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Tag: MJ Lisbeth

Their True Love

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Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth

Rarely do I have contact with anyone I knew from my campus Christian fellowship or Evangelical church.  But when I do it is, to say the least, interesting.

In an earlier post, I talked about “Ivette” who, after many years, told me about something I’d long suspected: a deacon in the church raped her. Not long ago, someone else from that church, and the Christian fellowship, got in touch with me after reading something I’d written elsewhere.

“Marcus” was a kind of role model for me. Or so I wished. A few years older than I, he entered our college and Christian fellowship after serving in the Navy. He was following a family tradition, he explained. Also, being eligible for the draft, he calculated — correctly — that his enlistment and qualification for an in-demand specialty kept him from being tossed like an ember into the cauldron of Vietnam.

That wasn’t the reason I looked up to him, though. I never doubted his commitment to the Lord. He seemed to be an embodiment of something I hoped to be possible: a devotion to the intellect and the creative spirit that was entirely compatible with a love of Christ, and fellow humans.

We were in the same major, with specialties that overlapped, so we took a few classes together. Inside and outside of those classes, we debated whether John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables” (before it was turned into a musical) were actually forms of Christian “witness.” (I have to admit that part of my admiration for “Marcus” was that he read “Les Miserables” in the original French without—as I did—reading a translation first.)  Naturally, since he was a bit older and thus having had life experiences most of my peers lacked, those discussions were, I felt, more interesting than the usual college bull sessions.

Much later, it occurred to me that we were having such discussions out of earshot of other fellowship and church members. Likewise for our discussions about topics like gays and women’s rights (we were in the ’70s, after all!) and abortion. While I echoed the zealotry of my peers and the rigidity of fellow congregants, I think he knew that, deep down, I didn’t thoroughly agree with them. 

By now, you might have guessed that he realized I was struggling to reconcile my own sexuality and gender identity with my faith. To my knowledge, he didn’t have a similar conflict but, I suspect, his experiences—including those in uniform — brought him into contact with a wider variety of people than most people in my college, at that time, would have known. 

We graduated, went our ways, came back (I, for a short-lived stint in graduate school), and went our ways again. A couple of years after moving back to New York, I bumped into “Marcus” near St. Mark’s Place where — you guessed it — I’d gone to a poetry reading and had drinks with a couple of friends.

This was not long after Ronald Reagan brought himself to utter “AIDS” publicly. “Marcus” and his wife were helping its victims and the homeless (the term in use at the time) through a faith-based organization, I forget which. Anyway, he said that he had to get away from the “Comfort-ianity” of our old church and others he’d attended. Neither he nor his wife tried to bring me “into the fold” or questioned whether I was living a “godly lifestyle.” Instead, they told me to keep on reading — the Bible and anything else — and to “ask questions and pray.”

Had I continued to believe, that last phrase could have been my mantra. But now, as a non-believer, I believe that the first part — ask questions — is one of the essences of life itself. As I suspect, it was and is for “Marcus” and “Leilani.”

That, most likely, is what led to another event in their lives. In one of his last letters (remember those?) before our recent reunion, he mentioned a son who’d been born to them.  He would’ve been a college student or, perhaps, a sailor (like his dad). Note that I said “would’ve”: He didn’t make it to one of those hallmarks of adulthood, or even his high school graduation. For that matter, he didn’t attend high school, or much of any school in the sense that most of us know it. Much like my cousin who passed away three years ago, he never learned to speak, walk without assistance, or do most of the things we do without thinking. 

As you might expect, they — who were still believers — heard the usual Christian platitudes about God’s “will” and his unwillingness to “put you through anything he won’t help you through.” Few who haven’t been through the trials of raising someone with severe developmental disabilities can understand how condescending or simply insulting such declarations can sound even to someone who believes them. Not to mention that like “thoughts and prayers” for them (or victims of gun violence), they do nothing to help alleviate the suffering or offer strength to carry on.

But even that wasn’t enough to shake “Marcus’” or “Leilani’s” faith. Rather, it was a question “Marcus” tried to answer through his extensive reading of the Bible, as well as various theologians and apologists.  His and his wife’s faith was premised on “accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior” and gleaning the will of said Lord through prayer and Bible reading. Their son, of course, could do none of those things.  So, they wondered, would he join them in the joyous afterlife that, they believed, was promised to them for their commitment and faith?

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised to hear that one pastor, then another, and a scholar from the seminary “Marcus” attended for a time told him “No.” Their son, through no fault of his own, has no hope of eternal salvation — just like people who had the misfortune of being born in the “wrong” century or part of the world and thus missed out on the privilege of hearing the Word of God.

Oh, and if you don’t believe the “once saved, always saved” doctrine, “Marcus” and “LeilanI” are similarly doomed — for loving their child enough to abandon a belief in a God that condemns him for something he couldn’t control. 

In a way, it’s ironic: Did Matthew ever consider that some people’s devotion to their faith is based on little or nothing more than the hope that they will accompany their loved ones in Heaven, or to whatever form of eternal bliss they hope to find after this life? 

In any event, “Marcus” and “Leilani” did more than the God they once believed in for their son. If that isn’t reason enough for any parent to abandon their faith, I don’t know what is.

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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They Know It When They See It

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Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

Some Catholic school alumni are traumatized by the experience. I don’t think I was, if only because what I experienced in the church itself—specifically, from a particular priest—was far worse than any misfortune I incurred in the classroom.

Moreover, I did nothing to deserve sexual exploitation at the hands of that prelate. But some might argue that I had the impact of Sister Elizabeth’s hand against my face coming to me as a consequence of my insolence. 

So what was my offense? Another kid mentioned something about a movie popular at the time—Midnight Cowboy, if I remember correctly.  “Nobody should see it,” she pronounced.  “It’s dirty.”

To which I retorted, “How do you know?”

The funny thing, in recalling the episode more than half a century later, is that I wasn’t trying to be a smart-ass, though I had the capacity for it. My question, really, was almost innocent; it just kind of popped out of me.

And I think, perhaps, she reacted more out of shock that even though I could be snarky—I’ve concluded that it’s part of my DNA—I actually was a rather well-behaved kid and a good student.  Plus, being an altar boy gave me some cachet in that milieu at a time when I didn’t know, and people I knew didn’t use, words like “cachet” and “milieu.” If anything, I suspect that until that moment, she rather liked me—or, at least hated me less than she and other nuns seemed to hate other kids.

So what got me to thinking about that episode? A recent news story. To wit: a parent in a Utah school district filed a petition to have a book banned from a local school.

