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Tag: Short Stories

Short Stories: The Day I Got Busted by the Border Patrol

arizona 2004_0001
Gerencser Children, Yuma, Arizona 2004

If there is one thing I am famous for, at least among my children, it is my wanderlust driving of the back roads of wherever we are living at the time. I hate highways and interstates, and, if given a choice, I will always choose a back-road-takes-longer-who-cares-where-we-are-headed route. Our family took many road trips over the years where the only destination was east, west, south, or north.

In 2004, we lived in Yuma, Arizona. We took a lot of road trips, going as far as San Diego, California to the west, Bisbee, Arizona to the east, Phoenix, Arizona to the north, and Mexico to the south. We traveled countless Arizona back roads, drove around the Salton Sea, and attended a Friends church in El Centro, California. I worked for Allegro Medical, Polly cleaned offices, and after work and on the weekends we would jump in our Ford Crown Victoria — the best car we ever owned — and off we would go.

One Saturday, we piled into the car to take a road trip to San Luis Rio Colorado, Mexico. Outside of Yuma, I decided to get off the highway and take a back road. I was headed south and I knew that the road would eventually lead to the Mexican border. After a few miles, the road began to change into a sand version of a rutted dirt road in Perry County Ohio. The road was narrow and I began to notice that there were no houses . . . anywhere. Polly was worried we were lost. I wasn’t lost, I just didn’t know where I was.

As my family will attest, I don’t turn around and go back. Oh no. I decided to keep driving, only to find out that I wasn’t really driving on a road. I was making my own road through the desert. Now, I began to worry.  The car started getting bogged down in the sand, so I drove faster; you know like a drug smuggler trying to avoid the Border Patrol.

polly-yuma-arizona
Polly Gerencser, Arizona 2004, wearing her first pair of pants. Such a heathen 🙂

It wasn’t long before I spotted the steel fence separating the United States from Mexico. See, I thought, I know EXACTLY where we are going. At the border fence, I turned west toward San Luis Rio Colorado. Little did I know that the Border Patrol had been watching me.

As I began to drive west, I noticed a Border Patrol vehicle ahead. I thought, this ain’t going to turn out well. Sure enough, they pulled in front of me, stopped our car, and began to question me. I told them we were just out sightseeing and had gotten a tiny-wee-bit off the road. I thought, I bet they have never heard this line before.

But, they believed me, and just before I started to put the car in drive they said, hey, do you mind if we look in your trunk? I thought, Oh no, not that. You see, I carried all my camera equipment in a padded aluminum case, you know the one that looks just like the one drug dealers use in the movies? I told them they could look in the trunk, but, before they did, I explained to them what they would find and I told them they could open the not-drugs-not-drug-money aluminum case. All they found was camera equipment and they then let us go on our way.

We took the highway home.

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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Short Stories: Bruce, the Moral Crusader and the Massage Parlor

bruce polly gerencser our fathers house west unity
Polly and Bruce Gerencser, Our Father’s House, West Unity, Ohio Circa 2000

After resigning from Olive Branch Christian Union Church in Fayette, Ohio in 1995, I rented the old library building in nearby West Unity and started Grace Baptist Church — later renamed Our Father’s House. I remained the pastor of this church for seven years.

While I became more ecumenical and progressive politically during this time, I remained a fire-breathing moral crusader. West Unity was the last dry (no alcohol sales) community in Ohio. When the American Legion, directly across the street from the church, put an initiative on the local ballot to allow alcohol sales, I decided to make it my personal mission to defeat the measure. I sent out letters to churches, wrote letters to the editors of local newspapers, and went door to door handing out flyers — all in the hope of soundly defeating the ballot issue. Teetotaling Evangelicals, including a handful of church members, rallied around my cause, and sure enough, the issue was defeated. What a great victory for Pastor Bruce and the true Christians who defeated Satan and his army of boozers. It didn’t take me long, however, to learn that I had won the battle but lost the war. In winning, I lost the respect of many people in the community — primarily non-Evangelicals. While Evangelical God-lovers praised my name, liberal Christians, local business owners, bankers, and the like were no longer friendly towards me.

