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Category: Life

Short Stories: The Perry County Dump

somerset baptist church 1989

In July 1983, I started a new Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church in Somerset, Ohio. I would remain the pastor of Somerset Baptist Church until March 1994. Somerset was a community of 1,400 people located in Perry County — the northernmost county in the Appalachian region. It was here that I learned what it meant to be a pastor; to truly involve yourself in the lives of others.

The membership of Somerset Baptist was primarily made up of poor working-class people. Most church families received some form of government assistance — mostly food stamps and Medicaid. In many ways, these were my kind of people. Having grown up poor myself, I knew a good bit about their struggles. I deeply loved them, and they, in return, bestowed their love on me.

In 1985, we bought an old abandoned brick Methodist church building five miles east of Somerset. Built in 1831 and located on the top of Sego Hill, the building had been abandoned years earlier. Purchased for $5,000, the building needed extensive repairs. One of the first things we had to do was haul away truckloads of junk that had been left behind by the Methodists and debris that had accumulated from the years of being left open to the elements.

Being fairly new to the area, I asked one member where the landfill was. He told me, I’ll haul everything to the “Perry County Dump” and it won’t cost anything!” I thought, “great!” Over the next several weeks, this man — who later would drive one of our bus routes — dutifully hauled numerous pickup truck loads of junk to the dump. Finally, the last load was delivered. I thanked the man for hauling everything away, and then moved on to helping another congregant level the floor in the main building.

Later that year, I was tooling down a gravel/dirt road south of the church and came upon a ravine where someone had been illegally dumping junk and refuse. As I looked more closely at the littered ravine, I noticed several items that looked just like the junk hauled from the church. Sure enough, what the man had called the “Perry County Dump” was actually an illegal dumping site. This man didn’t think twice about doing this. It’s what he had always done, and “no one ever said anything,” he told me! Needless to say, I said something, telling him that it was NOT okay to dump junk at the “Perry County Dump”; that in the future anything hauled for the church would have to be taken to the real landfill. The man never understood “why” he couldn’t use the “Perry County Dump,” but he agreed to use the landfill in the future.

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.

Did I Try to Murder My Father’s Wife?

bruce gerencser arizona 1975 (1)
Bruce Gerencser, 1975, Sierra Vista, Arizona

Several weeks ago, Evangelical troll Victor Justice shockingly alleged that I tried to murder my father’s wife. Is Justice right?

In April 1972, my Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) parents divorced after fifteen years of marriage. I was fourteen. Both of them remarried several months later. Mom married her first cousin, a recent parolee from the Texas prison system. Dad married a nineteen-year-old girl with a toddler. Dad had met her at the local dirt track — Millstream Speedway — where she was the trophy girl.

My younger sister and I lived with Dad after the divorce. My younger brother lived with Mom for a time, though a few months later he returned home due to the danger and volatility in Mom’s home. We would, over the next four years, move between Dad’s and Mom’s homes as children of divorced parents often do. From the time of their divorce in 1972 to when I went to college in 1976, I lived with Dad three times for about twenty-six months, and with Mom three times for the balance of the time, save for living my eleventh-grade year with a family in the church we were attending when Mom and Dad divorced. I was living with Mom when I left for Midwestern Baptist College in August 1976.

Dad brought his new wife into our home, thinking that she would become our new mother. While I cannot speak for my siblings, I can say that this was a gross miscalculation on my father’s part. I didn’t need a new mother, I already had one. She was nineteen and I was almost fifteen. In three years, I would be in a serious relationship with a woman her age. (Please see 1975: Anita, My First Love.) There was no chance that she could EVER be my mother. As a result, we never bonded. This led to an adversarial relationship between us. She was thrilled when I moved home to Ohio to live with my mom; but not so thrilled when I moved back.

In March 1972, Dad abruptly informed my siblings and me that we were moving to Tucson, Arizona. We had no say in the matter. Overnight, Dad had our household goods auctioned off, packed up his two cars, and moved us in the night to Tucson. After arriving in Tucson, I learned that the real reason that we moved is that Dad had creditors chasing him — a scenario I experienced most of my young life. Dad was a wheeler dealer and could be, at times, a con man. As a district manager for Combined Insurance Company, Dad embezzled $10,000. Dad was investigated by the ATF for illegal firearm sales, and was even investigated by the FBI as a possible suspect in a bank robbery (which was unfounded). Throw in unpaid rent, utilities, and other debts, and life was definitely “interesting” for the Gerencser children. When people ask me if I moved a lot growing up because of Dad’s job, I reply, no, we moved all the time because Dad didn’t pay the rent.

After settling into our new home in Tucson, I set about carving out a new life in the desert. During the week, I was a tenth-grade student at Rincon High School. This was the first school where I experienced racial diversity. On Sundays and Wednesdays nights, I walked to the Tucson Baptist Temple to attend services. Neither my father, his wife, nor my siblings attended church. I tried to avoid interaction with my dad’s wife, but conflict was inevitable.

bruce gerencser arizona 1975 (2)
Bruce Gerencser, 1975, Sierra Vista, Arizona

One Sunday, I came home from church and walked into our home. Dad was working on Speedway Boulevard selling carpet. His wife and I had words. I don’t remember what the issue was. It didn’t matter. We always had words. All of a sudden, my dad’s wife picked up a leather belt and hit me in the face. I retaliated by picking her up and throwing her into a cement block wall, knocking her out. I left her lying on the floor and walked to where dad worked and told him what happened. He rushed home and took his wife to the hospital. She had a fractured back.

I could have been arrested for assault. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. Neither my dad’s wife nor I talked about the incident afterward. Both of us understood we were wrong to do what we did. Our relationship changed after that. We both stayed away from each other. A couple of months later, I moved back to my mom’s home in Bryan, Ohio. By the time I returned to Arizona in November 1974, Dad and his wife had moved to Sierra Vista. I spent very little time at home, busying myself with my job as a stock clerk for Food Giant, church three times a week and working a bus route on Sundays, and roaming southeast Arizona with my girlfriend. I also worked part-time at my dad’s gun store and manned Dad’s table at various gun shows. My life was busy, which was good, since it meant I spent very little time with Dad’s wife.

In the fall of 1975, I moved back to my mom’s home. Outside of my marriage to Polly in 1978, I would not see or speak to Dad’s wife again. We had a brief email exchange in the early 2000s, but I have no recollection of what we talked about.

