My wife, oldest daughter, and I, along with several of our children and grandchildren, recently attended the Christmas Light Drive-Thru at the Defiance County Fairgrounds in Hicksville, Ohio. Attended by thousands of people from Northwest Ohio, Northeast Indiana, and Southern Michigan, the drive-thru is a mishmash of lighted secular and Christian displays. Thousands of dollars and man-hours go into putting on the largest Christmas light display in the area. Volunteers at the entrance held donation buckets for attendees to donate. Not knowing what awaited me beyond the entrance, I threw in a $5 bill.
While the trappings of secular Christmas were everywhere we looked, it became very clear to us that Jesus, along with Christian nationalism, were the true stars of the show. At both the entrance and exit, there were lighted American flag displays. Later in drive-thru, we passed a lighted memorial to the Twin Towers in New York (yeah, it struck me as bizarrely strange too). We later drove by a display that said that God gave the us two things: the cross Jesus died upon and the flag of the United States of America. This display, in particular, was a perfect example of how fused Christianity and right-wing political beliefs lie in the minds rural Midwesterners.
More than a few displays touted Christian clichés: Jesus is the Reason for the Season, Keep Christ in Christmas, to name two. My favorite display was one of a shirtless Santa lounging on a beach. After being assaulted by a barrage of Christian Christmas messages, Santa Bruce and Polly were ready for a trip to the beach too, along with a steady stream of alcoholic beverages.
There was nothing in the Christmas Light Drive-Thru that surprised me. I know rural Northwest Ohio quite well. It is, after all, the land of my birth and where I have spent most of my adult life. This is the land of conservative Christianity, right-wing politics, and Christian nationalism. Recent local outrage over Defiance College football players refusing to stand for the National Anthem revealed that Jesus and the GOP — God’s Only Party — are very much alive and well. Of the numerous letters written to the Defiance Crescent-News about the kneeling players, only three letter writers, including yours truly, supported their actions. The Christmas Light Drive-Thru, then, serves as a reminder of who rules the roost in rural Ohio — Jesus and right-wing politics. I am surprised that the Drive-Thru didn’t have a display of three wise men standing before a crèche while saluting an American flag flapping in the breeze over the white baby Jesus’ manger.
The people behind the Christmas Drive-Thru are decent, good people who simply in their actions reflect the tribal beliefs of most denizens of rural Northwest Ohio. I don’t find fault with the Christmas displays, except for the fact that there were no displays touting the Winter Solstice, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa. I suspect the area’s whiteness and lack of religious diversity has a lot to do with why these “other” holiday themes were not represented. (And if any of the people behind the Christian Light Drive-Thru stumble upon this post, I would love to provide and pay for a Winter Solstice display next year.)
The Drive-Thru cost us $5 and an hour of our time. While it is not likely we will make a return visit, I certainly understand its appeal — a bright shining display touting the beliefs most locals hold dear. I know we are generations away from, if ever, locals seeing and understanding that both the Jesus and Santa on display at the Christmas Light Drive-Thru are myths. As long as the Jesus myth prevails, so will displays touting the rightness of rural, white, conservative Christianity.
About Bruce Gerencser
Bruce Gerencser, 60, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 39 years. He and his wife have six grown children and eleven 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.
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The title of this post is a verbatim statement made by a gun-loving, middle-aged white Republican who likely voted for Donald Trump. This man, a member of local law enforcement, recently attended a meeting that I happened to attend as well. Prior to the start of the meeting, several government officials were discussing gun laws and firearm restrictions. One avid Trump supporter happily lent his support to the President Trump’s lie that cities with stringent gun laws — Chicago, in particular — have higher crime rates and firearm-related violence. (Please see Gun Laws, Death and Crime, Is Chicago Proof That Gun Laws Don’t Work?Chicago Toughest on Gun Control? A Claim Shot Full of Holes, Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.) The member of law enforcement chimed in with several anecdotal stories about gun violence and firearms laws, and then, uttering the most absurd thing I have ever heard come out of a policeman’s mouth. The man said, “Laws don’t stop people from doing bad things.”
Having business before this government body, I thought it unwise to interject my pinko-commie-socialist-liberal thoughts into the discussion. I thought to myself, just another day in the right-wing nirvana of rural Northwest Ohio. Nothing I could say would change hearts and minds, and saying the wrong thing could have a negative outcome for me business-wise. Later that night, as I sat in my recliner thinking about the day’s events, I found myself becoming angry over what the police officer said. How dare a man who swore an oath to uphold federal, state, and local law, and to serve and protect local citizens say that laws don’t stop people from doing bad things. If this is truly the case, why not repeal all laws and let the man with the fastest draw and the straightest shot determine social order and freedom. Is this police officer so blinded by his support of the gun lobbies’ misinterpretation of the Second Amendment that he cannot see the importance of having laws? Surely, he thinks we should have laws prohibiting murder, rape, robbery, and sexual abuse. I highly doubt this officer is a libertine. Born and raised in this area, this officer has been deeply influenced by the political, religious, and social mores of rural Ohio. Why, then, would he emphatically state that laws don’t stop people from doing bad things?
