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Tag: Somerset Baptist Church Mt Perry

What One Catholic Doctor Taught Me About Christianity

william fiorini
Dr. William Fiorini

Repost from 2015-2016. Edited, updated, and corrected.

In the 1960s, the Gerencser family moved to California, the land of promise and a pot of gold at the end of every rainbow. Like many who traveled west, my parents found out that life in San Diego was not much different from the life they left in rural northwest Ohio. As in Ohio, my Dad worked sales jobs and drove truck. For the Gerencser family, the pot of gold was empty, and three or so years later we left California and moved back to Bryan, Ohio.

While moving to California and back proved to be a financial disaster for my parents, they did find Jesus at Scott Memorial Baptist Church in San Diego — a fundamentalist church pastored by Tim LaHaye. Both of my parents made professions of faith at Scott Memorial, as did I when I was five years old. From that point forward, the Gerencser family, no matter where we lived, attended an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church.

Not only were my parents Fundamentalist Baptists, they were also members of the John Birch Society. While in California, my Mom actively campaigned for Barry Goldwater, and later, back in Ohio, she campaigned for George Wallace. Right-wing religious and political beliefs were very much a part of my young life, so it should come as no surprise that I turned out to be a fire-breathing right-wing Republican and a Fundamentalist Baptist preacher.

If the Baptist church taught me anything, it taught me to hate Catholics. According to my Sunday School teachers and pastors, and later my college professors and ministerial colleagues, the Catholic church was the whore of Babylon, a false church, the church of Satan and the Antichrist. I was taught that Catholics believed in salvation by works and believed many things that weren’t found in the Bible; things such as: purgatory, church magisterium, Pope is the Vicar of Christ, transubstantiation, infant baptism, confirmation, priests not permitted to marry, praying to statutes, worshiping the dead, and worshiping Mary. These things were never put in any sort of historical context for me, so by the time I left Midwestern Baptist College in 1979, I was a certified hater of all things Catholic.

In 1991, something happened that caused me to reassess my view of Catholics. My dogma ran head-on into a Catholic that didn’t fit my narrow, bigoted beliefs. In 1989, our fourth child and first daughter was born. We named her Bethany. Our family doctor was William Fiorini. He operated the Somerset Medical Clinic in Somerset, Ohio, the same town where I pastored an IFB church. Dr. Fiorini was a devout Catholic, a post-Vatican II Catholic who had been greatly influenced by the charismatic revival that swept through the Catholic church in the 1970s and 1980s. He was a kind and compassionate man. He knew our family didn’t have insurance or much money, and more than a few times the treatment slip turned in after a visit said N/C (no charge).

Bethany seemed quite normal at first. It wasn’t until she was sixteen months old that we began to see things that worried us. Her development was slow and she couldn’t walk. One evening, we drove over to Charity Baptist Church in Beavercreek, Ohio to attend a Bible conference. The woman watching the nursery asked us about Bethany having Down Syndrome. Down Syndrome? Our little girl wasn’t retarded. How dare this woman even suggest that there was something wrong with our daughter.

Bethany continued to struggle, reaching development stages months after infants and toddlers typically do. Finally, we went to see Dr. Fiorini. He suggested that we have Bethany genetically tested. We took her over to Ohio State University Hospital for the test and a few weeks later, just days before Bethany’s second birthday and the birth of our daughter Laura, we received a phone call from Dr. Fiorini. He told us the test results were back and he wanted to talk to us about them. He told us to come to his office after he finished seeing patients for the day and he would sit down and talk with us about the test results.

The test showed that Bethany had Down Syndrome. Her Down Syndrome features were so mild that the obstetrician missed the signs when she was born. Here we were two years later finding out that our oldest daughter had a serious mental handicap. Our Catholic doctor, a man I thought was a member of the church Satan built and headed for hell, sat down with us, and with great love and compassion shared the test results. He told us that many miscarriages are fetuses with Down Syndrome, and that it was evident that God wanted to bless us with a special child like Bethany. He answered every question and treated us as he would a member of his own family.