Was it wrong for me to throw my dad’s wife into a block wall? Absolutely. I am grateful that I didn’t end up in jail. All of us do dumb things; things that can have catastrophic consequences. On my dad’s wife’s part, hitting me in the face with a belt was child abuse or assault. What happened was the result of a hostile relationship driven by anger. Both of us were lucky to avoid the consequences of our behavior.

Did I intend to murder my dad’s wife? Of course not, and it is absurd to suggest otherwise. Could my actions have caused her death? Absolutely. That’s what happens when anger and rage take over. When passions are enflamed, anything is possible. I visited numerous murderers in local and state prisons. Most of their crimes had a flash point. One boy killed his dad over an argument they had; another killed his friend with a shotgun because they had a disagreement over who should pay for a pizza. We humans can do awful things when sense and rationality go out the window. If I learned one thing it is this: when you find yourself angry or enraged with someone, walk away. Don’t put yourself in a position where something tragic could happen.

An attempted murderer I am not. There was a time when I was a young, temperamental boy who was placed in living situations that were challenging and difficult. The adults in my life were, for the most part, AWOL, leaving me to fend for myself. Even my pastors paid very little attention to what was going on in my life. That’s life, is it not? That’s why it is crucial that children have loving parents who are there for them. Not helicopters, but a guiding presence as they navigate life. My parents were broken from the start, as was their marriage. They did what they could, but their dysfunction had real-world consequences in the lives of their children. I have made peace with my past, and have tried my best to be a good husband, father, and grandfather. Without a doubt, I have failed many times. All I know to do is learn from my past and do better today.

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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.

Chronic Pain: Living Life When There Are Few “Better Days”

pain and suffering
I am sure glad I am so close to Jesus 🙂

“I hope you will feel better soon,” is an oft-heard line by chronic pain sufferers from well-meaning people. There’s this idea that our pain is temporary; that a cure awaits somewhere beyond the next doctor’s appointment. “A better day awaits,” people confidently say. How they could possibly know this remains unsaid, but such thinking finds its impetus in the idea that all suffering is temporary; that deliverance awaits just around the next corner.

For chronic pain sufferers, however, there are few better days outside of death on the horizon. We know there will never be a day when we “feel better,” outside of the marginal relief we receive from medications and treatments. In our minds, “it is what it is,” and no amount of good thoughts, wishful thinking, or prayer is going to change that fact.

Why, then, do the family members and friends of chronic pain sufferers ignore, marginalize, or reject this fact? If the pain sufferer can live with “it is what it is,” why can’t they? Certainly, family members and friends want the pain sufferer to feel better. I never doubt that such people are sincere or that they want what they perceive is best for me. Others have warped understandings of medical science or the specific medical conditions chronic pain sufferers face. They deify science, thinking that no medical problem is beyond treatment or cure. Doctors, of course, know better. They know that they can actually cure a handful of maladies. Most often, pain is managed and controlled. I know my doctors cannot cure me. My health problems are beyond simply taking medication or having surgery. Everything my doctors do is in the hope of giving me quality of life during what time I have left. I told my primary care doctor that I don’t expect him to cure me. I want him to do what he can to make my life better: less pain, and more mobility, or at the very least, no increased pain or debility That’s the contract we have with each other.

Many well-wishers think that if pain sufferers can, they should. If there is a treatment or procedure that “might” help, we should do it. Such people are convinced that a “miracle” awaits if the pain sufferer will just swallow this pill, eat these foods, take these supplements, have this surgery, or go through yet another treatment. They are unwilling to accept that “it is what it is.” When concerned family members and friends think (often wrongly) pain sufferers are giving in or giving up, they lecture and badger chronic pain sufferers, prodding us as a farmer with a cattle prod, to move forward through the chute of life. In their minds, giving in or giving up is always wrong, even if doing otherwise leads to more pain and suffering. I have watched numerous people — including my wife’s father — go through horrific pain and suffering, all because family members didn’t want their loved ones to give in or give up. And in the end? They died anyway.

I take a stoic approach to life. I have had a lot of trauma, tragedy, and suffering in my life. All suffering is personal. I know that what I have experienced is less than what some people have faced, but more than what others have gone through. When one of my toddler grandsons gets a boo-boo, his pain is every bit as real as Grandpa’s. The difference, of course, is that I have had almost sixty-six years of trauma, tragedy, and suffering. My lived experiences are far different from that of grandchildren or people decades younger than I am. All I know to do is to empathize with people when they are suffering, even when I know their pain is less than mine. I know that pain is a great teacher. I have had numerous steroid injections over the years. Polly always goes with me when I get juiced up. She usually remarks about my stoic mentality when the orthopedic doctor is sticking a long needle into my shoulder, hips, or hands. I always tell her that I have experienced horrible pain in my life; that the injections are uncomfortable, but nothing compared to my day-to-day pain or some of the painful procedures I’ve had in the past. I have developed mental processes that help me embrace the pain; the mental version of gritting one’s teeth and clenching one’s hands.

As I sit sideways in my recliner typing this post, my body hurts — literally — from head to toe. Herniated discs in my spine and neck, degenerative spine disease, osteoarthritis in numerous joints, muscle pain from fibromyalgia, and nerve pain in my legs and feet have left me in constant pain. I take narcotic pain medications, NSAIDs, and muscle relaxers to cope with my pain. They help, to be sure, but these drugs do not magically deliver me from pain. That has never been the goal. Pain medications and muscle relaxers, at their best, tamp down pain spikes. Certainly, I could take high enough levels of narcotics to make my pain go away, but in doing so I would sacrifice living a meaningful life. You see, “not dying” is not my grand goal. I don’t want to spend the last months and years of my life so drugged up that all I do is sleep, hoping that doing so will add a few days to my life. I choose quality over quantity, even if it means more pain than I would otherwise have.

I try to educate myself about the various diseases and debilities that I have. When I was diagnosed with gastroparesis (an incurable stomach disease) two years ago, the first thing I did was study up on the disease and its treatments. Knowledge really is power. With knowledge, I can know what to expect and how to best treat symptoms. I work in partnership with my doctors, knowing that the person who best knows my body is me. Unfortunately, family members and friends aren’t going to do this, so they often say ill-informed, ignorant, and, at times, stupid things to chronic pain sufferers. Typically, I ignore them. Other times, I ask, what treatment or drug do you suggest? Well, uh, I heard, I read on Facebook . . . You see, they don’t have any answers either. Why? In my case, there are no treatments, drugs, or surgeries that will lessen my pain and suffering in meaningful ways. And if there were, don’t you think I would investigate them and act accordingly? Or do some family members and friends think I want to be in pain; that I enjoy crippling pain, debility, vomiting, and diarrhea?

