsi, but I would, from time to time, drink other brands such as Coke and Sprite. These were the days when pop came packaged as eight returnable 16 ounce glass  bottles. Many of my fellow baby boomers have memories, I’m sure, of collecting pop bottles or using pop bottles for ashtrays or emergency urinals The returnable bottles were sent by grocery stores to bottlers who would sanitize the bottles and refill them with the proper soft drink. One day, I decided to drink a bottle of Sprite. I grabbed the bottle opener, popped the cap off the bottle, put it to my lips, and tipped the bottle so the sugary drink would flow. Suddenly, I felt something hit my teeth. I quickly stop drinking, and upon investigating I found a barrette with hair still attached in the bottle. Gagging, I quickly put the bottle down. To this day, I find it hard to drink Sprite. Irrational as it might be, all I can think of when I think about drinking a Sprite is that barrette with hair attached hitting me in the teeth.

As a young adult, I did a good bit of walking and talking in my sleep. My brother and sister have all sorts of stories about my sleepwalking escapades, including walking through the living room brushing my teeth. A short time after Polly and I were married, she awoke to find me standing in the corner of the bedroom urinating. Sound asleep, I thought I was in the bathroom. The sleepwalking continued into my later life. One night, while living in New Lexington, we had gone to bed, and as had been the custom for the past 38 years, Polly quickly fell asleep and I fitfully tossed and turned before finally drifting off into that night’s dream world. Several hours into the night, Polly awoke to find me crouched over her — eyes wide open. I was sound asleep, but Polly thought I was a psychopath fixing to kill her. After a few moments, I rolled over, while Polly was left shaking, fearing for her life. Both of us wondered if I would someday do something hurtful and not know that I did it. Fortunately, Polly and our six children survived. These days, the only sleepwalking I do is the wide-awake kind as I make one of my nightly trips to the bathroom or the kitchen. I still talk in my sleep from time to time. Polly no longer fears becoming the next day’s headline, though she does enjoy retelling what I said to her in one of my sleep talking moments. I can, in her words, still be quite entertaining.

A few days after Thanksgiving,we decided to move from Water Street  to our newly-rented house in Glenford. We had very few possessions, so we were able to do all the moving with a pickup truck. Having just put up our Christmas tree several days before, we decided to leave all the decorations on the tree as we moved it to its new location. I still remember how hilarious it was to see that Christmas tree sitting in the back of the pickup truck, fully decorated. As you might imagine, by the time we got to our new house, all the tinsel had blown off the tree , as had some of the glass bulbs. I know– the stupid stuff kids do, right? We put the tree back together, in preparation for what we still call to this day the Christmas from Hell. But that’s a story for another day.

1977: The Adventures of a Detroit Delivery Truck Driver

bruce midwestern baptist college pontiac michigan 1978

Bruce Gerencser, Midwestern Baptist College, 1978

I attended Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac Michigan from 1976 to 1979. Midwestern, founded in the 1950s by Dr. Tom Malone, is an unaccredited Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) institution. Midwestern’s unaccredited status meant that students did not have access to federal or state grant or loan programs. Most students worked a part-time or full-time job to pay their tuition bill. Dormitory students, of course, also had the added expense of room and board. While Midwestern had a rudimentary cafeteria that provided a light breakfast and lunch, dormitory students were not required to eat there. Most dorm residents ate a combination of fast food and boxed/canned food. The dormitory had a kitchen with a microwave and a few tables. Every afternoon and evening, weird wafting smells circulated through the dormitory as students tried to “cook” their meals. I still have fond memories of the time my fiancée, who is now my wife, decided to surprise me with a microwave-cooked meal of liver. Needless to say, the liver was inedible. Students who worked at local fast food restaurants would often bring home throw-aways to either eat or give to their friends. The dormitory did not have refrigerators, so in the wintertime these throw-aways would often be stored — for days on end — outside the dormitory in a snow bank. This crude form of refrigeration would allow students to ” safely” eat three-day-old McDonald’s hamburgers. Ah, the good old days.

I worked a number of jobs while a student at Midwestern. One such job was working for Orchard Lake Cleaners — a now-closed commercial drycleaner and laundry. Each afternoon after classes I would load laundered uniforms, towels, and dust mops into a Ford F350 box delivery truck and make deliveries to Detroit homes and businesses. The man who operated the cleaners was an alcoholic. It was not uncommon for me to come back from my deliveries to find him passed out, head on desk, and a partially emptied bottle of booze nearby. More than once I had to wake him up so he could pay me my under-the-table wages for the week. As will become clear later in this story, this job proved to be quite exciting and dangerous.

