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Tag: IFB Funerals

Only the Heathen Cry

guest post

Guest Post by Elise Glassman. Originally published in Aji Magazine Spring 2023.

Growing up in a preacher’s family means hosting a lot of other peoples’ graduations, weddings, and funerals. Each of us has a role to play at these major life events: Dad preaches, Mom runs the reception, and my sisters and I do everything else – we set up chairs and tables, babysit, hand out programs, serve coffee and punch, and clean up after everyone goes home.

Nan’s memorial in 1980 is our first family funeral and I have a new, unfamiliar role: mourner. I didn’t know my great-grandmother well, didn’t understand how tough she was, a single mother in the1920s who lived through the Dust Bowl and World War II and taught at a one-room schoolhouse in Kansas. She was a librarian, property owner, and amateur genealogist, but I only knew her as an elderly relative who sucked on butterscotch candies and occasionally bought us Dairy Queen.

At her wake I sit quietly in the small, hushed funeral home parlor, studying the shiny coffin. Nan’s sunken face is covered in translucent powder, her snowy hair freshly set, shoulders prim under a silken blouse. The room smells of lilacs and a deep earthiness. I look at her and wonder if she’s in Hell.

In the front row, Gram and Aunt Helen weep and dab their eyes with tissues. Only the heathen cry when someone dies, Dad says. Their sadness is proof the godless have no hope. They know they’ll never see their loved one again. For IFB believers like us, funerals are joyous occasions because we celebrate the loved one’s reunification with the Lord, their homecoming. It’s selfish to cry and be sad.

Even in death, we judge.

And, caught between these binary worldviews of utter hopelessness or the triumph of spirit over flesh, the three deaths that befall our family in late 1986 shake my beliefs, and make me question if what Dad preaches about God being in control is actually true.

In September, Gramp Welch has a heart attack and dies. Dad’s brother calls that night to tell us, and we immediately load up the van and begin the long drive to Kansas. Rose and I split the driving so our parents can rest. Dad weeps openly in the back. “I hope he did something about it,” he says, meaning, accepted the Lord.

After the funeral, we go with Gram to the Methodist church basement where women in perms and flowered aprons are setting out punch and casseroles. It’s strange for someone else to be doing the arranging and serving. “I miss Bill terribly but I know I’ll see him in Heaven,” Gram Welch says bravely, picking at her pasta salad. “He trusted in the Lord.”

From her wheelchair at the end of the table, Great-Grandma Staab says mournfully, “It should have been me.”

Later, back at Gram’s house, Dad and his siblings argue at dinner about whether the elderly woman who dozed off in the second row was Great Aunt Mamie or Mabel.

“Did anyone see if Uncle Lester made it?” my grandmother interjects, voice muted.

“What?” my aunt laughs. “Mom, we can’t hear you over that giant gob of mashed potatoes.”

“Who’s Uncle Festus?” Dad’s youngest brother asks. “I thought she said ‘Uncle Fungus,’” my other uncle says.

Dad raises an eyebrow and the siblings start riffing off each other.

“Uncle Fungus was among us.”

”A fungus among us!”

“You could say he’s a fun guy.”

“Are you shitake’ing me?” My aunt’s joke gets a stern look from her brothers.

“Oh, spare us,” Dad says, to groans.

His middle brother says, “there’s no room for ‘shroom jokes at this table.”

“We oyster talk about something else,” Dad adds.

The three give him blank looks.

“No?” His eyes take on a steely glint. It’s a look I know to fear.

“No, dummy, that doesn’t work. We’re riffing on mushrooms,” his sister says.

“Who’s the dummy?” Dad snaps. “I’m not the one living off Mom and scrounging for cigarette money.”

“Jesus H. Christ,” my aunt mutters, getting up. “I sure didn’t miss you and your smart mouth. How do you live with this asshole, Marian?”