If asked, I am sure that the officer would limit his statement to the efficacy of gun laws. Why, I ask, limit making laws to firearm regulations? Laws don’t stop some people from murdering, raping, or molesting children. Is this reason, then, to do away with laws that make such behaviors illegal? Of course not. So it is with gun laws. It is certainly true that gun laws don’t keep motivated criminals from securing firearms. That said, limiting access to certain firearms, accessories, and ammunition, would make it harder for criminals to use them, and in doing so, would save lives. Outlawing semi-automatic assault rifles and high-capacity clips, along with having universal background checks and severely restricting handgun ownership would go a long way in putting an end to mass shootings, and would also, in time, reduce criminal gun violence. One front on the battle against drug addiction and opioid-related deaths is regulating/controlling legal drug supplies, and aggressively going after those manufacturing, distributing, and selling drugs illegally. We know that this is the only way to put an end to the opioid crisis, so why, then, do we not use the same approach to gun violence? That current gun laws are often ineffective is agreed by one and all. But the answer is not to say, fuck it, and give up on attempts to craft effective laws that respect gun owner rights while at the same time putting an end to gun violence. If progressive countries such as England, Australia, Spain, and Japan can drastically reduce gun violence through legislative means, surely the United States can do the same. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Japan has a per-hundred-thousand homicide rate of .31, Spain .66, Britain .92, Australia .98, and the United States 4.88. I ask you, in that set of numbers, which one stands out to you?
Laws may not stop people intent on harming others from committing crimes, but imagine, for a moment, a society without laws and enforcers of law. Imagine a world where all disputes are settled by violence, and the people with the most powerful means of violence win. Why, we would be living in a world much like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or The Walking Dead and Mad Max. It is our laws and their enforcement that give structure and order to our society. Baptists should have the freedom to worship as they wish and not fear being murdered while they pray. Country concert goers should have the freedom to drink beer and sing tunes about women, beer and trucks and not fear being gunned down. All of us should have the freedom to go about our daily lives and not fear being murdered in our homes or at the grocery. The only way to protect our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is to have laws that are enforced for the common good. Until our political leaders stand up to the gun lobby and pass legislation restricting gun purchase, ownership, and use, we should expect continued mass shootings and gun-related crime and violence.
We, the people, have the power to stem the flow of blood in our streets. It remains to be seen if we will do so. Surely, twenty-six dead Baptists is enough to force the issue, right? Surely, the mass shootings and gun violence of the twenty-first century, when taken collectively, will lead to systemic, nationwide change, right? Surely, now is the time to tell the NRA to go fuck itself, right? How many more people must die before we demand Congress and state legislatures send the gun lobby packing and begin to enact comprehensive gun regulation?
I am appalled, as are tens of millions of other Americans, by the fact that Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election. I voted for Bernie Sanders during the primary season, believing that his progressive views were (are) the best way forward for the United States. Sanders’ inability to connect with older, rural, white Americans, and the Democratic National Committee’s attempt to derail him, doomed Sanders’ candidacy. While many Bernie supporters think that he would have beaten Trump had he received the nomination, I am of the opinion that this is little more than wishful thinking. Yesterday, I cast my ballot for Hillary Clinton primarily because I thought (and still do) that a Trump presidency will be disastrous for America. I was willing to overlook Clinton’s scandal-plagued career and her connection to Wall Street because I believed at the time (and still do) that electing Donald Trump would send the United States careening down a path that could lead to world war. A Clinton presidency would likely have been more of the same, a sameness that I could, if need be, stomach for four more years. As a progressive and a liberal, I’ve come to see that neither political party represents me. In 2008, swept up by promises of hope and change, I believed that Barack Obama would bring fundamental change to America. By 2012, I realized that idealistic hope and change had been swallowed up by an obstructionist Congress, lobbyists, big banks, and Wall Street. While President Obama talked a good game, his allegiances were still with corporate America. This became clear in the aftermath of the housing bubble collapse, when the Obama justice department failed to prosecute those who caused the collapse. The political élite ignored how angry middle America was over the pain and suffering caused by the last major recession. Having been ignored for decades, these older, white, Christian Americans see in Donald Trump a man who is willing to stand up for them; someone who speaks their language and empathizes with their pain; someone who doesn’t see them as deplorable. These are the people who swept Donald Trump into the White House. The majority of baby boomers and older people voted for Trump. Over eighty percent of Evangelicals cast their vote for the Republican nominee. Most of these people were never going to vote for a Democrat, so there is literally nothing that Trump could do that would turn them away from voting for him.
Next year, I will be 60 years old. Outside of a few years in California in the 1960s and Arizona and Michigan in the 1970s, I have spent my life living in Ohio. I have watched Ohio turn from a union-strong democratic state to a solidly red state where virtually every major political office is held by a Republican. As an Evangelical Christian and pastor, I was pleased to see Ohio move to the right. I suppose that, if I were still an Evangelical, I would be actively involved in trying to turn back the social progress of the past eight years. I have no doubt that I would have been working to criminalize abortion, shove gays back into the closet, reinstitute marriage as between a man and woman, force transgenders to use the bathroom that corresponded to their birth sex, and above all, I would been working to establish God and the Bible as the absolute authority in matters public and private. Fortunately, for me, my political and social views began to change in the late 1990s. While I was still conservative in many ways, my views began to creep leftward as I realized how hurtful and harmful many of my views were. By the time I left the ministry in 2005, I had moved to the far left of the evangelical tent, and had I not ultimately lost my faith I am sure I would now be a liberal Christian.