All right . . .You probably think that there’s nothing unusual about that. After all, the Beehive State is one of the most conservative states in the nation. It may well have been the closest thing the United States had to a theocracy until Ron De Santis, Kay Ivey, and Greg Abbott started to make the fantasies of the Christian Right come true. 

Ah, but there’s a twist to this story. Actually, two twists. One is the book in question. The other: The parent in question has actually read the book.

That I had to write the previous sentence speaks volumes (yes, I know) about the current state of affairs. The folks who are emptying bookshelves in your kid’s school or your library don’t make sheepish admissions, as I might about having lived in New York City for much of my life, but never having visited the Statue of Liberty, about not having ventured between the covers of what they would keep from the rest of us. They boast about it and double down on their ignorance by saying they didn’t need to thumb through the pages; they just had to scan the reviews or ads for it.

That is why, if your kid is going to learn the truth about intergenerational trauma or brutality that underlies relationships that are supposed to nurture and protect the people in them, it won’t come from Maus or The Bluest Eyeat least, until Junior and Missy are old enough to procure or borrow them on their own, just as they won’t be able to look at Michelangelo’s David until they take a trip to Italy.

And, in the school district in which the parent I mentioned filed the petition, the yung’uns won’t learn about adultery, incest, and drunkenness from the book that the parent wants to ban. Just think of the irreparable harm that wonderfully responsible adult is sparing young, innocent people by shielding them from this:

See now, I have two daughters who have not known a man; please, let me bring them to you, and you may do with them as you wish.

Oh, but it gets worse:

Then they made their father drink wine that night also. And the younger arose and lay with him, and he did not know when she lay down or when she arose. Thus both the daughters of Lot were with child by their father.

Neither of those passages depicts any suitable role models. Nor does this:

[W]henever he went to his brother’s wife, he would waste his semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother. 

In addition to drunkenness, pimping children, incest, adultery (with an in-law, no less!), and masturbation, the book in question also mentions homosexuality, bestiality, fratricide, homicide, and hit-and-run fatherhood. Not the sort of stuff you want your precious child to dive into, is it?

The ostensible purpose of bringing up all of those topics is to warn people away from them—well, except for the homicide and hit-and-run fatherhood: Depending on who does those things—specifically, one who does them—they can be justified. But, still, you don’t want your kids to do such things, do you?

And if you don’t want your little ones to end up in Chelsea or the Castro district, you don’t want to learn about “alternative lifestyles” at such a young age. Perhaps that’s how the parent in question felt in filing the petition to ban the book I’m about to mention.

Since I know my audience, I am sure that, by now, most of you realize that book is The Book—a.k.a., the Bible.

Now, the parent—whose name and other identifying information were not made public—probably doesn’t want to make the Bible disappear from school bookshelves. A state legislator named Ken Ivory called the petition a “political stunt” (as if members of his own party haven’t pulled them!) and points out that the state law the parent cited as the basis for the ban is intended to keep “pornographic material” from soiling the hands and minds of babes. That same law, which purports to define what is “obscene”: It doesn’t have to be the work as a whole; it merely needs to contain mentions of sexual arousal, stimulation, or any number of other human activities.

Sir Kenneth Clark admitted that he could not define “civilization.” But, turning his gaze to the Notre Dame cathedral, he said, “I know I’m looking at it.” When, in giving his opinion in Jacobellus vs. Ohio (1964), US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart conceded that he couldn’t define “obscenity,” but insisted, “I know it when I see it.” Most people, if they’re being honest, would admit they can’t articulate a cogent, succinct definition of what they want to encourage or keep from their kid any more than a kid can learn what is right or wrong—or simply what a parent or other authority figure doesn’t approve of—unless they see examples of it. If you don’t want your children to masturbate or pleasure themselves with your family’s dog (something that was legal, under most circumstances, in Sweden until 2014 ), how do they know to avoid it (which, of course, they won’t, at least in the case of solo sex) if they don’t know what it is or why it’s so wrong?

I think that’s the point of the petition. If anything containing nudity or depicting sex acts is banned, not only will Fifty Shades of Gray white out or fade to black (If I were going to ban it for anything, it would be its awful writing. How do I know about it?;-)), the Bible and any number of textbooks would be consigned to the ash heap. Hmm . . . Maybe that’s the point: After all, the book banners’ (and garden-variety bigots’) champions know they need “low information voters” to get elected!

Oh, and Sister Elizabeth, wherever you are: If you actually saw Midnight Cowboy, all is forgiven. Entre nous, it’s really good. Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone if you agree!

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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Yes, A Trans Person Shot Up an Evangelical Christian School. But Why?

audrey elizabeth hale

Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

Yesterday, the 27th of March, was the 86th day of the year. It included the 89th school shooting in the United States of America.

I could write a screed against the “gun culture” of this country, where there are five guns for every four people. I could also rail against the inefficacy and indifference of public officials and, most importantly, the people who elected them. And the same people would sigh and nod; others would go on a rant about “the price of freedom—as if there were some sort of equivalence between the right to own as many guns as one wants and the right of another person to lose his or her life because said gun owner “lost it” after having a bad day.

But, as with every other mass shooting—or mass murder of any kind—the pundits, politicos, and too many ordinary citizens miss another important point. Yes, gun regulations need to be stricter. Even more to the point, though, we need more and better mental health screening and treatment—supported by an actual system that truly supports its practitioners as well as its patients.

Oh, and we need ways to keep schools and other institutions from barring such services, or parents from keeping their kids away from them—or, worse yet, enabling conditions deleterious to kids’ mental health–on “religious” grounds. 

I don’t know all of the particulars of Audrey Elizabeth Hale’s experience as a pupil of The Covenant School, a conservative Christian institution in Nashville, Tennessee. (The Covent School is a ministry of Covenant Presbyterian Church, an Evangelical institution.) But I can make a very educated guess about at least one thing because, well, it probably paralleled something I experienced.

At the time Hale stormed the school, he was referring to himself with male pronouns, on his LinkedIn page and in personal interactions. Nashville Police Chief John Drake, on the other hand, referred to Audrey with female pronouns in discussing the incident.

Now, Chief Drake may have made an honest mistake: If I had seen “Audrey Elizabeth Hale” on a piece of paper or screen, with no corroborating information, I would have assumed it to be the name of a girl or woman. And, I am sure that Mr. Hale has been misgendered more than once—what trans person isn’t?