Every day, I would load up the deliveries for that day and make my way to Detroit to make deliveries. Some were made to homes, others to businesses. I’ve often wondered if there was more to my deliveries than just laundry. Some of the businesses I delivered to were in seedy parts of Detroit. One day, as I pulled in to a downtown business to make a delivery, I noticed a man and a woman having sex in the backseat of a car. Another time, at the same location, I walked in on some sort of shakedown. I knew that I was at the wrong place at the wrong time, so I quickly shut the door and went back to the truck, leaving the order undelivered.

One day, I was driving down a Detroit city street on my way to my next delivery when a car turned on the one-way street and headed right toward me in the wrong direction. I successfully maneuvered the truck to avoid hitting the car head-on, but in doing so I clipped the mirrors off of several parked cars. I reported the accident to my boss, thinking that he would praise me for my astute driving skills. After all, I avoided an accident that would’ve likely totaled the truck. What I didn’t know is that there was no insurance on the truck. Needless to say, my boss was quite angry with me and wondered if perhaps he should get someone else to drive the truck.

Several days later, I was driving down one of Detroit’s many freeways and I noticed in the distance that several semi trucks were parked along the berm. Before I could slow down, I heard and felt a large BAM! on the top of the truck cab. What the heck (Baptist for hell)! I thought, as I quickly put on the brakes and pulled the truck to the berm. I got out of the truck and hopped up on the bumper to see what had hit the truck. Not only was there a huge dent in the cab, there was also a gash in the exterior metal face of the box. As I surveyed the damage, a beat up old car pulled in back of the truck and out jumped two white hippie looking men. They asked me what happened, and then proceeded to tell me that they were undercover Detroit cops. They were working nearby when they noticed a group of teenagers throwing cement blocks from the overpass to the roadway below. The semi trucks ahead of me had caught the blocks in the windshield, causing physical injury to one of the drivers. I was lucky that the block missed my windshield and hit the top of the cab instead. I am sure, at the time, that I thanked Jesus for watching out for me. Cue up Jesus Take the Wheel, right? I now know that I could have been seriously harmed or killed if the block had hit the windshield. Thrown a second sooner, and the block would have smashed into the windshield. Who knows what might have happened next.

Returning to the safe confines of the Orchard Lake Cleaners parking lot, I went into the office and told my boss that my truck driving days were over. Better to mindlessly run a machine than dodge criminals and concrete blocks. Several years later, someone dropped a bowling ball off an interstate overpass, instantly killing a woman. One second, often the difference between life and death. One second, and the life of Bruce Gerencser might have ended at the age of 19 on a Detroit freeway.

1995: Charley’s Steakery, the Itch to Preach, and Sex for Tacos 

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After leaving Community Baptist Church in the fall of 1994, we moved to the small central Ohio village of Frazeysburg, 16 miles east of Newark, Ohio, where Polly’s mom and dad lived. Polly’s parents gave us enough money for a down payment on a fairly new 14′ x 70′ mobile home. We lived in Williamsburg Square — a well-kept manufactured home community that catered to older families without children and younger families with two children or fewer. The only reason we were allowed to live in Williamsburg Square was because we had previously bought a mobile home from Williamsburg, and after observing how well behaved our children were, the owners decided it would be safe to allow the Gerencser children to prowl the neighborhood. Our older neighbors were delighted to have our children around, especially when it came time to rake leaves and shovel snow. Believing that it was important for our children to serve others, we asked them to help our neighbors without pay. This they gladly did, even though several neighbors were insistent that our children be paid.

After getting settled in Frazeysburg, I went about looking for suitable employment to provide for my family. In less than a week I had secured a job working as general manager for a Charley’s Steakery in Zanesville, Ohio.  As it was with every time I needed to secure secular employment, I made substantially more money working in the “world” than I did working as a pastor. Having managed restaurants in the past, I was well-suited for my new job. The owner was a Taiwanese man who operated a restaurant in Columbus. He was a hands-off owner who expected me to manage every aspect of his franchise. I would talk to him on the phone every few days, and every month or so he would stop by for a short while to see how things were going. Outside of these contacts, I was on my own.

