Tag Archive: Northwestern Ohio

Life in Rural Northwest Ohio: Committing Social Suicide

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Local home flying the team flag. Go TEAM JESUS!

I have spent most of my sixty years of life living in rural Ohio. I was born in Bryan, Ohio — a small community in Northwest Ohio. My dad’s parents immigrated to the United States from Hungary in the 1920s and settled down on a hundred acre farm a few miles south of Bryan. Dad and his siblings attended schools in the very district my wife and I now call home. We live in a small spot along State Highway 15. Ney, population 345, has two bars/restaurants and a convenience store/fast station. Dad graduated from Ney High School in 1954. I attended elementary school for several years west of here in the flashing-light, spot-in-the-road town called Farmer. Dad frequently moved us from town to town, unable, for some inexplicable reason, to pay the rent. It wasn’t until junior high that I got a taste of “big” city life.  For three and a half years, we lived in Findlay, the home of Marathon Oil. This allowed me to attend the same school for three straight years. I actually had the same friends from one school year to the next!

Divorce and Dad moving us to Arizona turned my happy world upside down. At age sixteen, I returned to Findlay for my eleventh-grade year. I then returned to Bryan to live with my mother. Lots of drama, including Mom being locked up in Toledo State Hospital, resulted in my siblings and me being uprooted and moved once again to Arizona. By then, I had dropped out of high school. In the fall of 1975, I moved back to Bryan and took a job working at a local grocery store. A year later, I left Bryan to attend classes at Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. I returned to Bryan three years later, pregnant wife in tow.

Polly and I spent much of our married life living in small, rural communities. The churches I pastored were, for the most part, attended by white, working-class people. In 1995, we moved back to the flatland of rural Northwest Ohio. I pastored two nearby churches, moving away from the area to pastor a church in rural Michigan, along with a move to Yuma, Arizona. In the end, like the proverbial bad penny, I seem to always make my way back to Northwest Ohio. In 2007, we bought our house in Ney. Our six children and eleven grandchildren (soon to be twelve) all live within twenty minutes of our home.

There are times when Polly and I yearn for the big city; for the anonymity that living in such places provide. But, we love our family, and when we bought our home, we committed ourselves to living here until death do us part. This is the place and people we call home. We love the slowness of life, and when we need a big city fix, Fort Wayne and Toledo are but an hour away.

I write all this to say that my roots run deep into the soil of rural Ohio. No matter how often I fled the scene, looking for excitement and diversity, I always seemed to come right back to where life started for me. Polly was a city girl, but forty years of country living have turned her into a small-town girl who has embraced the rural way of life. Would we live where we do if it weren’t for our children and grandchildren? Probably not. And the reason for this is simple. While both of us feel quite at home in rural Ohio, our beliefs have changed greatly over the past two decades. This change of thinking puts us at odds with most of our neighbors — politically, religiously, and socially.

Rural northwest Ohio is the land of God, Guns, and the Republican Party. Hundreds of conservative churches dot the landscape, and virtually every public office is held by a Republican. In Defiance County where I live, the Democratic Party has fielded two winners in the last decade, neither of whom is currently in office. Living here means that I must accept  the monoculture of my surroundings, a society where it is assumed that everyone thinks and believes the same way. Someone like me, a socialist/pacifist/atheist, is a rare bird. While I have met more than a few people with similar views (particularly young adults), there are no liberal/humanist/atheist/secular groups or meet-ups in rural Northwest Ohio. People who don’t fit the rural Ohio political and religious mold exist, but few are vocal about their liberalness and unbelief. Why? Doing so would be socially suicidal.

One of my sons and I were talking about this tonight — about how being an out-of-the closet unbeliever or liberal leads to social suicide. While I am often lauded for my outspokenness about local politics and religion, my position has come at a high cost socially. I have in the past pondered whether, if I had it to do all over again, I would have been so vocal early on about my atheistic beliefs. I know that my outspokenness (and my age and disability) has made me unemployable. I own a photography business. When locals are given a choice between an Evangelical photographer and me, guess what? They usually choose the God-fearing one (regardless of the quality of work).

