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Dear Jesus

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Painting by Jessie Kohn

Updated and corrected, June 7, 2021

Dear Jesus,

I’m sixty-four years old, and there has never been a moment when you were not in my life.

Mom and Dad talked about you before I was born, deciding to have me baptized by an Episcopal priest. They wanted me to grow up with good morals and love you, so they decided putting water on my forehead and having a priest recite religious words over me was the way to ensure my moral Christian future.

A few weeks after my birth, Mom and Dad gathered with family members to have me baptized. I was later told it was quite an affair, but I don’t remember anything about the day. Years later, I found my baptismal certificate. Signed by the priest, it declared I was a Christian.

Jesus, how could I have been a Christian at age four weeks? How did putting water on my head make me a follower of you? I don’t understand, but according to the certificate, I was now part of my tribe’s religion: Protestant Christianity.

I turned five in 1962. Mom and Dad decided to move 2,300 miles to San Diego, California, believing that success and prosperity awaited them.

After getting settled, Mom and Dad said we need to find a new church to attend. Their shopping took them to a growing Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) congregation, Scott Memorial Baptist Church, pastored by Tim LaHaye. It was here that I learned that my tribe had a new religion: Fundamentalist Baptist Christianity.

I quickly learned that our previous religion worshiped a false God, and my baptism didn’t make me a Christian at all. If I wanted to be a True Christian®, I had to come forward to the front of the church, kneel at the altar, and pray a certain prayer. If I did these things, I would then be a Christian — forever. And so I did. This sure pleased Mom and Dad.

Later, I was baptized again, but the preacher didn’t sprinkle water on my forehead. That would not do, I was told. True Baptism® required me to be submerged in a tank of water. And so, one Sunday, I joined a line of people waiting to be baptized. I was excited, yet scared. Soon, it came time for me to be dunked. The preacher put his left hand behind my head and raised his right hand towards Heaven. He asked, “Bruce, do you confess before God and man that Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior?” With a halting child’s voice, I replied, “Yes.” And with that, the preacher, with a hanky in his right hand, put his hand over my nose, dunked me in the water, and quickly lifted me up. I heard both the preacher and the congregation say, “Amen!”

Jesus, the Bible says that the angels in Heaven rejoice when a sinner gets saved. Do you remember the day I got saved? Do you remember hearing the angels in Heaven say, “Praise to the Lamb that was slain! Bruce Gerencser is now a child of God. Glory be, another soul snatched from the hands of Satan?”

After a few years in California, Mom and Dad discovered that there was no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and our family was just as poor in the Golden State as they were in dreary, flat rural northwest Ohio. And so we moved, a process that happened over and over to me throughout the next decade — eight different schools.

As I became more aware and observant of my environment, I noticed that Mom and Dad had changed. Mom, in particular, was quite animated and agitated over American social unrest and the war in Vietnam. Mom and Dad took us to a new church, First Baptist Church in Bryan, Ohio — an IFB church pastored by Jack Bennett. We attended church twice on Sunday and Wednesday evening.

I attended Bryan schools for two years. Not long after I started fourth grade, Mom and Dad decided it was time to move yet again. This time, we moved to a brand-new tri-level home on Route 30 outside of Lima, Ohio. It was there that I started playing basketball and baseball — sports I would continue to play competitively for the next twenty years. It was also there that I began to see that something was very wrong with Mom. At the time, I didn’t understand what was going on with her. All I knew is that she could be “Mom” one day and a raging lunatic the next.

I was told by my pastors, Jesus, that you know and see everything. Just in case you were busy one day and missed what went on or were on vacation, let me share a few stories about what happened while we lived in Lima.

One night, Mom was upstairs, and I heard her screaming. She was having one of her “fits.” I decided to see if there was anything I could do to help her — that’s what the oldest child does. As I walked towards Mom’s bedroom, I saw her grabbing shoes and other things and violently throwing them down the hallway. This was the first time I remember being afraid . . .

One day, I got off the school bus and quickly ran to our home. I always had to be the first one in the door. As I walked into the kitchen, I noticed that Mom was lying on the floor in a pool of blood. She had slit her wrists. I quickly ran to the next-door neighbor’s house and asked her to help. She summoned an ambulance, and Mom’s life was saved.

Mom would try again, and again to kill herself: slitting her wrists, overdosing on medication, driving in front of a truck. At the age of fifty-four, she succeeded. One Sunday morning, Mom went into the bathroom, pointed a Ruger .357 at her heart, and pulled the trigger. She quickly slumped to the floor and was dead in minutes. Yet, she never stopped believing in you, Jesus. No matter what happened, Mom held on to her tribe’s God.

