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From Segregation Academy to Parents’ Rights

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Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth

When I was verging on thirteen, my family moved from Brooklyn, New York to a small New Jersey town that was turning into a bedroom community for New York commuters.

I forgave my parents for that move when I turned 40.

Seriously, any sort of disruption is difficult for someone entering puberty. In previous posts, I discussed how conservative my old neighborhood—blue-collar, white, and Roman Catholic—was. While our new community was more middle-class and not as Catholic, it was, in some ways even more conservative—and religious. Or, at least, the prevailing attitude is perhaps more influenced by religion. 

Some of that, I believe, had to do with the light and physical space. In Brooklyn, we lived in apartments until I was eight. Then my parents bought a row house, where we lived until we moved to New Jersey.  That house, the apartment buildings, and most other structures in the neighborhood were constructed from bricks flaked and bubbled but somehow held together and insulated the people within them like the worn coats of old people. Those bricks, those houses, simmered softly in summer heat and glowed like embers at sunset, and echoed stories shared on stoops and over hearty meals. 

There were no bricks on our block in New Jersey. In fact, there were few anywhere in the town, except in one of its older sections. Oh, and I was older than the house we moved into, or any of the others on our street. They were single-story or split-level, with no basements—or stoops. So neighbors couldn’t sit outside and chat unless one invited the other into their yard or house. The fronts of those houses were flat, painted in flat shades of white and beige. 

Almost everybody I knew in my Brooklyn neighborhood attended the same church, in the middle of our neighborhood. Many of us also attended its Catholic school. Ironically, as much as we talked, and kids played with each other, we interacted very little, if at all,  during Mass. If anything, the church served a purpose that, I would learn much later, Elizabeth I envisioned for the then-new Church of England: It wasn’t so much a unifying faith as much as a social glue. In other words, she cared more about attendance than belief.  Likewise, we—even those of us who attended the church’s school– didn’t talk much, if at all, about our notions of the triune God but we all knew enough to attend or “assist” at mass on days of obligation.

The New Jersey town had a Roman Catholic parish, which I attended, as well as churches and chapels of the mainline Protestant denominations. If I recall correctly, there was also an Evangelical church, but I (and, I suspect, almost anybody who didn’t attend it) didn’t know what it was. On Sunday morning, the streets—quiet except when people were on their way to work or school—were all but deserted, as most people were in one of those churches. I don’t recall any open hostility or even debates between members of different churches, but there didn’t seem to be much communication between the leaders of those churches, or between members of churches about matters related to their institutions and faith.

As I described in an earlier post, my Catholic school in Brooklyn was, in essence, a Northern segregation academy.  It opened around the time courts ordered the busing of Black and brown kids from other neighborhoods–”trouble,” as some called them—into public schools in white neighborhoods like ours. Our New Jersey enclave was “spared” such a fate because, well, there weren’t Black or Brown kids to bus to the school. I recall only one Black classmate: an extremely intelligent and talented girl whose family had a farm on the outskirts of town and, I would learn later, were descendants of a community of free Blacks and escaped slaves that once lived in the area. I would love to know how many times that girl and her family heard “we don’t mean you” from white people talking about the race “problem.”

 I knew only one kid who attended the Catholic high school: an athlete whom the public high school (from which I graduated) barred from its football and track teams because of a medical condition. My guess is that other kids went to that school because their parents really wanted a Catholic education for their kids—or, perhaps, they wanted to protect their progeny from lowlifes like me!

So, that school didn’t have to be a segregation academy. But, in a sense, the town itself was one. I don’t know whether the local shade of skin has darkened any since I left, more than four decades ago, but it seems that some members of the local Board of Education are trying to “shield” kids from “unsavory” influences, just as they moved to the town to forget, and to keep their kids from knowing about, the darkness and rough edges in the bricks of the cities they left.

Lest you thought that only the likes of Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott are trying to eradicate the existence of LGBTQ kids in the name of “parental rights,” consider this: the town I’m talking about—Middletown Township (ironically, the home of Governor Phil Murphy) has just mandated the “outing” of transgender and other gender-variant kids. Under the new policy, if, students ask to be called a different name or identified by a different gender from the one on their birth certificates, ask to use the bathroom, or participate on a sports team or other activity designated for the “opposite” gender, teachers must notify those kids’ parents.

