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Tag: MJ Lisbeth

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-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 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.

Connect with me on social media:

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

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

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-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 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.

Connect with me on social media:

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

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

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-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 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.

Connect with me on social media:

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

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

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-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 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.

Connect with me on social media:

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

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

The Southern Baptist Convention and the Roman Catholic Church Kept Us in the Same “Closet”

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Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth

A week and a half ago, Southern Baptist Convention leaders released a list of alleged sex-abuse offenders that had been kept secret. Perhaps it is not fair of me to say that I am not surprised, as I have never had any connection with the SBC. On the other hand, having experienced childhood sexual abuse while serving as an altar boy in the Roman Catholic Church—and hearing whispers about sexual harassment of women and teenaged girls in the Evangelical church of which I was later a part—I don’t think I was being cynical in saying to myself, “Well, what does anybody expect?” upon reading about the SBC report.

Perhaps even less surprising, to me, was the accompanying revelation: victims who alerted church authorities, at whatever level, were advised to “be quiet” or, worse, intimidated into silence. It sounded like an alternate-universe version, if you will, of my own story. Decades passed, and the priest who abused me died, before I spoke or wrote about my experience. For one thing, I had neither the language nor other cultural contexts for telling about what was done to me: there was no open discussion about such matters in the time and place in which I grew up, and priests and other church officials were seen as beyond reproach. In such an environment, even if I knew the names of the parts of my body that priest touched, I could not have told of my ordeal in a way that would have been more credible, in the eyes of my community, than anything that priest—or the priests to whom he reported—could have said. I can’t help but to think that if I could have described what the priest did to me—beyond that “it felt weird”—someone, whether a relative or a father in the church, would have told me to keep my story to myself.

That nobody had to tell me not to tell—at least at that time in my life—is a testament to, not only the esteem in which priests in the church were held in my community, but also the power the Church has wielded. It also says something about how powerless I was. Perhaps the most important lesson I have learned from carrying my sexual abuse, alone—and, years later, seeing children bearing their burdens without a champion or mentor—is that nothing is more damaging than inculcating, or allowing a child to grow up, with a sense that their reality—or, more importantly, what they have to say about it—is not to be trusted or believed.

For that matter, invalidation of the fear, anger or whatever else one might feel about having been violated—which, by definition, is done by someone with more power or, at least, credibility—serves only to further traumatize the victim. That is what SBC officials did when they told people to “be quiet.” That is what my parish, and larger Church officials, could just as well have done after I was abused by a priest. 

So, while the abuse I experienced as an altar boy in a Roman Catholic parish in Brooklyn, New York in the 1960s is different from what girls and women in the Southern Baptist Convention endured, we have this much in common: we suffered in silence for too long as a result of churches that were more interested in preserving their “institutional integrity” than in helping those of us who have been victimized. That silence—my “closet,” if you will—hindered my development in so many ways, not the least of which is that I didn’t affirm my identity as a woman until my mid-40s. I can only wish that those whom the SBC told to “keep quiet” didn’t lose as much—time, or anything else—by remaining in a “closet” I know all too well.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 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.

Connect with me on social media:

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

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

Bishop’s Roulette

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Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth

Today I am going to make a confession.  (How Catholic of me, right?)

As I’ve mentioned in earlier guest posts, I was raised a Roman Catholic and, in my late adolescence and early adulthood, “gave my life to Jesus” and became an Evangelical Christian. My belief was eroded, if you will, by a combination of reading, study, and experiences that included finally coming to terms with my gender identity, sexuality, and the sexual abuse I experienced from a priest. I didn’t have a moment when I blurted, “I am an atheist!” or even “I don’t believe.” Rather, I realized that, somewhere along the way, I’d lost whatever faith I had.

Even so, I made one final attempt to be part of a “faith community.” For about a year and a half, I attended services at a church that would have appalled both the Catholics among whom I grew up and the Evangelicals to whom I professed my devotion to “the Lord.” (When I say that, I think of all of those African-Americans and women I’ve heard referring to “The Man.”) At the suggestion of someone whom I esteemed, and still do, I attended the services and participated in the programs of an “accepting” congregation.