In the late 1990s, a criminal concern out of Chicago opened a massage parlor 10 miles west of our church at Exit One on the Ohio Turnpike. This was the first adult oriented business to ever operate in Williams County. When I learned of its existence, I quickly set out to close it down. I rallied pastors and business owners to my cause, along with my usual shtick of writing letters to local newspapers. The Bryan Times refused to print my letter because I alleged, without evidence, that prostitution was indeed taking place at the business. Other newspapers published my letters.

I also wrote letters to local law enforcement, along with local and state politicians. I drew a clear line in the stand: close this business in the name of God and morality. Little did I know that I was involving myself in an issue that I knew nothing about. I wrongly assumed that law enforcement — namely the Williams County Sheriff’s Department — was sitting on its ass, doing nothing to remove this “vile” establishment from our County.

One day, the phone rang at the church. It was the Sheriff calling for the Bruce, the moral crusader. Boy, was he upset at me. He wanted me to know that I was ruining a joint sting operation between the Sheriff’s office and the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation. When I told the Sheriff that I had no intention of gumming up his operation, he calmed down a bit and politely asked to me end my crusade. And if I did so, I would be invited to the go with them when they raided the massage parlor.

Several weeks later, law enforcement gathered at a motel across the street from the parlor to prepare for the raid. There I was, a definite outsider, little more than someone who got a consolation prize for not fucking things up for them. The raid proved to be quite anti-climatic — pun intended. There were no customers in the massage parlor, just two well-worn Asian women in their late 40s. Seized in the raid were credit cards, condoms, cash, and food stamps. Yes, food stamps. Evidently, the massage parlor took food stamps as payment for services rendered. The parlor employees were later prosecuted on solicitation charges, but, if I remember correctly, served no jail time. This would be the last moral crusade for me. Lessons learned.

My opinions about adult businesses, sex workers, and “morality” changed dramatically over the next two decades. Bruce, the moral crusader died an ignoble death that day at Exit One on the Ohio Turnpike. Instead of focusing on the business itself, I began to think about the women and how the Chicago men they worked for likely coerced them and other women into working at the massage parlor. While I now support legal, consensual sex work, I still wonder about the women arrested during the raid. What kind of life did they have up to that point? What kind of life did they have after their arrests? Did I make life better for them? Or did I just make a bunch of white Evangelical Christians feel morally superior to these women? I suspect I know the answer to these questions.

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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Short Stories: The Adventures of a Detroit Delivery Truck Driver

bruce midwestern baptist college pontiac michigan 1978
Bruce Gerencser, Midwestern Baptist College, 1978

I attended Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac Michigan from 1976 to 1979. Midwestern, founded in the 1950s by Dr. Tom Malone, is an unaccredited Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) institution. Midwestern’s unaccredited status meant that students did not have access to federal or state grant or loan programs. Most students worked a part-time or full-time job to pay for tuition. Dormitory students, of course, also had the added expense of room and board. While Midwestern had a rudimentary cafeteria that provided a light breakfast and lunch, dormitory students were not required to eat there. Most dorm residents ate a combination of fast food and boxed/canned food. The dormitory had a kitchen with a microwave and a few tables. Every afternoon and evening, weird wafting smells circulated through the dormitory as students tried to “cook” their meals. I still have fond memories of the time my fiancée, who is now my wife, decided to surprise me with a microwave-cooked meal of liver. Needless to say, the liver was inedible. Students who worked at local fast food restaurants would often bring home throw-aways to either eat or give to their friends. The dormitory did not have refrigerators, so in the wintertime, these throw-aways would often be stored — for days on end — outside the dorm in a snowbank. This crude form of refrigeration would allow students to “safely” eat three-day-old McDonald’s hamburgers. Ah, the good old days.

I worked a number of jobs while a student at Midwestern. One such job was working for Orchard Lake Cleaners — a now-closed commercial drycleaner and laundry. Each afternoon after classes I would load laundered uniforms, towels, and dust mops into a Ford F350 box delivery truck and make deliveries to Detroit homes and businesses. The man who operated the cleaners was an alcoholic. It was not uncommon for me to come back from my deliveries to find him passed out, head on desk, and a partially emptied bottle of booze nearby. More than once I had to wake him up so he could pay me my under-the-table wages for the week. As will become clear later in this story, this job proved to be quite exciting and dangerous.