The restaurant had been run into the ground by the previous manager. It’s owner would later tell me, after contacting me to testify in a wage-hour dispute, that I was the best manager he had ever hired. He told me that he knew that I would just take care of things and that he wouldn’t have to worry about whether I was doing my job. Working for Charley’s Steakery was by far the best job I ever had. I had the freedom to hire the necessary people to ensure that the restaurant ran smoothly. Unfortunately, this meant reassigning or firing many of the existing employees, most of whom treated their job like a weekend at a spa. They learned quickly that I was a no-nonsense, the-customer-comes-first, if-you-have-time-to-lean-you-have-time-to-clean, trust-but-verify manager.

During this foray into the secular world, we attended Fallsburg Baptist Church, an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) congregation in Fallsburg. Ohio. The church was pastored by my then-best friend Keith Troyer. (Keith currently pastors Grace Baptist Church in Greenville, Pennsylvania.) Attending Keith’s church allowed us an opportunity to recover from the wounds inflicted upon us through our horrific experiences at Community Baptist Church in Elmendorf, Texas. (Please see the series I am a Publican and a Heathen.) In retrospect, we should have spent more time recuperating, but as I shall share in a moment, the not-preaching bug bit me and after a few months on the sideline I was ready to return to the pastorate. Keith tried to satiate my need by allowing me to preach from time to time. Though our friendship did not survive my loss of faith, I have always appreciated what Keith did for our family.

Going to work at Charley’s Steakery six days a week allowed me to stay busy. It was not uncommon for me to work 60-70 hours a week – workaholic that I am. Part of the reason I had to work long hours is that I had a hard time attracting and keeping employees. I’m sure some of the problem was that new employees quickly realized that they would actually have to work once they took the job, and didn’t stay long.  Over the years, I hired scores of entry-level employees and managers. Some of these new hires turned out to be wonderful employees. However, far too many of them were indolent people looking to make as much money as possible for the least amount of work. Such people, of course, frustrated the hell out of me. Workaholics have a hard time understanding why everyone is not just like them. I spent much of my life as a pastor planting new churches. This type of work lends itself to driven workaholics. I was always perturbed by pastors who viewed the pastorate as a vacation gig, one where they preached on Sundays and played golf and hung out with their preacher friends the rest of the week. Again, I projected my own work ethic and way of looking at life on others. While I still think many pastors are as lazy as a coon dog in front of a fireplace on a cold winter’s night, I do realize that my judgments of others were often unfair or misguided.

The restaurant I managed was in the food court at the Colony Square Mall on the north side of Zanesville. I had to compete with restaurants such as Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Mr. Hot Dog, and a Chinese restaurant. We not only competed for food dollars, we also battled one another over employees. Charley’s Steakery shared a back hallway with Taco Bell. Employees would enter their respective restaurants via this hallway. Taco Bell was the first restaurant after employees entered the hallway. The manager of Taco Bell, noticing the quality of several of my employees, began poaching them, offering them better wages than I could offer. After a few weeks of losing employees, I decided to contact the Taco Bell manager. I asked her to please stop soliciting my employees. There, I thought to myself. I have put an end to that problem.

Several days later, the director of franchise operations called me about a disturbing call he had just received from the Taco Bell manager. According to her, I had asked her to please stop offering sex to my employees as an enticement for coming to work for her. That’s right, because I use the word “soliciting,” the Taco Bell manager thought I was talking about her prostituting herself. Of course, I did no such thing. I assumed that she had at least a cursory understanding of the English language and knew that the words solicit/soliciting/solicitation actually have several meanings, but she did not. After explaining to the franchise operations director what my intent was, he suggested (demanded?) that I contact her and apologize. My first thought was, apologize? What did I do that was wrong? It’s not my fault this dumb hillbilly doesn’t know what the word soliciting means. After pondering what to do for several days, my what-would-Jesus-do guilt kicked in, and I sat down and wrote a letter to the Taco Bell manager apologizing for our misunderstanding. But, before I uttered the words “I’m sorry”, I made sure she understood the dictionary definition of the word “soliciting.”