Halfway through my fifth-grade year, Mom and Dad moved to Farmer, Ohio. I attended Farmer Elementary School for the fifth and sixth grades. One day, I was home from school sick, and Mom’s brother-in-law stopped by. He didn’t know I was in my bedroom. After he left, Mom came to my room crying, saying, “I have been raped. I need you to call the police.” I was twelve. Do you remember this day, Jesus? Where were you? I thought you were all-powerful? Why didn’t you do anything?

From Farmer, we moved to  Deshler, Ohio for my seventh-grade year of school. Then Mom and Dad moved us to Findlay, Ohio. By then, my parent’s marriage was in shambles. Dad never seemed to be home, and Mom continued to have wild, manic mood swings. Shortly before the end of ninth grade, Dad matter-of-factly informed me that they were getting a divorce. “We don’t love each other anymore,” Dad said. And with that, he turned and walked away, leaving me to wallow in my pain. That’s how Dad always treated me. I can’t remember a time when he embraced me or said, “I love you.” I would learn years later that “Dad” was not my biological father. I wonder, Jesus, was this why he kept me at arm’s length emotionally?

After moving to Findlay, Mom and Dad joined Trinity Baptist Church — a fast-growing IFB congregation pastored by Gene Millioni. After Mom and Dad divorced, they stopped attending church. Both of them quickly remarried. Dad married a nineteen-year-old girl with a baby, and Mom married her first cousin — a recent prison parolee. So much upheaval and turmoil, Jesus. Where were you when all of this was going on? I know, I know, you were there in spirit.

Mom and Dad may have stopped going to church, but I didn’t. By then, I had a lot of friends and started dating, so there was no way I would miss church. Besides, attending church got me away from home, a place where Dad’s new and improved wife made it clear I wasn’t welcome.

One fall weeknight, I sat in church with my friends listening to Evangelist Al Lacy. I was fifteen. As is the custom in IFB churches, Lacy prayed at the end of his sermon, asking, “with every head bowed, and every eye closed, is there anyone here who is not saved and would like me to pray for them?” I had been feeling under “conviction” during the sermon. I thought, “maybe I’m not saved?” So, I raised my hand. Lacy prayed for those of us who had raised our hands and then had everyone stand. As the congregation sang Just as I am, Lacy said, “if you raised your hand, I want you to step out of your seat and come to the altar. Someone will meet you there and show you how you can know Jesus as your Lord and Savior.” Much to the surprise of my friends, I haltingly stepped out from my seat and walked to the front. I was met by Ray Salisbury — a church deacon. Ray had me kneel as he took me through a set of Bible verses called the Roman’s Road. After quizzing me on what I had read, Ray asked me if I wanted to be saved. I said, “yes,” and then Ray said, “pray this prayer after me: Dear Lord Jesus, I know I am a sinner, and I know you died on the cross for my sins. Right now, I ask you to forgive me of my sins and come into my heart and save me. In Jesus’ name, Amen.” After I prayed the prayer, Ray said, “AMEN!” “Did you really believe what you prayed?” I replied, “yes.” “Then you are now a child of God, a born-again Christian.”

The next Sunday, I was baptized, and the Sunday after that, I went forward again, letting the church know that you, Jesus, were calling me to preach. I was all in after that. For the next thirty-five years, Jesus, I lived and breathed you. You were my life, the sum of my existence.

At the age of nineteen, I enrolled in classes at Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. It was here I received training to become a proper IFB pastor, and it was here I met the love of my life, a beautiful dark-haired preacher’s daughter named Polly. We married during the summer between our sophomore and junior years. We were so excited about our new life, thrilled to be preparing to work in God’s vineyard. We planned to graduate, go to a small community to start a new IFB church, buy a white two-story house with a white picket fence, and have two children: Jason and Bethany, and live happily ever after. However, Jesus, you had different plans for us. Do you remember what happened to us? Surely you do, right? Friends and teachers told us that you were testing us! Polly was six months pregnant by early spring, and I was laid off from my machine shop job. We were destitute, yet, the college dean told us, “Jesus wants you to trust him and stay in college.” No offer of financial help was forthcoming, and we finally had to move out of our apartment. With my tail between my legs, I packed up our meager belongings and returned to Bryan, Ohio. I had failed your test, Jesus. I still remember what one of my friends told me, “If you leave now, God will NEVER use you!”

