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An IFB Funeral: Fundamentalist Christianity Poisons Everything

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 2007, the atheist firebrand Christopher Hitchens wrote a book titled, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. While I think Hitch painted with too broad a brush, I can say Fundamentalist Christianity does, indeed, poison everything — especially the stench of Fundamentalism found in Independent Fundamentalist Baptist churches.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Polly’s IFB preacher father died on Sunday. Polly’s parents have attended the Newark Baptist Temple in Newark Ohio for the past forty-five years. Dad left to start a church in Buckeye Lake for eight years, but returned after the church shut its doors. Mom and Dad have remained loyal members of the church ever since.

The Baptist Temple was pastored by James (Jim) Dennis for over four decades. Both Dad and Jim graduated from Midwestern Baptist College, the IFB institution Polly and I attended in the 1970s. Jim retired from the ministry in 2017 and died from complications of myasthenia gravis in 2018. Mark Falls is currently the pastor of the Baptist Temple.

Jim Dennis and I, for more reasons than I will ever publicly share, had an adversarial relationship. (Please see The Family Patriarch is Dead: My Life With James Dennis.) Jim was a typical IFB preacher: always right, arrogant, and self-righteous. I wasn’t much different back in my IFB preaching days.

Ten years ago, Polly and I decided to stop attending family holiday events in Newark. Polly’s family is littered with IFB pastors, evangelists, and missionaries, and their families. Imagine being the only out unbelievers in a room full of IFB preachers and their families. Not fun, to say the least.

We decided that we would only attend weddings and funerals, especially if they were held at the Newark Baptist Temple. I told one of my sons this: imagine if you were abused as a child, yet you are expected as an adult to return to the house where you were abused for family events; that your abuser still lives in the house. That’s how my wife and I view the Newark Baptist Temple and some of its leaders and members. We refuse to put ourselves in positions where we have to come in contact with our abusers. Behaviors have consequences, and unlike Pastor Mark Falls and the fine folk at the Newark Baptist Temple, we don’t have to forgive or forget. Forgiveness comes only when there is accountability for past bad behavior; admissions that the “saints” so revered by the congregation were/are anything but.

We have moved on, but we haven’t forgotten, and in moving on, Polly and I have decided to not put ourselves in positions that dredge up bad memories and experiences. That is, until Polly’s father died.

Earlier this year, I took Mark Falls and the Baptist Temple to task for their refusal to cancel services in light of COVID-19. (Please see IFB Pastor Mark Falls Tries to Use Bible Verses to Guilt People into Attending Church during Coronavirus Pandemic and No Need to Wear a Face Mask: When it’s My Time to Die, I’m Ready to Go.) Polly and I were, and still are, worried about her parents contracting COVID-19 and dying. We learned not long ago, that Polly’s mom had lied to us — for obvious reasons — about attending in-person services and Christian school events. The Baptist Temple has had members contract the virus, including the pastor and his family. Yet, services continue as if everything is normal. No pandemic to see here, praise Jesus. Our God is still on the throne.

One young family member, who faithfully attends the Baptist Temple with his family, told one of my sons that Falls and the church really do take COVID-19 seriously. Just to make sure that I was not operating on outdated information, I viewed hours of videotaped church services and school events — fast forwarded, of course. My original assessment of the Baptist Temple stands. From choir members spitting out for the glory of God, to unmasked staff members and congregants in the first six rows, I saw little evidence for the church doing all they can to keep people from getting infected. I saw the same behavior as I did in March. Ten months of knowledge about COVID-19, but all that matters is Jesus.

Mark Falls was wearing a mask, so kudos to him for doing the right thing. But, as the CEO, boss, and pastor of the Newark Baptist Temple, he refuses to require church members to wear masks. I assume he knows studies conclusively show church services are super-spreader events. And choirs and choir practices? Some of the worst virus spreaders of all. By not putting an end to such practices and by refusing to demand congregants wear masks, he’s shown that he doesn’t take the virus seriously; that as the Libertarian that he is, he values personal freedom over social responsibility; that he puts little value on the health and safety of not only his congregation, but his community.

And that brings us to Dad’s death and the funeral on Saturday. As you might expect, Mom is having a full-blown give-Jesus-the-glory funeral for her husband at the Baptist Temple. I believe there will be meal of some sort afterward. And then, there will be a outdoor, family-only graveside service.

Before Polly first talked to her Mom after her father died, our nephew called to talk to us about the funeral — assuming that we were on board with a church funeral. He quickly learned that, no, we aren’t fine with group gatherings, we are not fine with public visitation, and we are not fine with masks not being required. We told him that we informed Mom months ago, that due to our own serious health problems, we would not attend any group gatherings — including funerals. At the time, speaking of her own funeral, she haughtily replied, “I don’t care, I’ll be dead.” Months later, and now the proverbial shit has hit the fan.