This Catholic didn’t fit my narrow, bigoted picture of what a Catholic was. Here was a man who loved people, who came to an area that had one of the highest poverty and unemployment rates in Ohio, and started a one-doctor practice. (He later added a Nurse practitioner, a nun who treated us when we couldn’t get in to see the doctor.) He worked selflessly to help everyone he could. On more than one occasion, I would pass him on the highway as his wife shuttled him from Zanesville to Lancaster — the locations of the nearest hospitals. Often, he was slumped over and asleep in the passenger’s seat. He was the kind of doctor who gave me his home phone number and said to call him if I ever needed his help. He told us there was no need to take our kids to the emergency room for stitches or broken bones. He would gladly stitch them up, even if we didn’t have an appointment.

Dr. Fiorini wasn’t perfect. One time, he almost killed me. He regularly treated me for throat infections, ear infections, and the like. Preaching as often as I did, I abused my voice box and throat. I also have enlarged adenoids and tonsils, and I breathe mostly through my mouth. As a result, I battled throat and voice problems my entire preaching career. One day, I came to see Dr. Fiorini for yet a-n-o-t-h-e-r throat infection. He prescribed an antibiotic and told me to take it easy. He knew, like himself, I was a workaholic and would likely ignore his take-it-easy advice. Take the drug, wait a few weeks, and just like always I would be good as new. However, this time it didn’t work. Over the course of two months, as I got sicker and sicker, he tried different treatments. Finally, he did some additional testing and found out I had mononucleosis; the kissing disease for teens, a deadly disease for a thirty-four-year-old man. Two days later, I was in the hospital with a 104 degree fever, a swollen spleen and liver, and an immune system on the verge of collapse.

An internist came in to talk with my wife and me. He told us that if my immune system didn’t pick up and fight there was nothing he could do. Fortunately, my body fought back and I am here to write about it. My bout with mononucleosis dramatically altered my immune system, making me susceptible to bacterial and viral infection. A strange result of the mononucleosis was that my normal body temperature dropped from 98.6 to 97.0. I lost 50 pounds and was unable to preach for several months.

Once I was back on my feet, Dr. Fiorini apologized to me for missing the mononucleosis. I was shocked by his admission. He showed me true humility by admitting his mistake. I wish I could say that I immediately stopped hating Catholics and condemning them to Hell, but it would be several years before I finally came to the place where I embraced everyone who called themselves a Christian. In late 1990s, while pastoring Our Father’s House in West Unity, Ohio, I embraced what is commonly called the social gospel. Doctrine no longer mattered to me. Moving from a text-oriented belief system, I began to focus on good works. Tell me how you live. Better yet, show me; and in the showing, a Catholic doctor taught me what it really meant to be a Christian.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 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.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

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

The Green Station Wagon

beater station wagon
$200 beater. Polly HATED this car.

In July of 1983, Independent Fundamentalist Baptist preacher Bruce Gerenser, his wife, Polly, and their two young boys, aged four and two, moved from Buckeye Lake, Ohio to Somerset to start of new IFB church. I would remain pastor of Somerset Baptist Church until we moved to San Antonio, Texas in March 1994 so I could become the co-pastor of Community Baptist Church in Elmendorf. 

Over the course of the eleven years I spent pastoring Somerset Baptist, we owned all sorts of automobiles — most of them cheap beaters or cars given to us by congregants. Every one of these cars has a story to tell. (Please see I Did It For You Jesus — Crank Windows and Vinyl Floor Mats.) One such car is the green Ford station wagon in the picture featured above.

John Nelson, a congregant who lived down the hill from the church with his wife and four sons (who later would attend our Christian academy), was what you would call a “wheeler and dealer.” John has been running a perpetual yard sale for decades. His father owned a junkyard in nearby Saltillo. Over the years, I bought or traded for cars from John. One such car was the green wagon. If I remember right, I traded John a Chevy Caprice I had purchased from another church family for the station wagon. Out of the 50+ cars I/we have owned over the years, Polly hated this car the most. I mean really, really, really hated the car. And my three oldest sons hated the car too. Let me explain.