What did he know, right? After moving, I quickly secured secular employment and began working at a local IFB church. For the next twenty-five years, I pastored Evangelical churches in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Jesus, you were my constant companion, my lover, friend, and confidante. I sure loved you, and I believed you loved me too. We were BFFs, right?  Sometimes, I wondered if you really loved me as much as I loved you. Our love affair was virtual in nature. We never met face-to-face, but I believed in my heart of hearts you were the very reason for my existence. When I doubted this, I attributed my doubts to Satan or me not praying hard enough or reading the Bible enough. I never thought for one moment, Jesus, that you might be a figment of my imagination, a lie taught to me by my parents and pastors. I was a true believer. That is, until I wasn’t.

At age fifty, I finally realized, Jesus, that you were a myth, the main character of a 2,000-year-old fictional story. I finally concluded that all those times when I wondered where you were, were in fact, true. I couldn’t find you because you were dead. You had died almost 2,000 years before. The Bible told me about your death, but I really believed that you were resurrected from the dead. I feel so silly now. Dead people don’t come back to life. Your resurrection from the dead was just a campfire story, and I had foolishly believed it. I guess I shouldn’t be too hard on myself. Everyone I knew believed the same story. All of us believed that the miracles attributed to you, Jesus, really happened; that you were a virgin-born God-man; that you ascended to Heaven to prepare a mansion for us to live in after we die.

It all seems so silly now, Jesus, but I really did believe in you. Fifty years, Jesus. The prime of my life, I gave to you, only to find out that you were a lie. Yet, here I am today, and you are still “with” me. My parents, pastors, and professors did a good job of indoctrinating me. You are very much “real” to me, even though you lie buried somewhere on a Judean hillside. Try as I might, I can’t get you out of my mind. I have come to accept that you will never leave me.

You should know, Jesus — well, you can’t know, you are dead — that I spend my days helping people get away from you. What did you say, Jesus? I can’t hear you. I can hear the voices of Christians condemning me as a heretic, blasphemer, and hater of God. I can hear them praying for my death or threatening me with eternal damnation in the Lake of Fire. Their voices are loud and clear, but your voice, Jesus? Silence.

Always silent, Jesus. Why is that?

If you ever want to talk to me, you know where I live. Show up at my door, Jesus, and that will be a miracle I can believe in. Better yet, if you can help the Cincinnati Bengals win the Super Bowl, that would be awesome!

If you can’t help my football team win a few games, Jesus, what good are you? It’s not like I am asking you to feed the hungry, heal the sick, or put an end to violence and war. That would require you to give a shit, Jesus, and if there’s one thing I have learned over the past sixty-four years, it is this: you don’t give a shit about what happens on earth. We, humans, are on our own, and that’s fine with me.

A Sinner Saved by Reason,

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bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 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.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

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

Bruce, Your Writing Suggests That in Your “Heart of Hearts” You Still Want to be a Christian

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Repost from 2015-2016. Edited, updated, and corrected.

No matter how many times I tell people that I am not a Christian, I have no interest in Christianity, and there is a less-than-zero chance that I will return to Christianity, some Evangelicals remain convinced that I am either a backslidden Christian or I harbor deep in my heart of hearts (wherever the hell that is) the desire to return to Christianity. Dealing with such people remains one of my biggest frustrations, mainly because they refuse to hear what I am saying and accept the telling of my story at face value.

Several years ago, one Evangelical man said that he just knew that I was still a Christian because I capitalized the words God and Bible in my writing. Other Evangelicals read my writing and see in it a man who still wants to believe in God and reclaim his faith. For the life of me, I can’t figure out what they think they see. I told one man that he misunderstood how and why I write. My use of Evangelical verbiage and argumentation often leads people to think I am still a Christian, when, in fact, all I am doing is using language that readers, both current and former Evangelicals, are familiar with. I have found that this approach is quite effective in reaching Evangelicals where they are. My use of common Evangelical words reflects not only my long, deep immersion in that culture, but also my desire to engage Evangelicals on their own turf. The fact that I mention particular Evangelical beliefs should not be construed by anyone as me wanting to return to Christianity. I don’t.

Some Evangelicals take a psychotherapy approach, divining from my writing that I have some sort of deeply hidden desire to still be a Christian. I know that many Evangelicals think they have the “supernatural” gift of discernment, but I am here to tell them, as I once heard an old-time preacher say, that their discerner is broke. When I mention that I can understand how someone might come to believe a deistic sort of God created the universe, Evangelicals read into it that I have some sort of longing to believe in God. I don’t. All I am saying is that I understand how someone might come to a different conclusion from mine.