We made it clear that we wouldn’t be attending the funeral, visitation, or meal; that we would attend the outside graveside service as long as it was family-only. Our nephew passed this on to Mom, and when Polly called her, she refused to talk to Polly about the funeral plans. The next afternoon, Polly’s mom called to let her know what the plans were. Since then, some of my sons who take seriously the virus and hadn’t planned on attending the funeral were guilted into being pallbearers. I understand this, I really do. They love their grandparents dearly, so it is hard to say no. Polly and I, however, love life more than we do her parents. I apologize if that seems callous and blunt, but we are not willing to sacrifice our future with our children and grandchildren for a church funeral.

Our relationship with Polly’s parents has been hanging by a thread for years. We walked away from Christianity twelve years ago. Since then, Polly’s parents have had not one meaningful conversation with us about why we left the ministry and later left Christianity. All we get from them are thoughts and prayers. Everyone, of course, at their church knows that we are unbelievers. Mom told Polly that “people” were praying for us. Well, you know what THAT means. IFB funerals are never about the deceased. It’s all about Jesus and evangelizing the heathens — the Gerencsers — who will be in attendance. I am sure Baptist Temple members, its pastor, and Fundamentalist family members think that maybe, just maybe, Polly and Bruce will gloriously come back to Jesus and the one truth faith. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this happened on the day of Polly’s father’s funeral? Way to go, Pastor Falls, uh, I mean Jesus. You reached those atheists for God! That ain’t going to happen, and even if we were so inclined, we wouldn’t recommit to Jesus at the Newark Baptist Temple.

On Memorial Day, 2005, Polly’s sister was tragically killed in a motorcycle accident. Here is what I wrote about Kathy and her funeral:

It’s a sunny, spring day, Memorial Day weekend.

Utica, Ohio is having its annual ice cream festival. A woman and her husband decide to attend the festival. Hopping on their Harley, off they drive to Utica.

The traffic is busy, and the husband knows he had better be careful.

But off in the distance, a woman grows impatient with traffic. She’s in a hurry, wanting to get home. She makes a decision that will have catastrophic consequences a few seconds later. She quickly makes a u-turn, and much to her horror there is a motorcycle coming right at her.

It’s already too late. The husband does what he can to avoid the oncoming car, but his wife, the mother of his three children, is thrown from the Harley and her head hits the pavement.

And just like that, she’s dead.

Every dream, every hope, and every opportunity of tomorrow is now gone.

Being a Christian family, we turn to our God and ask why. We pray for strength and understanding. The heavens are silent, and they remain so even to this day.

In a moment of anguished religious passion, someone says, if one soul gets saved through this, it is worth it all.

No, it’s not. How dare we reduce the worth of a life, this one precious life, to that which God can use for his purpose. A husband has lost his wife and his children are motherless. Her grandchildren will never know the warmth of her love. Her sister and parents are left with memories that abruptly stopped the moment their sister and daughter hit the pavement.

No, I say to myself, I’m not willing to trade her life for anyone’s salvation. Let them all go to hell. Give us one more day when the joy and laughter of family can be heard and the family is whole. One more day to enjoy the love and complexity she brought into our life.

One more day.

Polly’s mom let her know that we shouldn’t expect her (and the Newark family) to ignore Dad’s love for Jesus, the church (though I could tell stories about his “love” for the Baptist Temple — but I won’t), the Bible, and witnessing. We would, of course, never expect her to do so. This is how she has translated our willingness to attend the funeral. It’s our atheism and agnosticism that’s the problem. I wonder who put that idea in her head?

I should the note that her pastor has been front and center in all of the funeral preparations. Mom, fearing that we would not respect her funeral wishes — again, where’s that shit coming from? — typed out exactly what she wanted funeral-wise for her funeral and Dad’s. She sent us a copy and filed a copy for safekeeping with her pastor. Read into that what you will.

Several years ago, when Mom and Dad started having serious medical and financial troubles, we gently suggested they move to rural northwest Ohio and let us care for them. We thought this would also give them a better opportunity to know our grown children and grandchildren. Our offer was rebuffed, just as it was in 2005 when we told Mom and Dad we would stay in Newark if they asked us to, putting aside the fact that all of our children and grandchildren lived hours away. Mom and Dad pridefully said no, telling us to do what we wanted. Fine — weeks later we returned to northwest Ohio, bought a home, and have spent the past fifteen years enjoying the lives of our six children and thirteen grandchildren — and preparing to die.

During Polly’s discussion with her mom about moving here, Mom told her in no uncertain terms that her church mattered to her more than her only living daughter. These words crushed Polly, unlike anything in our forty-two years of marriage. To Mom (and Dad) Jesus and the Baptist Temple were what really mattered to them. They had their “saved” family near them, and got to see them see them every Sunday. Those Gerencsers are atheists, agnostics, Catholics, and the like — nothing like the saved, sanctified sister, nephews, nieces, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren in Newark. My God, the Gerencsers curse, drink beer, wear pants, attend public schools, and watch mature-rated TV. Worse yet, several of those Gerencser boys have been divorced. That’s what happens when you leave the one true faith.