I now find myself quite alone in a sea of ravenous Evangelical Republicans. I know that there are numerous area residents who feel as I do. What do we do, now that our fellow citizens decided to elect a xenophobic, misogynistic, race baiting man unfit for public office? I live in Defiance County Ohio. Seventy-one percent of registered voters voted yesterday. Sixty-four percent of them voted for Donald Trump. Twenty-nine percent voted for Hillary Clinton. In nearby Fulton, Henry, and Williams counties, the splits were pretty much the same. Even worse, in Paulding County, seventy-two percent of people voted for Donald Trump, while Hillary Clinton received twenty-three percent of the vote. In nearby Putnam County, eighty percent of voters voted for Trump. A measly fifteen percent voted for Clinton.
While most rural Northwest Ohio counties have unemployment rates below state and national levels and jobs are plentiful, the fact is that much of the area has not yet recovered from the housing collapse. Yes, jobs are plentiful, but wages are not. My wife works for a large manufacturing concern who is having a hard time attracting new employees. If you find yourself looking for a job that starts out at $10 or $11 an hour, then move to rural Northwest Ohio. Housing is relatively cheap, as are groceries. If jobs are plentiful and housing and food are affordable, why do so many local residents still fear the future? One of the reasons is that wages are stagnant, and for those who work in local factories, after they reach a certain wage level all they receive are token, often laughable wage increases. The same workers have had to absorb scandalous increases in insurance costs. When my wife started with her employer in 1997, her insurance plan had a $300 deductible and a $1,200 maximum out-of-pocket. Today, her insurance plan has a $3,750 deductible and a $6,000 maximum out-of-pocket. During this time span, the amount that she pays for insurance premiums has gone up over 200%. Outrageous costs such as these are dragging many rural Americans right out of the middle class.
The housing collapse destroyed local property values. While values have improved in recent years, they are still below what they were in the 2000s. My wife and I bought our house in 2007 at the height of the boom market. Over the past 10 years we have made $25,000 of improvements on our home, including a new roof, windows, doors, and major inside remodeling. Yet, if we sold our house today, I doubt that it would bring much more than $10,000 over what we paid for it. Three houses across the street from us have sold in the last two years. All of the sellers were forced to reduce their prices in order to sell their homes. That said, housing prices are cheap, often hundreds of thousands of dollars cheaper than similar homes in cities and on the East and West Coast.
During the Obama administration, environmental regulations have been used to saddle local residents with increasing water and sewer costs. In nearby Defiance, residents are having to deal with water and sewer bills that could, when all the forced EPA mandates are met, reach $200 a month. While the EPA is absolutely right to force Defiance to stop dumping shit in local waterways, I do understand the frustrations of local residents who are forced to pay ever-increasing utility bills without any meaningful wage increases. The small community I live in had to install a sewer system for similar reasons. Fortunately, the project was shovel ready and the village received over $1 million of TARP money to pay for the new system. If the village of Ney had not received this money, our water and sewer bills would be much more like those of Defiance.
Rural Northwest Ohio is religiously dominated by Evangelical, mainline Lutheran, Methodist, and Catholic churches. These sects are decidedly white, conservative, anti-abortion, anti-homosexual, and Republican. They are an aging population who think that the 1950s were the best times of their lives. Farms dot the landscape, and the latest election results show that farmers overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump, even though, if Congressional Republicans have their way, drastic cuts will be made to farm programs. Quite frankly, the only thing that will turn rural areas such as this one towards a more progressive path is for there to be a lot of funerals. Until grandma and grandpa die off, rural Northwest Ohio will continue to be a bastion of Republican values. I will do what I can to be a voice that counters their delusions, and I know many others will do the same, but we do not have sufficient numbers to make a meaningful difference in the short-term. Our best approach is to begin helping the millennial and gen-x generations find their political feet. Both the Democratic and Republican parties attempted to co-opt younger Americans for political gain. These young voters bought into Barack Obama’s message of hope and change. Eight years later, many of these same voters believe that the two-party system is broken beyond repair. It is for this reason many young Americans supported Bernie Sanders, hoping that he would split off from the Democratic Party and run an independent campaign. Disheartened by Sanders’ pragmatic refusal to do so, many of these disillusioned young voters stayed home on election day, allowing idealism to trump pragmatism. It remains to be seen if the millennial and gen-x generations will continue to support the two-party system, or will instead opt to burn the house to the ground and start a political revolution. I think Bernie Sanders is right when he says what America really needs is revolution. Perhaps after four years of being ravaged by an orange-skinned monster, America will be ready for a real hope-and-change revolution.
I am often asked why I continue to live in rural Northwest Ohio. Why would an atheist with socialistic/progressive/liberal values continue to live in an area dominated by God’s Only Party? The short answer is that this is where my children and grandchildren live, but there is more to my living here than just my love for family. First, I was born here. My father’s parents were Hungarian immigrants who settled in this area, operating a hundred-acre farm until both of them died in the 1960s. Both my mom and dad were raised on the farm. While my dad was raised in Ohio, my mom spent most of her younger years on a farm in Missouri. My rural country roots run deep. Polly and I recently celebrated our thirty-eighth wedding anniversary. We have spent most of our married years living among rural people. The slow, lazy hum of rural life suits us. Good schools surround us and we have few of the fears that many city-dwellers face. While we lock our doors and cars out of habit, if we didn’t it is likely that nothing would happen. We know our neighbors, even though we have little in common with them. We are surrounded by wildlife and greenery, and the shores of Lake Erie and Lake Michigan are but short drives away. We know little of traffic jams, and when we go to the big cities of Toledo and Fort Wayne to indulge in that which only they can provide, we are always glad when we return home; and that’s the key word…home. Yes, I am angry that my fellow country folk played a big part in electing Donald Trump. I totally get the anger that many of my blue state friends have towards rural America. Their anger is warranted, but I hope they will remember that not every country hick or hillbilly is a Republican. This is my home, and I will, from my little corner of the universe, do what I can to make sure that Donald Trump is a one term president and that his harmful policies are kept from fruition. As disheartened as I am today, I know that I cannot remain silent. If my goal remains a better future for my children and grandchildren, then I owe it to them to muster what strength I can to defeat political ideologies that want to roll back progress. Throwing feces and writing screaming blog posts will gain me nothing. I must do what I’ve always done, and that is to be a loud voice for progressive values and the humanist ideal.