The station wagon was a huge car — common of the “boats” manufactured in the 1970s. Personally, I loved big cars — the bigger the better. Polly, however, did not. Not that what she liked or disliked mattered. I was officially in charge of all things auto related — from purchases to repairs to sales. Polly oh-so-fondly remembers days when I left the house with one car, only to return home later that day with a different one. She never, ever said a word, but I have to think that she more than once thought the Baptist equivalent of “what the fuck” when I drove up with a new rolling wreck.

As you can see from the photo, the station wagon had an ugly green paint job. The car had been repainted by a previous owner, by hand. Its paint really made the car stand out in a parking lot, much to the embarrassment of my family. 

Typically, I looked at prospective automobiles from one of two perspectives: looks and mechanical soundness. This car looked awful, but it was mechanically sound. I drove it all over southeast Ohio (and West Virginia on road trips) until I got bored with the car and traded it for something different.

Polly hated taking the car anywhere. She thought, at the time, that the station wagon was a rolling advertisement for our poverty; not the kind of car a preacher’s wife should be forced to drive. Ever the trooper, she said nothing. 

While Polly disliked driving the car, it was my sons who couldn’t stand the sight of the station wagon. At the time, our two oldest sons were enrolled at Licking County Christian Academy in Heath, Ohio. A ministry of the Newark Baptist Temple — an IFB church pastored by the late Jim Dennis, Polly uncle — LCCA was a non-accredited school populated primarily with children from middle class and affluent Christian families. The Gerencser children were among the poorest students to attend the school. 

LCCA was thirty miles from our home. A Bible church near our home, Maranatha Bible Church, then pastored by Bob Shaw, bussed children to LCCA every day, but my request to let our children ride the bus was denied. I suspected then, and still do today, that the church and its pastor didn’t want our poor munchkins intermingling with theirs. So, we dutifully drove 60 miles a day to Heath to drop off and pick up our children from school. Later, a girl in our church started attended LCCA. We would take children to LCCA in the morning, and her father would pick them up after school on his way home from work. He, too, drove a junker. 

My sons have told me that they were embarrassed to see me pull up in the school parking lot driving the green station wagon. Other parents drove new or late model automobiles. Not their preacher dad. Character building? Perhaps. I know this much. Neither of them drives their children to and from school with autos that look anything like the station wagon. Not going to happen. And these days, we drive a 2020 Ford Edge. No clunkers to be found in our driveway. If I came home with such a car today, why I suspect the top of my head would be sporting an indentation left from a Lodge cast iron skillet. Polly is definitely no longer passive when it comes to making car-buying decisions.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 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.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

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

What Motivated Me to Work so Hard for Jesus

working for jesus

Repost from 2015. Edited, updated, and corrected

It all started with my belief that the Bible was the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God. I considered the Bible the road map for navigating through a Satan-dominated, sin-plagued world. The Bible, along with the Holy Spirit who lived inside of me, was my God’s way of speaking to me and telling me what to do

According to how Evangelicals interpret the Protestant Bible, every person is a vile sinner under the just condemnation of God, deserving eternal punishment in Hell/Lake of Fire. The Bible also says that God graciously provides a way for us to have our sins forgiven and avoid eternal punishment. God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to the earth to be the final atonement for our sins. Jesus Christ died on a Roman cross, and three days later rose again from the dead, conquering death and the grave. Our salvation and eternal destiny rest squarely on the merit and work of Jesus. He, and he alone, is the way, truth, and life. Through the preaching of the Word (the Bible) and the work of the Holy Spirit, God calls out to sinners, saying, repent and believe the gospel. Those who hear his voice are gloriously saved and made part of the family of God.

The Bible taught me that as a God-called, God-ordained minister of the gospel, I had the solemn obligation to preach the good news to everyone. Work for the night is coming. Leave everything for the sake of the gospel. Only one life twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ. These clichés were not mere words to me. They were clarion calls to forsake all, including my family and economic security, and follow Jesus.