It is evident, at least to Polly and me, that Mom and Dad — mainly Mom, Dad said very little — treated our family very different from that of their IFB/Evangelical family. We came to accept that this is just how it is. I know that Mom never wanted me to marry Polly, that she blames me for every bad thing that has happened in our lives. I have helped Mom and Dad numerous times over the years — personal matters I am not comfortable sharing. And when things didn’t turn out as expected? I was blamed.

You would think that things would have gotten better after Polly defied her Mom and married me anyway; that the good life we have made over the past forty-two years would merit a bit of praise or recognition that we have done well. Instead, I am the man who ruined Polly’s life. This was made crystal clear, yet again, when Polly was talking to her Mom about WHY we couldn’t/wouldn’t/shouldn’t attend ANY group gatherings, including the funeral. Mom replied, “well, if Bruce didn’t come to the funeral, you could come, right?” Polly retorted, “absolutely not.”

The running belief in Polly’s patriarchal IFB family is that she is a lemming, a follower; that I am the head of the home and she only does what I tell her to do; that she doesn’t think for herself; that she doesn’t make her own decisions. That “may” have been true thirty or so years ago, back in the days when I was an Evangelical preacher, but those days are long gone.

Yes, I am an outspoken, strong-willed, passionate man, but these character traits should not be translated into me dominating and controlling Polly’s life. These days, our marriage is quite egalitarian — look the word up Fundamentalist family members who are reading this post. Sure, we still have somewhat of a “traditional” marriage –whatever the Hell that means. We are children of the 1950s. However, Polly is her own person. After we left Christianity, Polly went back to college and got a degree. She has been a supervisor at work for years. She is, in every way, a modern woman who still dotes on her husband and children. She’s quiet and unassuming, but don’t think for a moment that she doesn’t have her own opinions. I didn’t force her to leave Christianity, she left of her own accord. In fact, Polly is more hostile towards Evangelical Christianity than I am. Learning about how she viewed our years in the ministry and her role as the pastor’s wife, has been a real eyeopener for me. Her perspective is very different from that of a man who was beloved by congregants and the center of attention.

Fifteen years ago, Polly had a frank discussion with her mom — one of few such discussions. There had been a huge blow-up at our home on Thanksgiving Day. Afterward, Mom called and told me that I needed “help,” that they always knew I was “different,” and that they always “accepted” me. Polly told her mom, “don’t force me to choose between you and Bruce. If you do, I will choose Bruce. I will always choose Bruce.” This blow-up greatly improved our relationship with Mom and Dad. Mom realized she had crossed a line that she better never cross again. Sadly, Dad’s death has reopened ugly wounds, and pushed our relationship up to that invisible line once again. It would be so easy to walk away. We won’t, of course, because we deeply love Polly’s mom.

I told my son that the hold the Newark Baptist Temple has over Polly and I will soon be broken. One death down, and one to go. We will, of course, honor Polly’s Mom’s last wishes, settle the estate if Polly is still the executor by then, and then wash our hands of Baptist Temple. It will be a glorious day when we no longer have to concern ourselves with the Baptist Temple. While, in different times, I would love to share my feelings about my father-in-law at the funeral, I suspect my words are unwanted. You see, I actually knew the man. We worked together, both at the church we started and doing construction projects. Man, do I have a lot of funny stories to tell, stories that would horrify our Fundamentalist family. Dad and I had open, frank discussions about life, about marriage, about his days on the railroad, his tenure as assistant pastor at the Baptist Temple. I shall not tell these stories. They are not mine to tell. These stories go to the grave with Cecil “Lee” Shope, a man I dearly loved and will miss the remaining days of my life.

Dad’s Obituary:

A funeral service for Rev. Cecil “Lee” Shope, 84, of Newark, will be held at 10:00 a.m. Saturday at Newark Baptist Temple, with Pastor Mark Falls officiating.  Burial will follow at Wilson Cemetery.  Family will receive friends from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday at the church, 81 Licking View Dr., Heath, Ohio 43056.

Lee passed away November 8, 2020, at Licking Memorial Hospital.  He was born September 21, 1936, in Sebewaing, MI, to the late George Washington and Luisa (DeLawder) Shope.  

Lee was an Army National Guard veteran, and a member of Newark Baptist Temple.  He loved his family, enjoyed reading the Bible, crossword puzzles, woodworking, sharing the gospel, nursing home ministry, and pastored Emmanuel Baptist Church in Buckeye Lake.

He is survived by his wife of 63 years, Bonnie Elenora (Robinson) Shope, whom he married on September 1, 1957; daughter, Pauline (Bruce) Gerencser of Ney, OH; son-in-law, James Hughes of St. Louisville; sister, Dorothy Heider; grandchildren, Jason, Nathan, Jaime, Bethany, Laura, Josiah, Cyle, Christopher, and Adam; and 22 great-grandchildren.

In addition to his parents, he was preceded in death by his daughter, Katherine Hughes, and brothers, Earl, Elmer, and Frank, and sister Bertha Dorsch. 

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 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.