But I can only imagine how many times he had been deliberately misidentified. Worse yet, I know all too well what he must have experienced in a school that, I imagine, some parents send their kids to in order to keep them away from “influences” that include people like me—and him—who knew that we aren’t the gender to which we are assigned at birth.

Even if Mr. Hale didn’t experience the bullying too many kids endure—from adults as well as other kids—for not conforming to the gender he was assigned at birth, he almost surely bore the emotional and, at times, physical burdens of moving through the hallways, the playground, the day and life itself in a body that didn’t align with the ways in which he understood himself—and, worse, having to make that body, and his very being, conform to the expectations his teachers and other adults placed on him in the name of the God they claimed as their guide.

Please understand that I am not trying to excuse or condone a mass shooting by Audrey Elizabeth Hale or anyone else. Nor am I trying to imply that the children or even, for that matter, the staff members he killed “had it coming to them” or were collateral damage. Rather, I want to point out that being bullied for what one is—whether that bullying comes from one’s peers or authority figures—leaves indelible scars.  The bullying itself is just part of the emotional violence inflicted on someone like him, or me. Another and, perhaps more pernicious, “prong” of what impales us is the fact that the tormentors justify their actions with a higher authority. Folks who run schools like Covenant believe that their faith—or, more precisely, their interpretation of it—authorizes them to “fix” someone who doesn’t conform, if not to beat the non-conformity out of them. And, even if they can’t articulate it, kids who bully other kids who aren’t like them do so when they know the adults who are supposed to be in charge won’t hold them to account or will even enable them.

Chief Drake said investigators believe the shooting may have stemmed from “some resentment” Hale harbored over having to attend that school as a young person. Anyone who plans such an attack, even if the victims are random, and writes a manifesto as to why he is doing it, is dealing with more than just “resentment.” To me, it’s more like the residue of dried blood from a thousand cuts authorized, in the minds of the cutters, by their belief in a God who doesn’t create trans people or anyone else who doesn’t conform to their ideas about masculinity, femininity or, more importantly, humanity—and who let the peers of the victim inflict still other wounds.

Oh, and it was just too damn easy for someone in Hale’s state of mind to get, not just one weapon, but a mini-arsenal—and too fucking hard to get the support he so desperately needed, not to change who he is, but to move away from a life he couldn’t live into one he could have.

Now I have to wonder how many little versions of Audrey Elizabeth Hale (or the author of this piece)  were among the young victims or other kids in that school—or could have grown up to be people who love and accept themselves, and others, as they are. If an educational system, a religious institution or a culture can’t or won’t help young people in that way, it fails them and leaves them vulnerable, not only in an attack on the schools or churches they attend, but to harm they inflict on themselves without understanding why. In short, such institutions, guided by interpretations of mythology and outright fiction, inevitably turn out people like Mr. Hale and his victims.

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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I Attended a Segregation Academy

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Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth

Last week, the Archdiocese of New York announced that twelve Catholic schools in its domain—which includes three New York City boroughs and seven suburban counties to the north—will close at the end of this school year.

That does not surprise me. The Catholic school I attended, in the neighboring Diocese of Brooklyn, closed in 2004. Three years ago, two dozen schools in the Diocese shut their doors forever. Today, there are roughly half as many Catholic schools and Catholic school pupils as there were in the mid-1960s, when both counts reached their peaks in New York and the United States.

Diocesan leaders and students of such trends cite several factors, which were accelerated by the COVID epidemic and sex abuse revelations. One is cost. When I entered Catholic school, right around the aforementioned peak, a parent, usually the father, could work a few hours’ overtime, or the other parent, usually the mother, could take on part-time work to pay their kids’ tuition. (Notice that I used the plural for children. It was not unusual to find multiple siblings in the same school, or even the same classroom.)  Although Catholic schools still aren’t nearly as pricey as secular private schools, today a working- or middle-class parent’s entire salary could go to the cost of sending one child to a Catholic school.

Another factor blamed for the decline in the number of Catholic schools and their enrollments is the changing demographics of their mostly-urban locations. The closure of my old school is practically a “poster child” of this trend. When I was growing up, my neighborhood was overwhelmingly Catholic with a small, mostly secular, Jewish minority. Today nearly all of the Catholics are gone; now my old neighborhood is part of the largest Hasidic Jewish communities in the United States. 

While it is true that nearly every New York City—and urban American—neighborhood has changed its racial and ethnic composition since the 1960s, many people who moved into those neighborhoods are also Catholic. I am thinking in particular, of course, of Hispanics, but in neighborhoods like Brooklyn’s Crown Heights and East Flatbush, there are large communities of Haitian, Jamaican, and African Catholics. Having come to know some, I can safely say that many are at least as devout—and would want a Catholic education for their children as much– as parents of my community.

Of course, one reason why they don’t enroll their children is the aforementioned cost. While some immigrants are, or become, middle-class professionals, others are working multiple menial jobs just to keep a roof over their heads and food in their kids’ mouths. And it must be said that some who could afford to pay the tuition don’t see the point of doing so when, in contrast to the nuns who taught me and my old schoolmates, most of today’s Catholic school teachers are secular, just like the ones who teach in public school. “How Catholic is their education?” an acquaintance of mine wondered about her grandchildren whose single mother, from what I could tell, could afford the tuition only because of the child support payments and a couple of side jobs that augmented her main salary.

There is, however, a related story that no official in the Archdiocese of New York, or anywhere else in the Church, is mentioning. Most of the Catholic school kids of my generation, while working- or lower middle-class, were White. During the 1960s and ‘70s, many of their families moved. One reason is that they needed larger quarters for their growing families — it wasn’t called the Baby Boom for nothing — and houses outside the cities were more affordable. Or, as in the case of my family, the main breadwinner’s job moved outside the city.

Some of those families continued to enroll their kids in Catholic schools. But most, like my family, sent their kids to the public school in their new locale. As my mother would say, my brothers and I didn’t attend Catholic school because it was Catholic. Rather, she and my father, like other parents in the neighborhood, felt more confident in the education the Catholic school provided. Some of that, I suspect, had to do with the fact that my mother also attended Catholic schools.

But other families moved out of their urban enclaves for the same reason they enrolled their kids in Catholic schools while they were living in those neighborhoods. While some schools date to the beginning of large-scale Catholic immigration—first from Germany and later from Ireland, Italy, Poland, and other European countries—others, like the one I attended, didn’t open until the 1950s and 1960s. In fact, the school I attended opened only a year before I entered.

