Several weeks ago, Polly and I were reliving what we call the “good old days.” The “good old days” span the first seventeen years of our marriage, including the eleven years I spent pastoring Somerset Baptist Church in Mt. Perry, Ohio. Somerset Baptist, for a few years, was a fast-growing Independent Fundamentalist Baptist congregation, developing from a handful of attendees to over two hundred in attendance. Located in rural Southeast Ohio, in the northernmost county of the Appalachian region, Somerset Baptist was made up primarily of poor blue-collar workers or people who were on public assistance (it was not uncommon to find food stamp coupons in the offering plate). The highest total annual offering was $40,000. Most years, the offerings were in the $25,000 range. I pastored Somerset Baptist full-time, receiving what meager salary the church could provide, supplementing my income with jobs pumping gas, delivering newspapers, selling insurance, and taking in foster children. We literally lived from hand to mouth, rarely having two nickels to rub together.
We mostly drove cheap cars. I did all my own repair work, so I would buy junk cars, repair them, and keep them running until they were worn out. During the “good” years, we bought a new car — a 1984 Plymouth Horizon ($6,000) This car has a story unto itself, which I will tell at a later date. I drove the car for two years, putting 102,000 miles on the car. That’s right at 50,000 miles a year. By the end of second year of the loan, the car was worn out.
Thanks to us having a large family, we were eligible for food stamps and energy assistance. This fact thoroughly embarrassed us. We would drive to Columbus, where no one knew us, to do our grocery shopping. When the government offered free cheese or peanut butter to welfare recipients, I couldn’t bear to stand in line to get it (the “why” is yet another story for another day). Polly was embarrassed too, but she really loved what she called “welfare cheese,” so she would swallow her pride and stand in line with the other poor people.
I had grown up poor so I knew a good bit about poverty. Polly, on the other hand, was raised in a middle-class home where new cars, home ownership, money in the bank, and annual vacations were common. Polly’s dad worked for the railroad, and when he got the itch to go to college to study for the ministry at age thirty-five, he found a well- paying job at General Motors’ Pontiac Truck and Coach plant which enabled him to study without depriving his family. Neither of us knew the first thing about handling money responsibly. Both of us thought a life of poverty was God’s will for us, so we hunkered down and endured. Boy, did we endure!
Polly and I had six children during our years in Southeast Ohio. The first child’s birth was covered in full by insurance. The next five children were covered by state medical insurance. All told, we had private health insurance three of the first seventeen years of our marriage. The rest of the time, we either did without — thank you, oh Great Physician — or were covered by state medical insurance.
In 1989, we purchased an old, beat up 12×60-foot trailer and parked it fifty feet from the church building on the far end of the church parking lot. By then, the church had stopped running its four bus routes and attendance was less than one hundred. There were eight Gerencsers by then, so try to imagine us all living in 720 square feet. Try to picture the amount of laundry and pails of soiled cloth diapers Polly washed. Polly and I had one bedroom, the three oldest boys had another bedroom, and our daughters and youngest son had a bedroom the size of a large closet. Playing, for the children, meant going outside. Our children were four-season players, complete with bread bags on their feet in the winter so their feet didn’t get wet. Somehow we survived. That’s what Polly and Bruce Gerencser and munchkins did — we survived.
Our youngest children have very few, if any, memories of our “Somerset days.” Our oldest sons, however, have lots of memories. They, themselves, could write a book about their experiences as the pastor’s children living in the poverty-sicken hills of Perry County. To this day, my oldest sons remind me that Christmas comes in March. As children, they got very few gifts for Christmas, and most of the gifts they received were courtesy of their grandparents — my father excepted, who never sent one card or gift, ever. Christmas, then, was when we received our federal income tax return. Thanks to the earned income credit, we yearly received a large tax refund. We used this money to pay bills and buy our children clothing, shoes, underwear, and a few non-essential gifts. This was the one time of the year we had a large sum of cash. The rest of the year was spent raiding change jars and searching cars for spare coins. Ah, the good old years.
Several weeks ago, we had one of those oh-so-rare occasions where we were very low on money. Polly often laughs and tells me that I have a knack for pulling money out of my ass! On this particular day, my ass was broke. We needed bread and I had a hankering for a grilled steak. The checkbook was empty and I had $6.00 to my name. Off to Bryan we drove, stopping at Chief — a local grocery company — to see what we could get for $6.00. Polly dug through her cavernous purse and checked places were change collects in the car. She scraped up $1.48, giving us a grand total of $7.48. This gave us just enough money to buy one loaf of cheap bread and a one-pound sirloin steak (split three ways). Woo Hoo!
As we got back in the car, both of us laughed about our change-fueled forage, reminding us of our days in Southeast Ohio. The good old days, we both said. I added, yeah except for the fact we are driving home in a $30,000 automobile, a car that cost more than most of our other cars combined.
The “good old days” certainly helped to make us into the people we are today, but neither of us has any desire to relive them. We are grateful for Polly’s job and its benefits. Above all, we are thankful that our children escaped the poverty of their youth and have solid, well-paying middle-class jobs. Some of them are in management positions, and all of them, save one, own homes without wheels. They, too, have fond memories of their days living as sardines in a 12×60-foot trailer, but they have no hankering to relive those days. Instead, they regale their children with stories that almost sound unbelievable — that is, except to we who lived them.
About Bruce Gerencser
Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.
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