Letter submitted to the editor of the Defiance Crescent-News on April 11, 2016
Recently, Cal Thomas pontificated about the need for an objective standard of morality. Of course, Thomas, an Evangelical, believes the moral code found in the Bible is the true standard of morality. Thomas believes America is mired in a moral quagmire. Blaming liberals, secularists, and atheists, Thomas believes America’s only hope is for Americans to once again prostrate themselves before the Bible and promise resolute fealty to its author — God.
What exactly is the Bible’s objective moral standard? The Ten Commandments? Or is it the Nine, since most Christians no longer “remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy?” Or, as dispensational Evangelicals suggest, is just the New Testament the standard for morality? If it is just the New Testament, then why do Evangelicals continue to condemn homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and abortion — none of which is mentioned in the New Covenant? And why do Evangelical pastors continue to collect tithes and offering each Sunday, a practice not found anywhere in the New Testament?
While Evangelicals will point their peculiar interpretation of the Bible to justify the notion that they are the holders of God’s standard of morality, any careful examination of their churches shows that Evangelical moral beliefs are every bit as subjective as their atheist/agnostic/secularist neighbors. There are over one hundred churches in Defiance County, and not one of them agrees with another about what is considered moral behavior.
On matters of greater importance: salvation, baptism, and communion, local churches fight among themselves, each believing that it has the keys to the kingdom. One church has been running weekly ads in the Crescent-News to remind locals that their church — a Campbellite congregation — preaches the true gospel. Down the street Baptists preachers remind congregants that the heretical followers of Alexander and Thomas Campbell were thrown out the Baptist church mid-19th century. It is the Baptists who have the true gospel. And so the internecine wars continue unabated since the day Jesus was buried in a pauper’s grave.
Atheists such as myself laugh when Evangelicals suggest that the Bible is the standard for morality. Seeing the utter confusion and contradictory beliefs among the various Christian sects, how can anyone know for sure who is right? My money is on none of them being right. As a humanist, I believe it is up to people — not religions — to determine the standards by which we want to govern our lives.
“These events are a great opportunity for people to be enlightened. Too many people get three hours off on Good Friday and don’t do anything about it. If they come to these events it could change their lives. God is trying to show us that we need to be ready for Christ’s return. This is still history in the making and people can still be a part of that history, it’s not too late.”
Every year, a handful of Defiance area mainline Protestant, Catholic, and ecumenical Evangelical churches get together for a community Good Friday service. This year’s service will be held from noon-3 p.m. at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church. Immediately following the service, Christians will gather at St. Mary’s Catholic Church for the annual Stations of the Cross walk. According to the Defiance Crescent-News (behind paywall):
There will be 14 stops on the way, to read scripture and pray in remembrance of the 14 stations of the Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrows). Of the 14 stops, seven will be read and spoken in Spanish.
Good Friday truly is good, because Christ died for us on the cross and rose on Easter, giving us the gift of salvation that he freely offers to us. To celebrate as a Christian community with the Outdoor Stations of the Cross, we realize that our faith is such that we can take it out to the streets and be a witness to everyone, that we do believe in his death and resurrection.
The Stations of the Cross is a pilgrimage. For those of us who can’t go to the Holy Land, we walk here so we can recount the steps that Jesus took. This walk is a chance to be together with people from our community, and with Jesus, to not only understand his suffering, but to also understand the great love he has for us.
Christians doing Christian stuff on Good Friday…no big deal. What I find amusing is the notion that these events are some sort of statement affirming Christian unity. Most Defiance area churches do not participate in these events. Many local churches don’t even believe Catholics are Christian. Some Baptist churches not only consign Catholics to hell, they also doubt the Christianity of people attending liberal or mainline churches.
Father Muller thinks walking the Stations of the Cross is taking their Christian faith out to the streets as a public witness of belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus. I hate to break it to Muller, most people don’t give a shit. Many local businesses give employees Good Friday off or allow them to attend Good Friday services. Despite this, most locals — who are overwhelmingly Christian — will not be in attendance at either of the Good Friday events.
Apostle Smith thinks if people attend these events their lives could be changed. After all, Jesus is coming soon! What will be said that hasn’t been said countless times before? There’s not one person in Defiance County who hasn’t heard some version of the Christian gospel. Everyone knows who Christians say Jesus is and what supposedly happened to him 2,000 years ago. They know all they need to know, yet, come noon tomorrow most local residents will be busy living life, preparing for the REAL meaning of Easter — the Easter bunny, eggs, chocolate, and other candies. What Smith and his fellow religionists fail to understand is that, yes, people are becoming more enlightened, but this enlightenment is leading them away from, not towards organized religion. Despite all the religious pontificating from Republican presidential candidates that suggests otherwise, American Christianity is in decline — especially among millennials. There will come a day in the not too distant future that Good Friday services and walking the Stations of the Cross will be little more than relics of a bygone era.