I have accepted that “it is what it is.” Unless there is a major medical breakthrough, I know that my life tomorrow and the day after will pretty much be, pain-wise, as it is today. I have embraced this fact. Are there treatments that I could have done that would offer short-term, temporary relief? Sure, but to what end? In 2021, I had a procedure done under anesthesia that used Botox to paralyze a muscle in my stomach. Did it work? Did I find relief? Sure, for three days, and then I was right back to being nauseous and vomiting. The same goes for epidurals and nerve blocks. They last for a short amount of time and are prohibitively expensive. I tried all of these procedures, but I decided, in the end, I didn’t want to deal with the false hopes and highs and lows that come from such treatments. A while back I had a night when I slept for nine hours, only waking up twice. I hopefully thought, “is this a sign of better days ahead”? Of course not. It was an anomaly. The next night I got two hours of sleep, and after that, I had on-and-off sleep for ten hours, as is typical for me.

I have accepted the fact that “better” days are not on my radar; that if I want to live, write, and enjoy what life I have, I must embrace my pain, do what I can, and try to ignore the well-meaning well-wishers. And when I can’t, I write a blog post. 🙂

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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.

Short Stories: Playing the Bruce and Polly Fantasy Game

white birch clare michigan 2003
House we rented in White Birch, a wooded community north of Farwell, Michigan. At the time, I was pastoring Victory Baptist Church, Clare Michigan 2003

Depression Sea is roiling today, my mind is twisting, turning, and dying.

She knows, she always knows. My face and body language tell a story she’s read time and again.

She worries that this time the story might have a different ending.

I’m at the doctor’s office.

Wasn’t I here last month? I already know the answer, having made the trip eight times and the year isn’t even half over.

As we wait for the nurse to call my name, we play the Bruce and Polly Fantasy Game®.

Playing the game allows me to change the monotonous, deadly channel that keeps playing over and over in my mind.

We look at one another, smile, and begin the game.

The game always has the same answers, but we like to play anyway.

In the Bruce and Polly Fantasy Game®, we take shared places and experiences and meld them into one. A fantasy, to be sure, but who knows, maybe we’ll strike it rich, rob a bank, or write a book detailing where Jimmy Hoffa is buried.

Spring in Ohio, with its promise of new life and flowers.

Fall in Ohio, with its crisp air and changing colors.

Winter in Arizona, no snow for us, we survived the Blizzard of 78.

Summer in the Upper Peninsula , nestled as close to our Canadian friends as possible.

Our rented house in White Birch, Michigan, with a 1970 green Nova SS sitting in the drive.

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Bruce putting water in 1970 Nova SS, March 1976, somewhere in Kentucky

Package these things together and magically move them to the eastern seaboard, to a small, out-of-the-way fishing community on the shore of the Atlantic.

Turn the house so it fronts the ocean, allowing us to sit on our deck and watch the sunrise and the fishing boats making their way to the secret spots known only to those whose hands and faces bear the weathered look of a lifetime spent fishing.

Nearby live our six children and thirteen grandchildren. Not too close, yet not so far as to be beyond an invite to a Saturday night BBQ.

This is Bruce and Polly’s fantasy.

She remains worried, wondering if the slough of despondency will bury the man she loves.

All I want is for the pain to stop.

Is that too much to ask?

I already know the answer. I always know the answer.

The nurse calls my name and I  haltingly walk to the exam room.

My vitals are “normal” though blood tests, scans, and X-rays say I am anything but. Refills ordered; sure is hot; how’s Bethany; he’ll be in to see you soon.

The doctor walks through the door and sits near me.  Twenty-five years we’ve danced to this tune, both of us now dance much slower than we once did.

The doctor thinks I am chipper today, better than my last visit.  Little does he know what I’m really thinking. We talk about the Reds, the Bengals, and the Browns. I promised the nurse that we wouldn’t do our thing, “our thing” being shooting the breeze while other patients wait. I lied. He’s behind and I’m to blame.

We shake hands, and afterward, I put my hand gently on his shoulder. I tell him, see you in two months. This sounds like a lie, a hollow promise with no hope of fulfillment.

I want to live.

I want to die.

June 19, 1957, in a building now torn down and replaced with a modern new one, at 9:01 AM I drew air into my lungs for the first time. A new life born into poverty in a nondescript rural Ohio community, delivered by a doctor who also worked as a veterinarian.

The path is now long and how much path remains is unknown.

Will the game be called today or will we get to play, for one more time, the Bruce and Polly Fantasy Game®?

I’m still betting on playing the 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.

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.

“Normal” is a Just a Setting on a Washing Machine

normal

Polly’s mom recently died. I always had a contentious relationship with my mother-in-law. She never wanted me to marry her daughter, and she went to great lengths to frustrate our dating relationship. It was not until Polly told her mother we were getting married with or without her blessing that she grudgingly gave in and helped Polly plan our wedding. We’ve been married for almost forty-five years. Polly’s mom was certain that marrying someone from a divorced family led to divorce. I assume, by now, we have put that bit of nonsense to rest. Over the years, Polly and I butted heads with her mom over how many children we planned to have, how we raised our children, ministerial moves, choices of secular employment, how we celebrated Christmas, and a host of other things.

In 2004-2005, we lived in Newark, Ohio, blocks away from Polly’s parents. Our plan was to live there and care for them as they got older. Unfortunately, they made it clear that our help wasn’t needed. Message received. We returned to northwest Ohio so we could be close to our children and grandchildren. Five years ago, Polly’s dad (who died in November 2020) had botched hip replacement surgery that left him crippled. We offered to move them up here so we could help care for them. Our offer was rebuffed. Polly’s mom told her that they couldn’t move because their church — the Newark Baptist Temple — was very important to them. This sentiment is strange considering that their church pretty much ignored them since Dad’s hip surgery. Out of sight, out of mind.

As readers are aware, Mom made sure that the Gerencser family had nothing to do with her personal affairs and funeral. Mom’s behavior hurt her devoted daughter beyond measure. Why would she do these things? Our atheism. That’s the reason she gave us the last time we talked to her face to face. (Which was odd since she never, ever, not one time talked to us about our beliefs.) We, of course, respected her wishes. Her life, her choices, end of story.