Every church I attended, every youth group I was a part of, and every summer youth camp I went to, reinforced the belief that God wanted (demanded) one hundred percent of me. All to Jesus I surrender, All to Him I freely give, says the old gospel song, I Surrender All. I went to an Evangelical Bible college to train for the ministry. Every class curriculum, every professor, every chapel speaker shouted out to students:

Souls for Jesus is our battle cry.
Souls for Jesus is our battle cry.
We never will give in while souls are lost in sin
Souls for Jesus is our battle cry.

My wife went to college to get an Mrs. degree. She believed God wanted her to marry a preacher. Polly knew that she would have to make sacrifices for the sake of her husband’s call. She was taught that Jesus, the ministry, and the church came first. She was also taught that her husband was specially chosen by God to proclaim the good news of the gospel. She was encouraged to read biographies of great men and women of faith to learn how to deal with being married to a man of God. Polly and I entered marriage and the ministry knowing God had called us to a life of self-denial and devotion to the work of the ministry. Hand in hand, we embraced the work we believed God had set before us.

I consider 1983-1994 to be the high point of my ministerial career. I pastored a growing, busy Evangelical church. Sinners were being saved, baptized, and joining the church. Backsliders were being reclaimed. God was smiling on our work. Not only was this my observation, but it was the observation of my colleagues in the ministry. God was doing something special at Somerset Baptist Church.

During this time, I did a lot of preaching.  A typical week for me looked something like this:

  • Jail ministry on Tuesday
  • Nursing home ministry on Wednesday
  • Midweek service on Thursday
  • Street preaching 2-3 days a week
  • Teaching the adult Sunday school class
  • Preaching twice on Sunday

We also had a tuition-free Christian academy, open only to the children of church members. In addition to my busy church preaching schedule, I held revival services and preached at bible conferences and pastor’s fellowships. I was motivated by what I believed the Bible taught me about the work of the ministry.  I looked at the life of the apostles and thought that they were a pattern to follow. Run the race, Paul told me, I. I was totally committed to what I believed was God’s calling on my life.

Some Christians object and say “you are the one who worked yourself to death. Don’t blame the Church or God. OUR pastor doesn’t work this way. He takes time for his family. Blah. Blah Blah.” Even now, as an atheist, I find such objections lame. If the Bible is true, if what it says about God, sin, salvation, death, Hell, and Heaven is true, how dare any preacher or any Christian for that matter, treat the gospel of Jesus Christ so carelessly.  How dare any preacher not burn himself out for the sake of those in need of salvation. No time for busywork. No time for golfing with your fellow preachers.

More than a few pastors are lazy hirelings who do just enough to keep from getting fired. They pastor a church for two or three years, wear out their welcome, and then move on down the road to another church. I have no respect for pastors who defend their laziness by stressing the importance of balance in their lives. Where do they find such a notion in the Bible they say they believe? Jesus doesn’t call them to balance. He calls them to forsake all and follow him.

One of the reasons I see Christianity as a bankrupt religion is the lackadaisical approach Christians and their spiritual leaders have towards matters that supposedly have eternal consequences. Most of what goes on in the average church is meaningless bullshit. Call a business meeting to decide on the color of the paint for the nursery walls and everyone shows up. Implore people to come out for church visitation and the same three or four people show up.

Why should I take the Bible, God, Jesus, salvation, Heaven or Hell seriously when most Christians and pastors live lives that suggest they don’t. It took leaving the Christian church and leaving the ministry for me to realize that most of what I was chasing after was nothing more than a fool’s errand. Many of the ex-ministers who read this blog know what I am talking about. So much of life wasted, and for what? Too bad I had to be fifty years old before I realized what life is all about. Too bad I sacrificed my health on the altar of the eternal before I realized that there is no eternity, just the here and now.