Over the past fifteen months, I have made a concerted effort to, outside of this blog, to tone down my public pronouncements. At times, I feel guilty for doing so; feeling as if I am a sell-out or a hypocrite. Everyone should be able to be who and what they are, right? Sure, but small-town life demands at least some modicum of outward conformity to tribal political, religious, and social beliefs. Disobey and you will pay the price. And for my family in particular, I don’t want them being socially and economically punished for who their father is. Some of my children may agree with me, but their futures depend on them not committing social suicide. Rarely does a week or two go by without one of my children telling me that someone at work — a boss, fellow employee, or customer — was inquiring about whether they were related to me. My children have become experts at fielding such interrogations, knowing that they are always free to say, Hmm, Bruce Gerencser? Don’t know the guy.

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Ney Village Limit Sign, Slightly Altered.

I plan to live the remaining days and years of my life in Ney, Ohio. As a committed liberal and atheist — who also wants to get along and be accepted by his neighbors — I have to find ways to be true to self while at the same time not being ostracized by locals. Everything, unfortunately, comes down to money. My wife and I need to earn money to live. Earning money requires acceptance by local employers/customers. While it would be wonderful to be a street-corner atheist (and some locals think I am way too outspoken, even at presently muted levels), I have to live here, and being one would be social suicide. The violations of separation of church and state are so common is this area that the Freedom From Religion Foundation could spend the next year or so filing lawsuits against local government agencies, schools, and businesses. Yes, I find these violations of the law egregious, and the street-corner atheist in me wants to call out and condemn their sins. But, I can’t, for in doing so I would cause great social harm not only to myself but to my wife, children, and grandchildren. If I made $40,000 a year blogging, things would be different, but as things now stand, I must swim in waters infested with Evangelical/right-wing Republican sharks, and being a lone fish is sure to turn me into a snack.

I have much hope in the belief that things are slowly changing here in rural Northwest Ohio. Local millennials are not as religious as their parents, and they most certainly don’t hold to the moral and religious values of their grandparents. It is in these young adults that I see promise. It is unlikely that this area will ever be as liberal as the West or East coasts, but I am hoping that there is coming a day when it won’t be social suicide to say that I am a liberal, a socialist, and non-Christian.

For now, I must choose my battles carefully, hoping that I can safely navigate the dangerous waters of rural Ohio. I have seen progress on this front thanks to my high school basketball photography. I have talked to more locals in the past few months than in the last ten years combined. I want them to see me as a family man, as a decent, kind curmudgeon who also happens to take really good pictures. I know that Google is not my friend, but there nothing I can do about the stories she might tell if someone asks her about Bruce Gerencser. Just last week, one my children ran into several people their age who were once members of a local church I pastored. These young adults have heard the gossip about me and read up on me, thanks to the Internet, but they still can’t understand how it is possible that the man they once called pastor is now a heathen. What happened? they asked, desperately trying to figure out how I ended up where I am today. Lost on such people is the fact that I am, in many ways, the same man I was when I was their pastor. Sure, I am a political liberal and an atheist. But, personality-wise I am pretty much the same guy. I am still a down-home friendly man with a wry sense of humor. I am…Bruce. [My editor commented, Your closing raises some interesting questions. Are you the same guy? I think it is hard for you to claim that you are. Sure, you are still a decent, hard-working man, but you have done an about-face in regard to many of your core beliefs of your prior life.]

I would love to hear from readers who find it difficult to navigate the waters of their communities. Please leave your thoughts in the comment section.

Letter to the Editor: I Support the Kneeling Defiance College Football Players

letter to the editor

Letter submitted to the Editor of the Defiance Crescent-News on November 13, 2017

Dear Editor,

I write to lend my support to the Defiance College football players who have knelt during the playing of the national anthem. I commend them for their courage, knowing that most local residents oppose their actions. Their continued protest has brought calls for discipline, including expulsion from school. I commend college administrators and coaches for not bowing to public pressure to silence protest. These students, along with their counterparts in professional sports, need to be heard. Their protests have nothing to do with respect for the military or flag.

What lies behind their kneeling is inequality, injustice, and racism. While these issues might seem to locals to be the problems of urban areas, the truth is that we denizens of rural Northwest Ohio have our own problems related to these things. I recently participated in a forum discussion on racism in Northwest Ohio. Having lived most of my sixty years of life in this area, I can say with great certainty that we are not immune from charges of racism and injustice. We may hide it better, covering it with white, middle-class Christian respectability, but it exists, nonetheless.