IFB Pastor Todd Bell: The Preacher and the Plague by Colin Woodard

pastor todd bell
Pastor COVID-19 Super Spreader

Weeks ago, Colin Woodard, a nationally recognized reporter for the Portland Press Herald in Portland, Maine contacted me to ask me questions about the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement. I found Woodward to be a thorough, thoughtful reporter, someone I am sure I would enjoy sharing a beer (or whisky) with on a Friday night at the corner pub. After the initial interview, Woodard sent me follow-up questions about certain words used in the IFB church movement that were not typical for him to hear in discussions about churches and sects. As I responded to Woodard, it dawned on me that the IFB churches, pastors, and colleges have their own language of sorts and that outsiders often find this language strange and confusing. I was delighted to interpret for Woodard — much like a charismatic interpreting someone’s speaking in tongues.

The focus of Woodard’s feature-length article is COVID-19 super spreader Todd Bell, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford, Maine. When I initially read stories about the good pastor, I saw his as just another anti-government, anti-science IFB preacher with no regard for his congregation or the people of his community. I pictured Bell standing in the pulpit on Sundays with a defiant fist raised high, screaming FREEDOM! — as Mel Gibson did playing freedom fighter William Wallace in the movie Braveheart.

I intended to give Bell the Bruce Gerencser treatment, but before I could, Woodward contacted me, so I decided to pass on giving Bell the lambasting he so richly deserves. As readers may know, some of the biggest and most obnoxious voices among Trump supporters and anti-maskers are IFB preachers. I want to say thank you to Colin Woodard and the Press Herald for giving Bell the exposure he so richly deserves.

Woodard wrote:

The wedding he presided over Aug. 7 triggered a cascading series of COVID-19 outbreaks that sickened at least 178 Mainers and killed at least eight, shut public schools, locked down a jail and helped push an entire county into an elevated state of alert. Nine of his own congregants got sick too, including his 78-year-old father and a child attending his vacation Bible school.

But on the evening of Oct. 7, the Rev. Todd Bell stood at the pulpit of the Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford, preaching without a mask with a group of young children from his Bible school seated shoulder to shoulder below him, almost all of them also maskless. When he finished, a barefaced assistant took his place and began singing, exhaling an invisible plume of droplets from his lungs to be broadcast around the room.

That’s when someone realized an internet livestream had been left open to the public and cut off the feed, drawing the curtains against the outside world.

The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram examined Bell and the movement he belongs to in order to understand why he has so steadfastly opposed public health measures – even after contributing to multiple deaths and disruptions – and to probe who, if anyone, could influence him to comply. The newspaper’s effort reveals a man born and raised in a religious culture skeptical of science and the government, operating with nearly complete autonomy, supported by his followers and a network of allied institutions and individuals in the Appalachians, able to flout public health advice without formal repercussions.

Despite the fatalities and the pleas of town and state officials, Bell has continued to defy public health guidelines and a city ordinance meant to contain the spread of COVID-19. In late August, as the scale of the wedding-associated outbreak became clear and the first death had been reported, he told his congregation that “the world” wanted “us to shut down, go home, and let people get used to that just long enough until we can finally stop the advancing of the Gospel.” He touted the “liberty” to not wear a mask, falsely suggesting they were about as effective as trying to keep a mosquito at bay with a chain link fence. He later advised his followers that abstaining from singing in the choir was “acting foolishly” and that they were “invincible until God’s finished with us.”

In response to an interview request for this story, Bell said he would consult his attorney. Seventeen days later, he declined to answer questions because he said his attorney hadn’t responded.

The church did not fully cooperate with contact tracers from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which was unable to formally connect the outbreak to the wedding reception, even though Bell himself has said six families from the congregation attended it. “That made the epidemiological investigation more challenging,” the agency’s spokesman, Robert Long, said via email.

City and state officials appear unable to do anything to intervene. The Maine CDC can’t take enforcement actions, because churches are not subject to health inspections and licensing. Long said that in mid-September the Maine CDC “provided a summary of our interactions with Pastor Bell to the attorney general’s office to help that office make decisions on enforcement or legal actions.” But the attorney general’s office declined to comment when asked whether it is considering legal action and, if not, if it believes there are any avenues to enforce public health measures against a non-licensed entity.

“I really wish the state would do something,” says Sanford City Councilor Maura Herlihy, who has known Bell since he arrived in town and describes him as slick, self-assured and “over-the-top” charismatic. “Pushing this on municipalities isn’t going to work, because they’re in a far more difficult situation for managing this level of defiance.”

Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio, who represents Sanford in the Legislature and is running for mayor, says she is outraged at Bell’s behavior. “This community opened its arms to him, and the first time we literally ask anything of him – that you wear masks and not sing in church – he just wasn’t going to comply,” she says. “He has never admitted any culpability. He has never said he was sorry. He’s shown his true colors, and what I see is no minister – he’s someone who cares only for himself.”

Julie Ingersoll, a Bath native and professor of religious studies at the University of North Florida, says many pastors share Bell’s thinking. “He’s definitely not some kind of one-off,” she says. “These are widely held views in conservative American Protestantism across the country.”