I realize that if Polly had married a “normal” Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) preacher boy things might have been different. Instead, Polly married a “bad boy”; a man who has always marched to the beat of his own drum; a man who has rarely been afraid to make hard, controversial decisions. In Mom’s eyes, I was an “odd duck”; I was “different.” Why couldn’t I have been like other IFB preachers? You know, like Polly’s Dad, Uncle, and cousins? Why couldn’t I have kept the faith? You see, the underlying issue is my unwillingness to hew to IFB belief. We left the IFB church movement years before we deconverted. Polly’s mom was upset with me numerous times during my years in the ministry; upset over decisions such as: me not wearing the IFB preacher uniform (white shirt, tie, and suit), letting Polly wear pants, allowing my children to listen to Christian rock, not preaching from behind a pulpit, not sending my children to a Christian college, removing the name “Baptist” from our church name, using praise and worship music during church services, and not using the KJV when I preached, to name a few. Nothing was as bad, though, as me leaving the ministry in 2005 and Polly and I walking away from Christianity in 2008. I suspect Mom believed that if I were out of the picture, Polly would come running back to Jesus and the family religion. Little did she know how independent her daughter really iwas and how anti-religion she has become. She may not be as vocal as her husband, but Polly has no use for anything associated with organized religion. She is, in every way, her own woman. The days when Bruce, the IFB Patriarch, ruled the home are long gone. Most of all, Mom blamed me for what our children have become. According to her, I  RUINED them! Actually, what I really did was set them free. Each of them is free to be whoever and whatever he or she wants to be. Yes, to a person each has abandoned IFB/Evangelical Christianity, and some don’t believe in gods at all. Yes, they have abandoned the social strictures of their Fundamentalist youth. OMG! They drink beer, cuss, go to movies, watch R-rated programs, and have sex outside of marriage. I can don’t imagine what Mom would have thought had we told her our youngest son is gay. In Mom’s eyes, my children (who are grown-ass adults in their thirties and forties) were “worldly,” and it is all MY fault. I was, after all, in her IFB worldview, the head of the home, even though all my children are out on their own with families, well-paying jobs, and own their homes. Mom might have lamented their worldliness, but I am quite proud of who and what ALL my children have become.

It’s Thanksgiving 2005. We are living in Bryan, Ohio, five miles from where we now live. Polly’s parents came to our home to join us for the day. Mom, as she often did, blew into our home like a tornado, moving furniture and changing meal preparations. It was noticeable to me that Polly was quite stressed by her mom’s behavior. She, however, said nothing. As the day wore on, I became increasingly agitated by Mom’s behavior, so much so that I reminded her that she was a guest in our home and asked her to please STOP micromanaging everything. Well, that went over well. Mom and Dad didn’t stay long that day. A day or so later, Mom called to apologize. During our conversation, she said, “Bruce, we have always accepted you. We knew you were ‘different.'”

Different? Sure, but does that make a bad husband, father, grandfather, or person? Since when is being different a bad thing? My mother had many faults, but she taught me to think for myself and be my own person. I carried her teachings into my life and they continue with me to this day. I refuse to follow the well-trodden path. I refuse to do something just because everyone is doing it. I choose, instead, to walk my own path, even if that means I am walking alone. I realize that Mom went to the grave saddened by what had become of her daughter, her son-in-law, and her grandchildren. Instead of seeing that we were happy and blessed, all Mom could see was our ungodly disobedience and lack of faith. Instead of seeing what awesome children and grandchildren we had, all she saw was their faithlessness and worldliness. Her religion kept her from truly embracing and enjoying our family. In mom’s world, the wash can only be cleaned if the washing machine is set to “normal” and Tide is used for detergent.

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.

Short Stories: 1983: Drafty Windows, Bubbly Water, Dead Kittens, and the Christmas from Hell

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Storefront meeting place for Somerset Baptist Church, 1983

In July 1983, I started a new Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church in the southeast Ohio community of Somerset. I rented a storefront, spent a couple of weeks cleaning up and remodeling the space, and then on the second Sunday in July, Somerset Baptist Church held its first service. There were sixteen people in attendance, including Polly and our two youngest children. At the time, we lived half an hour north of Somerset in the lakeside community of Buckeye Lake. I worked for the village as a grant writer, litter control program manager, workfare program manager, and property code enforcement officer. In September of 1983, we moved from Buckeye Lake to New Lexington, ten miles south of Somerset. We didn’t live but a few months in New Lexington, thanks to our rented home having a horrible odor from the previous renter’s animals peeing all through the house. Our landlord replaced the carpet and shellacked the underlying wood floors, but the awful smell remained. In early December, we packed up our meager belongings and moved to a ramshackle farmhouse near Glenford.

Our new home had been moved from Glenford proper to the top of a hill just outside of town. It was an uninsulated, drafty house that had free natural gas for heating. Perry County had a lot of oil/gas wells, including the one that sat behind our house. It was good that the gas was free. Ohio winters can be cold, and the winter of 1983-84 was one such winter. We set the furnace at eighty degrees, running it constantly, just to keep the house warm enough to live in. One of the side effects of having a natural gas well nearby was that our water well was infiltrated by the gas. Drinking water had to sit before use so the gas could dissipate. The gas levels were such that we could light the gas straight out of the kitchen faucet. Fun times. Worse yet, the gas made the water quite hard, so we had to use water-softening agents when we took baths.

The one nice thing about this house was that it had a fairly new basement. It became the inside playground for our two young children and our foster child. Of course, there were things our boys could get into. One day I went to the basement only to find our son Nathan and our foster son JR rolling up papers and sticking them in the standing pilot on the hot water tank so they could set them on fire! (The boys had seen me do the very same thing when lighting the pilot.) One spring day, the boys were playing in the basement when Polly called them up for lunch and a nap. At the time, we had two kittens. The boys had been playing with the kittens and left them in the basement when they came up to eat. Unbeknownst to us, they left them in the cooler and shut the lid. This, of course, killed the kittens.

Christmas 1983 was one we would never forget. My grandparents, John and Ann Tieken, along with my mother, her new husband Michael Monshine, and my sister and her family joined us for Christmas. Polly and I were excited about having my family over for Christmas — our first and only such event. The Tiekens joined us for church that morning, and everyone else arrived early afternoon. It was bitterly cold and snowy, and while driving the five miles to our home from church, the radiator on our car froze up, leaving me stranded. I walked to a nearby house, used their phone, and had someone come and get me. Little did I know that my car radiator freezing was the best thing that would happen to me on that day.