Years ago, my family and I walked into a church towards the end of the adult Sunday school class. Teaching the class was a matronly white woman — a pillar of the church. She was telling the class that her grandson was not getting playing time on the college football team because blacks got all the playing time. She reminded me of a retired white school teacher I knew when I lived in Southeast Ohio. At the time, we had a black foster daughter. I had just started a new church in the area, and we were looking for a house to rent. This school teacher had a house available, so we agreed to rent it. When it came time to pick up the keys, she told us she decided to rent to someone else. We later learned that she said she wasn’t going to have a ni***r living in her house.

These stories are apt reminders of what lies underneath our country respectability. It is time we quit wrapping ourselves in the flag, pretending that racism, inequality, and injustice doesn’t exist. Our flag and anthem represent many things, but for many Americans, they represent oppression and denial of human rights; and it is for these reasons, among others, that players kneel.

Bruce Gerencser

Ney, Ohio

Let’s Play Smear the Queer

smear the queer

Last night, I attended a high school football game in which the fans on both sides of the field stood with hands over hearts as the band played our post-9/11 national anthem — God Bless America. This largely Evangelical, conservative, Republican crowd views religion and patriotism as one and the same. In their minds, the United States is a uniquely chosen and blessed nation, a people whose God is the deity found within the pages of the Bible. I doubt that any of these uber-patriotic Christians thought, as they stood to praise of Jesus, that what they were doing turned faith into a political football to be tossed to and fro according to the whims of our political elites. From their perspective, the United States has always been God’s Country®. Other religions are grudgingly permitted, and even atheists are allowed the freedom to live as they please, but no one should ever doubt that there is one true God, and J-E-S-U-S is his name.

Once the crowd was finished masturbating to the American flag and our country’s phallic “greatness,” they settled in to watch two-plus hours of rock-em-sock-em, mano a-mano organized violence. Christianity quickly faded into the distance as each side cheered their team, calling on them to pummel their opponent into submission. Players were encouraged to hit hard, incapacitating their enemy. So much was on the line: future tales of gridiron glory and a conference championship awaited the team with the most points at the end of the game. As the game wore on, one team got the upper hand and handily beat their rival into the ground. From both sides of the field, the people who just an hour or so ago were singing praises to their God were now screaming and cursing at the officials. One offended fan even went so far as to attack one of the officials because he was fat, leading my son to say, what does the official’s weight have to do with the call he made?

After the game, as I walking to my car, a man and his son passed by me. As they did, the father asked the son what he had been doing during the game (many children “attend” football games, but don’t actually watch the event). The boy replied, we were playing smear the queer. I thought, oh my God, here we are in the 21st century and a boyhood game is STILL called, with nary a thought, smear the QUEER. The boy’s father said nothing, giving tacit approval to his son’s disparaging use of the word “queer.” I suspect the boy has never bothered to consider that using the word QUEER (or any other pejorative word for LGBTQ people) might be offensive. But the father knew better, and yet he said nothing.

I am not surprised by the things I observed last night. After all, I live in rural Northwest Ohio; a land primarily inhabited by white Republican Christians; a land that gives white preference its color; a monoculture proud of its ignorance and simplistic view of the world. While I thoroughly enjoy watching (and photographing) high school sporting events, I find the cultural trappings surrounding these contests to be disheartening. I know that most fellow locals have never ventured far from the farm fields, manufacturing facilities, and Christian churches of Northwest Ohio. They are simply living out what they know, rarely, if ever, exposed to the complex, contradictory world that lies outside their borders. When those who live in a particular locality never come in contact with people different from them, and when the few who are different are dismissed and marginalized, it is no surprise that the locals think and behave the way they do. In their world, smearing a queer is just another childhood game; a game, however, that says much about place where it is played.

Note

It goes without saying, that not every local is as described above. I am deliberately painting with a broad brush. Over the past decade, I have met a few liberal-minded people who value pluralism and multiculturalism; people who know something about life beyond the flatlands and corn fields of rural Northwest Ohio. Personally, I love the place I call home, even if I am not loved back. I appreciate the slowness of small town life. I love living in town where I never have to worry about being burglarized or murdered; and if I leave my car unlocked it will still be there in the morning. I don’t want readers to think that I hate where I live. I don’t.  This is home. My children and grandchildren live here, and it is for them I continue to confront local bigotry, racism, and religious extremism. I want them to have a better tomorrow.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 60, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 39 years. He and his wife have six grown children and eleven grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

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Zane Zeedyk and His Traveling Trump Show

Rural Northwest Ohio resident Zane Zeedyk wants to make sure that everyone votes for Donald Trump. Zeedyk did the same for Mitt Romney in 2012. Zeedyk believes God has given him a mission to preach the good news of the Republican gospel. In an October 10, 2012 Times Bulletin article, Zeedyk stated:

I get frustrated and feel the need to do something I feel that God has given me this opportunity as I still have the energy to get up here and do this. I am willing to travel to any community, to anyone who needs me.