That was also the same time Evangelical, Fundamentalist, and other conservative Christian churches were opening private schools, mainly in the South and Midwest. Ostensibly, the founders of these schools feared that “moral values” were being erased from public school curricula—and from the nation’s laws and value systems. They cited the end of prayer and the diversification of reading lists (and other things, one of which I’ll mention) in those public schools.

And what was being “diversified?” Well, for one thing, points of view: history and other classes were being revised to include the stories of people who had been left out.  But, most troubling to the founders of those “Christian” academies was the new variation in color among the student bodies that resulted from Brown v Board of Education in 1954.

A few school boards and elected officials—most notably Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus—openly defied orders to desegregate.  But more people, including church leaders, subverted that order through the IRS tax code, which allowed “religious” schools to claim tax exemption, and through exemptions provided in the civil-rights laws themselves for private institutions. 

Those schools are now commonly called “segregation academies.” While few, if any, openly barred students of color (mainly Black), they adopted policies that had the same effect. One was, of course, tuition that most Black families couldn’t afford. Another was professions of faith that may have run counter to the families’ beliefs. And some simply made nonwhite kids and families feel unwelcome.

Such was the case in my Catholic school.  I can recall no non-White students; nearly all of us came from the same few European backgrounds I’ve mentioned. (This, I believe, is part of what some of my old classmates mean by the “good old days” they pine for on their Facebook pages.) School and church officials would claim that the school’s demographics reflected that of the neighborhood, which was mostly true.  But, when I was growing up, a few of my schoolmates actually told me that their parents sent them to that school because there were “too many (N-words)” in the local public school.  And, as I recall, at least some of their parents were furious that “trouble”—a code word for Black kids—was being bused into the school and neighborhood.

In short, I can’t help but to think something that leaders of the New York Archdiocese, Diocese of Brooklyn and the church can’t or won’t acknowledge: some of their schools, like the one I attended, were essentially Northern segregation academies. The irony is, of course, that in some neighborhoods, the very people those parents, and sometimes school and church officials, tried to keep out are now the neighborhood that can’t or won’t support the Catholic schools that are, or are in danger of, closing. 

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.

Our Church Stories

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Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth

I hadn’t heard from “Ivette” in decades. So, when I saw her name in the subject line, I hesitated.  But my curiosity got the better of me, and I opened the email.

“Dear MJ.” She opened with my current, not my “dead,” name. A pleasant surprise, but was it a prelude to something less respectful, let alone affirming? 

I can’t remember our last encounter, but I know it took place in—or in the context of—the Evangelical church where she was a volunteer who did, basically, anything deemed not important enough for male members. In all honesty, she could have done a better job than I did of leading a Bible study and editing the church’s newsletter. She knew it as well as I did, but if she had any resentment, she didn’t express it, I suspect, as much out of the deference expected of her as to her emotional grace, which she possessed to a much greater degree than I ever have. 

So why was she writing to me after so many years? Did she want to bring me back to Jesus—and the name, gender, and life I left with him, with the God who was him and his father and his ghost?  Or would she, like someone else I knew from those days, berate me because I am not, and could never be, a “real woman: because I have never menstruated, married a man, given birth, or had any of the other experiences by which they define themselves?

Fortunately, her email contained no attempts to return me to her faith—which, I would soon learn, was as much a part of her past as my life as a boy and man was part of mine. She did, however, ask if we could talk. I replied in the affirmative and she sent me her number.

Turns out, she’s been living on the other side of the country almost since the last time I saw her. Ostensibly, she moved from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast for graduate school and a job. She could, however, have done those things, at least in the field of her study and work, almost anywhere, including the New Jersey town in which our old church was located. 

By now, you might have guessed that she wanted to move as far as she could from that church and anything related to it. The reason did not surprise me—it was something I’d suspected all of those years ago when we were in the church—but it appalled me nonetheless.

“He raped me.”  I knew exactly who she was talking about: a deacon, twice her age or close to it. Sometimes I felt guilty because as a “good Christian,” I believed I should have made more of an effort to engage with him. But I just couldn’t: a sense not granted to me by the Holy Spirit guided me away from him. Throughout all of the time I was part of that church, we were the proverbial ships passing in the night. 

Oddly enough, our pastor, who encouraged us—well, most of us—to get to know each other so that we could serve the Lord “as a body in the spirit,” as he liked to say, made no effort to bring us together even though our avoidance of each other—actually, more mine of him—created a few awkward scenes. I believe that the pastor may have thought I was trying to short-circuit an illicit attraction, which I didn’t have for the deacon and I don’t believe he had for me, even though, given the right circumstances, he might have used me as he used Ivette. Although many more years would pass before I would come to terms with the sexual abuse a priest inflicted on me in the Catholic church where I served as an altar boy, I understood that the deacon was purely and simply a sexual predator, although I, like most people, wasn’t using that kind of terminology to describe people like him.

One striking parallel between Ivette’s story and mine is that each of us clung to our belief or, more precisely, our desire to believe, after experiencing sexual trauma from trusted leaders in the church. That, of course, led me to the church where each of us experienced another kind of trauma. Hers, of course, was brutal and physical. Mine, on the other hand, was psychological, though I didn’t understand it until much later.

People who haven’t been “tokenized” don’t understand the damage it can do. Although my sexual orientation, let alone my gender identity, were never openly discussed, I am sure there were whispers. I was lauded for “sublimating” my desires, which were not named, in service of the Lord. In other words, without saying as much, I was held up as an example that Jesus “loves the sinner but hates the sin” and will therefore guide said sinner away from sin, if only the sinner allows Him in.

Having been sexually abused by “men of God,” I mention my mental distress, not to minimize Ivette’s experience of sexual exploitation, but to mention another way in which she was harmed. Ivette was the only non-White person in the congregation. She is bi-racial:  Her southern Black father married an Englishwoman he met while stationed with the US Air Force. While her identity or appearance—she had a café au lait complexion and nappy black hair—were never pointed out publicly, she was told, privately, that God was “using” her to show that he “loves all of his creations.”

That she wanted anything to do with any church after that, or after being raped, is perhaps a testament to a desire for faith even stronger than mine. She had been studying the Bible diligently and reading theologians, if only the ones who confirmed the beliefs we had at the time. And she continued to study, and read even more broadly, even after she moved and commenced graduate school in a nearly unrelated field. Eventually, she told me, she cycled through a number of churches and even decided, for a time, that Judaism was the “true faith.” She never seriously considered any belief system outside the Judeo-Christian orbit, so once her dedication to Judaism waned, she started to lose all belief.

Oh, and she got into a relationship—which continues to this day—with a Filipina woman she met at a seminar.