Mom’s smile stays frozen on her face but she doesn’t reply. Later, the adults – minus my aunt, who stormed out – drink coffee in the living room and talk. I sit quietly in a dusty corner of the dining room, eavesdropping and looking at my grandfather’s rock collection. During his work as an oil‑field wildcatter, he retrieved interesting stones and fossils from deep in the Earth. Turning a shark tooth over in my fingers, I feel sad. I loved Gramp’s gruff laugh, his homemade peanut brittle, and the Christmas stockings he stuffed with fruit and small toys. We’re supposed to rejoice that he’s gone to Heaven but selfishly I wish he was still here.

On November 7, our head deacon Mr. Foster has a heart attack and dies. It’s his first day at an appliance repair job. He was fifty, which seems elderly, and I feel sorry for the Foster family but Dad says we should feel comforted, even happy, because he was saved and we’ll see him again in Heaven.

A day later, Aunt Helen calls, asking for Mom. “No! Not Pauly!” my mother screams into the phone. Uncle Pauly collapsed in bed, she says when she can finally speak. He’s dead. My parents sag against each other, weeping aloud.

“He was only thirty-six,” Dad adds. He himself turned thirty-nine just weeks ago. “I’ll never see my little brother again.” Tears gush from Mom’s eyes and flow down her face like an undammed river.

I lie awake that night, staring at the ceiling, listening as my sisters weep in their beds. I think about playing burn out with Uncle Pauly in the side yard last summer. My tall, tan, cheerful uncle, who took us to the city swimming pool and taught us to wrestle, is gone forever. It feels unbearable.

Two days later Mom and my sisters and I fly to Kansas City. Mom’s other brother, Uncle David, picks us up. As we walk through baggage claim, I remember waiting here for Gramp and Gram last May. I wish I could go back in time to when Uncle Pauly was alive.

The next few days pass with agonizing slowness. Each event is a fresh occasion for sadness: the memorial in Topeka, where Uncle Pauly and his family lived, the funeral home viewing in Yatesville, then a wake, two rosaries, and finally the funeral mass at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church.

During the service, there are readings and hymns, times to stand and times to kneel on little padded benches, and I don’t know when to do any of it. I don’t know how to greet the priest or if I’m to turn around and look at the soprano singing in the balcony behind us. Yatesville has always felt like home, but sitting in this pew in this ornate sanctuary, I feel like I don’t belong.

I reach over to Gramp and take his tanned, strong hand in mine. His fingers lie cool and lifeless in my palm. “Why wasn’t it me, Lis?” he says sadly, and I think I might break from crying.

Gram sits at the end of the pew, her head lowered, her fingers caressing her rosary beads. I’ve been so cruel to her this past year, so harsh in my judgments and opinions. I wish I could hug her, but her face is grim and shoulders hunched, her grief cloaking her like armor.

“Now we invite the family to bring up the gifts,” the priest says, and Aunt Helen and Uncle David stand up. I look at the program. Liturgy of the Eucharist. It’s the Lord’s Table.

I look down the pew at Mom but she shakes her head. As non-Catholics, we aren’t allowed to partake in this Communion. My grandparents walk slowly up the main aisle to the front of the church, accepting a wafer on their tongues and sipping from a golden goblet the priest holds.

IFB communion is closed too, I think, so Catholics wouldn’t be welcome. We’re united, Independent Baptists and Roman Catholics, in excluding the other.

When the day comes to fly home, Uncle David drives us back to Kansas City. We stop at a Wendy’s in Salina for lunch. “You can eat healthy here,” he says pointedly, heading for the salad bar.

Mom and my sisters study the burger menu but I trail my uncle, piling a plate with greens and vegetables and Italian dressing. I want to spend more time with Uncle David. He’s a writer and teaches English at a university in Florida. It seems like a wonderful, literary life.

When we get back to his rental car, there’s a slip of paper stuck in the door. My uncle unfolds it. “‘Next time, Baldy, keep your nasty fingers out of the bread stix,’” he reads. “Hands carry germs!’”