In Zeedyk’s mind, President Obama has spent the last eight years destroying America, and only the pussy grabbing psychopath Donald Trump can make America great again. As things stand now, Zeedyk is going to be quite disappointed come November 9th. 

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In many places, Zeedyk would be considered a fanatic, a nut job. Not here in rural Northwest Ohio. Zeedyk is a respected farmer, active in many political and social activities. Oh, and he loves Jesus too.

Eastern Gray Squirrel Loves Corn on the Cob

I recently added a new feature to our backyard feeders — dried corn on the cob. The goal is to draw squirrels to the living room window so I can photograph them. So far, four different squirrels have munched on the corn. The squirrels take a circuitous route to get to the corn. They begin their jaunt in the towering pine in our front yard. From there the squirrels jump on the two-story part of our house, run down the roof, jump on the one-story part, and make their way to the corn.

eastern gray squirrel

eastern gray squirrel

eastern gray squirrel

eastern gray squirrel

eastern gray squirrel

eastern gray squirrel

eastern gray squirrel

eastern gray squirrel

The Least of These: Sparrows and Finches

Colder temperatures and snow have led to an increase of birds stopping by our feeders to eat. What follows are photographs of some of the sparrows and finches that have graced us with their presence. I love watching them swarm the feeders, only to quickly retreat at the slightest sound of unexpected movement. While many people find such birds boring, I am fascinated by their diversity, with no two birds exactly the same.  These photographs were shot from our living room window.

sparrows and finches

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Feral Barn Cats Part Two

Last week, I asked my son and daughter-in-law if I could photograph the feral cats that reside in their barn. After giving me a quizzical look that said why?, they told me I could, but warned me that I would find it hard to get close enough to the cats to photograph them.  Sufficiently warned, I went to the barn, camera and flash in hand and took the following photographs. I hope you enjoy them.

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What follows is not a new cat breed. My daughter-in-law told me these two chickens are quite old.

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chickens

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Part One

Feral Barn Cats Part One

Last week, I asked my son and daughter-in-law if I could photograph the feral cats that reside in their barn. After giving me a quizzical look that said why?, they told me I could, but warned me that I would find it hard to get close enough to the cats to photograph them.  Sufficiently warned, I went to the barn, camera and flash in hand and took the following photographs. I hope you enjoy them.

feral cats in barn

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Part Two

Get Right With God,Consult the Bible When Making A Decision, and Keep America Communist Free,

Now that’s a headline. What follows are photographs I shot while out and about in rural NW Ohio.

get right with god

High Resolution Photo

I found this sign along U.S. Hwy 127 south of Sherwood, Ohio.  Recently, the Defiance Crescent-News featured an article written by Isaiah Ross about this sign:

Along U.S. 127 and Paulding County Road 424 is a cross that simply states: “Get right with God.” Amid word that the beloved cross would be removed, the past few weeks have been filled with heated emotional debate.

The cross was to be picked up by the American Sign Museum located in Cincinnati, whose founder Tod Swormstedt said the acquisition was supposed to be a birthday surprise from his girlfriend, Nancy Herbert. Herbert’s friend Cate O’Hara was heading up to Bryan with her daughter when she noticed the sign off the side of the road. O’Hara, knowing Swormstedt’s involvement with the American Sign Museum, contacted Herbert to inform her of the cross. The surprise was reportedly ruined when Swormstedt was notified of it after a local newspaper ran a historic account of the cross last week. However, Thursday morning, he received news that the sign was no longer available for pickup.

The cross was placed there by Rev. Harrison Mayes around 1966 in his journeys throughout the country. Mayes took to working in the coal mines at a young age, and when he was a young man, an accident caused him to be trapped in a mine. He prayed and prayed to God, vowing to live the rest of his life in God’s service if he survived the predicament.

His prayers were answered. Mayes made it through to fulfill his side of the covenant, so he took to his bike and used his building skills to construct, paint, and place his signs where he saw fit.