I worked with someone I’ll call “Jenna” in helping to feed un-housed people. She told me she was an atheist but got involved with the church for “social reasons.” One day, I asked her to explain. The church did charitable work in areas that were of particular interest to her, she said. That work included in LGBTQ equality and helping folks in places like the Horn of Africa and Southeast Asia. Doing it under the auspices of the church “signaled” — she used that word — that she was “walking the walk.” Jenna’s family and friends didn’t take her work seriously — or believe she was doing it, especially the LGBTQ outreach — out of anything more than self-interest or money — never mind that she was a volunteer and used her own money to go to those places where she helped people, and to buy food, clothing and other items for the un-housed in our city — until she started working with the church. But she also admitted that being involved with the church spared her from having to explain her atheism to family members, co-workers, and others who wouldn’t have been sympathetic.

Likewise, that church legitimized, at least in the eyes of some people, the volunteer work I did in animal welfare, adult literacy, and LGBTQ equality. About the latter: I hadn’t yet come to affirm (or, in the parlance of the time, “change” or “transition”) my gender identity. But the church, which was among the first to hold funerals for victims of the HIV outbreak, gave me the “cover,” if you will, I wanted and needed in order to help people like me and to claim that it wasn’t about self-interest. Not only did my church involvement legitimize the work I was doing; but it also deflected the suspicions some people had about me. Hey, I didn’t even try to set some of my relatives and in-laws right (I almost said “straight” but the pun would have been too obvious!) when they expressed the hope that I would “meet somebody nice” and get married right on my second try.

Well, there would be no second try for marriage. Later, I did get involved in a relationship with a woman — whom I didn’t meet at church — and we lived under the protections of that document people associated with gay couples — the domestic partnership agreement — for several years. One funny thing, in retrospect, about that partnership is that it, like my church involvement, gave me “cover,” even among my conservative relatives and in-laws, at least for a time.

After being an atheist for, probably, about 30 years — roughly half of my life — I have come to realize how much legitimacy is conferred on all sorts of things done in the context of a church or other faith community by someone who professes his or her belief but is denied to those who do the same work without the imprimatur of religion. Also, there are some ceremonies and passages that are legitimized, by societal standards and even the law, by a declaration of faith or the “witness” of the faithful. Have you ever seen anyone take an oath of office without placing his or her hand on a Bible and ending his or her pledge with “So help me God” or words to that effect? And, even though conservative religious folks howl when cities, states, or countries tell people they can marry whomever they want as long as they are of age, those couples-to-be, whether they are two of the traditionally-defined sexes or nonbinary, are as likely as not to exchange their vows in a place of worship. Why? Sometimes they are trying to make their unions more palatable to prospective in-laws. Or one or both members of the couple may have grown up in the church and it is, therefore, the one place where everyone whom they’d want at their ceremony can gather. Another reason is convenience: while one can be legally married by a county clerk or some other secular official, getting married in a church or synagogue or other worship sites “kills two birds with one stone”: it sanctifies the union in the eyes of some and, in most places, makes the marriage legal, as, typically, the minister, priest or other officiating clergy member signs, along with other two other witnesses, the marriage license certificate shortly after the ceremony ends.

Knowing what I’ve just described, I am especially worried that far-right Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians, as well as conservative Catholics and their counterparts in other churches and religions, will try to make their churches — and, possibly, baptisms or professions of faith — the only way to give or receive charitable gifts or works. This is more or less the case already in Utah, where public benefits are among the lowest and most difficult to obtain in the US. As in most other states, caseworkers refer people who’ve been denied benefits to other organizations — including churches.

 In the Beehive State, most roads to such assistance lead to the Church of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons).  People in need are thus subject to “bishop’s roulette.” Some officials are generous with their help.  Others, however, are more rigid and judgmental, especially with LGBTQ people and single mothers, who are often assumed to be “sinners” who had their children out of wedlock. Or, if they are willing to help, it’s on the condition that the person in need reads aloud from texts, attends church, or even sets up a date to be baptized. 

When the intentions of churches and other religious institutions are assumed to be noble or pure, they lend legitimacy, in the eyes of many, to charitable work — or the denial of charity. Never mind that prelates and others in the church use their power to bully those same people they help, or choose not to help, or those who do the helping.  For now, I am living in a safely “blue” state where, while some religious groups have political influence, they don’t hold nearly as much power as the Mormons have in Utah—or religious conservatives, whether on the Supreme Court or in local school boards, want.  And for now, at least, most young people want little or no truck with religious institutions. Still, I worry that while the proportion of religious conservatives in the total population is shrinking, their influence is growing as they become more virulent and vicious.  I hope that one day I won’t have to proclaim faith I don’t have, join a church whose motives I can see all too clearly, or simply deny who I am, to get help I may need—or just to be allowed to rescue cats. And I hope those young people won’t have to be similarly duplicitous in order to get education, jobs, or housing because they ran into an admissions officer, HR Department, or loan provider who believes it is more important to “save souls” than to help. In short, I hope none of us become unwilling subjects in “bishop’s roulette.”

