In the fall of 1977, as a soon-to-be-married sophomore student at Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac Michigan, I started working in the dairy department at nearby Felice’s Market. I worked forty hours a week while taking a full slate of classes at Midwestern. Throw in attending church three times a week, going on bus visitation on Saturdays, driving a church bus on Sundays, preaching on Sunday afternoons at a drug rehab facility in Detroit, and taking Polly out on a date once or twice every weekend, I was one busy young man. I thoroughly enjoyed my job at Felice’s. It didn’t pay well, but the working conditions were great, and the owners treated me well. They went far beyond what anyone could’ve expected: gave us a $200 wedding gift, helped arrange for us to buy a used automobile (1969 Pontiac Tempest), and hired me to do odd jobs around the grocery store so I could earn extra money.
In the spring of 1978, in anticipation of our marriage, Polly and I rented an upstairs apartment several blocks away from Felice’s Market on Premont Street. The apartment had four rooms: living room, bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom. It was more than enough of a place for us and our meager belongings. The living room had new green and white carpet. One day I came home from work to find a large discolored spot on the carpet. I asked Polly what had happened. She replied, “I spilled tea on the carpet and I used bleach to get the stain out.” Ah, the lessons we learn when we are young.
In July 1978, Polly and I were married at the Newark Baptist Temple in Heath, Ohio. Married in front of several hundred of our family members, church members, and friends, we had grand thoughts about the future. “A kiss for luck and we’re on our way,” we thought. We would quickly learn that life does not always go according to plan, and that there was a lot we didn’t know about each other. I often tell people that we married because we were mutually infatuated with each other. Over time, we grew to love one another, and finally like each other. Polly was nineteen and I was twenty-one when we married. I was the only boy she had dated and I came from a dysfunctional home, with a mother who was mentally ill. We had few real-life skills. We had no idea how to manage money, and that quickly led to financial problems. Six weeks after we were married, Polly informed me that she was pregnant. While we were certainly excited that little Jason was on the way, our plan was to wait until after we got out of college to have children.
One day, Polly said to me that she needed to go to the store and buy some groceries. I had no idea what domestic skills Polly did or didn’t have. I assumed her mother had taught her how to shop for groceries. I had been shopping for groceries since my early teen years. Mom would send me to the store with a list and food stamps and I would purchase what she needed. Before working for Felice’s, I had worked for several other grocery stores. I knew the art of grocery shopping inside and out. For Polly, however, going to the grocery store and buying groceries for not only herself, but her new husband, was something she had never done before.
Off to Felice’s she went. I thought that she would return home in about an hour. After several hours had passed and she had not returned home, I began to worry. There was plenty of crime in Pontiac to make anyone concerned when a loved one didn’t come home at the expected time. The previous year, a group of boys tried to assault me as I walked home from work. Another time, as I walked up the road near the college, a car pulled up beside me and stopped. A man rolled down the window on the passenger side, stuck a gun out of the window, cocked the hammer, and pointed it at me. Fortunately, he didn’t pull the trigger. After Polly and I were married, we woke up one morning to find a man who had been severely beaten lying in our front yard. Other students at Midwestern had their own stories about attacks and robberies. Collectively, these stories had me worried about whether something had happened to Polly.
I quickly drove to Felice’s Market, hoping that I would find Polly sitting there with a flat tire or some other mechanical problem. These were the days when we drove rust buckets and beaters, so mechanical breakdowns were a regular part of the ebb and flow of our lives. While I did not find Polly in a broken-down car, I did find her sitting in the parking lot crying her eyes out. She had gone into the store, started wandering from aisle to aisle, and quickly became overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices. She left the store without buying anything, returned to the car, and that’s where I found her. Safe, but psychologically a wreck.
People often find it strange that I do most of the grocery shopping for our family. My doing so hails back to that moment in a grocery store parking lot over forty years ago. While Polly is now more than competent to go shopping, she still prefers if I do it. Usually, we shop together. That way, Polly will have the things that she wants and needs. Tonight, I went grocery shopping without her. She texted me a list, and I bought what was on that list. This way of doing things works for us.
I’ve often wondered why, exactly, Polly had a brief mental breakdown years ago. It seemed such an insignificant thing — grocery shopping. However, when you’re not taught to do something and your parents give you little latitude to make decisions on your own, I can easily see how being forced into making decisions might cause psychological trauma. I’ve never been afraid to make decisions, even stupid ones. Polly, on the other hand, found decision-making difficult. She was content to defer to others. What has changed for her in recent years is the fact that she went to the local community college on her own and got a degree. That was a big deal, a seismic event in her life. Polly also received a promotion at work. She is now a supervisor and is responsible for making a number of decisions on a daily basis. This has proved to be transformative for her, though she still has trouble deciding what to order at a fast food restaurant. 🙂
Lurking underneath this story is the bondage of Fundamentalism and the freedom found post-Christianity. Polly was a perfect little Fundamentalist girl. She played by the rules. Whatever her parents, teachers, and pastors told her to do, she did it without question. She didn’t have to make decisions. Her parents made them for her. No need to think, just do. While I certainly grew up in a similar fashion, my parents’ dysfunction and a healthy wild streak gave me opportunities to make decisions on my own. After we married, we were a good patriarchal family, and Polly had another decision-maker lording over her — me. Not only was I her husband, I was her pastor. Talk about an ugly two-headed monster. It was only when we walked away from Christianity in 2008 and Polly went to college in 2010, that things began to change for her. All of a sudden, she was free to walk her own path, make her own decisions, and even have her own money. Never underestimate the power of having your own money.
Fundamentalism harms everything it touches. I could share countless stories similar to the one I’ve shared today that show how Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) Christianity harmed us emotionally and psychologically. I’m not sure we will ever recover completely from the damage done by our religious past. I do know, however, that life is far better today, even with its pain, heartache, and suffering, than it was back in our “living for Jesus” days. We are free to live as we want to live, go where we want to go, and yes, buy whatever we want at the grocery store.
Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen awesome 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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