The Taco Bell manager quit soliciting my employees and I went back to trying to find meaning and purpose in secular work. But five months after I took the job, I could no longer push down the urge, need, and desire — the Holy Spirit — to pastor another church. In February, 1995, some friends of ours, Marv and Louise Hartman, stop by the restaurant to visit with me. They lived in the northwest Ohio city of Bryan — the city of my birth. (We currently live five miles south of Bryan.) I had known the Hartmans for many years. Their oldest son Lyle was, at the time, a good friend of mine. As a teenager, I attended First Baptist Church in Bryan, as did the Hartmans. Marv and I played church league softball together and Louise help me save money for college by managing my savings account. (After sending out my infamous letter, Dear Family, Friends, and Former Parishioners, Louise sent me a blistering letter that said I had been taken over by Satan. She later wrote and apologized for the first letter. Our friendship did not survive.)

The Hartmans told me about a church that was looking for a pastor near where they lived — Olive Branch Christian Union Church, near Fayette, Ohio. A few short weeks later, we packed up our belongings and moved our mobile home to a trailer pad next to the church for what would be a short seven month pastorate. In retrospect, as I shared above, we should have taken more time to heal before taking another church the pastor. Despite advice from several friends who suggested that I slow down and do pulpit supply, revivals, and itinerant work, I felt the need to be about my Father’s business, and that feeling was so great that neither money, common sense, nor my wife’s objections would keep me from quitting a job that paid twice what Olive Branch Christian Union Church was offering me. All that mattered was that God had called me to preach and I needed to be busy preaching. This is why it always amuses me when people suggest that I was in the ministry for the money. I ALWAYS made more money in the secular world than I did as pastor. If I had it to do all over again, I would have worked bi-vocationally, providing for my family and scratching my God-inspired itch to preach. We wouldn’t be facing some of the financial problems we now face if I had put my family first.

As Paul Harvey would say, now you know the rest of the story.

Retired Pastor? How Does THAT Happen?

bruce-gerencser-preacher-and-atheist

Pastor Bruce, Preachersville, Kentucky, late 1990s and Atheist Bruce, Defiance, Ohio, 2016

I saw my primary care doctor today for my two-month check-up. I have been seeing the same doctor for eighteen years. We’ve become friends, and my appointments are often just much catching up as they are treating me. My doctor is an Evangelical Christian. While I am sure he has noticed that I don’t talk about God/Jesus/Church any more, we have never had any sort of discussion about my current beliefs and way of life. I am sure he still thinks I am numbered among the elect — a follower of Jesus Christ.

Scripts written/called in, CT scan scheduled, blood tests ordered, bitching about how bad the Browns and Bengals were Sunday finished, time to go home. The nurse — also an Evangelical — came into the room with several reams of paper (or so it seems) detailing everything we talked about during my visit. My doctor said to his nurse, Bruce, is a retired pastor. Before I could say a word, the nurse said, Retired pastor? How does THAT happen? Again, before I could say anything, my doctor said, He’s a retired pastor.

I outwardly smiled and, like Trump changing the discussion from “pussy-grabbing” to Bill Clinton’s dalliances, I said, how many games do you think the Browns will win? My doctor shook his head and laughed, knowing that his Browns suck. Come my next visit in December, I suspect one or both of us will be football-depressed.

For whatever reason, when it comes to my medical treatment, I wall myself off from my atheist and humanist beliefs. I don’t disown them, I just don’t talk about it. I do, from time to time, act like a devout, proselytizing Jehovah’s Witness, leaving copies of the Freedom From Religion Foundation or Americans United For Separation of Church and State newsletters in the waiting room. Even with this low-key act of godlessness, I make sure my name and address is blacked out before placing the newsletters among waiting room reading materials.

What did the nurse mean when she said, Retired Pastor?, how does THAT happen? Evangelical thinking on this subject goes something like this:

  • God calls men to be pastors.
  • The work of the ministry is far above any other job. In fact, it is not a job, it’s a calling.
  • This calling is irrevocable. For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance. (Romans 11:29)
  • Pastors should die in the pulpit while preaching the gospel. Going to heaven with my boots on, old-time preachers used to say.

Thus, being a retired pastor does not compute .God saved, and called me, so I should still be preaching. But wait a minute. I am no longer a Christian. I don’t believe in the existence of the God I at one time worshiped and served. My salvation and calling were the result of social conditioning, the consequence of spending fifty years in the Evangelical church. At age five I told my mother that I wanted to be a preacher some day. At age fifteen, I put my faith and trust in Jesus Christ. Two weeks later, I went before the church and told them I believed God was calling me to be a preacher. The congregation praised God for his selection of the redheaded Gerencser boy, and a week later I preached my first sermon. Thirty-three years later I preached my last sermon.