(Three other New Jersey municipalities, including one that borders Middletown and another in the same county, have proposed policies with nearly identical language.)

Now, I understand parents wanting to know what their children are doing, in school or elsewhere. But I also know how vulnerable such kids are: After all, I was one, though I didn’t “come out” and begin my gender affirmation process until I was in my 40s. Moreover, from other experiences, I know of the perils some young people face. When I taught in a yeshiva, boys confided questions about their sexual orientation, or simply their wish to know what life was like outside the Orthodox bubble, to me. (One also talked about sexual abuse from a rabbi.) Later, as a college instructor—both before and after my gender affirmation—students came to me with questions and fears they couldn’t express to members of their families and communities. And, when I co-facilitated an LGBTQ youth group, I worked with 14 and 15-year-olds who were kicked out of their homes or bullied out of their schools when they “came out.”

Some of those parents who disowned their gay, trans, or genderqueer students, no doubt, thought they could “protect”–segregate– them from the “influences” of people like me. And, by getting rid of the “bad apple,” they can keep the rest from “spoiling.” 

It’s hard for me not to think that the same kinds of people who supported Catholic Northern segregation academies like the one I attended in Brooklyn are also behind the proposals to out kids in the name of “parents’ rights”– in order to segregate other children from the ungodly influences of kids like the one I might’ve been had I the language or awareness to define myself, and those teachers and other adults who might’ve been my allies.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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I Attended a Segregation Academy

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Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Is Segregation Scriptural? by Evangelist Bob Jones, Sr. the Founder of Bob Jones University

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What follows is an excerpt from a radio sermon preached Easter Sunday, 1960 by Bob Jones, Sr. — the founder of Bob Jones University (BJU). This sermon was reproduced in printed form and sold in the BJU bookstore. No blacks were permitted to attend the college until 1971 — three years after the death of Bob Jones, Sr. Even then, only married black students were permitted to enroll. Five years later, BJU allowed single blacks to enroll, but strengthened its rules against interracial dating and marriage, leading to the IRS revoking BJU’s tax exempt status. Wikipedia states:

In 1976, the Internal Revenue Service revoked the university’s tax exemption retroactively to December 1, 1970 on grounds that it was practicing racial discrimination. The case eventually was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1982. After BJU lost the decision in Bob Jones University v. United States (461 U.S. 574)[1983], the university chose to maintain its interracial dating policy and pay a million dollars in back taxes.

It would be twenty-four more years before BJU would finally allow blacks and whites to date and marry.

Bob Jones University regained its tax-exempt status in 2017.

Is Segregation Scriptural?

My friends, I am going to bring you today one of the most important and most remotely messages I have ever brought. I hope you will sit close to the radio. Do not let anything disturb you. I want you to hear this message through.

Now, we folks at Bob Jones University believe that whatever the Bible says is so, and we believe it says certain fundamental things that all Bible-believing Christians accept; but when the Bible speaks clearly about any subject, that settles it. Men do not always agree, because some people are dumb; some people are spiritually dumb; but when the Bible is clear, there is not any reason why everybody should not accept it.

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All orthodox, Bible-believing Christians agree on one thing; and that is, that whatever the Bible says is so. When they had old religious debates, they used to get together and say, “Well, we will discuss this subject.” One man would say, “The Bible says this” and another man would say, “You are mistaken. It says this.” They argued about what the Bible said. They agreed that whatever it said was so, but they argued about what it said.

In recent years there has been a subtle, Satanic effort to undermined people’s faith in the Bible; and the devil has helped the race along until men have put their own opinion above the Word of God. You will find that practically all the troubles we are having today have come out of the fact that men in many instances have ceased to believe in an authoritative Bible.

For instance, we are living in the midst of race turmoil all over the world today. Look at what they are facing in Africa, and look at what we are facing in this country. It is all contrary to Scripture — it is all contrary to the Word of God. I am going to show you that the Bible is perfectly clear on races — just as clear as it can be.
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God Almighty did not make of the human race one race in the sense that He did not fix the bounds of their habitation. That is perfectly clear. It is no accident that most Chinese are in China. There has been an overflow in the world, but most Chinese live in China. There are millions and millions of them there, and there are no greater people in the world. I have never known lovelier and more wonderful people than the Chinese.