“That’s not very nice,” Mom says, but she’s smirking.

“I’m not even that bald,” he protests, wadding up the paper and tossing it in the back seat. He and Mom burst out laughing, and keep laughing until tears stream from their eyes.

These sudden deaths bother me. One minute Mr. Foster was moving a refrigerator, the next he was gone. Gramp Welch was reading in his chair and suddenly slumped over unconscious. Uncle Pauly had had the flu. The day he died, Aunt Terry said he’d mowed the lawn and taken his daughters for a walk. He felt tired after supper and collapsed while reading the newspaper.

These abrupt departures remind me of the way the Bible describes the Rapture. Jesus will return like a thief in the night, Dad preaches from First Thessalonians. Suddenly. Without warning. These deaths are the Raptures of 1986. They represent what I fear most: goodbyes, and disappearances.

Dad schedules Mr. Foster’s memorial service two days after Mom and Rose and Paige and I return from Kansas. He’s expecting a big turnout: Mr. Foster was a retired pastor and filled the pulpit at churches all over the Northwest. “Can you girls keep the nursery?” he asks Rose and me, as he props up a large photo of Mr. Foster at the front of the Basel Building sanctuary.

The rest of us are folding programs. “I thought the ladies from Grace Baptist were,” Rose says.

“Isn’t Rose playing piano?” Mom says.

We all look at Dad. Of course, we expect to have a role to play, but this memorial feels personal. Mr. Foster was a deacon and my boss at the Mission, and Paige is best friends with Kelly Foster.

A dark look crosses Dad’s face. “I asked Morgana Mitchell to play piano, so Rose is freed up for nursery duty. Is that okay with everyone?”

Mom says, “Yes, Marty. We just didn’t know.”

He snaps, “I didn’t realize I had to check in with all you nags before I made a decision.”

Rose and I head to the nursery to get ready. It won’t do us any good to protest. I didn’t feel like I belonged at Pauly’s funeral and I don’t feel like I belong here. “You girls,” ”I echo angrily. “He treats us like little kids.”

“We’ll get through it,” Rose says. “They can’t control us forever.”

The trio of deaths spurs me on with soulwinning. We can’t miss any opportunity to tell Gram and Gramp Hoffman about the Lord, even if they don’t want to hear it. My grandmother, overwhelmed by anxiety and the loss of her beloved son, needs compassion and understanding, but what she’ll get from me is a hard line: be saved, or perish.

“Now we know why you’re not at Bible college this fall,” Mom comments to me.

So people could die? I think. Am I really such an integral part of God’s plan? Dad preaches that being in the center of God’s will brings peace and contentment. But I just feel sad.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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Our Relationship with the Newark Baptist Temple Began and Ended with Acts of Defiance

bruce polly gerencser wedding 1978
Bruce and Polly Gerencser, July 1978, with Bruce’s mom and dad

It is a hot July day in 1978. Soon Bruce Gerencser and Polly Shope will be married at the Newark Baptist Temple — an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church pastored by Polly’s uncle Jim Dennis (please see The Family Patriarch is Dead: My Life With James Dennis). Her father, Lee Shope is the church’s assistant pastor.

Bruce and Polly faced much adversity from Polly’s mom leading up to their big day. Polly’s mom didn’t like Bruce, so she had spent the past two years trying to ruin their relationship. She miserably failed, and today was the day when a youthful, immature twenty-one-year-old Bruce and an equally youthful, naive nineteen-year-old Polly would stand before God, family, and friends and pledge their troth.

Bruce and Polly asked Mark Bullock, a fellow student at Midwestern Baptist College, to be their soloist. He agreed. The couple asked Mark to sing two songs: We’ve Only Just Begun by The Carpenters and Wedding Song (There is Love) by Noel Paul Stookey. Both were secular songs.