Bernie Sanders for President Sign in Our Front Yard
Last July, we purchased a Bernie Sanders sign and placed in our front yard. We live on Ohio State Route 15, a busily traveled road running between Bryan and Defiance. By now, thousands of local residents have seen our sign. While several people have stopped by our home and asked where we got our Bernie sign, it remains the only one we have seen in Defiance and Williams County.
A few hours ago, one of my sons alerted me to an interesting discussion on the Citizens for a Better Williams County Facebook page about stealing local campaign signs. The screenshot that follow is self-explanatory.
Both potential criminals are Republican, and one of them is a devout Evangelical Christian. Evidently, respecting the property rights of others is not a part of their political or moral code. I wonder what they would do if they found out that not only are we Bernie Sanders supporters, we are atheists too?
I doubt that either of these people would steal or damage our sign. We all say stuff on Facebook that we don’t really mean. That said, IF our Sanders sign comes up missing or is defaced, we will be sure to direct the Defiance County Sheriff’s department to the aforementioned Facebook discussion.
My grandparents, Paul and Mary Gerencser and Children, 1950s. My dad is on the front row, far left. Only my two aunts, last row, far right, are still alive.
Bryan, Ohio is a small, rural community in the far northwest Ohio county of Williams. Bryan is the place of my birth, which occurred at Cameron Hospital (recently torn down) in June of 1957. My mother moved to the Bryan area in the 1950s. My father was a Williams County native. Dad’s parents, Paul and Mary Gerencser, were Hungarian immigrants who came to America in the 1920s. Arriving at Ellis Island, they made their way to Cleveland, and from there moved to Defiance County, Ohio. Grandpa and Grandma Gerencser later moved to Williams County Ohio after purchasing a 100-acre farm on the Williams/Defiance County line. (please see My Hungarian Grandparents: Paul and Mary Gerencser)
Bryan, the seat of Williams County, has, according to the 2010 census, a population of 8,545. The population in 1950 was 6,365. Racially, Bryan is 96% white. I was 7 years old before I had my first encounter with a black person – a porter at the train station in Chicago. There were no blacks living Bryan during my teenage years. Only a handful of blacks live in Bryan today. Hispanics make up about 4% of the population.
Much of northwest Ohio was a part of a glacially fed wetland called The Great Black Swamp. According to Wikipedia, The Great Black Swamp:
…existed from the end of the Wisconsin glaciation until the late 19th century. Comprising extensive swamps and marshes, with some higher, drier ground interspersed, it occupied what was formerly the southwestern part of proglacial Lake Maumee, a holocene precursor to Lake Erie. The area was about 25 miles (40 km) wide (north to south) and 100 miles (160 km) long, covering an estimated 1,500 square miles (4,000 km2). Gradually drained and settled in the second half of the 19th century, it is now highly productive farm land. During the second half of the 20th century, efforts were undertaken to preserve and restore portions of the swamp to its pre-settlement state.
The land once covered by the swamp lies primarily within the Maumee River and Portage River watersheds in northwest Ohio and northeast Indiana. The boundary was determined primarily by ancient sandy beach ridges formed on the shores of Lakes Maumee and Whittlesey, after glacial retreat several thousand years ago. It stretched roughly from Fort Wayne, Indiana in the west, eastward to the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge near Port Clinton along the Lake Erie shore, and from (roughly) US 6 south to near Lima and Findlay. Near its southern edge at the southwestern corner of present-day Auglaize County, the swamp was so impervious to travel that wheeled transportation was impossible during most of the year, and local residents thought the rigors of travel to be unsuitable for anyone except adult men.
Although much of the area to the east, south, and north was settled in the early 19th century, the dense habitat and difficulty of travel through the swamp delayed its development by several decades. A corduroy road (from modern-day Fremont to Perrysburg) was constructed through the Maumee Road Lands in 1825 and paved with gravel in 1838, but travel in the wet season could still take days or even weeks. The impassibility of the swamp was an obstacle during the so-called Toledo War (1835–36); unable to get through the swamp, the Michigan and Ohio militias never came to battle. Settlement of the region was also inhibited by endemic malaria. The disease was a chronic problem for residents of the region until the area was drained and former mosquito-breeding grounds were dried up.
In the 1850s the states began an organized attempt to drain the swamp for agricultural use and ease of travel. Various projects were undertaken over a 40-year period. Local resident James B. Hill, living in Bowling Green, Ohio, in the mid-19th century, made the quick drainage of the Black Swamp possible with his invention of the Buckeye Traction Ditcher. Hill’s ditching machine laid drainage tiles at a record pace. The area was largely settled over the next three decades. The development of railroads and a local drainage tile industry are thought to have contributed greatly to drainage and settlement.
(Astoundingly, Wikipedia fails to mention the Indian (primarily the Ottawa Indian tribe) population that inhabited parts of the Great Black Swamp in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.)
Bryan sits just north of what once was the Great Black Swamp. The land of northwest Ohio is flat. Jokingly, local residents say that road overpasses are our mountains. In Williams County, the roads are laid out in a grid: the east-west roads designated A,B,C and the north-south roads 1,2,3. Most of the roads are a mile or so apart from one another, and it is impossible to get lost in Williams County unless one is drunk.
While Bryan is a rural community surrounded by fertile farmland, it is also an industrial community. Sadly, in recent decades, Bryan has watched its industrial base decline due to factory closings and job outsourcing.