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 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 Prayer Circle

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Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth

Five of us, in a circle, could barely fit into the cinderblock-walled, windowless room. George: earnest, stringy-haired lab assistant. Julie: tall, blonde lithe fresh-faced freshman. Deanna: the petite, attractive brunette whose ambitions in life were to translate the Bible “the right way” and to “bring souls to the Lord.” Thalia, a tall, rawboned Black woman whom, as it turned out, Julie had invited to a prayer meeting but didn’t seem to have talked much with her, or anyone else in that group or on that campus.

And me. It was the middle of October, a few weeks into the semester. At the beginning of it, I knew only Deanna, from the year before. With her smile and friendly manner, she had little trouble meeting people. On the other hand, when I met her, I was almost as socially isolated as I had been the year before, when I first arrived on campus. The one friend—or, more precisely, the friendliest acquaintance—I’d made was with Robert, a young gay man: the first person with whom I’d ever had a real conversation about sexuality—my own, his or anyone else’s. The other male freshmen, it seemed, were performing the same kinds of exaggerated masculine heterosexuality—or, at least their notions of it—I saw in high school.

I am now ashamed to admit that I spent time with Robert when there were no witnesses, save for two friends of his—one, a straight guy, the other a lesbian, both of whom seemed a few years older than either of us. On the other hand, as I became friends with Deanna, I made a point of being seen with her: Nobody would question my sexual orientation or gender identity—in those days, almost everybody conflated the two, as I did—at least, not openly.

Oh, and she was one of the reasons I joined a campus Christian fellowship and was in that room with her, George, Julie, and Thalia. I told her, and she told them, I thought I might be gay, mainly because I couldn’t identify with other males and the only trans women I knew about were Christine Jorgensen and Renee Richards, both of whom seemed as different from me as the frat boys on campus. Turns out, Thalia told Julie she thought she was gay, which didn’t surprise me but, of course, I didn’t voice that.

The ostensible purpose of the gathering was for us to “be filled with the spirit” so that Thalia could “overcome” her “sinful” desires. They probably wanted to pray the gay out of me, too, though no one said as much. Anyway, George began with some soliloquy about gathering in the hope of receiving the Lord’s help and blessings. About all I can remember accurately is a paraphrase of a verse from Ephesians: “For we are members of his body, of his flesh and of his bones.”

Since George was earnest in the way only a young person who believes he has God and truth and justice on his side can be, he wasn’t being ironic when he paraphrased that verse in the presence of me and Thalia, one of the few people I’ve ever met who seemed more alienated and adrift than I was at that time. He intoned, “Lord, we entreat you.”

Then Julie started to drone a bunch of syllables that began and ended with drawn-out vowels sandwiching truncated consonants: aaahbaaah, or something like that, followed by sounds even less coherent or recognizable, at least to me. Before that day, I’d heard from other members of the fellowship that she could “speak in tongues.” I guess that’s what they were talking about, I thought.

As Jo droned on, Thalia started to let out long, low sobs that turned into wails, then into near-howls. She lay on her side—I opened my eyes while everyone else’s were shut—in a near-fetal curl, shaking like a child who needs a warm blanket. Her body’s vibrations turned into seemingly-volcanic convulsions, in which she thrust her arms and legs, as if trying to heave them away from her body. Her howls abated into a series of staccato grunts.

Julie continued her incomprehensible “prayer.” Deanna shouted, “Satan, leave her! You have no authority over her!” But Thalia continued to heave, grunt, and thrust her arms and legs. Deanna grasped my left hand, George my right. They said, in unison, something vaguely comprehensible—a prayer? a Bible verse? —that I can’t remember now. Julie finally said something I could understand: “Oh Lord, we pray for our sister, Thalia, that you may heal her. “Amen,” she, George, and Deanna chanted in unison.

