Tag Archive: ARO

1979: Canoeing on the St. Joe River

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 February, 1979, Polly and I left Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan and moved to the place of my birth, Bryan, Ohio. I had vowed never to return to rural northwest Ohio — with its flat land and monoculture — but thanks to me losing my job and Polly finding herself pregnant six weeks after we married, we needed to move somewhere where we could get help and find work. That place was Bryan and the home of my sister and brother-in-law. We had gone to the dean of students for counsel about how to deal with our predicament. His advice? Pray, trust God, and above all else, do NOT drop of school. He advised us to borrow money, if necessary, to pay our tuition bills and to stay in school no matter what! Of course, his advice was terrible counsel for a pair of twenty-something, soon-to-be parents. Never mind that fact that Polly and I were clueless about money, budgeting, and credit. Fortunately, no one would loan us enough money to cover our college debt, so we decided to drop out of school and move to Bryan.

On the appointed day, we packed our meager belongings in a U-Haul trailer and towed it with our 1967 Chevrolet Impala to the home of my sister and brother-in-law. We lived with them for a month. Polly and I shared a bunk bed. I quickly found work at General Tire. However, after a few weeks, I was moved from first to third shift. I decided I didn’t want to work that third shift, so I looked for a new job, and quickly found work at ARO Corporation — a large employer who made pneumatic pumps and other air equipment. I worked in shipping and receiving making $7 an hour, including top-shelf, free medical insurance. My brother-in-law worked at ARO, as did my uncle and several of the men I attended church with at nearby First Baptist Church.

My local friends assumed that I would return to First Baptist, the family church pastored by Jack Bennett, my uncle’s brother-in-law. Much to everyone’s surprise, Polly and I decided to attend Montpelier Baptist Church. My sister and her family attended church there. The church was a stridently Fundamentalist church affiliated with the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC). Running about 150 in attendance, the church was poised for growth. (Montpelier Baptist reach 500 in attendance on our last Sunday at the church. Yes, Skippy, I had a lot to do with the attendance growth.) After we visited the church several times, its pastor, Jay Stuckey, came to my sister’s home and asked if I would be interested in being his assistant — a full-time, unpaid position. Eager to get busy serving Jesus, I said yes, and for the next seven months I worked at ARO full-time and devoted the rest of my waking hours to helping Pastor Stuckey. I primarily worked with the bus ministry and visitation program. Strangely, Stuckey never asked me to preach. I did, however, preach several times on Sundays at the Funny Farm Campground. The owners attended the church and were looking for someone to preach to the campers. I’d go preach a short sermon, give an altar call, and then a love offering would be taken. The money was dumped in a paper bag and given to me as I was leaving. Pretty good pay for less than an hour of work. It was, by the way, more money than I ever received from Montpelier Baptist. The church had the means to provide me some sort of stipend, but chose not to.

My sister married at the age of fifteen. Several months pregnant, she married a man who was one day younger than I was. He and I were in the same hospital nursery in June 1957. Initially, I didn’t like my brother-in-law. He was a pot-smoking hippie who listened to rock music! However, between the time they married and my return to Bryan, they found Jesus and were actively involved in various church ministries at Montpelier Baptist.

My brother-in-law seemed to really love Jesus, outwardly anyway. We got along quite well, and when I needed help driving one of the church buses, he gladly volunteered. One day, my brother-in-law asked if I would be interested in going canoeing with him. At the time, I was an outdoorsman — quite fit — so I said, sure!

Up to this point, the only canoeing I had ever done was at youth events at canoe liveries near Loudenville, Ohio. These canoe trips were quite docile, with little threat of drowning. Little did I know that the trip my brother-in-law had in mind would be, on one hand quite thrilling, but on the other hand, quite dangerous.

It was late March, and the St. Joe River was flooded from early spring runoff. The water was cold, in the thirties, temperature-wise. We planned to canoe from Montpelier in the north to Edgerton in the South — a 12-15 mile course. I was excited about making this trip, though I did worry a bit about the coldness of the water. What happened if someone fell in the water? I thought. I quickly dismissed my concern, jumped into the canoe, and my brother-in-law pushed us off from shore. Being a good swimmer, I didn’t wear a life preserver. What could go wrong, right? Little did I know, my carelessness almost cost me my life.