From a psychological perspective, I understand that my type-A, workaholic personality made it easy for me to be the preacher I came to be. Whether it was pastoring churches or managing restaurants, I worked day and night, rarely taking time off for family or leisure. I still have the same tendencies, the difference now being that the list of things that matter to me is very small. Polly matters. Family matters. My neighbors matter. But matters of eternity, Heaven, and Hell? Nary a thought these days. If the Christian God exists, then I am screwed, and more than a few of the readers of this blog are too. However, I don’t think the Christian version of God exists, so I am investing all my time, money, and talent — how many times did you hear that phrase in a sermon? — on the only life I have — this one. I will leave it up to the gods and my family to do what they will with me after I am dead. Of course, depending on what happens to me after death, I could come back from the dead and write a book titled, “Heaven is for Real and Boy are the Atheists In Trouble.”

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 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.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

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

Life: It All Depends on Where You Are Standing

creamery road zanesville ohio
Creamery Road, Zanesville, Ohio

Repost from 2015. Edited, rewritten, and corrected.

As long-time readers know, I spend a lot of time writing about my past: people, places, and events that are very much a part of the fabric of my life. I try to be as truthful and accurate as possible when I recount the past, but I am ever aware of the fact that I am giving an account of things as I remember them. Having read a good bit about the brain and memories, I know my retelling of my past may or may not be accurate. As best I can remember, I try to give an honest accounting of my life.

I have a younger brother and sister, and it is amazing how differently we each view events that happened in our childhood. Who is right? I’ve come to understand, we all are. The story we tell depends on where we were standing at the time.  As a fifteen-year-old boy and the oldest son, my view of our parent’s divorce is much different from that of my then eleven-year-old sister. The same can be said about many of our shared seminal experiences.

I live with a lot of guilt. I am prone to depression, and I can be quite pessimistic. I have faced long, deep bouts of depression, times where I have felt that death would be too good for me. With my words, theology, and religious practice, I hurt people. I’ve come to have these feelings because I am looking back at my past with the eyes of a sixty-two-year-old man. How could I have been Bruce Gerencser, the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) preacher? Who was that man, I ask myself. Thanks be to Loki, he no longer exists, having been slain by reason and maturity, but I still live with the memories of the past.

I am Facebook friends with several of the kids who were members of Somerset Baptist Church — an IFB congregation I pastored from 1983-1994. I was their pastor through the formative years of their lives. Not only did they sit under my preaching at least three times a week, but they also attended Somerset Baptist Academy, a private Christian school I started in 1989. I often feel I hurt them and let them down. I think back to how narrow I was over things like certain kinds of clothing, music, physical contact between the sexes, movies, and TV. If these children hated me, I wouldn’t blame them. Thankfully, they don’t.

When I talk to these former students, I hear their perspective on our shared experiences. All of them are in their late 30s and 40s now, and many of them are married and have children. Several of them are gay. Their religious persuasions run from atheism to liberal Christianity. None of them retained the IFB Christianity of their youth. From their vantage point, they recall things quite differently from the way I do. Several of them recall my wife teaching them to read. One man mentioned going back to the old church grounds and playing another game of kickball for old time’s sake. Again, what we remember depends on where we were standing at the time.

I recently re-read several posts I wrote about IFB evangelist Don Hardman and his wife Laura. (Please see Book Review: Laura’s Light by Laura Hardman and Book Review: The Preacher: The Life and Times of Donald A. Hardman.) As I read these posts, I felt twinges of guilt and sadness. When I was a pastor, I had no closer friends than Don and Laura Hardman. I loved them like they were family. When they came to our church it was the highlight of the year. For fifteen days and seventeen services, we would focus on God and his Word. Every day, Don and I would go out evangelizing and street preaching. The church loved the Hardmans and graciously gave of their money and food to help them.