Every day, I would load up the items for that day and head for Detroit to make deliveries. Some were made to homes, others to businesses. I’ve often wondered if there was more to my deliveries than just laundry. Some of the businesses I delivered to were in seedy parts of Detroit. One day, as I pulled in to a downtown business to make a delivery, I noticed a man and a woman having sex in the backseat of a car. Another time, at the same location, I walked in on some sort of shakedown. I knew that I was at the wrong place at the wrong time, so I quickly shut the door and went back to the truck, leaving the order undelivered.

One day, I was driving down a Detroit city street on my way to my next delivery when a car turned on the one-way street and headed right toward me in the wrong direction. I successfully maneuvered the truck to avoid hitting the car head-on, but in doing so I clipped the mirrors off of several parked cars. I reported the accident to my boss, thinking that he would praise me for my astute driving skills. After all, I avoided an accident that would’ve likely totaled the truck. What I didn’t know is that there was no insurance on the truck. Needless to say, my boss was quite angry with me and wondered if perhaps he should get someone else to drive the truck.

Several days later, I was driving down one of Detroit’s many freeways and I noticed in the distance that several semi-trucks were parked along the berm. Before I could slow down, I heard and felt a large BAM! on the top of the truck cab. What the heck (Baptist for Hell)! I thought, as I quickly put on the brakes and pulled the truck to the berm. I got out of the truck and hopped up on the front bumper to see what had hit the truck. Not only was there a huge dent in the cab, there was also a gash in the exterior metal face of the box. As I surveyed the damage, a beat-up old car pulled in back of the truck and out jumped two white hippie-looking men. They asked me what happened, and then proceeded to tell me that they were undercover Detroit cops. They were working nearby when they noticed a group of teenagers throwing cement blocks from the overpass to the roadway below. The semi-trucks ahead of me had caught the blocks in the windshield, causing physical injury to one of the drivers. I was lucky that the block missed my windshield and hit the top of the cab instead. I am sure, at the time, that I thanked Jesus for watching out for me. Cue up Jesus Take the Wheel, right? I now know that I could have been seriously harmed or killed if the block had hit the windshield. Thrown a second sooner, the block would have smashed into the windshield. Who knows what might have happened next.

Returning to the safe confines of the Orchard Lake Cleaners parking lot, I went into the office and told my boss that my truck driving days were over. Better to mindlessly run a machine at a factory than dodge criminals and concrete blocks. Several years later, someone dropped a bowling ball off an interstate overpass, instantly killing a woman. One second, often the difference between life and death. One second, and the life of Bruce Gerencser might have ended at the age of 19 on a Detroit freeway.

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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Short Stories: The Missing Hammer

hammer

From 1983-1994, I pastored the Somerset Baptist Church in Mt. Perry, Ohio. After meeting for two years in several rented buildings in Somerset, we purchased an abandoned, brick United Methodist Church five miles east of town. Cost? $5,000.

The sanctuary was built in 1831, and a flat roof annex was built in the 1960s. Both buildings were in horrible states of disrepair. I spent the next ten years repairing and remodeling the buildings, as did some church members and my three oldest sons. Rarely did a week go by when we weren’t working on one of the buildings. Keep in mind, I had ZERO construction skills, so I was learning on the job — everything from plumbing to electrical work to tarring a flat roof to framing walls.

In 1989, I purchased a broken-down 12’x60′ mobile home for my family and me to live in. I parked it 50 feet from the church sanctuary. Think about that for a moment: 720 square feet for a family of eight. I had to do all sorts of building projects to make the mobile home fit for us to live in. Again, I had to learn on the job, as did my sons.

At the time, we had a Sears credit card. When I needed tools — and it seemed I always needed tools — I bought Sears’ Craftsman tools. One such purchase was the hammer pictured above. I loved this hammer. Well-balanced, perfect for my use.

One day, my favorite hammer disappeared. I looked and looked and looked for the hammer, without success. I was fairly certain that one of my sons had “borrowed” the hammer and left it “somewhere.” Of course, no one confessed to the crime. I ended up having to buy a new hammer.