We have continued to email each other and have talked on the phone a few times. She revealed something else: a mutual friend in the church, whom I’ll call Emmanuel, committed suicide about fifteen years ago. While that grieved me, it also didn’t surprise me: After a couple of stays in psychiatric hospitals and seemingly endless rounds of drugs, he appealed to Jesus to “heal” him. I don’t know as much about his religious or other history as I do of Ivette’s. It wouldn’t surprise me, however, if he sought, and clung to, faith as an antidote to troubles that the church (or whatever faith institution) in which he was born and raised, or sought solace, caused. Such is the psychological damage that too many churches cause.

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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History — And Christianity — Baked into The Conflict

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Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth

It was one of the best croissants I’d ever tasted. I would not, however, have tried it were it not for the insistence of someone I’d met at a nearby marketplace.

You see, whenever I travel, I like to eat and drink local foods and beverages. And, when I arrived the night before, I found my way to a restaurant full of locals; I was the only tourist. When the waitstaff were convinced that I didn’t want watered-down, sugared- and salted-up fare other tourists seek, they steered me to a laap consisting of marinated chicken, lemongrass, and shoots of a flowering plant found on the riverbanks. It was delicious and satisfying in ways different from anything I’d eaten before. Moreover, one of the servers schooled me on how to eat it:  not with forks, spoons, or chopsticks, but by grabbing a wad of sticky rice and using it like a mitt to pick up the food on my plate.

By now, you surely know that I wasn’t in France, the United States, or anywhere else in the West. So, I was surprised when a fruit-seller at the marketplace, who could see that I was interested in local fare, insisted that I had to try a croissant, baguette, or other French-style baked items at Le Banneton in Luang Prbang, Laos.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that, to this day, the croissant from Le Banneton is the best I’ve tasted outside of France, where I lived for a time. For one thing, according to a couple of bakers I know, croissants bake best in humid climates. (That’s why they’re better in Boston, Washington, New Orleans, and my hometown of New York than in other parts of the US.)  And, for another, Laos, like neighboring Cambodia and Vietnam, was part of Indo-China, a French colony for much of the 19th and 20th Centuries.

So why did Putin’s invasion of Ukraine get me thinking about that croissant again? And what does Christianity have to do with the invasion or the croissant?

Well, one effect of the invasion is something about which we’ve heard so much during the COVID-19 pandemic: the disruption of supply chains, all the way up to the source. Specifically, the prices of many food items throughout the world have risen sharply because of a decreasing supply of wheat, corn, and other basic food items from Ukraine and Russia. As so many men, young and middle-aged, have been conscripted, there are fewer bodies to till the soil — if it hasn’t been ravaged by bombings and other depredations of war. 

Not surprisingly, when food becomes more expensive, it’s the poor who suffer the most. While one could argue that “poor” is a relative term, there is no doubt that even in wealthy countries like the United States, millions of people are “food insecure.” And in other countries, like Afghanistan (ravaged by decades of attempted occupations by foreign forces) and Somalia, Yemen and Haiti, insufficient nourishment is all but a norm.

While the countries I’ve mentioned have indeed been victimized by extreme weather and other natural disasters as well as corruption and mismanagement, they also have been tied to — held hostage by, some might say — their dependence on imported grain and other foodstuffs. Some of that has to do with their own inability to produce enough for populations that are, in some areas, growing exponentially.  Much of the blame, however, can be laid upon colonialism of the economic as well as political and religious variety.

To this day, Laos grows very little wheat. Until a few years ago, it had no dairy farms. As in much of southern and eastern Asia, rice is the staple crop and soy is the “cow.” The same could be said for many other countries in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Or, in those countries where wheat is grown in significant quantities, it is cultivated to satisfy the tastes of colonizers or their descendants, whether locally or in the colonizing country. This situation almost perfectly parallels the ways in which colonial powers “developed” the countries they colonized: their schools were pale imitations of the ones in France, Britain, or other European countries, and offered education in quality and quantity just enough to make local people capable servants of their colonizers, or masters, if you will. The roads, ports, and other infrastructure were built mainly to facilitate the transport of raw materials back to the colonizing countries. And the Africans, Asians, and American natives who were allowed to study in Europe (or, later, the United States) were given such permission for the purpose of bringing the “mother” country’s cultural values back to the colony and fostering dependency on its technological skills and expertise.

Oh, and missionaries, whether from the Roman Catholic or other Christian churches, gave the colonizers a rationale or, more precisely, laid a veneer of virtue on their edifice: The colonizers were bringing the “light” of their faith, along with their watered-down education and culture, to the benighted masses. It’s been said that in 1452, when Pope Nicholas V issued his bull authorizing  Portuguese King Alfonso I the authority to subdue and enslave non-European, non-Christian people, Europeans had the Bible and Africans had the land. A century later, it was the other way around: Africans were choking on the Bible as Europeans grew the foods they consumed themselves, or sent back home, on the land they took from the Africans.

Now, if you know anything at all about history, you are probably wondering what Ukraine has to do with anything I’ve just mentioned. While it’s true that Ukraine doesn’t have a history of colonizing faraway lands (and indeed has been subject to cruel repression by hostile neighbors), it’s become an agent, if unwittingly, of that direct descendent of colonialism: globalization. 

One of the chief principles of colonialism and globalization is centralization. It’s necessary to maintain the economic systems and cultural mores the colonizers impose on the colonized: The levers that control the means of production have to be kept far away as possible (physically as well as psychologically) from those who are forced to be the toil over those means (which include the land). Thus, just as the “home offices,” if you will, of the churches where many Africans, Asians, or Latin Americans now worship are in Rome, Canterbury, or some other place in the colonists’ countries, financial markets are concentrated in London, New York, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and a few other places. High-tech innovation incubates in areas like Silicon Valley and Route 128. Things people use and wear are designed in Paris, Milan, and other European and American metropoli. And the stuff people buy in those places, and around the world, is made in China or other countries where workers and the environment have few or no protections. 

Agriculture has likewise been centralized. As an example, almonds originated in western Asia. But 80 percent of the world’s supply is now grown in California Pistachios also are believed to be native to western Asia, but the United States accounts for half of the world’s crop, with nearly all of that coming from — you guessed it — California.

In fact, while California is one of America’s, and the world’s, leading food growers, very little of what is now cultivated in the Golden State was there before los conquistadores arrived. The same is true of many of the world’s “breadbaskets”: they are growing large portions of the world’s supply of one crop or another in areas to which those crops aren’t native. In many cases, those crops were planted to satisfy the tastes of colonizers — or to increase the bottom lines of agribusiness corporations which have, in effect, become the new colonizers.