Little did Bruce and Polly know that secular songs were not permitted at the Baptist Temple. They had a niggling idea that maybe, just maybe they were pushing the envelope with their song choices, but no one asked, so Mark sang the songs Bruce and Polly requested. Afterward, they learned that Polly’s uncle and others in the church were outraged over their use of “worldly” music.

This was their first act of defiance.

Over the next forty-five years, Bruce and Polly faced a plethora of contentious moments with Polly’s mom, Jim Dennis, and the Newark Baptist Temple. Bruce and Polly were Baptist Fundamentalists, but they never seemed to “fit.” For a time, they attended the Baptist Temple. In 1981, they left the church to help Polly’s dad start a new IFB church in nearby Buckeye Lake. Bruce and Polly would remain there until July,1983, when they moved thirty minutes south to start a new IFB congregation in Somerset. The couple would serve God hand in hand at Somerset Baptist for eleven years. Bruce and Polly moved to Texas in 1994, returning to the Newark area later that same year. As they licked their wounds from a vicious experience as co-pastor of Community Baptist Church in Elmendorf (please see I am a Publican and a Heathen — Part One), Bruce and Polly made the decision to not attend the Baptist Temple. Instead, they took their six growing children to Fallsburg Baptist Church, a nearby IFB church pastored by Bruce’s best friend Keith Troyer. Needless to say, this move did not go over well with Polly’s family. Yet another conflict added to the growing pile of conflicts between the couple and Polly’s IFB family. Bruce and Polly were IFB, but it was becoming crystal clear that they intended to march to the beat of their own drum.

Seven months later, Bruce and Polly had their 14’x70′ mobile home moved to Alvordton, Ohio so Bruce could assume the pastorate of Olive Branch Christian Union Church. After a short stay at Olive Branch, Bruce and Polly started a new Baptist church five miles south of Alvordton in the rural community of West Unity. The church later dropped its Baptist name, renaming itself Our Father’s House — a non-denominational congregation. They would remain there for seven years.

By now, Bruce was having serious health problems. After a short pastorate at a Southern Baptist church in Clare, Michigan, Bruce and Polly decided to move to Yuma, Arizona in hope that the weather there would help Bruce’s pain and debility, His sister, married to a cardiologist, lived in Yuma at the time. While the couple thoroughly enjoyed their time in Yuma, the pull of family proved to be too much. Once again, Newark came into their lives. The couple moved back to Newark, thinking Polly’s mom and dad needed their help. Unfortunately, Polly’s parents didn’t want their help.

Bruce and Polly spent seven months in Newark, attending various Christian churches, none of which were IFB. Their unwillingness to attend the Baptist Temple caused more conflict with family. One preacher, Art Ball, wrote Bruce and told him, “Bruce, you know there is only one church in town, the Baptist Temple.” Bruce replied that there was a lot of family water under the proverbial bridge that Art knew nothing about, so, no, they would not be attending the Baptist Temple.

Bruce and Polly left Newark in July 2005 and moved back home to rural northwest Ohio so they could be close to their children. In 2007, they bought a home in Ney, Ohio, where they live to this day.

Over the past fifteen years, Bruce and Polly have returned to the Baptist Temple four times for funerals: the death of Jim Dennis (Polly’s uncle); Polly’s dad; Linda Dennis (Polly’s aunt); and several weeks ago, Polly’s mom. Each visit brought memories of family conflict and trauma. Good times too, to be sure, but no amount of good can wipe away the harm done by Polly’s IFB family. It is what it is.

Bruce and Polly knew Mom’s funeral would be a difficult time for them — and it was, and remains so to this day. Much ugliness happened at the end of Mom’s life; ugliness that destroyed what little relationship they had left with their IFB family and the Baptist Temple.