From my vantage point as pastor of Somerset Baptist Church, I have nothing but good memories and feelings when I think of Don and Laura Hardman. I never saw them fight, and I never had a cross word with them. Even when we parted company for a few years over my Calvinistic beliefs, we remained friends. In the early 2000s, the Hardmans came to Grace Baptist Church (later named Our Father’s House) in West Unity, Ohio, a church I was pastoring at the time, and conducted a week-long meeting. We had a great time, but I knew that I could not have them back. While they remained right where I met them in 1987, I had changed. My view of God, the Bible, politics, culture, and other Christian sects was evolving. Yet, we remained friends until 2008, when my deconversion permanently fractured the relationship. Laura wrote me a scathing letter after hearing of my deconversion, letting me know that I never was a real Christian.

Here I stand in 2020, no longer a Christian, and now an atheist. My view of the past is clouded with the tincture of time. While I still have fond memories of evangelist Don Hardman’s protracted revival meetings, I have come to see that the preaching and the theology behind it was psychologically controlling and damaging. This is how I view much of my preaching as well, especially the first 15 years or so. Over time I matured. I began preaching expositionally, and I turned from a Bible-quoting, hellfire-and-brimstone-preacher to more of a teacher of the Bible. Oh, I was still quite passionate about God, the Bible, and how we ought to apply it to our lives, but I was much more careful about using the Bible in context and letting the text speak for itself. While the Hardmans remained steadfast and unmovable throughout our friendship, my understanding of them changed. Again, my vantage point changed, resulting in me viewing the Hardmans differently.

My wife and I have known each other for almost forty-four years. This coming July we will celebrate our forty-second wedding anniversary. Several years ago, I uploaded a bunch of old pictures to Facebook: family pictures; pictures from Somerset Baptist Church, and pictures from Our Father’s House. As I uploaded these photos I began to weep. The memories of years gone by flooded my mind; memories of the people I pastored and the children I taught at Somerset Baptist Academy; memories of my wonderful wife and our little babies. Good memories. Wonderful memories.

Now that I have a different perspective, I view the events recorded in these pictures differently. Is this maturity? I don’t know. Time changes how we view the past.  What were once wonderful memories are now clouded by what I now know about the emotional and mental manipulation I perpetrated on those who called me Pastor. As I have shared before, I am in a unique position. I am both a victim and a victimizer. I followed in the footsteps of the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) preachers who emotionally and mentally scarred my life. Victimized by their manipulation, I in turn victimized those who were members of the IFB and Evangelical churches I pastored. It’s an ugly cycle of abuse, one that I was fortunately able to put an end to during my latter years in the ministry and subsequent post-Jesus life.

So it is with Polly. While she and I walked side by side through the years we spent in the ministry, Polly’s viewpoint is very different from mine. I was the leader of the churches I pastored, the center of attention. People, for the most part, respected me, loved me, and supported my work as a pastor. For Polly it was different. Like many pastor’s wives, she was my gofer. She did what others didn’t or wouldn’t do.  No one in the nursery? Polly filled in. Entertain people every Sunday for twenty years? Polly did it without a complaint, even when her pastor husband forgot to tell her so and so was coming over for dinner. She quietly submitted to a life as the helpmeet of a poorly paid, Type A, constantly-working, never-home, Baptist preacher.

Polly did without. Our entire family did without, but Polly more so than the children and I. She never said a word. She quietly lived in ramshackle houses and drove cars that were better suited for demolition derbies. She made do with what she had. This much I know, I do WISH there were a Heaven, because Polly deserves a huge mansion right next door to Dottie Rambo’s Log Cabin.

Video Link

However, since there is no Heaven, all I can do is make sure that Polly has the best life possible for the rest of this life. She deserves it! 

It should come as no surprise then that Polly remembers the past much differently from what I recall. One time I said, wouldn’t you like to go back to __________church? Immediately she replied, No I wouldn’t. I was surprised by her quick and negative response. I asked, why not? I then quickly learned, from where Polly was standing, that her view of this church was very different from mine. Who is right? We both are.