We were over in Formosa a few years ago and conferred an honorary degree on Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, and I never met a greater man. I never met a man of more intelligence or a more wonderful Christian; and Madame Chiang Kai-shek  is a wonderful woman. There they are. Now, what happened? They married each other. She was a Christian Chinese woman educated in America. When she finished her education, she went back to her home in China. How God has used Generalissimo and Madame Chiang Kai-shek — not only as Christian witnesses but also in other ways. I was never with a man who pulled me to him with stronger ties than Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek when I was over there and conferred an honorary degree on him. All right, he is a Chinese. He married a Chinese woman. That is the way God meant it to be.

Paul said that God  . . . hath made of one blood all nations of men . . . . But He also fixed the bounds of their habitation. When nations break out of their boundaries and begin to do things contrary to the purpose of God and the directive will of God, they have trouble. The world is in turmoil today because men and nations go contrary to the clear teaching of the Word of God. Let’s understand that. The Chinese people are wonderful people. They have internal troubles, of course, because Communism has gone into China and disturbed a great deal of the population. But the Chinese people are wonderful people. The Japanese people are ingenious — they are wonderful people. The Koreans are wonderful people. The Africans are wonderful people. In many ways, there are no people in the world finer than the colored people who were brought over here in slavery in days gone by.

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What happened? Well, away back yonder our forefathers went over to Africa and brought the colored people back and sold them into slavery. That was wrong. But God overruled. When they came over here, many of them did not know the Bible and did not know about Jesus Christ; but they got converted. Some of the greatest preachers the world has ever known were colored preachers who were converted in slavery days.

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God Almighty allowed these colored people to be turned here into the South and overruled what happened, and then He turned the colored people in the South into wonderful Christian people. For many years we have lived together. Occasionally there will be a flare-up. But the white people have helped the colored people build their churches, and we have gotten along together harmoniously and peacefully; and everything has come along fine. Sometimes we have a little trouble, but then we adjust everything sensibly and get back to the established order.

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White folks and colored folks, you listen to me. You cannot run over God’s plan and God’s established order without having trouble. God never meant to have one race. It was not His purpose at all. God has a purpose for each race. God Almighty may have overruled and permitted the slaves to come over to America so that the colored people could be the great missionaries to the Africans. They could have been. The white people in America would have helped pay their way over there. By the hundred and hundred they could have gone back to Africa and got the Africans converted after the slavery days were over.

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If we would just listen to the Word of God and not try to overthrow God’s established order, we would not have any trouble. God never meant for America to be a melting pot to rub out the line between the nations. That was not God’s purpose for this nation. When someone goes to overthrowing His established order and goes around preaching pious sermons about it, that makes me sick — for a man to stand up and preach pious sermons in this country and talk about rubbing out the line between the races — I say it makes me sick. I have had the sweetest fellowship with colored Christians, with yellow Christians, with red Christians, with all sorts of Christians — the sweetest fellowship anybody has ever had, we have had. Christians have always had it. We have never had any trouble about that.

The trouble today is a Satanic agitation striking back at God’s established order. That is what is making trouble for us. Of course, it is easy to look back over the years and see the situation from another standpoint; but when the folks up North went to Africa and brought the slaves over to this country and sold them to the Southern people, the Southern people should have been Christian enough to have said, “We will not have any slaves. We are not going ahead.”  But, you know, they went ahead.

Only a small percentage of the Southern people held slaves. Only a small percentage of them were slave owners. A great many people in the South in the old days did not believe in slavery — they stood against slavery. But they went ahead, and the commercial element was dominant; and people bought slaves and sold them. This slavery was not right. It should not have been. What we should have done was to have sent missionaries to Africa. Yes, that is what we should have done. That would have been in line with Scripture.

God put the Africans over there. They are fine people. They are intelligent people. Do not think they are inferior in every way. It is not so. But we should have sent missionaries over there, and Africa should have been a great nation of colored Christians. If we had done what God had told us to do and sent the Gospel to them and made a Christian nation out of them instead of bringing them over here and selling them into slavery, Africa could have been a great nation of colored Christians. What we did was wrong. It was not right. It cannot be justified. We should not try to justify it. But people went along. Some good people fell for it and went ahead with it; and God overruled it.