Now, to be fair, Ukraine has been a major grain producer for centuries and it is not far from areas where those crops were first cultivated. But it’s nonetheless disturbing that so much of the world has come to depend on Ukraine and Russia (or the US, France, Australia, or a few other nations) for foodstuffs that are deemed vital only because some colonizer, whether present or gone, not only inculcated a taste for them, but also destroyed or disabled the ability to grow native grains, fruits and vegetables and to raise local animals. As an example, when societies are shaped by the cultural and economic values of actual or de facto Western colonizers, the demand for beef and dairy products increases. Not only have military, economic, and religious colonizers imposed their culinary and other mores, they have also, in many cases, taken the very land on which many generations sustained themselves — and made them dependent on food from places and people they’ll never see, just as their countries depend on usurious loans from the World Bank or other products of colonialism to maintain the schools and infrastructures that were imposed on their countries.

So, while Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is correctly seen as a brutal attempt to re-colonize a nation, and we are right to be worried about the disruption of Ukraine’s food production, the fact that so many poor people in rich and poor nations will be affected should be viewed as a yet another symptom of how the current economic and political order needs to change — which includes un-tethering former colonies from Christianity. Yes, I am happy I ate that croissant in Luang Prbang. But whether and what Laotians, Yemenis, Somalians, and other currently and formerly-colonized people eat shouldn’t be beholden to power and production — and therefore wealth — centralized in banks and cathedrals in so few places, controlled by so few, and so vulnerable to disruption, whether by humans or nature.

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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A Tale of Two Prelates

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Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth

Two priests rose to positions of power in large American dioceses. After attaining their positions, one went on to become the Archpriest of Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the major Papal basilicas in Rome.  The other would be laicized and therefore a pariah in the Church community, not to mention among his former clerical colleagues.

Oh, and being laicized was the latter priest’s punishment for, in part, doing what the other priest should have done: namely, calling out priests’ and other church officials’ sexual abuse of children.

Two decades ago, the Boston Globe (behind paywall) published a series of articles—which became the basis of the 2015 film “Spotlight”–documenting allegations, which were later proved, of sexual abuse by priests and lay members of religious orders in the Roman Catholic Church. Although there were reports and warnings about such abuse as early as 1985, it took the Globe report to call attention to the problem, in part because the Boston Archdiocese has long been one of the largest and most influential in the United States, while the 1985 report focused on incidents in Louisiana. Also, by the time the Globe series came out, the language, culture and attendant attitudes about sexual victimization were changing: Although the “Me Too” movement was another decade and a half in the future, public awareness, and victims’ willingness to speak of, sexual violence was growing, however slowly. Also, the Church was losing—again, however slowly—its grip on public discourse.

The Globe reports revealed not only the identities of some predatory priests, it also showed how Archdiocese and Church officials—including Archbishop (and Cardinal) Bernard Francis Law— helped to cover up the abuse by, among other things, moving offending priests from parish to parish and intimidating victims into silence. 

 Not long after the Globe exposé was published, Law—arguably the most powerful American priest after Cardinal/Archbishop O’Connor of New York—was forced to resign his post. But, being the resourceful executive he was, he landed on his feet—in Rome, where Pope John Paul II appointed him the Archpriest of Santa Maria Maggiore. That made him a citizen of Vatican City, and therefore immune to prosecution by American authorities.

In contrast to Law, a priest in Oakland, California did what secular law (ironic, isn’t it?) and basic human decency dictated: He called attention to the sexual abuse his administrative superiors claimed not to know about or denied. In 2005, Tim Steir refused an assignment in the Oakland Diocese over its handling (or, perhaps, lack thereof) of sexual abuse claims. For more than a decade, he spent every Sunday outside the Diocese cathedral calling for church accountability and justice for its victims.

Although he hoped for the best, he wasn’t naïve: he wasn’t surprised when, earlier this year, the Vatican came for his collar. Still, he said, “it felt like a blow.” He was sad and angry because, “If I’d been raping kids, I wouldn’t have been thrown out of the club.”

Perhaps no more damning indictment—or truer observation–of any organization has ever been made. I know: the priest who abused me as a child died long before I, or any of his other victims, could speak of our experiences, and he enjoyed all of the post-mortem benefits of a man who “dedicated” his life to God—or, more precisely, the institution of the Church. When, a few years ago, he was listed—like two other priests from that same parish—as a sexual abuser, some members of that church—who include some of my classmates from that church’s school—branded his victims as “liars” and “opportunists.” (Mind you, I have not benefited, except in terms of my emotional well-being, from speaking of my abuse.) 

For his honesty and forthrightness, Father Steir was rewarded by—having “Father” removed from his name. In the ranks of the Roman Catholic clergy, he became a persona non grata earlier this year. As his “parting gift,” if you will, to the church—but, more specifically, to his former colleagues and any Church members who are paying attention—he wrote an open letter to them. In addition to denouncing the ways in which the worldwide Church and its individual Archdioceses, Dioceses, and parishes have denied or covered up abuse, he made a clarion call for more tolerant attitudes toward LGBTQ and other non-conforming people, and called for the Church to restore a right priests had until the 12th Century: marriage. While I don’t think allowing priests to wed would eliminate pedophilia (plenty of married men molest children) or change the priesthood’s status as a haven for closeted gay men, it would at least give priests a more realistic idea of the challenges faced by the married couples they counsel. 

Call me cynical, but even under the current Pope, I don’t envision the changes Steir recommends coming to pass. I also fully expect that after the current Pope leaves his office, voluntarily or otherwise, the College of Cardinals—the Church’s real power, much as the Supreme Court in the United  States—will appoint someone more reactionary, not only than the current Pontiff, but also his predecessor. People such as Tim Steir will be ex-priests—and prelates like Bernard Law will be even more privileged than they were under Popes John Paul II and Benedict.

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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The Attack on Salman Rushdie: Why I Am Afraid. Very Afraid.

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Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth

J’ai peur.  Parfois, j’ai beaucoup de peur.

Perhaps it has something to do with having been an Army Reservist and reading Hemingway in my youth, but one of my definitions of true friendship includes the emotional space to frankly express fear, in whatever language.

I first met Noem thirty-five years ago and Marie-Jeanne a couple of years later, not long after they began to date. They were delighted that I remembered their recent 30th wedding anniversary. But that was not the occasion of their visit two weeks ago. They (and I) hadn’t planned to take a major trip this summer because of the costs and the general insanity in transit hubs. But they decided to come because in late June their son, who graduated from university two years ago, moved here for his job. Marie-Jeanne, ever the mom, wanted to be sure that he was safe and well—which, of course, he is.