You can read the rest of the article here. I am quoted several times in the story, but you will have to read it to see what I said. (Unfortunately, the article has since been put behind a paywall.)

My quotes:

An independent fundamentalist Baptist – or IFB – church might be founded by its pastor spontaneously but more often it is “planted” by a missionary sent from an existing congregation. Typically the missionary pastor is directed by his congregation to spend months or years going to other churches to raise money from their parishioners, a process called deputation.

“You go from church to church, complete with a slideshow of all the evil that exists in the place where you are going and all the souls there that need to be saved and won’t be unless you go there,” says Bruce Gerencser, who was an IFB pastor for 25 years in Ohio, Michigan and Texas, and founded four churches before breaking with the movement in 2005. “Once you have enough money to do what you want to do, you head out into the field. But the relationship between the mother church and the new one is symbiotic, more advice and consent than ‘we are in charge of you.’”

….

IFB churches tend to take oppositional stances toward government authority, particularly when it intrudes on church business, Gerencser says. “There’s a sense of paranoia that government is trying to shut them down, and unfortunately COVID-19 plays right into their hands as far as those things are concerned,” he says. “They see themselves as patriots standing up against the evil, nefarious government. The guy in Maine, he’s not so special except for the effectiveness of what he’s done. I think he gets the prize for bad outcomes.”

….

New England, the least churched region in the country, has long been seen as a promising mission field by independent Baptists. Gerencser, who attended Midwestern Baptist College in the late 1970s, recalls pressure for young pastors to go start IFB churches in the region. “The Unitarians and the Congregationalists and the liberals had turned the whole eastern seaboard into this large block of land dominated by unbelievers!” Gerencser recalls. “The whole eastern seaboard of the U.S. was barren of Bible teaching.”

….

“The intermingling of personal finances and those of the church is easy to do, because very often in these very small churches the pastors are intimately involved in the church finances,” Gerencser says. “It’s very easy to justify moving money around, and it’s not necessarily nefarious, but it can sometimes get that way.”

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 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.

The Black Death of the Church

guest post

A guest post by MJ Lisbeth

It sickened and killed its first victims in China. Italy was the stage for its European arrival; from there, it spread to Spain, France, Germany, England, Scandinavia and the Balkans. Urban dwellers of means fled to their countryside manses. In the meantime, leaders insisted that things were normal, blamed their enemies and racial groups who were already experiencing suspicion and scorn, and, perhaps worst of all, recommended “treatments,” “cures” and other courses of action that, they claimed, had remedial powers but, in fact, had no empirical foundation.

So far, this sounds like an outline of the COVID-19 trajectory and the response to the pandemic, doesn’t it? Would that we were living in such interesting times, to paraphrase an ancient Chinese (!) curse. Instead, this recounting of a pandemic feels, if anything, more like the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

The chronology I outlined in the first paragraph is, in fact, a rough sketch of the Black Death’s trajectory—with a slight variation. Nearly everyone who has studied the 14th Century spread of the plague agrees that it started, or at least was first noticed, in east-central Asia: somewhere in what is now Mongolia or, perhaps, westernmost China. Those same scholars say that it spread along the “Silk Road” and maritime trade routes while the current pandemic most likely spread in planes, trains, cars and buses.

What is all-too-depressingly-familiar, though, is the response of rulers—and said leaders’ relation to a “higher” authority. In late-medieval Europe, the church was all but inseparable from monarchies and the noble classes. Likewise, the heads of state in the United States, Russia, Brazil and other countries glean much of their support from vocal religious groups who, in many cases, deny the findings of scientists, ignore the recommendations of health care professionals and eschew intellectual inquiry. Thus are we advised that COVID-19 is “just a flu” that will “pass” with warm weather or the re-election of the leader making the claim. The US President bellows his prescription of injecting one’s self with cleaning products over the warnings of one of the world’s leading infectious disease experts, much as medieval authorities prescribed chopping up snakes and rubbing the pieces on one’s body (the snake, associated with Satan, was supposed to attract and draw away the “evil” of the disease) or drinking potions made from a unicorn’s horn. The President also insists that religious fundamentalists, vital to his re-election, can congregate, sing, dance, hug, kiss and share meals with hundreds of other fellow worshipers, just as the medieval Church continued to encourage mass gatherings, a source of its power.

That same symbiotic relationship between political and ecumenical authorities is a reason why the former can so easily blame people who are not part of the dominant culture or religion for the pestilence spreading across the land—or for any number of actual or imagined evils and tragedies. In a world where Jews were said to poison wells, kidnap and kill Christian children and perform all manner of evil rites, it wasn’t hard for the Church and Court to promulgate the belief that Jews caused the plague—and to justify murdering them. Likewise could, and did, the President marshal the xenophobic resentments of his supporters to call COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” or “Kung Flu,” just as leaders of other countries could, and did, blame the epidemic on religious and racial minorities or LGBTQ and other “deviant” people. The “Leader of the Free World” also fuels (or at least does nothing to tamp down) rumors that members of those same groups—or his political enemies—run pedophilia rings that—you guessed it—kidnap innocent white children and force them into unspeakable acts .