I have written a good bit about the abuse that went on and continues to go on in IFB group homes. (Please see Sexual Abuse in the Name of God: New Bethany Home for Girls, Teen Group Homes: Dear IFB Pastor, It’s Time for You to Atone for Your Sin and The Dogma that Followed Me Home.) The stories that some people share from their time in these facilities break my heart. I want to personally find these abusive miscreants and beat the shit out of them. They deserve to have punishment heaped upon them. They hurt people that I love and respect, and the fact that these dear friends of mine still suffer from the abuse received from men like Mack Ford angers me to this day. Every once in a while, someone will come along and leave a glowing testimony from their time in the same facilities. They loved their time there. They were helped and their life is the better for it. How can this be? Surely, someone is lying, right? Not at all. While it is possible that someone is lying or they are living in denial, more often than not, the difference is simply a matter of where the person was standing in relation to the person, place, or event.

Time shapes how we view the past. For me, I am finding that the further a person, place, or event is in the past, the fonder my memories are. I suspect that’s how we as humans cope with life. The tincture of time often brings healing, and it also allows us to gain enough distance from the negative things in our past that they no longer feel harmful or threatening. While time rarely heals all wounds, it does allow us the space and distance necessary to be at peace with those things that cut us to the quick. Perhaps that’s the best we can hope for.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 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.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

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

Book Review: The Preacher: The Life and Times of Donald A. Hardman

the preacher the life and times of don hardman

Repost from 2015. Edited, rewritten, and corrected.

Laura Hardman, wife of Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) Evangelist Don Hardman, has written a biography about her husband titled. The Preacher: The Life and Times of Donald A. Hardman. This self-published book is 201 pages long. In 2010, Laura published an autobiography titled Laura’s LightYou can read my review of the book here.

Like Laura’s Light, The Preacher reads quite a bit like the Bible. Don Hardman’s story is one of bondage to sin and deliverance from that sin through the blood of Jesus Christ. Also, like the Bible, it is littered with fictions and omissions. I will illustrate some of these fictions and omissions later.

While the book is meant to be a biography of Don Hardman’s life, it is sparse on details, except for those that paint Don in a favorable light. In the preface, Laura states:

I will endeavor to write about a man whom I watched God transform into literally another person over the last thirty-seven years. It is my desire not to glorify or make much of what he did when he was lost, but make much of his new life in Christ.

In other words, the past is the past, it is under the blood, praise Jesus! Time to move on. The greater objective, according to Laura, is for some “sinner or saint” to “read this biography and realize there is hope for a victorious life, not only when we get to heaven, but also here as we walk in this world.” Laura wants readers to know that they too can be just like Don and Laura Hardman and achieve the victorious Christian life.

The book has eight chapters:

  1. A Struggle Through Childhood
  2. No Purpose for Life
  3. Time for Change
  4. The Call of God
  5. Just a Servant of the Lord
  6. A Street Preacher
  7. The Chance of a Lifetime
  8. The Life of Evangelism

These eight chapters take up 142 pages. The other 70 pages are what Laura calls a “Summary and Sketches of What the Preacher Said.” While Laura had uncounted recordings of Don’s sermons that she could have transcribed, she instead decided to summarize thirty of his sermons. While Laura says the reason for doing this is because “the Lord laid on my heart that giving a short essay and sharing how the people reacted might be more edifying,” I suspect the real reason for not transcribing Don’s sermons is because he often preached for sixty to ninety minutes. Over the years, Don lost meetings because he refused to shorten the length of his sermons.

Chapter one details Don’s birth in Canton, Ohio in 1950, his battle with polio, and a bit about his parents, brother, and grandparents. The chapter ends with Don graduating from high school — a rebellious young man who frequently skipped school, hung out at pool halls, smoked, drank beer, and rarely thought about God.  According to Laura, Don graduated in May of 1968 “with a diploma in hand and no purpose in life.”

What’s interesting is that Laura makes no mention of the fact that Don married a thirteen-year-old girl by the name of Cheryl, one month before he graduated from high school. At the time of their marriage, Cheryl was four months pregnant and both Don and she were wards of the court. While I can certainly understand why Laura might not want to mention this, wouldn’t this juicy tidbit enhance Don’s sinner-to-saint story?