The St. Joe was quickly moving thanks to all the runoff swelling its depths. This, of course, made for swift currents — just what two athletic young men wanted. Towards the end of our trip, we came into some fast-moving water that was partially blocked by a fallen tree. My brother-in-law navigated our canoe towards the right side of the river, and when we came close to the tree, I attempted to push us away with my paddle. To this day, I don’t know for sure what happened next. Somehow, my pushing movement caused the canoe to become unstable, and before I could help right it, I was catapulted over the side. As I hit the freezing water, I found myself gasping for breath. This resulted in me taking in a bunch of water — choking. Little did I know, I was moments away from drowning. Fortunately, my brother-in-law realized I was in serious trouble and, grabbing ahold of the neck of my coat, he pulled me back into the canoe. He literally saved my life.

My brother-in-law paddled the rest of the way down the river with me lying in the bottom of the canoe. We arrived to our destination, loaded the canoe onto our vehicle, and quickly made for home. Boy, did I have a story to tell my bride of eight months! My brother-in-law and I never canoed together after that. I suspect he didn’t want to put his life in the hands of someone as inexperienced as I was. I learned a valuable lesson: ALWAYS wear a life preserver when you are on the water. Unfortunately, this did not steer me clear of doing other dumb, dangerous stuff. When God is with you, no worries. right? Except it was a human, and not God, who pulled me from the chilly waters of the St. Joe on that fateful day. If I had waited on God to “save” me, my wife would have been a widow, and my unborn son an orphan.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve 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. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

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Bruce, Were You Happy in the Ministry? Part One

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.

When I write posts like Leaving the Ministry: Dealing with Guilt and Regret, I am always concerned that someone might conclude that I was unhappy while I was in the ministry or that felt I was trapped in a job I didn’t want to be in.  Neither of these conclusions would be an accurate assessment of the twenty-five years I spent in the ministry.

I was fifteen years old when I went forward at Trinity Baptist Church, Findlay, Ohio and informed the church that I thought God was calling me to the ministry. A few weeks before, I had made a public profession of faith and was baptized.  I had no doubts about God’s call on my life. In fact, my desire to be a preacher went all the way back to when I was a five-year old boy in San Diego, California. My mother asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I told her I wanted to be a preacher. Not a baseball player, not a trash truck driver, or fireman. I wanted to be a preacher. Unlike many people, I never wondered about what I wanted to do with my life. God called-preacher, end of story.

In the fall of 1976, I enrolled at Midwestern Baptist College, a small fundamentalist college in Pontiac, Michigan. Polly Shope, my wife to be, started taking classes at Midwestern in the spring of 1976 while she was finishing her senior year at Oakland Christian School. At the age of fourteen, Polly went forward at the Kawkawlin River Baptist Church, Bay City, Michigan and let the church know that she believed God was calling her to be a preacher’s wife. When Polly enrolled at Midwestern, she had one goal in mind, to marry a preacher.

polly gerencser, pontiac, michigan 1978

Polly in front of our apartment, Fall 1978

Polly and I were immediately drawn to one another. She was quiet, reserved, and very beautiful. I was outspoken, brash, with a rebellious spirit. According to Polly, I was her bad boy. We started dating in September of 1976 and by Christmas we were certain that we were a match made in heaven. Unfortunately, Polly’s parents thought we were a match made in hell. My parents were divorced and Polly’s mom thought that divorce was hereditary. Though she did her best to quash our love, in the spring of 1978, we issued an ultimatum: give us your blessing or we will get married without it (a few weeks earlier, we had seriously considered eloping). On a hot July day in 1978, Polly and I exchanged vows at the Newark Baptist Temple, Heath, Ohio. As Mark Bullock, the soloist for our wedding, sang the Carpenter’s hit, We’ve Only Just Begun, Polly and I had thoughts of the wonderful life that awaited us in the ministry. Little did we know how naïve we were about what being in the ministry really entailed.