The radiator freezing, of course, elicited a lecture from my grandfather about making sure I had enough antifreeze in the radiator. Grandpa’s lectures, warranted or not, were a “gift” he gave me every time he saw me. Having my mom and the Tiekens in the same room was risky, thanks to past violence, sexual abuse, and Jesus-loves-you judgmental behavior. Grandpa was a mean, judgmental son-of-a-bitch who loved Jesus. Ann was more of a passive-aggressive type of person, but she too could cut you to the quick with her self-righteous judgments. Needless to say, the entire afternoon was filled with tension; so much so that Polly and I were relieved when it was over. I made matters worse by not letting Mom or her husband smoke inside our home. I told them they would have to stand outside on our front porch to smoke. The temperature that day? Nine degrees below zero. This “order,” of course, infuriated my mother. She let it be known that she would NOT come to my house again if she couldn’t smoke inside. She kept her word, killing herself a decade later without ever darkening the door of my home again.

1983 was quite the year for the Gerencser family. We would have many more eventful days in the years ahead. In fact, I suspect if I gave a full and honest reckoning of my life, I would find that EVERY year had life-altering moments. Sure, life is filled with the mundane, but there are those days and moments when the circumstances of life alter our present and transform our future. The eleven years Polly and I and our growing family spent in Somerset fundamentally changed us and laid the groundwork for what one day would result in us leaving the ministry and walking away from Christianity.

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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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Is it Ever Okay to Lie?

pinocchio lying

I grew up in a religious culture where lying (bearing false witness) was always considered a sin. It was never, ever right to tell a lie, even if the ends justified the means. This was more of an ideal than anything else. Pastors and congregants alike lied. I quickly learned that despite all their talk about moral/ethical absolutes, my pastors and other church leaders would lie if the situation demanded it. Despite frequent condemnations of situational morality/ethics, the Christians I looked up to would, on occasion, lie. One example that vividly comes to mind happened when I was fifteen and attended Trinity Baptist Church in Findlay, Ohio. As many Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches of the 1970s did, Trinity Baptist had a large bus ministry. Each week the church’s buses brought hundreds of people to church. Many of these buses were rambling wrecks, yet parents rarely gave a second thought to letting their children ride the buses. Most parents, I suspect, saw the three or so hours their children were at church as a respite from caring for them.

Church buses had to be annually inspected by the Ohio State Highway Patrol. Each bus had to pass a mechanical and safety inspection. One item of importance was the tires. Trinity Baptist was a fast-growing church of working-class people that always seemed to be short of money. Properly outfitting each bus with safe tires would require a lot of cash, so the church decided, instead, to lie about the tires. In the spring of 1972, it was once again time to have the buses inspected. Several of them needed to have their tires replaced. Instead of replacing the tires, the church outfitted one bus with new tires and took it to the Patrol Post for inspection. After passing inspection, the bus was driven to a garage owned by a church member so the new tires could be removed and put on the next bus needing inspection. This was done for every bus that had tires that would not pass inspection. What church leaders were doing, of course, was a lie. This particular lie was justified by arguing that running the buses and winning souls for Jesus were more important than following Caesar’s law. Over the next thirty-five years, I would see similar lies told time and again, with the justification always being that God’s work must go on and souls needed saving. But what about not bearing false witness? I learned that for all their preaching on situational morality/ethics, Evangelical pastors and church leaders were willing to tell a fib if it advanced their cause. In their minds, the end indeed justified the means.

Years ago, I pastored one man who believed it was ALWAYS wrong to lie. One time, a woman asked him if he liked her new hat. Wanting to always tell the truth, the man told her that he didn’t like the hat and thought it was ugly. Needless to say, he hurt his friend’s feelings. When asked by his wife whether an outfit looked nice on her or made her look fat, he would never consider what his wife was actually asking. Fundamentalist to the core, all that mattered to him was telling the truth. However, all his wife wanted to know is whether he accepted and loved her, as-is. Instead of understanding this, he dished out what he called “brutal honesty.” Needless to say, this man routinely offended his family and friends.

One time, after a blow-up over his truth-telling, I asked him, “Suppose you lived in Germany in World War II and harbored Jews in your home. One day, the Nazis come to your door and ask if you are harboring any Jews. Knowing that answering YES would lead to their deaths, what would you say? Would you lie to protect them?” Astoundingly, he told me that he would either tell the truth (yes) or say nothing at all. In his mind, always telling the truth was paramount even if it meant the death of others. I knew, then, that I had no hope of getting him to see that there might be circumstances where telling a lie was acceptable; that sometimes a lie serves the greater good.

Bruce, did you ever lie as a pastor? Of course I did. Let me give you one example. The churches I pastored dedicated babies — the Baptist version of baptizing infants. Couples would stand before the congregation and promise before the church and God that they would raise their newborns up in the fear and admonition of God. Most of these parents lied, but then so did I. I would hold their babies in my arms and present them to the church, saying, isn’t he or she beautiful? when I believed then, and still do, that most newborns are ugly. Our firstborn came forth with wrinkly, scaly skin and a cone-shaped head — thanks to the doctor’s use of forceps. “Beautiful,” he was not!  I lied to the parents about their babies because I knew no parent wanted to hear the “truth.” The parents lied about their commitment to church and God because that’s what everyone in attendance wanted to hear — especially grandparents.

While I generally believe that telling the truth is a good idea, I don’t think this is an absolute. There are times when telling a lie is preferable to telling the truth. Let me share an example of when I should have lied and didn’t. The church I co-pastored in Texas held an annual preaching conference. I preached at this conference the year before the church hired me as their co-pastor. When discussing who we were going to ask to preach at the upcoming conference, I suggested a preacher friend of mine from Ohio. I thought it would be a great opportunity for him. He gladly accepted our invitation. One night after he preached, my friend asked me to critique his preaching. I thought, oh don’t ask me to do this. My friend had several annoying habits, one of which was failing to make eye contact with those to whom he was preaching. He insisted on me telling him what I thought of his preaching, so with great hesitation, I did. After I was done, I could tell that I had deeply wounded my friend, so much so that he talked very little to me the rest of the conference. Sadly, our friendship did not survive my honesty. Yes, he asked for it, but I really should have considered whether he would benefit from me telling the truth. I should have, instead, recommended several books on preaching or encouraged him to use the gifts God had given him. Instead, I psychologically wounded him by being “brutally honest.”  Twenty or so years ago, I tried to reestablish a connection with him. I sent him an email, asking him how he was doing.  He replied with one word: FINE.