Through the course of his life, Mayes made many signs, each of which is large enough to be easily seen and read from the road. All of them share a similar message of being prepared and getting saved. Several signs stand erect in the greater region around his home in Fork Ridge, Tenn., but they are present in 22 different states. Some are as far north as northwest Ohio, where locals have seen the Cecil area cross and one that used to be near Antwerp before an accident destroyed it. As he knew his days were coming to a close, he began writing on his signs where he wanted them placed, in hopes someone would continue the efforts of his lifelong promise…

Across the road from the Get Right With God sign I found this billboard:

decision to make

High Resolution Photo

Isn’t it good to know that the Bible is a one-stop shop for all your decision-making needs. Need to decide what to make for dinner? Check the Bible? Need to know if brown shoes go with blue slacks? I’m sure that the billboard owner has a more spiritual intent in mind, something along the lines of getting saved.

Tuesday, Polly and I drove to Fort Wayne to attend the Dayton Dragons vs. Fort Wayne Tin Caps baseball game. I’ve been battling an upper respiratory infection for the past week or so, and by the time we got to the stadium I was in no shape to sit in 93 degree heat and watch a game. So we turned around and came home. Here’s a sign I photographed on a country road outside of Antwerp, Ohio.

keep america communist free

High Resolution Photo

Ah yes, Joseph McCarthy lives on.

Please click the high-resolution links to see photo full size. Most photos on this site are resized to 600×400, resulting in 60-90% reduction in size. This reduction flattens and softens most photos. I hate it, I mean I really, really, really hate it, but you’d hate it even more if I uploaded all my photos as shot and it took 5 minutes for the site to load. If you would like to save, print, or use one of my photos, please use the high-resolution photos. Any noncommercial use is permitted.

 

I Love Black People, Said the White Man

i'm not racist

A couple of weeks ago, I followed a discussion among rural northwest Ohio white people about racism. The discussion was quite entertaining. None of them admitted to being racist, and many of them felt that whatever racism there may have been in  the past, it no longer exists (or it is just the product of a few racist outliers).

One man, wanting to show how proud he was not to be a racist, informed everyone that he lived near some black people and they had a really nice house and yard!

Like I said, there is no racism around here.

And there’s not, if you think racism=KKK.

What we do have is a latent, subtle racism that shows up in comments like the one I just mentioned. He was surprised that the blacks who lived near him had a nice house and yard. Why? Are blacks somehow predisposed to having trashy houses and yards?

Using this kind of logic, I could make the same statement about white people. Near my son and daughter-in-law’s home in Defiance, there are four or so homes that WHITE people have thoroughly trashed. All of the houses are rentals, owned by white slum lords who rent to people who don’t care about where they live.

So, what’s up with these white people?

Or, we can stop thinking like this and realize that red, brown, yellow, black and white, some people are pigs in Jesus’s sight (shameless use of  Jesus Loves the Little Children). Some landlords are slum lords who don’t care about the community. Their only objective is to maximize their profits and hope the house burns down in a few years.

I know a good bit about poverty, When I lived with my Mom, we were on food stamps and AFDC. I know the shame that comes from using food stamps at the local grocery or having to get welfare eyeglasses. But, despite the poverty, my Mom kept a clean home — too cluttered for her son with OCPD, but clean. We took care of what little stuff we owned.

These life lessons my Mom taught me, Polly and I taught to our children:

  • There is no shame in being poor
  • Work hard
  • Take care of what you own
  • Keep your bedroom/car/house clean

Just because you are poor doesn’t mean you have to make your surroundings look like the county landfill. Taking care of what’s yours and showing respect for the property of others are issues of character, not of race.

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Does Racism Exist in Rural Northwest Ohio?

etch a sketch

The Etch-a-Sketch is made by Ohio Art, a Bryan Ohio Company. Once Manufactured in Bryan, it is now Made Overseas.

I am a member of the Growing Up in Bryan, Ohio Facebook group. The group is made up of people who live/lived in Bryan, Ohio. Recently, the subject of racism was brought up and this provoked a lively discussion about the state of race relations in Bryan. This got me to thinking: does racism still exist in rural NW Ohio and Bryan? Have we reached a place where we live in a post-racial era? Before I answer this question, I want to spend some time talking about demographics and my own experiences as a resident of northwest Ohio.