Someday, my obituary will be published in the Bryan Times and Defiance Crescent-News. On that day, my doctor will know the “truth” about my life and loss of faith. Until then, I am content to talk about football, baseball, or family, leaving my godlessness for another day. While I don’t think the fact of my atheism would affect my medical care, I prefer not to complicate my professional relationship and friendship with my doctor. If I Iive longer than expected and my doctor retires before I die, perhaps then we will talk about my journey from Evangelicalism to atheism. (Please see From Evangelicalism to Atheism.) Or maybe he’ll stumble upon my blog or read one of the articles I have written for other blogs. I don’t fear him knowing. I just know there’s not enough time in a fifteen minute office visit for me to explain why I am no longer a Christian.

Do you have certain people you haven’t shared your deconversion with? Why do you keep this to yourself? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

Chronic Pain and a Football Game

tinora-vs-ayersville-2016

It is a beautiful Friday night in rural Northwest Ohio. Football weather — the time of year when I go to local high school football games with my sons. While none of my grandchildren is old enough to play football, I do enjoy watching young men battle it out on the gridiron, each hoping to be that night’s victor.

On this Friday, the game of choice is Ayersville vs. Tinora — billed as THE must-see game. I arrive early at the field so I can secure a good seat. Second row up, 50 yard line, perfect for viewing and photography. As always, I have brought my camera, hoping to shoot a few keepers before the darkness of the night forces me to stop.

I am the first person in the stands, but not for long. Soon the bleachers start to fill. By game time, late arrivers will be forced to stand along the fence that cordons off the stands from the field. I smile as I think of those who will have to park great distances away from the stadium. The early bird gets the best seat, I think to myself, and Bruce Gerencser is ALWAYS early.

I soon settle into my seat. I sit, thinking of nothing but how nice the weather is for a September football game. By the time the Ohio High School Athletic Association crowns its divisional champions, the weather will have turned cold and snow will blanket the landscape. Today, I will enjoy the warmth of the sun and the balmy breeze that make it a perfect night for a football game.

Eyes closed and head tilted slightly towards the sun, I bask in the nothingness of the moment; that is, until my state of mindfulness is rudely interrupted by an elementary school boy. A younger family with children arrived a few minutes ago, taking up seats several rows above mine. Their restless son, unable to contain his energy, jumps from his row to mine, landing on the metal stands with a big thud. My seat bounces as his feet hit my row, causing me to abruptly return to reality. Not thinking, I said, quite loudly JESUS! Better than a swear word, right? The mother is offended by my utterance, choosing to ignore how her son actions in using the stands as a trampoline might affect others.

The young family soon moves to different seats. Did my taking the Lord’s name in vain cause them to move? I don’t know. Not that I care. As the stands continue to fill, an elderly man and his forty-something son make their way into the bleachers. I always sit on the end of the row. This allows me to control who sits next to me and it also allows me to stand up and move when people need to go to the bathrooms or concessions. I know I am a big guy, and not wanting a night filled with lap dances, I prefer to stand up and move into the common aisle so people can get by me.

Sitting on the end of the row has its disadvantage too. Over the years, I have been repeatedly beaten with purses, coolers, and the like as people make their way to their seats. Some people say sorry, but most often they ignore their personal assaults on my body. I accept that this is the price I pay for sitting near the common aisle. Tonight is no different. As the father and the son make their way up to their seats, both of them plow into me as if I didn’t exist. Soon they settle into their seats right in back of mine. This begins what will be a night-long beating from both of them. I have suffered many such beatings before, so I smile, grit my teeth, and say nothing. I am still the polite Christian, I think to myself. I want to tell my oppressors, Dammit, PLEASE stop hitting me. But I say nothing, choosing instead to slide forward on my seat, hoping that the extra distance will keep me clear of their feet and knees.

The son brought with him an oversized stadium seat, a seat so large that my son asks him to move it so he can sit next to me. My sons are far less “Christian” than I am these days and are quite willing to ask people to remove themselves from their personal space. The man quickly complies, but as he does, his metal-framed chair smashes into my back, causing my pain-wracked body to scream its objection. Before I can turn towards the man and give him my really, asshole? face, he slaps me hard on the back twice and says, sorry ’bout that.