Years later, on a crisp fall day, my sons and several church boys were raking leaves along the back fence of the cemetery. As was typical back in the day, the boys burned the leaves. One of my sons decided to help the fire along with gasoline. This quickly turned the leaves into a raging fire, burning all the leaves along the fence line. Fortunately, the fire didn’t jump to our neighbors farm field.

After the fire died down and was extinguished, guess what showed up? My hammer — surprisingly unscathed by the fire. “Someone” had left my hammer in the weeds along the fence line, and there it lay until the fire.

I still use this hammer, and I am always reminded of the fire when I do. I suspect after I am dead and gone that my oldest sons will battle over who gets the hammer. Such memories . . . And maybe, just maybe someone will confess to leaving the hammer in the weeds.

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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Short Stories: Anderson Honda

1976 honda civic

When I pulled into the driveway of the dorm at Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan in August 1976, I already had a job waiting for me at Kroger in Rochester Hills. I had worked for several small grocery companies before moving to Pontiac. I was excited about the opportunity I had to work for a large company. Unfortunately, the job was part-time, and I quickly learned that what I made at Kroger wasn’t enough to pay my bills.

I knew I could get a full-time union job at GM’s Truck and Coach plant. Someone in charge of hiring at Truck and Coach was connected with the college and Emmanuel Baptist Church — the megachurch pastored by Midwestern’s founder and chancellor, Tom Malone. All a male student had to do was go to the registrar’s office and put his name on a list. I hated factory work — though I would work in many factories during my time at Midwestern and the first two years of my marriage. Hoping to avoid repetitive manual labor, I looked for non-factory unemployment.

A professor at Midwestern also worked as a service writer for nearby Anderson Honda, as did the wife of the dean of men. One day, this professor asked me if I would be interested in working as a mechanic at Anderson’s. He had heard that I fixed cars for dorm students (and my own rolling wrecks), and thought I might be interested in turning a wrench for the local Honda dealer. The job was full-time and paid, if I remember right, $7 an hour. I quickly said, YES!

It didn’t take me long to learn that I was long on ambition and short on skill; that I was a minnow in a sea of sharks — men who had years of experience and tool boxes bigger than my car — or so it seemed, anyway. Due to my inexperience, I was given jobs such as oil changes, new car prep, and brake repairs. While I was disappointed that I was given the shit jobs, I did thoroughly enjoy the work.

I noticed several things that perplexed this naive country boy. First, the dean of men’s wife dressed very differently at Anderson’s than she did at school. It was not uncommon to see her in tight slacks and form-fitting blouses. Such clothing was forbidden at Midwestern. Her dress certainly caught the attention of the men in the shop.

Second, I noticed that this attractive woman and the college professor/service writer were overtly friendly with one another. I mean, really, really, really friendly. Do you see where I am going here? Yep, they were having an affair, and their “sin” would soon become public knowledge.

One day, I was summoned to Tom Malone’s office at the church. I had never been to his office before, I wondered what Malone could possibly want to talk to me about. I played basketball with “Doc” on Sunday nights after church — especially when Polly, my wife-to-be, was traveling with one of the college’s music groups. So I “knew” Malone, but really didn’t know him very well. In fact, I feared him.

Malone had me come into his office and asked me to sit down. After making a bit of chit-chat, he told me that he wanted me to quit my job at Anderson Honda. When Malone saw that I was puzzled by his demand, he told me that I was just going to have to take his word for it that quitting was “best” for me. Now, “Doc” wasn’t asking me to quit. This was an order from on high, and saying NO was not an option. No one said NO to Tom Malone.

I dutifully quit my job. After I did so, I learned about the aforementioned affair. I figured that Malone didn’t want me anywhere near these “sinners.” I also learned the owner of the dealership had a falling out with Malone. I suspect Malone didn’t want anyone associated with Midwestern working at Anderson’s. Petty? You bet it was.

I worked a number of jobs after working at Anderson Honda. None of them paid as well as the $7 an hour I made as a mechanic.

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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Short Stories: The Pool Hall

bruce gerencser 1970

Half way through my fifth-grade school year, my dad informed us that we were moving from Harrod to Farmer — both in northwest Ohio. There’s a story to be told about why we had to move, but I will leave it for another day.