Bruce and Polly, now forty-five years older than when they recited their vows on that hot summer day long ago, were the first people to sit down in the church auditorium. No one from the church, outside of Mom’s best friend and Polly’s cousin and her IFB preacher husband, spoke to them. Sitting all around them were people who had known them for decades. Not one word of sympathy from anyone. Even the church’s pastor, Mark Falls, ignored the grieving couple. Bruce and Polly knew why, but still, why was there no compassion? That’s for the fine Christian folks at the Baptist Temple to answer.

Perhaps Bruce and Polly’s chickens had come home to roost. The funeral was the period at the end of a forty-five-year sentence.

At the appointed time, Pastor Falls mounted the pulpit and began the service — five minutes about Polly’s mom and thirty-five or so minutes about Jesus. Tis what the aged atheists expected. Bruce and Polly had talked about how to handle the IFB sermon they knew was coming. Both figured they could grit their teeth one last time and get through the sermon. Sure enough, Falls preached about Hell, Heaven, salvation, and death. In a sermon riddled with theological errors, Falls turned his attention to the unsaved in the room. Everyone in attendance was Christian, except for the Gerencser children and their spouses, grandchildren, and Grandpa and Nana. It was clear who Falls was preaching at. In the closing moments of his diatribe, Falls fixed his eyes on Bruce, the outspoken atheist and the pain in his ass, and preached at him. In a split second, forty-five years of trauma came bubbling to the surface. Bruce, sitting three rows from the front, said, loud enough for the bully in the pulpit to hear, Bullshit! Preach at someone else! (As of the publishing of this post, the church has removed the video of the funeral from YouTube.)

Defiance. That’s what Bruce and Polly Gerencser will be remembered for by the Newark Baptist Temple, Pastor Falls, and their IFB family. Why couldn’t we just believe in the tribal deity and play by the rules? Why did we have to be so stubborn? Why couldn’t we just submit and obey?

Previous posts about our IFB family and the Newark Baptist Temple

Sometime this year, I plan to write a series titled How the Newark Baptist Temple Affected Our Lives for Sixt Years. Stay tuned.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

The Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) Bubble

living in bubble

My wife’s mother died last Tuesday at the age of eighty-seven. Mom spent most of her life in the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement. Dad, who died in November 2020, left a good-paying job with the railroad in 1972 to enroll in classes at Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan — the same IFB college Polly and I attended from 1976-79. Dad was almost 40 when he graduated from Midwestern. After graduation, Dad and Mom moved south to Newark, Ohio to become the assistant pastor of the Newark Baptist Temple in Heath, Ohio. The Baptist Temple was pastored by Jim Dennis (The Family Patriarch is Dead: My Life With James Dennis), Mom and Dad’s brother-in-law. Jim, who died a few years ago, was the pastor of an IFB church in Bay City, Michigan in the early 1960s when Dad and Mom first met him. Jim would later marry Mom’s younger sister, Linda, and move to Heath, Ohio to assume the pastorate of the Baptist Temple — an IFB church plant started by the Akron Baptist Temple (once a megachurch, ABT is now defunct). Jim pastored the Baptist Temple for fifty years.

Jim Dennis and his wife Linda spent most of their lives in the IFB church movement, as did Dad and Mom. Jim and Linda had three children, all of whom are in the ministry. Their oldest daughter is the wife of IFB evangelist and Pensacola Christian College luminary David Young. Their youngest daughter is the wife of James “Jamie” Overton, an IFB Bible translation missionary. Jim and Linda’s son is a Christian Union pastor in Newark. While conservative theologically, Andy has left in the dust some of the social prohibitions of his father, the Baptist Temple, and the IFB church movement. He is generally considered the gray sheep of the Dennis family. (We had a delightful time speaking with one another at Mom’s funeral.) Jim and Linda’s grandchildren are reaching the age where they too are going off to IFB colleges and considering becoming pastors, missionaries, and teachers.