Ohio Art, the maker of the Etch-a-Sketch, still calls Bryan home, but most of its products are now made outside of the United States. ARO, another home-grown major corporation once employing over a thousand people, closed its doors a few years ago. The same could be said for factories such as Hayes-Albion and Challenge-Cook, both thriving manufacturing facilities until their demise in the 1980s and 1990s.
Northwest Ohio has been hit hard by factory closings and the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs. There was a time when a person could make a good living at many of the local factories, but those days are long gone. Wages are stagnant or in decline, and there is little prospect of any sort of economic improvement. While northwest Ohio counties now have some of the lowest unemployment rates in the state, wages remain depressed.
I worked for a number of Bryan businesses during my teen and young adult years. Places such as:
Bryan Nursing Home (closed)
Everhart’s Restaurant (changed hands)
Bob’s Dairy Freeze (closed)
Myer’s Marathon (closed)
Holabird Manufacturing (closed)
Bard Manufacturing (manufacturer of furnaces)
General Tire (changed hands)
ARO (closed, now owned by Ingersoll-Rand, but manufacturing is no longer done in Bryan)
I also baled hay during several summers, and one summer I participated in a youth work program for teenagers whose families were on welfare. My job placement was at the local elementary school and the Bryan Sewer plant.
I have moved in and out of Bryan many times over the years:
Born in Bryan 1957
Lived in or near Bryan from 1957 to 1962 (moved to California)
Lived in or near Bryan from 1965 to 1966 (moved to Lima, Ohio)
Lived in or near Bryan from 1967 to 1969 (moved to Deshler, Ohio and then to Findlay, Ohio)
Lived in Bryan in 1973 (moved to Findlay, Ohio)
Lived in Bryan in 1974 (dropped out of high school and later moved to Arizona)
Lived in Bryan 1975-1976 (moved to Michigan to attend college, came home during the summer)
Lived in or near Bryan in 1979 ( oldest son was born in Bryan, moved to Newark, Ohio)
Lived near Bryan from 1995 to 2003 (moved to Michigan)
Lived near Bryan from 2003 to 2004 (moved to Arizona)
Lived in or near Bryan from 2005 to 2007 (moved to Ney, Ohio where we currently live)
Even now, I live five miles away from Bryan, just across the Defiance/Williams County line.
For many years, I had a love-hate relationship with Bryan and northwest Ohio. In my youth, I couldn’t wait to get away from boring, flat, Bryan, Ohio, yet, despite my resolve never to return to northwest Ohio again, here I am, living, once again, in northwest Ohio.
These days, I have made my peace with Bryan. My six children and ten grandchildren live within 20 minutes of here. This is their home, and wherever they are, that is where I want to be. The land may be flat and b-o-r-i-n-g, but there is something about this place I call home, something familiar and secure.
Now that I have laid a bit of groundwork, in future posts I plan to write about my experiences growing up in Bryan.
Bernie Sanders for President Sign in Our Front Yard
A short while ago, someone pulled into our driveway and got out of their vehicle. I was busy writing when our early visitor detection system, also known as Breigh, the cocker spaniel, went off, alerting me that someone was in our driveway. Sure enough, seconds later someone knocked on our door.
As I looked out the window I saw a bearded young man wearing a ball cap in his late twenties standing on the porch. His vehicle was an old truck. I carefully opened the door, not knowing if there was a confederate-flag-waving redeck or an atheist hater standing on my doorstep. Imagine my surprise when I greeted a man who wanted to know where I got my Bernie Sanders sign.
As of today, I think our home sports the only Bernie Sanders sign in Defiance or Williams County. This man wanted to know if Sanders had a local office. I told him no and said I ordered the sign at Sanders’s website.
He said he wanted to get a sign because he was a big Bernie Sanders supporter, as was his girlfriend who sitting in the truck. I laughed and said, now there are two of us, and he replied that he had a number of friends who were Sanders supporters. At this moment, my heart flooded with joy, so much so that I wanted to shout PRAISE JESUS! Okay, just kidding a bit.
When I look at the Republican debate lineup I want to gag and throw my hands up in despair. The candidates, all 17 of them, are a reminder of everything that is wrong with the United States. The young man on my porch reminded me that all is not lost. While President Obama failed to bring the hope and change I hoped he would, I know we are better off today than we were under the reign of King Bush. A better future awaits us if we can drive a stake in the heart of amoral capitalism and corporate greed. (I am not anti-capitalist as much as I am against capitalism as it is now practiced in the United States.)
There’s a restlessness brewing among young adults. Whether it will result in dramatic political change remains to be seen. For today, I am encouraged. If Sanders cannot win the nomination, then I will support whomever the Democratic candidate is. I hope, in the process, that Sanders can materially affect the Democratic party and force it to abandon the teat and bed of corporate America.
Rural NW Ohio is home to an aging white Evangelical Republican super-majority. Even Democrats tend to skew to the right and many of the local mainline churches, traditionally bastions of liberalism, are conservative. As a liberal, democratic socialist, I’d be safe in saying you’d have a better chance of running into Barack Obama at the local coffee shop than you would meeting someone else who is as to the left as I am. Throw in the fact that I am an outspoken atheist…well, I am as rare as the ivory-billed woodpecker. Add anti-gun, anti-hunting, and pro-choice to the mix and that makes me as rare as Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s conscience.