By the time I arrived at Farmer Elementary School in 1968, I had already attended five different schools. Dad “rented” an old farmhouse owned by his older sister Mary on State Route 249, one mile east of Farmer. I say “rented” because Dad had a penchant for not paying rent/loans — especially when it involved his gullible sisters. I have no doubt that Dad had a rent tab with Mary.

I finished the last half of fifth grade and all of sixth grade at Farmer, thinking, “wow, maybe we are going to live here for awhile.” I had made friends and played baseball for the Farmer Tigers. I even started paying attention to girls. In the mind of a then twelve-year-old country boy, my life revolved around friends, church, girls, and sports. Life was good, right (even though this was when my mom was raped while I was home sick from school)? Alas, as my dad often did, he would soon disrupt my life.

September 1969 found me attending Ney Junior High School — in the community I currently live in. I was excited about making it to the next level academically. I also discovered I could play sports other than baseball. I made the Ney seventh grade football team, and I planned to play basketball in the winter.

Two weeks into the school year, Dad came home and informed us that we were moving — immediately. No goodbyes to my friends, no promises of eternal love. The short, slight-of-weight redheaded boy who loved joking around was gone, never to be seen again in the halls of Ney Junior High.

Our new destination? Deshler, forty miles south and east of Ney. Dad rented a house on North Park Street. He was a district sales manager for Combined Insurance. I, once again, made new friends. We would live in Deshler all of nine months, moving twenty-six miles down the road to Findlay after school was out for the year.

While living in Deshler, I delivered newspapers for the Findlay Republican-Courier. The Republican-Courier was a morning newspaper, so I delivered my route each day before school. This was in the days before parents shuttled their children around for their paper routes. I got up early every morning, rolled my papers, put them in my bag, and rode my bike delivering the daily paper to my customers (back in a day when older customers were already up and waiting for their paper to arrive).

Neither of my parents provided me any guidance about the newspaper business. I opened a checking account at the Corn City Bank, which later proved to be a really bad idea. What could go wrong, right? No one, and I mean no one, questioned a twelve-year-old boy writing checks at local businesses. During Christmas that year, I went to the local drug store and bought myself a gift — a twenty-four bar box of Clark candy bars (still my favorite candy bar and impossible to find today).

I started hanging out at the local pool hall so I could play the hall’s pinball machines. I quickly became addicted to playing pinball. When I needed more cash to play the machines, I would write a check to the pool hall — say for $5. I soon had a cash flow problem, spending money that should have gone to pay my newspaper bill on flipping steel balls from bumper to bumper, hoping to rack up a big enough score to get a free game or three.

After a month or so of decadent, “sinful” behavior, the newspaper’s district manager contacted my dad about my unpaid bill (and the papers I stopped delivering). The newspaper took the route away from me, expecting dad to pay my bill. Instead, Dad went up to the pool hall and demanded the owner pay my debt. When the owner balked, Dad reminded him that it was illegal in the state of Ohio for minors to frequent pool halls. The owner quickly saw the light and gave my dad the money I had spent at the hall. Knowing my dad as I do, to this day I wonder if the money made it to the Republican-Courier. My gut tells me that my bill is still outstanding.

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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Short Stories: The Day Elvis Came to Church

elvis

Repost from 2015. Edited, updated, and corrected.

What follows is a humorous and tragic story of a man I met in church.

In 2003, my family and I moved to Clare, Michigan so I could assume the pastorate of Victory Baptist Church — a Southern Baptist congregation. I pastored Victory Baptist for seven excruciating months. This would be the last church I pastored. While at Victory, we lived in a gated community called White Birch — north of Farwell, Michigan.

One evening, my family and I drove to Mt Pleasant to do some shopping at Meijer. When we returned home, I noticed that the red light on the answering machine was flashing. I clicked play and heard the following:

Hello, this is Elvis. I am staying at the Doherty Hotel in Clare. I would like to talk to you. Please call me back at ______________.

I thought, “yeah right. Elvis?” I thought one of my preacher friends was trying to put one over on me. So I called the number, expecting to reach a jokester on the other end, but come to find out, it really was Elvis.

Well, actually it was a man named Barry, and Barry believed he was Elvis.

I don’t remember how Barry got to Clare, but he was on social security disability and lived in a rented apartment.