My father grew up on a farm three miles south of Bryan and attended Bryan High School. My mother moved to Bryan as a teenager. Both of them worked for local Bryan businesses such as K&R Cleaners, The Hub, Carroll Ames, and Bryan Trucking. My father was part of a close-knit ethnic Hungarian group that settled in the Bryan area. My parents considered Bryan home and in 1957 it became my home. My brother and sister were also born in Bryan.

Even though I have spent most of my life living other places, Bryan is home for me. Try as I might to flee the boring flatlands of Bryan and rural northwest Ohio, I consider Bryan my home. Over the years, I’ve lived in California, Michigan, Texas, Arizona, and southeast Ohio. I’ve also lived in or near the northwest Ohio communities of Farmer, Deshler, Harrod, Alvordton, Mt. Blanchard, and Findlay. Currently, I live in Ney, six miles south of Bryan.

Bryan was settled in 1840 and is the seat of Williams County. In 1950, the population was 6,365 people. In 2010, the population was 8,545 people.  Bryan saw a 12.9% population growth between 1970 and 1980 and 5.9% growth between 1980 and 1990. Since 1990, the population has grown 8.2%.

According to the 2010 US Census:

  • 94.3% (8,056) of Bryan residents are white
  • .6% (47) Black
  • .9% (73) Asian
  • .2% (14) Native American
  • .1% (5) Pacific Islander
  • 2.0% (170) Mixed Race
  • 5.1% (436) Hispanic or Latino

Statistics taken from 2010 US Census Report

The Bryan of today is more racially diverse than at any time in its 175 year history. While this is good news, the reason for the diversity is non-white medical professionals moving to Bryan to work for the local hospital and medical group and white-collar professionals moving here to work for local companies. This diversity is primarily driven by economics.

The Bryan of my youth was 100% white. I was five years old before I saw a black person for the first time, a porter at the Chicago train station. As a teenager, I was told by one proud and ignorant Bryanite that Bryan was 100% white and proud of it. According to him, any black caught in town after dark was run out of town. I suspect his attitude was quite common

In the 1970s, I attended high school in Findlay, Ohio, a community 75 miles southeast of Bryan. The 1970 population of Findlay was 35,800 people. Like Bryan, Findlay was as white as white could be. There were two black students who attended Findlay High School and they were brother and sister. Today, .3% (886) of Findlay residents are black.

In the mid-1970s, I attended a Baptist church in Bryan. I can still remember the day that a woman who once attended the church and moved away, returned home with her new black husband. Oh, the racist gossip that ran wild through the church: why, what was she thinking…marrying a black man! Think of the children! It was not long before she and her husband moved on to another church.

It was not until I moved to Pontiac, Michigan to attend Midwestern Baptist College that I came into close contact with blacks. Freshman year, one of my roommates was a black man from Philadelphia. The college was connected with nearby Emmanuel Baptist Church. Emmanuel ran numerous bus routes into Pontiac and Detroit, busing in thousands of blacks. Most of the children from Detroit attended B Sunday school. The B was the designation given for the afternoon Sunday school. It was not long before I figured out that the B stood for black. When an overtly racist man became the bus pastor, one of the first things he did was stop running the buses to Detroit. We were told this was due to budget restraints, but many of us thought the real reason was race.

The college and church were located in a bad part of Pontiac. (Some might argue, is there a good part of Pontiac?)  The projects were nearby and the area east of the college was decidedly black. My experiences with the local black community, with its rundown housing and rampant crime, helped to reinforce the racist stereotypes I had been taught by my parents. It didn’t help that gangs of black youth repeatedly broke into the dormitory and ransacked the place while everyone was at church. A few years back, the college relocated to an overwhelmingly white community.

My parents, typical of their generation, were racists. It is impossible to paint the picture any other way. Whether their racism was from their own upbringing or their membership in the John Birch Society, they made no apology for their fundamentalist Christian-driven racism. They had a special hatred for Martin Luther King, Jr. My mother thought King got exactly what he deserved when he was assassinated in 1968. Like it or not, this is my heritage.

In the 1980s, Polly and I lived in southeast Ohio. For a number of years we were foster parents. One of children we cared for was black. We had made arrangements to rent a house outside of Somerset, Ohio where I was pastoring at the time, from a retired school teacher. When we looked at the house we did not have our foster child with us. Several days before we supposed to move in, the matronly pillar of the community called and said that she decided to not rent the house. We found out later that she told people that she was not going to have a nigger living in her house.