This was not their first time in New York, so I wanted them to have an experience I assumed (correctly) they hadn’t had: a tour of the graffiti murals in the industrial areas of central and eastern Brooklyn. And, because I knew they wanted to eat something they probably wouldn’t have at home, and I wanted them to experience something authentic and unpretentious, I took them to Christina’s, a place that seems like a cross between a working-class café in Kraców and a New Jersey roadside diner. We were the only non-Polish patrons in that eatery—on Manhattan Avenue, in the heart of the Polish enclave of Greenpoint, Brooklyn—where the soundtrack consisted of a combination of songs from the home country, Frank Sinatra and ‘70’s pop tunes. They loved it.

Over pierogies, I expressed my fears of what is happening in this country. While there are nationalists and flat-out racists in their country’s public life, and some express anxiety that Muslims will take over their country (though, contrary to such fears, followers of Mohammedism comprise only about a tenth of the population), France’s public discourse hasn’t been as infected with religion as it has in the United States. Moreover, while some invoke myths—which they take as historic facts—about their country’s Christian heritage, there is little, if any, equivalent to the Christian Nationalism—or, for that matter, any sort of religious nationalism–that some American politicians publicly espouse.

I was reminded of the fears I expressed to them when I heard about the attack on Salman Rushdie. His alleged assailant, Hadi Matar, wasn’t born until nearly a decade after Ayatollah Khomeini deemed Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses blasphemous and issued a fatwa calling for the novelist’s assassination. According to Matar’s mother, he became radicalized after a 2018 trip to visit his father in Lebanon. I am guessing that Matar has never read Rushdie’s novel and heard about the fatwa third-hand. But as young men with no hope or direction—the “target audience” of hard-line religious leaders and nationalists (and military recruiters)—are wont to do, he imbibed the inflammatory rhetoric and metabolized the anger it expressed into fibers of resentment that bound up his mental energies.

The attack reminded me of this: once a trusted authority figure expounds a narrative that posits someone who simply thinks differently as an “enemy” or “infidel,” someone else—often, a young man like Matar, who had nothing to lose and nothing to look forward to—will take it to heart, never mind how much it’s been discredited. Although Khomeini is long dead and Rushdie emerged from hiding, the Iranian state has reiterated the fatwa.  Even if it hadn’t, people like Matar would, in essence, keep it alive, just as Adolf Hitler—the biggest failure in the history of humanity—continues to inspire violence and hatred against Jews and people who aren’t white, heterosexual, and cisgender. They don’t even need the memory of the Fuhrer: Their interpretations of the Bible—which, as often as not, are little more than summaries of their pastors’ sermons—will give them all of the rationales they need to fabricate narratives of people such as I “grooming” children and call for our persecution or even death. It’s not such a leap from that to declaring that an opponent has “stolen” the election and anyone who says otherwise is aiding and abetting a conspiracy and therefore needs to be destroyed.

In other words, hate is never destroyed nor conquered. In fact, it is too often given new life by people who claim to follow a “gospel of love” (as many Christians like to call their holy text) or a “religion of peace” (the literal meaning of the word “Islam”). And such hate can sweep up any country, no matter how educated or enlightened it fancies itself to be. (Germany was the most technologically advanced country of its time when Hitler came into power and was, in the eyes of the world, “the land of Mozart.”) I think Noem, Jewish by heritage, and Marie-Jeanne, of Catholic lineage—both raised in secular homes and now living as atheists—understand as much. That is why, after hearing about the attack on Salman Rushdie, they sent me this text message: “Are you OK?”

For now, I am. But I am still afraid. I’ai beaucoup de peur.

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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Whose Stories of Doubting and Questioning Do We Hear?

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Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth

Recently, I wrote about a friend who is doubting the god in which she had always believed. That got me thinking about a book I read early in my gender affirmation process: She’s Not There.

Jennifer Boylan’s account of growing up as a closeted (as nearly all of us were) transgender and her route to self-realization is skillfully written and therefore, mostly engaging. But there was something about it that I didn’t quite trust. I’m not just talking about the normal biases we all have in telling our own, or any other, stories. Rather, I realized, that she seemed not to realize that her transition, while not easy, was still smoother than most, aided by privilege she probably didn’t realize she had when she lived as James.

She grew up, if not affluent, then at least comfortably upper middle class. All of her education took place in secular private schools. And, by the time she wrote She’s Not There, she—as James—had become an acclaimed novelist and tenured professor in a liberal arts college where most students come from backgrounds like her own.

Now, to be fair, her level of privilege pales in comparison to what Bruce Jenner had before—and, to a great degree, has enjoyed since—becoming Caitlyn. She has become a kind of transgender Tucker Carlson and, thus, for much of the political right (excluding, of course, the highly religious and pure-and-simple haters), their idea of what a trans person “should be” or, worse, “really is.” Likewise, Ms. Boylan seems to have settled into a career as a transgender Maureen Dowd, presenting gender issues to her mostly educated center-left readers without challenging them to ask any really difficult questions about themselves.  So, for her audience, she has become the “representative” trans woman, just as Caitlyn Jenner has become for hers.

What I’ve come to realize, as a transgender woman from a working-class background, is whose stories are not only told, but paid attention to. Yes, as a white male who usually “passed” as heterosexual (I am bi but most of my relationships have been with women), I had a level of privilege not afforded to others.  But even within the white male milieu, I was, at best, in a lower-to-middle-rung, socially and economically, and my status has probably dropped since starting my “transition.”

A similar phenomenon, if not controls, then at least influences, the world of atheists, agnostics, questioners, and those who may believe but don’t identify with a particular faith tradition. Some have asked, on this blog and in other venues, why there seem to be so few atheists who aren’t white and well-educated. Now, I haven’t been able to find any surveys or other research that classified non-believers or non-religious people by race or socioeconomic class. But I would venture this guess: the stories we hear are mainly of those who dissected, if you will, the sacred texts and traditions of the churches or other religious institutions in which they grew up. 

Being able to deconstruct, if you will, those books and customs, means not only being intimately familiar with them, but also having the means—whether they are dialectical tools or simply the time—to do so.  For most, that means having a rigorous formal education, whether in those texts and traditions themselves, and in the analytical skills to take them apart, but also in the rhetorical modes to express them.