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But racially we have separation in the Bible. Let’s get that clear. Any race has a right to come to America. We do not mean that when we came over here we wiped out the line between races. We did not do that. We should have let the Africans stay in Africa instead of bringing them here for slaves, but did you colored people ever stop to think where you might have been if that had not happened? Now, you colored people listen to me. If you had not been brought over here and if your grandparents in slavery days had not heard that great preaching you might not even be a Christian. You might be over there in the jungles of Africa today, unsaved. But you are here in America where you have your own schools and your own churches and your own liberties and your own rights, with certain restrictions that God Almighty put about you — restrictions that are in line with the Word of God. The Jews have lived a separated race. they have been separated from the other races of the world. They have been miraculously preserved. Now they have a homeland. They are back there today, and what a wonderful thing is happening.

The time has come when we good folks down here in the South — the good colored people and the good white people — need to use our heads. We should not let this outside agitation disturb us down here. Now, listen just a minute. You colored people are entitled to good schools. You ought to have them. I would like for you to remember something. Just remember that the South went through reconstruction and had a hard time. It was not easy. Then remember something else, too. When your ancestors were slaves in the homes of these Southern people, they got a breath of culture that they could not have gotten even in the schoolrooms of America. They heard the old-time preachers. I have said many times that the greatest preachers who have lived since the Apostolic days were the preachers of the South — the preachers who preached to the colored people. And back there the slaves had the Gospel. They were it and were converted. They were saved.

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Now, I am appealing to you colored people and to you white people. Let’s use our heads. Let’s be intelligent. Let’s not try to kick the Bible off the center table. Keep your Bible where it belongs. When they tell you that God Almighty is not the author of the boundaries of nations, you tell them that is wrong. You tell them it is perfectly clear in the Bible that God made of one blood all nations but that He also fixed the bounds of their habitation. There is nothing unscriptural about that.

Listen just a minute. We are trying to bring a few people from other lands here to Bob Jones University so we can educate them and help them. We have two Chinese gentlemen teaching here in this school. They are Christian men. They are intelligent men, and they understand what we are doing. They know where we are going. We honor and respect them.

There is no problem here. But it could be a problem. It could be a problem in California. It could be a problem anywhere. Whenever you get a situation that rubs out the line that God has drawn between races, whenever that happens, you are going to have trouble. That is what is happening today in this country. All this agitation is a Communistic agitation to overthrow the established order of God in this world. The Communistic influence is at work all about us. Certain people are disturbing this situation. They talk about the fact that we are going to have one world. We will never really have one world until this world heads up in God. We are not going to have one world by man’s rubbing out the line that God has established. He is marking the lines, and you cannot rub them out and get away with it.

The established order cannot be overthrown without having trouble. That is what wrecked Paradise. God set up the order of Paradise. He told Adam and Eve how to live and what food to eat and what not to eat. He drew the lines around that Garden; and when Adam and Eve crossed over the lines of God, thorns grew on roses. The first baby that was born was a murderer and killed his own brother. So it has gone down through the ages. It is man’s rebellion (due to the fall) against a Holy God to overthrow the established order of God in this world.

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When you run into conflict with God’s established order racially, you have trouble. You do not produce harmony. You produce destruction and trouble, and this nation is in the greatest danger it has ever been in in its history. We are facing dangers from abroad and dangers at home, and the reason is that we have got away from the Bible of our forefathers. The best Christians who ever put foot on this earth since the Apostolic days were the men and women in America back in the old days. Some of them owned slaves, and some of them did not; and some of them were slaves, and some of them were not. Back in those days they believed the Bible, and God called this nation into existence to be a witness to the world and to be true to the Word of God. Do not let these religious liberals blowing their bubbles of nothing over your head get you upset and disturbed. Let’s get back to the Word of God and be sensible.
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Our heavenly Father, bless our country. We thank Thee for our ancestors. We thank Thee for the good, Christian people — white and black. We thank Thee for the ties that have bound these Christian white people and Christian colored people together through the years, and we thank Thee that white people who had a little more money helped them build their churches and stood by them and when they got sick, they helped them. No nation has ever prospered or been blessed like the colored people in the South. Help these colored Christian not to get swept away by all the propaganda that is being put out now. Help us to see this thing and to understand God’s established order and to be one in Christ and to understand that God has fixed the boundaries of the nations so we would not have trouble and misunderstanding. Keep us by Thy power and use us for They glory, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

You can read the entire sermon here and here. Transcribed by Camille Lewis 

Bruce Gerencser