(In my admittedly-amateur reading of history, I’ve noticed this: When deranged minds and empty hearts fill clerical robes, gaudy uniforms or expensive suits, they use—or encourage others to use—the need to protect the supposed innocence of their children or purity of their women to rationalize all sorts of thuggery.)

If the parallels I’ve drawn, so far, are grim, I can offer a more hopeful comparison. While the Black Death brought the worst kinds of religious bigots out of the woodwork—as the COVID-19 pandemic is doing in the US—it also was, arguably, the first event to cause some people to question the authority of the church, and even the power of their god. It’s almost impossible for anyone in a secular Western country to imagine just how deeply monarchs and secular officials were in thrall to Church authority. (The closest analogues we have today are probably countries such as Saudi Arabia that are ruled by one interpretation or another of Sharia law.) While religious authorities held sway over secular ones at least until the Enlightenment, their influence lessened, however gradually, beginning with the Black Death.

One reason the church lost some of its authority was attrition: Priests and bishops were no more immune than illiterate field laborers to the ravages of the bubonic plague; soon, there weren’t enough prelates to conduct masses or other rites. Nearly all religious institutions act from a premise they dare not articulate: It’s harder to keep people in the fold when you can’t gather them. That, I believe, is why some religious groups, particularly Evangelical Christian and Ultra-Orthodox Jewish congregations, are pressuring or even defying local officials who have banned or restricted large gatherings.

Oh, and in some places, there weren’t enough attendees to keep churches open—even though the Catholic church, like most Christian churches today, doesn’t have a requirement equivalent to that of the minyan. And, even though the social pressure to attend mass was much greater than it is today (save in some conservative homogenous communities), some people stayed away. Although they knew nothing about how the plague was transmitted, much less of epidemiology in general, they noticed that, most often, people got sick when they gathered in large groups. (That, of course, is the reason why affluent urbanites fled to more pastoral settings.)

There is also evidence that some might have stayed away from church—or simply waned in their commitment to it—because they wondered, if only to themselves, about a God who visited such suffering on people who did nothing to deserve it:

For God is deaf and deigneth us not to hear That girls (children) for their guilts (sins) he forgrint (destroys) them all.

William Langland embedded those lines in Piers Plowman, his epic poem that is an allegory of the narrator’s quest for a “true” Christian life—or, if you like, a thinly-veiled critique of a medieval Catholic church that, too often, exploited the Black Death to stoke smoldering hatred of Jews, gypsies and other “infidels.”

Similar developments are unfolding today. While the most extreme congregations of Christianity and Judaism have shown that they are willing to disregard the health and safety of others in the name of “religious freedom,” the pandemic seems to be accelerating a trend, particularly among the young, away from organized worship and religious institutions. They don’t expect prayer or other rituals to protect them from COVID-19 any more than they believe that it’s “God’s will” for them or anyone else to suffer and die from it. If the churches and synagogues never open again, Gen X-ers and Millennials probably won’t miss them. They—and their more educated and rational elders—are leaning in so they can listen to Dr. Anthony Fauci or Deborah Birx over the bellowing of self-appointed (or selected-by-the-Electoral College) messiahs.

During the past few months, all sorts of parallels have been drawn between the 14th Century Black Death and the current COVID-19 pandemic. Some should serve as warnings, but others—such as the erosion of faith in religious institutions—might offer some hope for the future, as long as we allow ourselves to get there.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 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.

Masked in the City’s Bible Belt

williamsburg bridge

Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

I think I’m recovering pretty well from my bike accident. Heck, last Tuesday I even rode the 5 miles to my follow-up CAT scan. I hope it will confirm that I’m as well as I think I am!

The day after, I went for another, longer, bike ride. I needed it because, well, I’m a nearly-lifelong cyclist. Also, I wanted not to think about the CAT scan and to think about other things: It was a couple of days after the anniversary of my mother’s death.

Now I’m going to tell you something you may have figured if you’ve read my previous articles: I live, and grew up, in New York. Even though parts of the city, through gentrification and hyper-development, are becoming more homogenized, it is still a city of stark contrasts. It’s still possible, in some areas, to enter a completely different world simply by crossing a street.

This is especially true in Brooklyn, one of the city’s five boroughs. Today the name is practically a brand that, to much of the world, signifies hipness (if in an overly self-conscious way). If you spend any time in the waterfront neighborhoods of Greenpoint and Williamsburg, it’s easy to understand why: In cafes along Kent, Bedford and Driggs Avenues, where I rode, young men and women in tight jeans wash down their $15 slices of avocado toast (!) with $20 craft beers or cocktails.