Raised in a fiercely partisan and right-wing home, I’ve never been shy about my political or religious beliefs. While I no longer share these beliefs with people who haven’t asked me to do so, I do shout them from the roof top on this blog and through letters to the editor of the local newspaper. When locals meet me they always seem perplexed. They have built up in their mind a certain picture of Bruce Gerencser; the spawn of Satan, a communist out to overthrow Christian America. In real life, I am just a loving husband, father, and grandfather, who just so happens to be a leftist and an atheist. I’m the guy who wears a Cincinnati Reds hat and suspenders; the man who is seen taking photographs at ballgames and public events.
I am a big fan of Bernie Sanders. He best represents my political beliefs and I plan on supporting him as he attempts to become the 2016 Democratic candidate for President. Is Sanders electable? I don’t know, but I refuse to support a Democratic candidate, at least at the primary level, who is Democrat-lite. If Sanders fails to win the nomination then I will get out a clothes pin, attach it to my nose, and support whoever the Democratic candidate is. Until then, I’m supporting Bernie.
Bernie Sanders for President Sign in Our Front Yard
As far as I know, our sign is the first Bernie for President sign in Defiance County. Hopefully, it is not the last. You can purchase your own sign here.
Are you having a hard time finding someone to perform your wedding ceremony? Are you non-religious, secular, humanist, atheist, agnostic, or pagan and want to get married but can’t find anyone to perform the service? Are you religious but not affiliated with a church and are looking for someone to perform your wedding? I can help!
Are you a same-sex couple looking for someone to officiate your wedding? Now that the Supreme Court has legalized same-sex marriage in Ohio, same-sex couples can now be legally married. Now is the time to book a date for your special day.
My name is Bruce Gerencser and I am duly licensed by the state of Ohio to perform wedding ceremonies. If you are interested in having me perform your ceremony, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Service area: Bryan, Montpelier, West Unity, Alvordton, Pioneer, Wauseon, Napoleon, Archbold, Paulding, Hicksville, Defiance, Ayersville, Antwerp, Sherwood, Farmer, Ney, Holgate, Deshler, McClure, Malinta, Evansport, Ridgeville Corners, Pettisville, Fayette, Liberty Center, Stryker, Edon, Edgerton, Blakeslee, and all points in between.
If where you live is anything like northwest Ohio, new Evangelical churches are sprouting up like weeds in a gravel parking lot. You know — the weeds that keep returning no matter how much Roundup you spray on them. Here in Defiance County, they have spiffy new names, hiding the fact that they are generic, mostly-Baptist, churches. They present themselves as fresh, new, exciting places to worship God, complete with a relational pastor and the best damn worship band in town (props to the Ohio State marching band). One local new church called itself Fresh Life. Two years later, Fresh Life turned into same old shit, different building, and the pastor felt called to go somewhere else.
Here in Defiance County, Ohio there is zero need for new churches. We already have over one hundred churches for 37,000 people. The population is aging and in decline and almost everyone professes to be a Christian. God, guns, and Christianity are on display everywhere one looks. Out-of-the-closet atheists are few, and even traditionally liberal churches tend to be conservative. Why then are there a plethora of new churches?
I’ll give the Independent Baptist church movement credit for one thing: their churches are initially and primarily built on evangelism. Granted, they think everyone who doesn’t believe like they do is non-Christian and headed for hell, but they do make a concerted effort to evangelize the unchurched.
I was taught in college that the best way to start a church was to find the meanest, baddest man in town and win him to Jesus. If this man became a Christian and started living for Jesus, it would be the best possible advertisement for the church. Here in Defiance County, I am not the meanest, baddest man in town, but I am considered the resident atheist who hates God and Christianity. I would think that pastors would be lining up at my door trying to win the preacher-turned-atheist to Jesus. In the eight years Polly and I have lived in the shadow of five Evangelical churches, not one preacher has knocked on our door.
In the 1970s, the charismatics came to this area and began pillaging local established churches. Overnight, churches lost membership and income. In the 1980s and 1990s, these new churches experienced meteoric membership and income growth. Today, these same churches are in decline as their members move on to the latest, greatest church in town. You see, it’s not about Jesus, worship, or even doctrine. It’s all about getting the best show for the dollar. Entertainment-driven Evangelicals want to be pampered and have their “felt” needs met. Fail to do this and they will leave, complaining that they are not being fed or God is leading them elsewhere. If you want to study religiously-driven narcissism, just stop by one of these new Matt Chandler, Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, Bill Hybels, Ed Young, Andy Stanley, Perry Noble, Steven Keller wanna-be churches. Services are consumer-driven buffets for fat Christians who are only interested in having their “felt” needs met.
Where do most of the members of these types of churches come from? Other local churches. Overwhelmingly, their growth is transfer growth. One new church in Defiance has multiple services filled with people who used to attend another local church. Church leaders think they are being blessed by God, but what they are really doing is cannibalizing other churches. I am sure there are a few new converts, but, for the most part, the growth is driven by people changing pews.
And here’s the thing…a decade or so from now, another new, glitzy, we-have-the-most-awesome-hip-preacher-in-town church will come to town and Christians will leave the old-new church for the new one. I have watched this happen time and again, like the rising and setting of the sun. Evangelicalism is driven not by devotion to God, concern for the lost, or care for the sick and hungry, but by a narcissistic need to be relevant. This is why they spend enormous amounts of money on buildings, staff, technology, and feed-lot fattening programs for Christians.
What’s really happening is that Evangelicals are changing which club they belong to. And that’s fine as long as Evangelicals are willing to admit this. However, they aren’t willing to admit that their new hip hop church is just their old church with a bigger sound system, better drum player, and a man who can really “speak” to them.