I can feel my face flushing with anger. I want to tell the man what I think about his assaults on my body and personal space, but I say nothing, choosing instead to weakly say, that’s okay. It’s not okay, I tell myself, but what’s to be gained by telling this man what I really think? My grandchildren are sitting next to me, and their friends’ families sit nearby. What will they think of me and our family if I give this man the verbal lashing he so richly deserves?

I reach for my pain medication, taking a double dose, choosing to suffer in silence. I am here to watch the game, my inner Bruce says. Ignore this asshole. Half time arrives and the game of the year is a blowout. The Tinora stands are quiet, shocked by the beat-down Ayersville is putting on the home team. With four minutes left in the game, I decide to leave, hoping to escape the throng that will soon pour from the stands.

I gingerly make my way down the stands to the walkway that leads to the parking lot. I walk haltingly, relying on my cane to keep me from falling over. Free from the man who assaulted me, I wrongly assume that I am safe from further indignities. As I walk slowly to my car, filled-with-life teens run into me. With a quick sorry uttered to a stranger, these youths continue to playfully run, hoping to catch friends. I don’t blame them for running into me. I remember when I was their age. I had little thought of others and how my actions might affect them. I don’t, however, have the same sympathies for the adults who rush by me, hoping to beat the traffic. Surely, they know better, I think to myself. By the time I reach my car, I have been run into countless times. I feel as if I have been forced to run a gauntlet. I unlock the car door, open it, and slowly pull myself into seat. I sit for a few moments, a tear of exhaustion in my eye. I can’t do this anymore, I tell myself.

In a few moments, my mind and body settle down enough for me to start the car and head for home. Several hours later, I text my son: “Tinora vs. Holgate next Friday. Want to go?”

Remember When Long Distance Telephone Service was Deregulated?

rotary phone

My wife and I began life quite simply when we married in July of 1978. Our monthly budget included debts such as:

  • Rent
  • Electric
  • Natural Gas
  • Water/sewer
  • Telephone
  • Sears
  • JC Penny

Over time, we added indebtedness to finance companies such as Modern Finance, Beneficial Finance, and several other loan companies. Polly and I had zero understanding about the real world of debt. Neither of us grew up in families that were smart about money. My parents ran up debt and skipped town, whereas Polly’s parents spent every penny they earned and put the rest on credit cards. Neither was a great example for a young married couple. This resulted in us making poor financial decisions. It took us a few years to figure out that if you don’t pay your gas/electric/phone bills you won’t have gas/electric/phone. I wouldn’t, even today, say that we handle money and debt very well. Things are certainly better, but medical bills are slowly choking the life out of our checkbook. That said, we have cellphones now, and it has been 35 years since we found a tag on our door saying that our gas/electric/phone was shut off. Progress, eh? 

In the 1980s, our primary form of communication was the telephone. There was one phone company, and phone choices were limited: black, white, pink and rotary or push button dial. That’s it. Per-minute charges for long distance could be as high as 25 cents. In the 1980s, thanks to deregulation, scores of companies entered the long distance telephone market. These companies offered all sorts of incentives for customers to sign up with them. For a couple of years, we received weekly enticements to change long distance companies. 

Many of these enticements were cash incentives in the form of checks. Signing and depositing the checks gave the long distance providers permission to change our service. I suspect, all told, we changed long distance providers a dozen times during the days of wild, wild west long-distance shoot outs. At the time, I was the pastor of Somerset Baptist Church in Mt. Perry, Ohio. We were quite poor, so the check inducements became a source of extra income. I never had a twinge of guilt about changing companies, I thought, at the time, if you are going to give me free money I am going to take it. The biggest incentive we ever received came from Sprint: $200 to switch to them. I could hardly believe that they were offering us so much money to change providers. I quickly endorsed and deposited the check, worried that Sprint might find out that we had been their customer several times before. Ah, those were the good old days. 

After several years of battling for customers, long distance providers realized that giving people large amounts of money to change providers was not financially sustainable. In the 1990s, companies would use similar incentives to attract new internet service customers. I am sure many readers can remember when our mail boxes were filled with offers from AOL, Prodigy, Compuserve, and a slew of dial-up internet service providers. These days, it’s cell phone companies, along with cable and satellite TV providers, who use cash incentives to attract new customers or steal customers away from their competitors. 

Do you remember the days of long distance deregulation? Please share your experiences in the comment section.