I am not sure what more I can do to help Evangelicals understand that I am the proverbial horse who has left the barn — I ain’t coming back. Perhaps I concern myself too much with obtuse Evangelicals who refuse to accept things as they are. I get it. Bruce Gerencser returning to the fold would be a big story, and the Christians involved in my reclamation would be rewarded and praised for bringing such a hard case back to God. However, this is never going to happen. Even if I were inclined to reconsider some sort of religious belief, it most certainly would not be Evangelical Christianity. That ship sailed and fell off the end of the earth. Once free of the cult, why would I ever want to return?

When Christians share their conversion stories, I accept what they say at face value. I don’t believe, for a moment, that a God “saved” them or that they were “sinners” in need of “saving,” but I do accept that their stories are, to them, real and meaningful. I am not an atheist evangelist out to convert Evangelicals to atheism. In the thirteen years since I deconverted, I have, not one time, attempted to turn a Christian into an atheist. I have, however, engaged and talked with hundreds of Evangelicals who have questions and doubts about Christianity. I try to give them the facts their pastors often hide from them out of fear that, if they told the truth about the Bible, the pews would empty overnight. When asked, I share my story, much like Christians do during testimony time at their church. I am just one man with a story to tell. That my story resonates with thousands of people is not my fault. Perhaps Evangelical church leaders should take a close look at their beliefs and practices and how these things are causing people to abandon their churches, and, in many cases, their faith.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 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.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

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

How Evangelicals Convince Themselves That What They Do Matters

the lite church

Several years ago, I attended a sporting event for one of my grandchildren that brought me in close contact with a large group of Evangelicals. Over the course of ninety minutes, as I stood there photographing the game, I listened to these Evangelicals talk about their churches, other churches, summer missionary trips, and helping the poor, homeless, and downtrodden. I later told my son about my eavesdropping and how their discussions were very much like the discussions we would have had a decade or two ago. These Evangelicals spoke as if they and their churches were doing monumental works that were making tremendous differences in the lives of those they came in contact with. And from their seat in the pew, I’m quite sure it “seems” like they are doing things that matter, but when considered in a broader context, their mighty works for Jesus amount to little or nothing. Certainly, to the person given a meal or coat, their acts of charity made a difference, but when taken as a whole, the charitable works performed by Evangelicals are little more than a drop of rain in the ocean. Within the Evangelical bubble, these acts of compassion often become larger-than-life. Evangelical teenagers raise money to take mission trips to so-called third-world countries. While no one would say that nothing good comes from these mission trips, when the work done is compared to the money spent, it becomes quite clear that money spent on travel, meals, and entertainment would be better spent by locals instead of Evangelical do-gooders from afar. The returning teens and adults have wondrous testimonies to share, but rarely will anyone bother to consider if any real, lasting good was done.

On the home front, Evangelical churches proudly speak of their ministries to those whom the Bible calls “the least of these.” Again, my purpose here is not to criticize Evangelicals for the good that they do, but I think is important to view their acts of charity in context and judge them according to overall church and ministry budgets. Jesus made clear in the Gospels that what Christians spend their money on shows what really matters to them. Matthew 6:19-21 states:

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

And in Matthew 25:31-40, we find these words:

When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

While Evangelical churches have food pantries, clothing rooms, and ministries that help the poor and homeless, when the money spent on these programs is compared to the overall budgets, it becomes clear that what matters to Evangelicals the most is salaries, benefits, insurance, utilities, buildings, and programs geared towards keeping well-fed sheep comfortable, content, and happy. The overwhelming majority of budgeted money is spent within and not without the walls of the church. And this is fine if Evangelical churches are what I have long claimed they are — social clubs. However, most Evangelical churches, pastors, and congregants believe that the works they do in Jesus’ name are monumental in nature. So, because their works are often viewed as larger than life, it is fair for us to judge their actions in the larger context of how church offerings are spent. Churches are, by default, considered charitable, tax-exempt institutions. The difference, however, between churches and other charitable organizations is that churches are exempt from reporting requirements. When charitable groups are granted tax exemptions, we as taxpayers have a right to know whether they are actually spending most of their money on acts of charity. Most people likely think that religious institutions spend most of their money helping out the downtrodden, but the fact is very little money actually goes towards caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, paying rent and utility bills, or providing clothing and shelter to those in need. Over the years, I have touched on the issues raised in this post numerous times, often raising the hackles of offended Evangelicals. How dare you say that Evangelicals don’t do much for “the least of these.” Why, my church does ________________ . Fine, I say to them. Show me your church’s budget. Not the generic, one-page summary. I want to see the entire budget, complete with statements of income and expenditures. I want to see exactly how much money is taken in and the percentage of that money that is spent doing actual works of mercy and charity outside of the four walls of the church. I’ve yet to have a church or a pastor provide me with these documents. Why? Because they know, truth be told, that very little of their income actually goes towards helping those in need. The overwhelming majority of income keeps the machinery running. This is why it is laughable when Republican Evangelicals suggest that churches can take on meeting the needs of the poor. Cut taxes, they say, and let God’s people care for the sick, hungry, and impoverished. Imagine how much higher the poverty rate would be if it were left up to Evangelicals to take care of the welfare needs of others. They can’t even take care of their own, let alone those who live outside of their four walls.