I watch from afar, amused at their self-absorbed attempts to be relevant in a culture that increasingly has no interest in what they are selling. Much the same as when a town becomes saturated with fast food restaurants and they begin trying to steal each other’s customers, new Evangelical churches come to areas already saturated with Jesus and steal members from other churches. It’s fun to watch. May the best band win.
The overwhelming majority of Americans self identify as Christian. Here in rural NW Ohio, I suspect there are few non-Christians. The number of public atheists I know number three. That’s right, three. Christianity is on full display everywhere one looks. Churches on every street corner, Christian radio and TV stations, Christian book stores, Christian coffee houses, and business signs with the ichthys (fish) symbol, all testify to the fact that America is a Christian nation and rural NW Ohio is God’s Country.
Christians are free to start new churches and worship anyway they please. No matter how crazy their beliefs and practices are, there is no government or private agency keeping them from practicing their form of crazy. From strict liturgical churches to snake handling Baptists, there is a flavor of Christianity for everyone. Christian sects, churches, religious institutions, and pastors are given special tax benefits, from real estate and sales tax exemption to the clergy housing allowance. Christian churches are considered by many to be dispensers of morality, and when bad things like a school shooting, tornado, flood, or hurricane hits a community, local Christian clergy are called in to calm fears and let everyone know God is still on the throne.
Someone visiting from another country would likely be amazed at the religiosity of Americans. I doubt they would see any signs of religious persecution, especially if they hail from a country where there’s real persecution. Thanks to fear mongering and lying by Evangelical preachers, Catholic prelates and priests, Mormon bishops, Christian parachurch leaders, Christian college presidents and professors, Christian TV and radio programmers, and Fox News hosts, many Christians believe they are being persecuted by liberals, secularists, socialists,communists, abortionists, homosexuals, and atheists. The annual War on Christmas® has now morphed into the War on Christianity®.
There is not one shred of evidence to back up the claim that there is a concerted effort to persecute American Christians and keep them from worshiping their God. From my seat in the pew, I see government at every level bending over backwards to accommodate Christians. As a nation, we value religious freedom so highly that we grant sects, churches, and each Christian special privileges. There is no other nation on earth that has more religious freedom, yet many Christians still think they are being persecuted. Why is this?
Here’s my take. When people live in a country that values personal rights and freedom, especially religious freedom, they tend to see small accommodations or denials as frontal assaults on their rights and freedom. When groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), American Humanist Association (AHA), American Atheists (AA), or the ACLU demand that Christians abide by the Constitution and the separation of church and state, Christians see this as personal attack on their faith.
Let me give a local example of this. Recently, the ACLU of Ohio sent nearby Edon Northwest School District a letter about the school district’s core values statement found in the front of the student handbook:
The American Civil Liberties Union sent a request today to a Williams County school district to stop what it calls its “sectarian policies and practices that violate the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”
The letter to the Edon Northwest Local School district, which is near the Ohio-Indiana border, cites the school system’s student handbook, which references “Christian values,” and what the ACLU says is a practice of inviting ministers to pray at mandatory school assemblies. John Granger, interim superintendent who joined the district in January, said he has not witnessed some of the incidents referenced by the ACLU, but that if the allegations are true, the district should make changes.
”This has already been settled by the United States Supreme Court,“ Mr. Granger said. “I would make a recommendation to the board of education that if we are in violation of the law, we should stop.”
The district’s website includes a copy of the student handbook, and the first page lists the district’s “Core Values.”
As we strive to achieve our Vision and accomplish our Mission, we value…” the handbook states, with “Honesty and Christian values” as the second entry.
The ACLU letter claims ministers attended assemblies before the Thanksgiving and winter holidays, and that students need parent approval to opt out of the events.
“These reports also allege that the ministers pray aloud, ask the students to join in the prayer and recite homilies concerning upcoming holidays,” the letter states.
The ACLU in its letter, signed by ACLU of Ohio’s Legal Director Freda Levenson and staff attorney Drew Dennis, recognizes that Mr. Granger is new to the position and the started before his arrival in the district.
“We now take this opportunity to make you aware of the unconstitutionality of the described practices, and request that you investigate them and bring an end to them immediately,“ the letter states…
I have no doubt that local Christians are outraged over the ACLU’s demand that the Edon Northwest School District abide by the establishment clause and the separation of church and state.I am sure they see this as a sign of religious persecution. It’s not. This kind of stuff has been going on in rural schools since the days I roamed the halls of Farmer Elementary in the 1960’s. The difference now is that groups like FFRF, ACLU, AHA, AA, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) are paying attention to what is going on in the schools and government and are willing to litigate any violation of the Constitution.
Today, Polly took me on a short nineteen mile drive on Route 18 between Defiance and Hicksville. The following pictures succinctly illustrate the religious climate in rural NW Ohio. They tell the story far better than I could.
The Faith4Freedom signs litter the rural NW Ohio landscape. According to their defunct Facebook page, 20,000 of these signs were printed and distributed in Ohio and Michigan. This is primarily a Catholic endeavor. Based on the lack of activity on their Facebook page, Twitter account, and a no longer available website, I assume that local Catholics have lost their religious freedom and are living in nearby catacombs. Once the black anti-Christ, Barack Hussein Obama, is divinely removed from office, they will no longer fear persecution and return to the safety of Facebook, Twitter, and the internet.