Dad and Mom’s parents and Jim and Linda’s parents were Fundamentalist Christians too. Are you starting to see the picture? Four generations of families deeply immersed in IFB theology and social practice. Four generations of cultic thinking and psychological and, at times, physical harm. You may be asking, “why the history lesson, Bruce?” To truly understand people, we must look at not only their present lives, but their past. For example, take Mark Falls, the current pastor of the Newark Baptist Temple. Falls orchestrated Mom’s funeral service, preaching a sermon that singled out Bruce, the Atheist, and led to me publicly calling him out. (Please see The End.) Why would Falls preach at the Gerencser family? We were the only unsaved people in the auditorium. Why, in such an emotionally vulnerable time, would he, instead of memorializing Mom, preach at us about sin, death, judgment, and Hell? What did he hope to accomplish?

Mark Falls, saved at age six and called to preach at age twelve, was raised in an IFB home, attended Pensacola Christian College and Seminary — a virulent IFB institution — and has spent the past twenty-two years pastoring IFB churches. All Falls has ever known is IFB theology and practice. Much like the four generations of Polly’s family, Falls lives in a bubble that insulates him and his family from the “world.” I can’t emphasize enough how growing up in and living in the IFB bubble affects your thinking and how you interact with those outside of the bubble.

Inside the bubble everything is black and white. Everything makes perfect sense. That’s why Fall’s abhorrent behavior during Mom’s funeral is viewed by people in the bubble to be normal and expected. Hell is hot, death is certain, and the Gerencsers aren’t saved. In Falls’ mind and that of his fellow church members, it would be criminal to NOT evangelize us. Unexpected was a crusty curmudgeon and Evangelical-turned-atheist who called out Falls on his bullshit. Of course, my vocal objection will be framed as “conviction.” The Holy Spirit was convicting me of my sin (atheism). Instead of falling on my knees in front of Mom’s closed casket and repenting of my sins, I rebelled against God, showing that I truly am an apostate and reprobate

Polly and I spent fifty years in the IFB/Evangelical bubble. Five decades of intense indoctrination and conditioning. Five decades of inerrancy, infallibility, and certainty. Five decades of black-and-white, in-and-out, us-vs.-them thinking. Five decades of an anti-culture, isolated worldview. The only difference between the Gerencsers and the other IFB families mentioned in this post is that we escaped. In November 2008, Polly and I walked away from Christianity. While Polly is a co-conspirator in this crime, her family blames me for our loss of faith. Polly is wrongly viewed as a hapless victim of my nefarious crimes. Polly didn’t know any better. Bruce led her astray. If she would get away from his evil influence, she would return to the faith. So the thinking goes, none of which is true. You see, the IFB church movement is patriarchal and complementarian. Women are less than, weak, and inferior to men. That’s why when Community Baptist Church excommunicated me in 1994 for leaving the church without permission, (please see the I am a Publican and a Heathen series) they didn’t excommunicate Polly or our children. They were under Satan’s influence — Satan being me. Thus, I have borne the brunt of the wrath of Polly’s IFB family and former IFB friends over our loss of faith and outspoken atheism. And that’s okay, but I do wish that family members would actually ask Polly herself why she is no longer a Christian. I am sure her thoughts would be a revelation to them. A mindless, hapless, helpless lemming she is not.

To understand those still part of the IFB church movement, you must understand their history. The how and why is just as important as the what. Sure, IFB beliefs and practices are certifiably insane, but the how and why people believe these things should lead to compassion from people who have escaped. I once was Mark Falls. Polly and I were card-carrying IFB Christians for twenty-five of our forty-five years of marriage. To this day, we bear deep, lasting scars from our IFB past. I have been in therapy for ten years, trying to understand and overcome the harm the IFB church movement caused not only to me, but my wife, children, and the people who called me pastor. Thank Loki, we broke free, but the scars remain. I suspect the best Polly and I can do is make an uneasy peace with our Fundamentalist past.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

The End

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mom made her choices, and we ours.

The End.

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

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

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, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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Bruce Gerencser