As a professional photographer, I was often asked for photography advice. I learned that people didn’t really want my opinion about their latest, greatest photographs. Instead of telling them how bad their photos were, I chose, instead, to encourage them to practice and learn the various functions of their cameras. (Most people never take their cameras off AUTO.) I told one person that I didn’t critique the work of others. There’s no such thing as a perfect photograph, and taking photographs is all about capturing moments in time. As a professional, how my photos looked mattered to me, but I knew that most people would never invest time and money into becoming skilled photographers. Often, they didn’t have the same passion for photography as I did. (I stopped doing photography work two years ago due to my loss of muscle strength and dexterity. I sold all of my equipment, one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.) They wrongly thought that buying an expensive camera would automatically make their photos look good. It’s the photographer’s skill, not his equipment, that makes the difference. I tried to encourage others, even if it meant, at times, I stretched the truth a bit. I suspect all of us look for affirmation and encouragement instead of “brutal honesty.”

Are you an “absolute” truth-teller? Do you believe it is ALWAYS wrong to lie, or do you believe there are circumstances when lying serves the greater good or causes the least harm? If you are a pastor/former clergy person, did you ever lie? Don’t lie!  Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

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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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Short Stories: Caring for Foster Children: Lice, Scabies, and a Stolen Car

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Bruce and Polly Gerencser with son #2, 1981

During the 1980s, Polly and I took in foster children from Licking and Perry counties in Ohio. We saw fostering children as an opportunity to not only help children psychologically and materially, but to also lead them to saving faith in Jesus. Most of the children placed with us were teenagers, though we did care for a two-year-old boy and a pair of sisters. We also took in a Black girl, making her the only non-white student in the local school district. Some of the children were court referrals, teenagers who had been in trouble with the law. I suppose, if I am honest, I naïvely thought I could turn them around just by changing their home environment.  We also had a teen church girl live with us for a year. She had been living with her grandparents, and they were unable to control her. I don’t remember what the exact issues were.

One girl was from Buckeye Lake. She was a delightful child who had the bad luck of growing up in a dysfunctional home. She lived with us several times over the years. On occasion, she would spend the weekend with her parents and siblings. Their home was quite unkempt, to say the least. Without fail, she would return from these visits infested with head lice. We would treat her with RID, only to find reinfestations after she came back from seeing mom and dad. This, of course, led to our children also getting head lice.

One time, another child went home for a visit, only to pick up scabies while she was there. By the time we figured out she had scabies, so did Polly and I and our two sons. At the time, I was the assistant pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Buckeye, Lake, Ohio. The church was holding a revival service with John Babcock — a pastor and friend of Polly’s parents. John stayed with Polly’s parents that week. One day, he mentioned to them that he had this funny rash on his belly. It was quite itchy and all he wanted to do was scratch. Of course, when Polly’s parents let us know that John had some sort of “mystery” rash, we knew what it was right away: scabies.

In the mid-1980s, we took in two teen boys who had been referred to us by the Perry County Juvenile Court. One boy lived us for quite some time, whereas the other boy was with us for only a short while. He would later attempt to rob someone at knifepoint. He spent time in prison for his crime. While living with us, he was quite a handful, constantly pushing the rules. The other boy was quite friendly and likable. He loved our boys and we got along quite well with him. Years later, he and his wife would live for us for a short time.

One day, Polly and I awoke to an epic nightmare. In the night, the boys had gotten up, stolen our money, checkbook, and car, and run off. The one boy picked up his girlfriend, and off the three went to infinity and beyond. Their joyride was brought to an abrupt end by a New Jersey police officer who had stopped them for running a red light. The officer discovered they were driving a stolen automobile and promptly arrested them. Local law enforcement went to New Jersey to retrieve them, charging the boys with felony grand theft auto. The girl was not charged with a crime.

The boys were released to the custody of their parents to await prosecution. What complicated matters was the car they stole did not belong to us. Our car was at the Chrysler dealership getting the engine replaced. The car they took was a loaner car. New Jersey law enforcement informed the dealership it was up to them to retrieve the car. They did, and then tried to bill me for their costs. I knew they had insurance for such things, so I refused to pay — end of story.

One day, the Common Pleas Court judge’s office called and asked me to come to the judge’s chambers so he could talk to me. After arriving at his chambers, I could tell that he had already had a few too many. He asked me, Reverend, what do you think I should do with these boys? I pondered his question for a moment, and then replied, I think they need to be punished, but I don’t want them sent to prison. The judge decided to sentence them to one year at the youth detention facility in Columbus. Unbeknownst to the boys, he planned to set them free after thirty days — a sentence I totally agreed with. I knew these two White boys were in for a rude awakening when they found themselves locked up in a facility where being White made them a minority. As I mentioned above, the one boy went on to commit other crimes, but the boy who had lived with us the longest was scared straight and did not offend again.

Polly and I like to think that we made a difference in the lives of the foster children who spent time in our home. We did what we could to give them a stable place to live, along with a little — okay a lot — of Jesus, too. We hope our small acts of love and kindness made a mark on their lives. Several years ago, someone whom knew us let us know that one of our foster children had told them we had made a positive difference in her life. Hearing this made our day. I do wonder from time to time what has become of them. I think of our first foster child, a two-year-old boy. After a year in our home, he was returned to his drug-addicted mom. The boy’s father had gotten out of prison and they were attempting to make a new start in life. I wonder if the new start lasted. What kind of man did this little blond-haired boy become?

Have you ever taken in foster children? Please share your experiences in the comment section.

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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.

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

The End

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

We arrived at the Newark Baptist Temple early, deciding that we would not let the church and its pastor “win.”

Mom died on Tuesday, at the age of eighty-seven. We knew what to expect, having attended (and preached) numerous Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) funerals. Very little of the service would be about Mom. The real guest of honor was Jesus.

We sat in the third row from the front, on the right side, in the same church that Polly and I were married forty-five years ago. We talked to Polly’s aunt from Michigan, several cousins, and Mom’s best friend. The pastor never spoke to Polly, and neither did Mom’s church family. Quite frankly, we were glad they left us alone.

At the ten o’clock hour, the man of God, Mark Falls, mounted the pulpit and read the obituary. He butchered our last name — Gerencser. All he had to do is ask and I would have told him how to pronounce my Hungarian name. I would have also told him that Mom’s daughter’s name is Polly, not Pauline — a name she despises. I would also have told him about Mom’s deceased brothers: Art, Floyd, Chet, Bob, and Everett; loving siblings whose names were omitted from the obituary. No matter what, the real man of the hour, Jesus — his obituary was all that mattered.