Most people who have such skills—and, again, the time (this can’t be overemphasized) to do so come from relatively privileged backgrounds. There are exceptions, of course, such as Bruce, but even though he didn’t attend some prestigious seminary or divinity school, nonetheless had enough of a background in the Bible—and, most important, has an inquiring mind—to ask, what, exactly, he had been preaching from the time he was fifteen until he was fifty. 

Everything I’ve just said, I suppose, relates to what Cicero said: Victor imperatus. The winner dictates or, as Churchill said, writes the histories. The “victors” I’ve described aren’t, of course, triumphant generals, but folks who are perhaps even more powerful: the ones who dominate the popular as well as the intellectual discourse. 

I have come to believe that what I’ve described—in the transgender as well as the non-theistic communities—is a reason why we really don’t know whether the “vast middle” of the United States, monolithically loves “God and Guns,” as Barack Obama famously said, or perhaps harbors more non-believers, doubters or questioners than we realize. While I don’t doubt that there is more religious fervor in folks who live outside of the coastal and Beltway “bubbles,” and I have to ask whether we have been blind to those—a minority, to be sure—who don’t express their questions or doubts openly, whether because of the ostracism they could face in their own communities, or simply because they know they can’t or won’t be heard. 

My friend is one of them. Although she lives in the same “blue” city as I do, and her upbringing was like mine, she didn’t have the opportunity or inclination to learn formal methods (which is to say, those that are recognized by the socio-intellectual establishment) of inquiry and came from a church and community that enforced a belief based on texts she was discouraged from reading. She has come to question, late in her life (assuming, of course, that she doesn’t break some record for longevity), beliefs she has long held. 

In brief, I think that while the source of her questions and doubts is different from some of ours, it is no less valid—and deserves to be heard, just as the experiences of a trans person of color who was kicked out of their home (or ran away from said home after continuous bullying) are as vital to understanding us, individually and as a community, as those of a white upper-middle class trans person who becomes a tenured professor—or a commentator on Fox News.

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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Saying It Out Loud

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Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

“I don’t think I believe in God anymore.”

She uttered those words in the way a kid might curse for the first time: as if she were looking over her shoulder, anticipating a rebuke, a slap in the face, or worse.  It’s the way I made two of the most important (at least, they seemed that way) declarations of my life: that I am bisexual and transgender.

And her face expressed the same kind of bewilderment and relief I felt after “coming out.”  She must have known that any retribution, punishment, or other negative reactions and other consequences for disavowing what she’d believed all of her life wouldn’t come from me.  Rather, she was probably thinking about the people—some of whom, like her mother, she loved dearly—who inculcated her with the faith she’d had all of her life and nurtured and supported her in other ways.

Like me, she was raised Roman Catholic and attended Catholic schools.  Also in common with me, the church was central to her upbringing because of her ethnic heritage (like mine, mostly) and the community in which she grew up. 

In other ways, though, she is about as different from me as one could be.  For one, she never left her social, ethnic, and economic milieu, always living in it, if in different neighborhoods of the city (New York) in which we were raised and which we call home. I have lived in small towns and rural areas, as well as urban areas, in New Jersey, California, and France.  I have traveled to about two dozen other countries; she has never left, and never really wanted to leave, the United States “except for Paris or London.”  Her formal education ended with a secretarial school; I hold a master’s degree and started a Ph.D.   And, perhaps more relevant to this essay, she has never been a part of any church or religion other than the one in which she was raised and, like most Catholics of her (and my) generation, never read the Bible, let alone studied theology.  I, on the other hand, have been part of an Evangelical Church (where I made a declaration that I would “devote my life to Christ” and led a Bible study), read some theology and explored, as a result of my short-lived marriage and my own quest for truth and meaning, other religious traditions. 

Oh, and her marriage was, perhaps, an even bigger contrast than other parts of her history to mine:  At age 19, she was wed to the man she met two years earlier and with whom she would remain until his death.  Along the way, they would have two daughters.  My marriage lasted the length of an American Presidential term and resulted in no progeny.

(Should I also mention that she has never ridden a bicycle—I am a lifelong cyclist– and cannot understand why anyone would want to hike, camp, climb or spend any time in the countryside of one of the world’s poorest countries, as I have? 

From what I’ve said so far, it might surprise you to hear that the woman I’ve described is my closest friend and confidante.  Her husband was also a close friend and, in some ways, as different from me as she is:  He earned his GED in the Army (into which he was drafted) and drove trucks for a living. Like her, he was raised Catholic, though in a different cultural tradition, and never left his social and economic roots.

So, you might wonder: How did they and I bond?  Well, twenty years ago next month, I moved next door to them.  As my now-former partner and I were carting my possessions into my new residence—and I was entering a new phase of my life—she struck up a brief conversation with me when I lugged one cat carrier, then another, into my new apartment.  Turns out, she volunteers with a local animal-rescue organization, from which she and her husband adopted several cats. 

A few days later, she asked me over for lunch.  I accepted, in part because I knew no one else in the neighborhood, but also because I knew, instinctively, that we “got” each other.  After that meal, I wept:  It reminded me of Sunday afternoons from my Italian-American childhood and French families who befriended me.  In other words, the food was complex but not complicated, made with love, or at least passion. In other words, it was a reflection of the people who made it.

I would share many more meals—including holiday repasts—with her, her husband and kids, grandkids, and friends, over the years.  Since her husband passed and her daughters and grandkids moved away, we have shared brunches, dinners, walks in local parks, and—this is less surprising than I expected—museum visits.  She and I share a passion for Auguste Rodin’s sculptures (especially “Je suis belle”).  As I came to know her, that love of hers is less contradictory than it seems:  She has no formal or academic training, but she understands, intuitively, a thing or two about life and love, death and loss.

Which, I believe, is why her expression of doubt about the god in which she had been raised to believe surprised me less than I thought it might.  She is a decade and a half older than I am and, because she gave birth to, and raised children, endured struggles that I will never understand.  But, more to the point, I had long suspected that she has an “inquiring mind” that “wanted to know.”  While she doesn’t express anger, resentment, or regret about her life, I can’t help but wonder whether her wish to know—or more important, to understand—was suppressed because she was a girl in the environment in which she grew up and because she wasn’t a “good student”—which, I know all too well, has absolutely nothing to do with being intelligent or inquisitive, let alone having any sort of integrity. 

I don’t try to steer her toward or away from believing or not believing. (For that matter, I doubt that I can so influence her.)   All I can do is to be present for her, as she has been for me.  Whatever she decides—or whether or not she decides—I can understand.  I am simply happy that she is asking questions and thinking for herself.

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