Polly’s idea of the ministry was quite idealistic. In her mind, we would have two children, a boy named Jason and a girl named Bethany, and live in a beautiful two-story house with a white picket fence. She saw herself as the quiet helpmeet of her preacher husband.  My idea of the ministry was a bit more realistic. Preaching, teaching, winning souls, visiting the sick, all in a church  filled with peace, joy, and harmony.  No one had prepared us for what the ministry would really be like. I still remember a time when I was standing in a three-foot deep hole partly filled with sewage trying to repair a broken septic line. Polly came out to see what I was doing and I said to her, well, they certainly didn’t teach me this in college. No one told us that the ministry would far different from our idealistic expectations.

Two months after we were married, Polly informed me that our use of contraceptive foam had failed and she was pregnant. Not long after her announcement, I lost my job at a Detroit area production machine shop. Financially, things quickly fell apart for us. We went to see Levy Corey, the dean at Midwestern, and told him that we needed to drop out of college. He told us we just needed to trust God and everything would work out. While I was able to find new employment, it was not enough for us to keep our head above water. In February of 1979, we dropped all of our classes and prepared to move to Bryan, Ohio. Several of our friends stopped by before we moved to berate us for not having faith in God. One friend told us that we would never amount to anything because God doesn’t bless quitters. Years later, at a Newark Baptist Temple preacher’s conference, Dr. Tom Malone, the president of Midwestern, mentioned that I was in the crowd. He said that I had left Midwestern before graduating, but if I had stayed, they (the college) probably would have ruined me. He meant it as a joke, but I took his comment as a vindication of our decision to leave college.

polly bruce gerencser cranbrook gardens bloomfield hills michigan 1978

Polly and Bruce Gerencser, Cranbrook Gardens, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, Spring 1978, two months before wedding.

In February of 1979, we moved to Bryan, Ohio, the place of my birth and the home of my sister Robin. After living with my sister for a short while, we found a house to rent on Hamilton Street. I began working at ARO, a large local manufacturer of pumps and air tools. ARO paid well, but I still desired to be a pastor. As with every job, I viewed secular work as just a means to an end — me pastoring a church. My sister attended the Montpelier Baptist Church in Montpelier, Ohio. When we first moved to Bryan, we thought that we would attend First Baptist Church, the church I had attended before enrolling at Midwestern. Though I knew everyone at First Baptist, we decided to go to Montpelier Baptist, a young, growing GARBC church pastored by Jay Stuckey. This decision did not sit well with the people at First Baptist. One of the matriarchs of the church told me, “Bruce you know you belong at First Baptist!”  At the time, First Baptist was pastored by Jack Bennett. Jack was married to my uncle’s sister Creta.

I had previously preached at Montpelier Baptist, so I knew a bit about  Stuckey and his ministry philosophy. Stuckey was a graduate of Toledo Bible College, which later moved to Newburgh, Indiana and became Trinity Theological Seminary.  After attending the church for a few weeks, Stuckey asked me to help him at the church by becoming the bus pastor and helping with church visitation.

The church had one bus route. It brought in a handful of children every week and little was being done to increase ridership numbers. Enter hot-shot, get–it-done, Bruce Gerencser. In less than a month, on Easter Sunday, the bus was jammed with eighty-eight riders. I vividly remember arriving at the church with all these kids and the junior church director running out to the bus and frantically asking me what I expected him to do with all the children. I replied, that’s your problem, I just bring them in. Needless to say, this man was never very fond of me.

A short time later, the church bought a second bus. I recruited bus workers to run the new route and before long this bus was also filled with riders. On the first Sunday in October, 1979, Montpelier Baptist held its morning service at the Williams County Fairground. A quartet provided special music and Ron English from the Sword of Lord preached the sermon. Five hundred people attended this service and about 150 of them had come in on the buses. Less than two weeks later, I was gone. Polly and I, along with our newborn son Jason, packed up our meager household goods and moved to Newark, Ohio.

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