These young people, nearly all of them childless, are hated or resented, or at least mocked, as “entitled millennials” because, for one thing, nearly all of them come from other parts of the United States and thus, in the eyes of some, can’t be “real New Yorkers.” (I would argue that is exactly what some don’t want to become. But that’s a subject for an entirely different article.) Also, many of them, even before the pandemic, didn’t seem to be doing any work to support themselves. The money for their avocado toast and drinks—and the condos in which many of them live—comes from elsewhere.

One thing I have to say for them, though: When they weren’t eating or drinking, nearly all of them were wearing masks. Of course, they weren’t covering their faces with those generic blue, white or yellow hospital masks: Some, I am sure, created their own face coverings, while others had them made by artisans or designers, whether in the neighborhood or elsewhere.

As I pedaled down Driggs, I rolled under the Williamsburg Bridge overpass as a train rumbled and clattered across. Many see the bridge as a sort of Mason-Dixon line, if you will, dividing North from South Williamsburg. One could also argue that Nostrand Avenue, where East Williamsburg begins, performs the same function. Like the line that separated the Union from the Confederacy, the areas north and west of the “lines” are richer, whiter and more educated (at least in a certain sense) than the areas on the other side.

My ride didn’t take me into East Williamsburg, though I ride into the area often. I will mention, however, that it is the last remnant of Williamsburg’s Puerto Rican community, which dominated the area for four decades or so after World War II. I did, however, spin my wheels south, into one of the two New York neighborhoods that most closely resemble a prewar shtetl.

I am talking about the part of Williamsburg below the eponymous bridge. The description in my previous paragraph is not an exaggeration: If you were to find yourself on the southern part of Driggs, or on Lee Avenue, late on a Friday or on Saturday, you’d have the place to yourself.

Since I was riding there on a Thursday afternoon, I wasn’t alone. The thing is, I was one of the few non-Hasidim in the area. Normally, I don’t mind that: At worst, I am ignored and can ride or go about whatever else I’m doing, undisturbed. On the other hand, the fact that I was cycling through the neighborhood on the day before shabat, I couldn’t help but to notice that I, and the other goyim in the area, were the only ones wearing masks. None of the Hasidic men and women covered their faces.

I noticed the same phenomenon as I pedaled further south, into Brooklyn’s other Hasidic enclave: Borough Park. There, I was even more isolated: I was, literally, the only goyim (all right, I’m an atheist; but in that community, any outsider is goy!) pedaling, walking or otherwise passing through the area. But that was not the only reason I felt as if I stuck out even more than I did in South Williamsburg: I grew up at the edge of Borough Park, where it borders Kensington. Half a century ago, when I was an altar boy (and manque transgender), the neighborhood was more or less evenly divided between Italian-, Irish- and Polish-Americans. Most of the men, including my father, were blue-collar workers who did as much overtime as they could so they could send me and my peers to the neighborhood’s Catholic school, which closed about 15 years ago. And we all went to the same church—which remains open mainly because of Hispanics who work in the neighborhood—on Sunday.

In my old neiIn my old neighborhood, none of the residents was wearing a mask. However, in a neighboring community, populated mainly by Bangladeshi Muslims, nearly everyone — male, female and otherwise — was.

I would like to think that the denizens of my old neighborhood would have covered their faces, if for no other reason than their reverence (really, a combination of fear and obsequiousness) for authority. The funny thing is that, for all of that they (and I, at the time—after all, I was an altar boy) unquestioningly obeyed our church and school, we knew enough to listen to secular authorities when they knew better. Unfortunately, my old neighborhood—along with South Williamsburg and a few neighborhoods dominated by Evangelical and Pentecostal churches—are this city’s “Bible Belt,” if you will. They believe that the power of their beliefs will protect them when the recommendations of Dr. Anthony Fauci won’t. And even if their fealty to the Word of their God doesn’t keep them from succumbing to COVID-19, they believe that God (or Yahweh) “wants” them “now.”

Some pundits have, accurately, observed, that in the US, the choice to wear a mask—or not—during the COVID-19 pandemic breaks along political lines. In my city, though, it has more to do with religious faith—which, ironically is the political “fault line” in the Big Apple. My ride showed me on which side of the line I live.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 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.

If It’s God’s Will for Me to Get COVID-19 . . .

robert montanelli broken arrow

If it is God’s will that I get coronavirus, that is the will of the Almighty. I will not live in fear.

Robert Montanelli, Trump Rally Attendee in Tulsa, Oklahoma

On Saturday, President Donald Trump held a pep rally at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Trump bragged about how filled the Center would be, saying that 1,000,000 people requested tickets to his rally. Trump even planned for a huge outside crowd. All told, 6,200 people attended the indoor rally, and outside? Several dozen people, such sparse numbers that Trump canceled plans to address them after the main rally. Trump promised a John Holmes-like crowd. Unfortunately, as is often the case with the President, reality was much smaller than promised (just ask Stormy Daniels).

One attendee at the rally was Robert Montanelli from Broken Arrow — a Tulsa suburb. Montanelli wore a red “Keep America Great” hat and an oft-washed “Crooked Hillary for Prison” tee-shirt. When asked why he refused to wear a mask, Montanelli, with Trump-like bravado, said:

If it is God’s will that I get coronavirus, that is the will of the Almighty. I will not live in fear.