Our local mall is in a steady state of decline, with store after store closing its doors or moving to cheaper locations. I told Polly that perhaps Evangelicals could get together and purchase the mall, turning it into a multi-denomination worship center. Every sect could have its own storefront. People visiting for the first time could choose from any of a number of ice cream flavors. Wouldn’t such a facility be a wonderful testimony to the unity that Christians are supposed to have? Expenses could be shared, and there would be no need to keep up one hundred separate buildings, each with its own pastor. Think of how much more money these churches would have to minister to the disadvantaged and marginalized. Yet, I know that having a one-stop church shopping center would never work. Why? Because every church thinks that they are special, and without them, bad things would happen in their communities. I have had more than a few Evangelicals argue that without churches, communities would become dens of iniquity and immorality. Churches are lighthouses in their communities, these Evangelical defenders say. I am convinced, however, that most churches could close their doors and no one outside of the membership would even notice. There are six churches within three miles or so of my home. These churches are filled with decent, kind, loving Midwestern farm folks, much like the people I mentioned at the start of this post. To them, their churches matter, but for those of us who sit outside of the church, we wonder what community good is being done by these churches? I suspect if these six nearby churches closed tomorrow, there would be no qualitative difference in the community in the weeks and months that follow.

For Evangelicals who stumble upon this post, I would ask them to be honest. Take a hard look at what your church does ministry-wise, and ask yourselves, are we doing anything that really matters? Are we doing anything outside of the four walls of our churches that justify us receiving a tax exemption and being financially supported by taxpayers? Well, indignant Evangelicals might say, our churches are focused on getting people saved. We don’t worry about temporal needs. Better to go to heaven hungry, than to hell with a full stomach. But even here, most Evangelical churches fail in their mission. Church baptismals are used to store Christmas decorations, with many churches rarely baptizing new converts. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the largest non-Catholic denomination in America — largely Evangelical — is known for its evangelistic efforts. Yet, most SBC churches baptize a few or no new converts. When new Evangelical churches are planted, most of their attendance growth comes, not from people getting saved, but by people leaving their churches and joining the new one. In nearby Defiance, there are several hot-to-trot Evangelical churches that are growing by leaps and bounds. Most of the people flooding into these churches come from nearby established congregations. We Americans are never satisfied with what we have. We are always looking for the latest and greatest whatever, and this applies to churches too. Bored Evangelicals seek out new thrills, using excuses such as “my needs are not being met” or “I’m not being fed” to justify their wanderlust. New churches grow, and established churches decline. While it seems that God is “moving “in these new churches, what’s really happening is that people are just changing pews.

While there certainly are a small number of churches that take seriously Christ’s command to minister to “the least of these,” most are social clubs that exist for the benefit of their membership. I don’t have a problem with this. People should be allowed to belong to whatever club they want. But I do object to taxpayer money being used to support these clubs. Churches should be required to fill out annual reporting forms that justify the tax exemption they receive. If most of their income is not being used for charitable means, then they should not be tax-exempt. Personally, I would like to see the Johnson amendment (please read The Johnson Amendment: I Agree With Donald Trump.) revoked. Churches and their ministers should be treated like any other business, with their income subject to taxation. Only congregations that can demonstrate that they exist for charitable purposes would be granted tax exemption. Like other charities, these churches would annually be required to justify their continued tax exemption. I suspect that less than ten percent of churches would qualify for tax exemption. Out of the almost three hundred churches in the Tri-County area where I live, I don’t know of one church that would qualify. No matter how many youth groups return from mission trips with stories of mighty works done for Jesus, and no matter how many “ministries” churches list on their website, the fact remains that most of the money collected goes toward making sure pastures are maintained and sheep are well fed.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 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.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

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

Bruce Gerencser