Next up was an IFB missionary married to one of Polly’s cousins. He delivered a mini-sermon, interjected with a story or two about Mom. Then a grandson and a son-in-law gave short testimonials about Mom, the highlight of the service. Soon Mom would fade into the background and the man of the hour would take the stage — Jesus.

A couple of hymns were sung, and a duet by our niece and her daughter. We lustily sang the songs — strange, I know — and enjoyed the duet — even though we didn’t believe a word of the lyrics.

Mom’s pastor came to the pulpit, opened his Bible, and after a few perfunctory comments, he started to preach. We knew what was coming: Jesus, Heaven, Hell, and salvation. I thought, Bruce, you can handle this! And I did until the last three minutes of the preacher’s fearmongering harangue.

The preacher decided to make his sermon personal, locking his eyes on me. There’s no doubt in my mind who he was talking to. As someone who preached for thirty-five years, one lesson I learned is that you don’t fix your eyes on someone as the pastor did me.

I knew what was happening. Here was his last chance to preach the gospel to the atheist Bruce Gerencser. (I am the villain in this story. Polly is viewed as misguided or led astray.) Maybe Mom wanted him to make sure the unsaved Gerencsers heard the gospel one last time. Never mind the fact all of us are already saved — once saved, always saved, right? In that moment, “it” happened, the period on the end of the sentence. As the pastor’s eyes locked on mine, I said with a low voice — one he and several rows of people could hear — Bullshit! Preach at someone else! (As of the publishing of this post, the church has removed the video of the funeral from Youtube.)

The pastor did not acknowledge my words, but he heard them. So did others, based on the number of biting glares I received. Outside of the church I briefly confronted him, telling him that he shouldn’t have singled me out. He, of course, denied doing so. I replied, bullshit! and walked to our car.

One final indignity awaited — the graveside service. More of the same, without an invitation. More bad theology about the state of the dead. Not surprising. Most IFB funerals are to some degree or the other heretical.

Polly and I left the cemetery and turned north on Hwy 13, headed for Mount Vernon. As we reached the community of St. Louisville, Polly asked me are you ready? I was. With a defiant, cathartic laugh, both of us raised up our middle fingers and said good riddance.

We lived in central/southeast Ohio for seventeen years. We will never return again. Rural northwest Ohio is our home. Our children and grandchildren live here, and it is here we will die. We have made a life for ourselves in the flatlands of Ohio. Mom chose to make a life for herself too; with a family that was not her daughter’s; with a church that was her “real” family. Family in Central Ohio will object and say that Mom repeatedly said how much she loved us. However, actions speak louder than words, and Mom’s behavior said I was a son-in-law she never wanted and Polly was a disappointment — always a disappointment. Mom will never know how much she hurt her daughter. Her harsh, judgmental words; her rejection of what matters most to Polly: her husband and her family.

Mom made her choices, and we ours.

The End.

Note: Next week, I will start writing a wide-ranging series titled: How the Newark Baptist Temple Affected Our Lives for Sixty Years — Part One. Hopefully, this series will explain the deep mark made on our lives by the Baptist Temple. I will be consulting Polly on this series. Her story begins ten years before mine, in the mid-1960s.

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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.

Saying Goodbye to Newark, Ohio, and a Lifetime of Heartache

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

In the fall of 1976, I met a beautiful, dark-haired seventeen-year-old girl named Polly. We started dating, and before long we were in love. A month or so after we started dating, Polly’s parents, Lee and Bonnie, drove up from their apartment in the central Ohio community of Newark to Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan to visit Polly. Both of us were freshman students. Polly’s dad had graduated a few months earlier and was now the assistant pastor at the Newark Baptist Temple. Polly’s uncle, the pastor of the Baptist Temple, was a 1960s Midwestern graduate.

I vividly remember meeting Polly’s parents that fall day. Lee was cordial and friendly. Bonnie was standoffish, leaving me with the impression that she didn’t like me. Contrast my first experience with Polly’s mom and that of Polly meeting my mom and sister for the first time in the spring of 1978. Polly was met with love and acceptance and more than a few questions about whether she knew what she was getting into marrying Butch. (Polly would not meet my father until the day of our wedding).

On Valentine’s Day in 1977, Polly and I got engaged. I bought her a 1/4-carat diamond ring from Sears and Roebuck for $225. We set a July 15, 1978 date for our wedding at the Baptist Temple, officiated by Polly’s uncle and dad.

Over the next seventeen months, Polly’s mom went out of her way to make me feel unwelcome and unwanted. During holidays and summers, I would drive 4-6 hours to Newark to visit Polly. One summer, I lived in Bryan, working two full-time factory jobs. I would then get in my car early on Saturday and drive four hours south to see Polly. Late in the evening, I would return home. Polly pleaded with her mom (who wore the pants in the family) to let me spend the night, but to no avail. I was so tired when I left Newark that it was impossible for me to drive all the way home without spending several hours sleeping at a rest stop or along the berm of a highway. On several occasions, Ohio State Highway Patrolmen stopped, thinking my car was abandoned. On another occasion, I was stopped outside of Delaware for weaving due to being so tired.

On Valentine’s Day in 1978, Polly’s mom and dad came to visit her again. By then, we already had our wedding plans in place. Both of us were excitedly looking forward to our big day. During their visit, Polly’s mom told her that they (she) were forbidding her to marry me. Why? My parents were divorced, and divorce is hereditary, so Polly couldn’t marry me lest she ended up divorced. Left unsaid was the real reason for not allowing Polly to marry me: Bonnie didn’t like me. She thought Polly could do better than marrying a lowly boy such as I.

After Polly’s parents returned to Newark, we talked about eloping. We came a “let’s do it” away from jumping in my car, leaving college (eloping was cause for immediate expulsion), and getting married. Cooler heads prevailed. Polly called her mom and told her that with or without their (her) blessing we were getting married. This would be the first time that Polly ever stood up to her mom (who could be a passive-aggressive bully). Polly’s mom relented and the wedding was on. What didn’t change was Bonnie’s dislike of me as a person.

The weekend before our wedding, Polly and I drove out to Dawe’s Arboretum for some alone time. Boy, did we need it. Polly was told she had to be back home at a certain time. We lost track of time and arrived back home late. Here we were nineteen and twenty-one, a week away from getting married, and Bonnie lit into us like we were schoolchildren. Of course, what she was worried about is whether we had been fornicating. We said nothing and got ready for church.