While the New York Times article that quotes Montanelli doesn’t mention his religious affiliation, his words have an Evangelical feel to them. I suspect the overwhelming majority of rally attendees were white Evangelicals. While I spotted a few blacks in the crowd, it was evident, at least to me anyway, that this water fountain was meant for Bible-quoting white Americans.

I suspect more than a few Trump supporters in attendance agreed with Montanelli: no masks needed. God is in control of everything, including the Coronavirus pandemic, and if they (or anyone else, for that matter) are infected with COIVD-19, God is to blame, not them. Of course, Evangelicals never use the word “blame” when speaking of their God’s sovereign, decretive acts, but if God holds the world in the palm of his hand, and is in control of everything, then “blame” is appropriate.

Evangelicals believe God is the first cause of everything, the creator of the universe. Thus, God is to blame for COVID-19. God is to blame for every infection and death. And yes, God should be credited for magically keeping some people from getting infected and/or dying.

In April, I wrote a post titled, No Need to Wear a Face Mask: When it’s My Time to Die, I’m Ready to Go. Here’s an excerpt from this post:

Like clockwork, my wife calls her mother every Sunday evening at 10:00 PM. They typically talk for an hour. Last Sunday, Polly asked her mom whether she was wearing a face mask when she went out in public. Mom replied, “no, I don’t need to wear a mask.” When Polly, out of concern for her eighty-four-year-old mother’s health and that of her father, told her mom, “look, you need to get a mask and wear it whenever you go out of the house.” Mom replied, “when it’s my time to die, I’m ready to go.” Polly angrily retorted, “and no one will be able to come to your funeral.” Mom smugly replied, “oh well, I won’t care. I’ll be dead.” And that was that . . .

….

Because of Mom’s intransigent fatalism, it is unlikely that we will ever see Polly’s parents again face to face. (Several weeks ago, we met them a public park for lunch. Seven hours round trip, two-hour visit.) We are not willing to risk infection, all because of her stubborn unwillingness to take basic health and safety precautions. We expect to one day hear the phone ring, and at the other end someone will be telling us one or both of them are dead. Will it be COVID-19 that kills them? I don’t know. Both of them have serious health problems. A virus such as COVID-19 would make easy work of them. We wish they would at least take basic safety precautions, but they won’t. I suspect that a month from now they will join their church family after church down at the local Olive Garden for lunch. “See, we all survived! Glory and praise to Jesus!” And three or four weeks later? Some of them may learn that their God is not in control; that their God is no match for COVID-19, influenza, or any of the other countless bacteria and viruses trying to kill us. Biology and science trump religion every time. Too bad the people who most need to hear this will be dead.

Fatalism is a foundational plank of Evangelical Christianity. Everything in life is predetermined and controlled by God. No need to worry about the Coronavirus pandemic or getting infected with COIVD-19. No need to worry about ending up in the ICU hooked up to a ventilator, dying alone. Everything that happens to you is according to God’s perfect plan for your life. So what if you get infected, suffer, and die? JESUS suffered and died for you — he suffered bigly compared to your suffering — and thanks to his resurrection from the dead, a room in Heaven’s exclusive Trump Hotel awaits you after death.

Of course, Evangelicals such as Montanelli don’t really practice what they preach. Oh, they piously talk about God being in control, but their day-to-day lives reflect the fact that they are the ones controlling their destiny. They may shoot prayers up to the ceiling God, asking for divine direction and favor, but their lives reveal that they are ones answering those prayers.

I suspect that Montanelli looks both ways before pulling into an intersection. I suspect when he goes to the doctor, that he expects to be treated with modern medical techniques. Imagine the doctor saying, “I don’t know what’s wrong with you. Let’s pray and ask God to heal you.” Why, Montanelli would rightly be upset. I suspect that every aspect of Montanelli’s life is controlled not by God, but self. Why then, did he refuse to wear a mask, saying that whether he dies or not is up to God?

Montanelli worships at the feet of the baby Christian Donald Trump. The president refuses to acknowledge or practice CDC or WHO guidelines. He wants to project manly power and strength, even though he has a hard time holding a glass or water or walking down an airplane ramp. Trump’s latest rally was one long infomercial for how great he is. Should it be surprising, then, that Trump’s followers try to emulate him? Montanelli’s bravado is not so much about God and Christianity as it is his need to act like his hero. Sure, Montanelli is a believer, but the central figure in this story is Donald J. Trump, not God.

And if Montanelli contracts COVID-19? Will he “let go and let God?” Will he passively trust that God will, come what may, take care of him? Will he seek medical care? Will he take whatever drugs doctors prescribe? Will he encourage his family members to wear masks? Something tells me that when faced with serious illness and death, Montanelli will do everything in his power to stay alive.

And his boy Trump? Much like God, he will be AWOL. Montanelli will learn that he is on his own, that his life rests not in the hands of Jesus, but in the hands of qualified medical professionals.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 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