The following day, I woke on the worn carpet of that room. Deanna slept in a dorm bed to the left of me; Julie in another bed to the right. I saw George a couple of days later and asked about Thalia. “The Lord is helping her now,” he said. I never heard about her again.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 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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Ban the Book, Banish the Pain (If You Can)

Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

During the past week, these stories were in the news:

  1. A former University of Michigan football player suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a university physician. At age 45, he felt something was wrong with his prostate. But when the doctor snapped on his glove, the former gridiron hero leapt up from the table, yelling, “No, nobody is ever going to do that to me again!” He simply couldn’t allow himself to be penetrated again. Another fifteen years would pass before he could say that he was raped—and allow a doctor to perform the examination that would lead to a diagnosis of late-stage prostate cancer.
  2. In Tennessee, the McMinn County Board of Education decided to ban Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus. In its decision, Board members cited its “nudity” (mind you, animated and of animals), “offensive language” (Tell me, what eighth-grader hasn’t said, let alone heard, “bitch” or “god damn!”) and “disturbing content,” including suicide and people hanging from trees.

I read Maus not long after it was published. Like most other readers at the time, I learned of it by word-of-mouth: graphic novels weren’t yet taken seriously in the literary world. While it’s not the first I’d heard or read about the Holocaust, it related the story in a visceral way that academic works and even most conventional novels could not. If you’re not familiar with it, the Jews—including Spiegelman’s parents—are mice, the Nazis are cats and the Poles are pigs. Most important, though was the way the novel conveyed, not only the tragedy of the Holocaust, but the personal traumas of Auschwitz internees, including Spiegelman’s own parents—his mother would commit suicide years later– and of Spiegelman himself. In other words, it conveyed something of which, at the time, I had an inkling if not the language: intergenerational trauma.

While he was at Michigan, Chuck Christian did not tell anyone that Dr. Robert Anderson did things to him not warranted by a physical examination. Later, though, a friend several years older told him that one day, he found a note on his locker saying he couldn’t practice until he talked to the coach. Bo Schembechler, who wasn’t exaggerating when he claimed to be the most powerful man in the Wolverine State, had gotten word that he didn’t let Dr. Anderson complete the physical examination. The player said, yeah, “because he was trying to do this to me.” The coach bellowed, “Quit being a wimp and get it done.” He did—which included submitting to the rectal exam he was trying to avoid.

Schembechler would enjoy demi-god status for decades as the University of Michigan’s football coach and Athletic Director. For most of that time, Dr. Anderson also worked for the University. Christian and his friend were far from the only victims of Anderson’s sexual, and Schembechler’s psychological, abuse. Indeed, Schembechler’s stepson is also a plaintiff in the class-action lawsuit. He and Christian have incurred physical as well as mental health problems as a result of the abuse they suffered. It’s not difficult to imagine that some of the victims’ families, friends, co-workers and others have been affected by the trauma resulting from violence they could not name until long after they experienced it.

It’s also difficult not to think that Spiegelman’s mother committed suicide, and Spiegelman himself had a nervous breakdown, as a result of pain that could not be named. In the book, one gets the sense that Spiegelman’s father hadn’t talked much, if at all, about life and near-death under the Nazis before his conversation with his son.

In short, the pain Spiegelman, who is now as old as his father was in Maus, and Christian, who is dying from his illness, is, if not a result of, then at least related, to suppression of their truths, and of truth generally. I shudder to think of what damage McGinn County Board of Education members—who profess to Christian faith (and one of whom said he’d never seen the book but had read the reviews) –are doing to the children for whom they profess so much concern by suppressing an honest discussion of what violence, whether physical or emotional, does to people. I shudder because I see that damage in Charles Christian.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 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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When I Continued Believing By Other Means

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Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth

Just after my mother died, I started seeing the therapist, again, who helped me during my gender identity affirmation process.

Some would argue that I should’ve found a different therapist. In fact, I asked her whether she thought working with me again was a good idea. Mind you, she didn’t need me: She is well-regarded in her areas of specialty (which include gender identity and expression) and so does not lack for people — some of whom could pay more than I ever could — who want to avail themselves of her insights. But she assured me that as long as I felt our working relationship was beneficial, she had no qualms about it.

If you spend any amount of time with a therapist — a good one, anyway — you find yourself discussing experiences and issues that you might not have thought were related to the ones you wanted to work on, but you come to realize are related, if not root causes. And so it was during a recent session with Carol (not her real name).