Polly and I have been married for almost forty-five years. We have six wonderful children and thirteen grandchildren. (Bonnie refused to claim two of our grandchildren, saying they weren’t “blood.”) We have built a good life together. It’s not been easy. We have faced all sorts of trials and adversity, yet our love for one another has endured.

One constant in our marriage has been Bonnie’s disapproval. No matter what we did, where we lived, what church I pastored, or how we raised our children, Polly’s mom disapproved. This got worse after we left Christianity in 2008. Bonnie blamed me for ruining her daughter and grandchildren, even though she never had a meaningful conversation with us about why we deconverted. For the past fifteen years, the proverbial elephant in the middle of the room got bigger and bigger, so much so that we found it impossible to have a meaningful relationship with Polly’s mom. (Polly’s dad died in November 2020.)

For the past decade, Polly dutifully called her mom every Sunday at 9:00 pm. They would talk for exactly one hour. Bonnie was insistent that they talk for a least one hour, even when they had nothing to talk about. Out of love and duty, Polly called, even though on some Sundays it took a bit of push from me for her to do so. Why? She was estranged from her mom. Their relationship was strained, with Bonnie causing untold hurt and harm to her ever-faithful daughter with her passive-aggressive, at times, mean-spirited comments and judgments. To the end, we never measured up and I was to blame for everything.

bonnie shope obituary

Bonnie died on Tuesday at the age of eighty-seven. Her obituary speaks of the fact that she was a devoted follower of Jesus, a fifty-year (actually forty-six) member of the Newark Baptist Temple. In lieu of flowers, Bonnie asked that people make donations to her church’s missions fund.

The obituary spoke of her love for family. Which family? Her church family? Polly’s sister’s family? Bonnie’s sister’s family? Certainly not the Gerencsers. Oh, she “loved” us in the way disapproving mothers and grandmothers do. A begrudging love that wished we had worshipped the right God and lived our lives the IFB-approved way. Her love for my family was different from that of her love for her family in Newark. You see, they are all Christians. Some of them even attend the Baptist Temple. The Gerencsers? We are a bunch of mutts, beer-swilling, HBO-watching heathens who love to curse. We have forsaken the tribal God, choosing to live “worldly” lives.

We were legally responsible for Polly’s mom’s legal affairs until a few months ago. By then, she had moved in with our nephew and niece, both of whom attend the Baptist Temple. Two months ago, we went to Newark to visit Bonnie, knowing that her time was short. We had a delightful visit, until the last few minutes. As we were getting up to leave, Bonnie let us know that she no longer wanted us to care for her affairs; that she wanted our nephew and niece to take care of things. A few days later, our niece was placed on Bonnie’s bank accounts. After Bonnie died, we also learned that she had called the funeral home and told them she didn’t want us to have anything to do with her funeral. Why would she do these things?

Religion.

In particular, Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) Christianity.

Bonnie was an IFB member her entire life. Her husband was an IFB pastor. Bonnie bought into every aspect of the “one true faith.” She viewed everything through IFB glasses. As long as Polly and I were IFB, she grudgingly accepted that I was a God-called preacher. Once we left the IFB fold, our relationship with her became more strained. And once we left Christianity altogether? We crossed a line that brought tension-filled relationships, hurt feelings, and harsh words. Both Polly and I tried to maintain a good relationship with Bonnie, but over time it became harder and harder to do so. Eventually, our relationship devolved into one where you see relatives a few times a year and go on with your lives until the next holiday.

Bonnie devoted her time and money to her church and what would be called in our neck of the woods her real family: her church, Polly’s sister’s children and grandchildren (Polly’s sister was killed in a motorcycle accident in 2005), and her sister’s family, the Dennises. Certainly, proximity played a part. The Gerencsers lived four hours away. Everyone else lived around the corner.

Mom paid little to no attention to our grandchildren, while at the same time giving gifts and money to her “real” family. Sure, there were the proverbial gifts at Christmas, but birthdays, graduations, and other significant events were rarely acknowledged. Lee and Bonnie came to visit from time to time and we did the same, but our relationship was not what it could or should have been. I can think of no other reason for this except religion.

Recent events have hurt Polly beyond measure. She’s resilient, but her mom’s rejection of her and forty-five years of disapproval and harsh judgment have caused untold harm. Tomorrow, we will drive to Newark and spend the night at the Hampton Inn in preparation for the funeral on Saturday at 10:00 am. We will not attend the viewing — sorry we cannot handle two hours of Bonnie’s church friends. We want to avoid interaction with people as much as possible, especially our nephew who called awhile back and screamed at me for twenty minutes (I finally hung up on him), calling me names, disparaging my family, and threatening me with physical violence. But, hey, he loves Jesus. [He apologized at the funeral. I appreciate him doing so.]

We will attend the funeral at the church. I am not sure why we are going to do so. Bonnie is dead, we hate the church, and despise its pastor. I suppose we will go for the sake of our children. They don’t have the same baggage with the church (or Bonnie) as we do. We know what to expect. Five minutes of talk about the deceased and fifty-five minutes of Jesus. ‘Tis the way IFB churches do things. Bonnie’s pastor has already asked the church to pray for Mrs. Shope’s unsaved loved ones. The “Gerencsers” are those unsaved loved ones. The rest of the family in attendance is “saved.” We will be the targets of evangelization. It would be what Mrs. Shope would want, right?

Polly and I are left with what to make of our relationship with her mom. Both of us loved her, but what are we to make of our strained relationship; the disapproval; the harsh words, and judgment? We can’t unring the bell, so to speak, so we are left with thoughts of what might have been. If only Bonnie could have loved me as I am and loved us as we are, how different our relationship might have been. Instead, we are left with a fractured relationship, one that is now too late to repair.

We will quietly say our goodbyes on Saturday, lamenting all that has been lost thanks to Fundamentalist Christianity. And when we get in our car to return home, we will raise in the rearview mirror a middle finger salute to Newark and the Baptist Temple, glad that we will never, ever make the trek to Newark again. Nothing remains for us. Even the money that was supposed to go to Polly has been partially spent, and it wouldn’t surprise us if the rest of it ended up in other pockets or the church’s coffers. One more time for Mom to show who and what she really loves.

Note: Polly read this post beforehand and approves of what I wrote.

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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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Bruce Gerencser