We moved to New Lexington, Ohio and enrolled our foster child in the local public school, thinking little about how hard it might be for her to be the only black kid in the school.  Needless to say, she was subjected to daily racial taunts. One day, the principal called us and said our foster child had created a disturbance in class. One of her classmates had called her a nigger and she threw her book at her taunter and stormed out of class.

I was quite upset at her behavior. Having never walked in her shoes, I had no way of knowing what it was like to be singled out and taunted. I gave her the stern Pastor Gerencser lecture, reminding her that she was accountable for behavior and that she couldn’t respond this way every time someone called her a nigger. While my words had a ring of truth to them, they were quite insensitive and showed that I didn’t have a clue about how difficult it was for her.

In the mid-1980s, the church I pastored had a black missionary come and present his work. I took the missionary on a tour of area and we stopped at the Somerset Snack Bar for lunch. The Snack Bar was where locals hung out and it was always a busy hive of storytelling and news. The Snack Bar was quite noisy when we walked in the door, but as patrons glanced up to see who was walking in, the noise quickly dissipated. I later learned that several of the locals were upset over the Baptist preacher bringing a nigger into the Snack Bar.

In 1995, I moved back home to northwest Ohio, pastoring a church in Alvordton for a short time and pastoring a church in West Unity for seven years. Polly and I have lived in this area now for 17 of the last 20 years. This is our home. Our six children and ten grandchildren all live within 20 minutes of our home.

It was during my time as pastor of Our Father’s House in West Unity, that I began to address my own latent racism and the racism that percolated under the surface of the local community. As my politics began to move to the left, my preaching took on a social gospel flavor and this included preaching on race, racism, and race relations.

When a church member would talk about colored people I would ask them, so what color were they? Oh you know what I mean, preacher! Yes, I do. So, how is the color of their skin germane to the story you are telling? I did the same when members talked about “those” people, those meaning blacks, Mexicans, or welfare bums.

What made things difficult was that we had a black man attending the church. He was a racist’s dream, the perfect stereotype. He was on welfare, didn’t work, lived in Section 8 housing, had an illegitimate child, and spent most of his waking hours trying to figure out how to keep from working. The church financially helped him several times and we brought him groceries on numerous occasions. One time he called me and told me he needed groceries. I told him that I would have someone bring over some groceries. He then told me, preacher, I’m a meat and potato man, so I don’t want no canned food. Bring me some meat. He’s still waiting for those groceries to be delivered.

As I read the comments on the Growing Up in Bryan, Ohio Facebook group, I noticed that there was an age divide. Older people such as I thought Bryan was still, to some degree, racist, while younger people were less inclined to think Bryan residents were racist or they thought local racists were a few bad apples. I think that this reflects the fact that race relations are markedly better now this area.

The reasons are many:

  • Older generations, those raised in the days of race riots, Martin Luther King Jr., and Jim Crow are dying off.
  • Local residents are treated by doctors who are not white.
  • Interracial couples now live in the area.
  • Migrants workers, once a part of the ebb and flow of the farming season, are now permanent residents.
  • Younger adults and teenagers no longer think race is a big deal.
  • Music and television have brought the world to our doorstep, allowing us to experience other cultures.
  • Sports, in which the majority of athletes in the three major professional sports — football, basketball, and baseball — are non-white. Cable and satellite TV broadcast thousands of college and professional games featuring non-white players.

Exposure breeds tolerance. Bigoted attitudes about gays and same-sex marriage are on prominent display in rural northwest Ohio. These attitudes remind me of how things once were when it came to race. Time and exposure to people who are different from us can’t help but change how we view things like race and sexual orientation. My children are quite accepting and tolerant of others, and I hope that these attitudes will be passed on to my grandchildren. We are closer today than we ever have been to Martin Luther King’s hope of “a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

We haven’t arrived. Latent, subtle racism must continue to be challenged. Unfortunately, on both sides of the political divide, there are those who use race and fear to stoke distrust and hate of those who are different. We  must forcefully marginalize those who want to return America to the 1950s. We must also be willing to judge our own attitudes about race. We enlightened liberals gleefully look at the extreme right and we see racism and bigotry in all its glory. Yet, if we are honest, such things exist in our own backyard. None of us can rest until we have achieved a post-racial world. We have much work to do.

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