Not surprisingly, she knows things about me that not even members of my family or all except a couple of my closest friends know. (She is the second person I told about my sexual abuse at the hands of a priest.) In one of my early sessions with her, years ago, I mentioned that I didn’t drink or do drugs. She asked whether I was attending any twelve-step programs or other similar support groups. I said that I wasn’t, but I wasn’t drinking or using — which was the truth. Also true — which I revealed later: I stopped attending meetings about three years after my second sponsor died — like my first, from HIV-related illnesses.

Being the therapist she is, she expressed neither approval nor disapproval. In fact, she didn’t mention it again — until a few months after I started working with her again. It came up in relation to something else — I forget what, exactly, but it probably had to do with my mother’s death and what it stirred up in me. I admitted that I drank, but not as a result of my mother’s passing: I’d resumed a few years earlier, a couple of years after my gender affirmation surgery. I wasn’t suffering from the “crash” some people are said to experience after any long-anticipated experience. Rather, I’d taken a celebratory trip and, in a place where nobody knew me, had a couple of drinks.

I didn’t wake up under a bridge or in the hallway of a seedy building — or in another place where nobody knew me. I didn’t wake up beside someone I’d never seen before and would never see again. I didn’t want “the hair of the dog” and in fact felt no pain or regret. If anything, I felt as I might’ve had I spent the evening in any number of other ways and didn’t want much besides waffles, fruit preserves, and coffee.

Since then, I’ve re-discovered an old taste for wine, beer, or hard cider with supper. But I uncovered no hidden craving for hard liquor, which I enjoy once in a great while, on special occasions, and with other people. (A bottle of whiskey, cognac, or vodka lasts me for months, or even more.) And I don’t feel that those libations are a “must” with a meal or other people.

After hearing these revelations, Carol asked a question that surprised me only because I didn’t expect to hear one so direct from her, or any other therapist: Have you thought that you aren’t an alcoholic or any other kind of addict?

When the props around you are pulled out, you might flail about. But then you might re-orient yourself to your new surroundings. For a moment, I wanted to scream at Carol: She had knocked out one of the last blocks of a wall that I confused with my identity. Being someone who’d undergone a gender affirmation (what people used to call a “change” or “transition”) and an atheist, I didn’t think I still had any such structure—especially since my belief in a supreme being was all but gone by the time I started to attend AA and NA meetings.

More than a few people in those programs — and outside them — told me not only did I need to believe in a “Higher Power,” but that it was simply impossible to remain clean and sober without “turning it over” to that “HP.” (If you speak Spanish, the HP monogram is particularly ironic.) While they denied that there was any “religious” connotation to their assertion, the way they talked about it, and the very thinly-disguised prayers they said at meetings, said otherwise.

While my first sponsor grew up Catholic and my second knew the Book of Common Prayer forwards, backwards, and sideways, they—fortunately for me — didn’t try to convince me that I needed a God, I mean Higher Power, to whom I could “turn over” my problems. On the other hand, they also didn’t downplay the need to “make amends,” though they emphasized that I shouldn’t blame myself for the ways I harmed others, or simply made mistakes. “Use whatever works to keep you sober,” my first sponsor told me.

So, while both of my sponsors didn’t convey the most toxic aspect of twelve-step programs—denying the religiosity of the program while premising one’s sobriety on it — I came to realize, with the help of my therapist, that I was also clinging, in some way, to the shame and guilt my Catholic upbringing and my later Evangelical Christianity had inculcated in me. Despite my sponsors’ assurances, I sometimes wondered whether I could stay clean and sober without a god or some other “higher power.”

What I realized, after working again with Carol, is that fear is exactly what enabled the priest in my old church to prey upon me: He understood, with a perverse kind of intuition, that I wanted a strong, protective authority figure — or, at least, something that would make me feel protected. And he knew that a child, or anyone who is vulnerable, can very easily mistake an authoritarian or manipulator for a source of strength, or at least safety — and could surrender his or her sense of him or herself to a promise and illusion of protection against the very dangers to which the church or he himself — or any other institution and its representatives–exposes him or her.

In other words, just as the churches to which I belonged and their representatives sold the belief that as long as I surrendered to them, I would attain “salvation” — which meant a life free of sin and damnation — the twelve-step programs claimed that as long as I “gave it over,” I would be on the “right” path. And the churches and programs said that straying from their God or Higher Power would lead to the road to death, damnation, and despair.

“So, even though I didn’t believe in God, I believed I was an alcoholic and addict because I still had the need to feel weak, helpless, worthless.”

My therapist didn’t say anything. She didn’t need to.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 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.

Connect with me on social media:

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

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

Bruce Gerencser