Barry wanted to attend our church. And so he did . . .

Barry didn’t come to church every week, but when he did, he came dressed in bright colors, scarfs, and spangles just like Elvis wore. When Barry arrived, everyone paused to look, not saying a word. He definitely stood out among the more “normal” people who attended the church. I would later learn that he was likely the most honest man in the room.

Barry had mental health problems, and quite frankly a lot of church members didn’t know how to handle him. He was “different,” and “different” is not something the church understood. Barry and I got along quite well. I learned that he had been sexually abused, misused, and taken advantage of by several Pentecostal churches and a homeless shelter in the South. They mentally and emotionally crushed Barry, and it is a wonder he didn’t end up in a mental hospital.

I tried to be Barry’s friend. I knew he needed people to love and encourage him. Unfortunately, Barry had a tendency to say whatever was on his mind, and a lot of church members found his verbal outbursts upsetting. One Sunday, we were sitting around the table in the Adult Sunday School Class — also known as the Heresy of the Week Class — discussing the Sunday School lesson. The Sunday School teacher, an older man by the name of Steve, asked if anyone had anything to share. Barry did:

I need prayer, I have a problem with masturbation.

Dead silence. Instant offense showed on the faces of many at the table. The teacher didn’t know what to say, so he said nothing. I quickly told Barry that we would talk about this after church.

Barry definitely spiced up the church. I have often wondered what happened to him. I hope he found someone to help him, love him, and accept him for who he was — even if he thought he was Elvis.

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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Short Stories: The Church Christmas Tree

somerset baptist church 1989

In July, 1983, I started a new Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church in Somerset, Ohio. I would remain the pastor of Somerset Baptist Church until March 1994. Somerset was a community of 1,400 people located in Perry County — the northernmost county in the Appalachian region. It was here that I learned what it meant to be a pastor; to truly involve yourself in the lives of others.

The membership of Somerset Baptist was primarily made up of poor working-class people. Most church families received some form of government assistance — mostly food stamps and Medicaid. In many ways, these were my kind of people. Having grown up poor myself, I knew a good bit about their struggles. I deeply loved them, and they, in return, bestowed their love on me.

In 1985, the congregation bought an abandoned Methodist church building five miles east of Somerset on top of what was commonly called Sego Hill. After months of remodeling, the sanctuary was ready to use. Built in the 1830s, the church had oak floors, colored glass windows, and a 25-foot vaulted ceiling. The building was classic for its era, one of the oldest church buildings in the county. Purchased for $5,000, the sanctuary and annex required $15,000 in improvements, including two gas furnaces to replace the coal-converted-to-propane monster in the basement. We would later install a wood/coal furnace after propane costs skyrocketed one year.

December, 1985 was our first Christmas in the new building. I decided that we would purchase a Christmas tree and put it in the back of the sanctuary. After discussing with several congregants whether to get an artificial or real tree, one man spoke up and said, “preacher, I can get us a real Christmas tree and it won’t cost us anything.” I replied, “that would be great.”

A few days later, the man showed up at the church with a huge Christmas tree in the back of his 1960s Ford pickup. The man unloaded the tree, carried it into the church, and propped the monstrosity in the back corner. Proudly, he asked, “preacher, what do you think?” as I looked at the scrawny pine tree — 12 feet in height. I thought, “man, this tree sure is scrawny. I wonder where he bought it?” I told the man, “looks great! — a lie to be sure, but better than wounding the man’s spirit. He was so proud of doing this for me that I didn’t want to discourage him. It’s just a tree, I told myself. No big deal. “Where did you get this tree?” I asked. The man replied, “oh I went up on Route 13 and cut down one of the trees growing along the highway.” “You WHAT?” I alarmingly replied. “You do know that those trees are government property?” The man genuinely seemed clueless about the ownership question.  And then, without missing a beat, he replied, “well, preacher, those trees belong to God!”

This tree would be the first and last Christmas tree in the sanctuary. Two years later, I came out against Christmas and its excesses, putting an end to any sort of tree or decorations in the sanctuary. In their place, the sanctuary rang with sermons against Christmas and the excesses of the season. I am sure, compared to my guilt-inducing sermons, congregants missed the scrawny Christmas tree, regardless of its provenance.

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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