In chapter two, Laura skips Don’s marriage to Cheryl, the birth of their two children, Joe and Tangi, and their foster daughter Shelly. Again, if what I am being told is correct, there are plenty of stories that Laura could have shared from this period that would have enhanced Don’s sinner creds. Outside of mentioning Don’s drinking habit, nothing more is said about Don’s life until May of 1977. During this nine-year period, Don was married to Cheryl. An uninformed reader would assume that Laura is Don’s first wife, and that Joe and Tangi are her biological children. In my review of Laura’s first book, I wrote:

Two children were born of Don’s first marriage. Laura claims the children as her own, a claim I suspect the biological mother finds quite offensive (a woman I have corresponded with over the years). While Hardman does say Don had two children, she never calls herself their step-mother. In her mind, when Jesus came into their life EVERYTHING became brand-new and that included the children having a new mother.

In May of 1977, Don, Laura, and their two children moved to Findlay, Ohio so Don could begin working for Ashland Oil. According to Laura:

In June of 1977, things seemed to be going great for us as a family. We moved into a government house on 1143 Concord Court, Findlay, Ohio. Our neighborhood was made up drunks, unmarried couples living together, and a slew of hoodlum kids. Needless to say, we added to their list of hoodlums. Little did we know that this wicked little neighborhood would become a mission field in the months to come.

Laura may have forgotten that I lived in Findlay in the 1970s — grades eight through eleven. I am quite familiar with the neighborhood the Hardmans lived in. The house in question is a single-family dwelling. At the time the Hardmans moved into the house it was around twenty years old. I seriously doubt that the home was government housing. It is possible that it was Section 8 housing, but this would mean that the Hardmans were either on welfare or quite poor. Having already stated that Don had a job at Ashland Oil — which was a well-paying job in the 1970s — it is unlikely that the Hardmans were poor or on welfare.  (Put 1143 Concord Court into Google Earth or Google Map and take a street view look of the house and neighborhood.)

As far as the Concord Court neighborhood is concerned, I seriously doubt the neighborhood was as Laura describes it. While my memory is certainly not what it once was, I do remember that the Concord Court area was a working-class neighborhood of moderately priced, small homes — not unlike the neighborhood on National Court that my parents, siblings, and I lived in the 1970s.

If my memory is correct, what are we to make of Laura’s description of the neighborhood? The easy answer would be that she is lying and that certainly might be the case. However, I am more inclined to believe that this story, like much of The Preacher’s Life, is like a testimony given during Sunday night church. Over the years, I heard hundreds of testimonies, often from people who told the same story over and over. I found that, over time, the stories become more exciting. A story that started out with a person being a drug user years later became the story of a person selling heroin for the mob. As we age, we tend to change, reformulate, correct, and expand the narratives of our lives. The challenge for any reader is to be able to pick the facts out of the bullshit.

Chapter three details Don’s and Laura’s salvation experience. On June 20, 1977, Paul Reimer, pastor of First Baptist Church and church deacon Mike Roberts visited the Hardman home and shared the gospel with Don and Laura. After Reimer had shared the good news with them and Roberts gave a personal testimony of what Jesus had done for him:

Don was the first to take a step forward, and prayed to God for forgiveness. Because we did not know how to pray, they led us in a prayer. Our hearts had been smitten and conviction brought tears to our eyes. We understood for the first time in our lives what Jesus had suffered for us on the cross that we might have life. Our lives were heavily burdened down with guilt and shame, and the chains of sin kept us shackled to the old life. Now we are given the choice of Freedom in Christ or Bondage withe the devil.  It’s doesn’t seem like much of a choice even though many  choose bondage with the devil.

Shortly after Don cried out to God, I also gave my life to God. We literally gave our lives to Christ!

The next Sunday, the Hardmans walked the aisle at First Baptist Church and made their profession of faith public. Several weeks later, they were baptized, and not long afterward they stopped smoking and drinking beer.

Laura writes:

It took about four months of battling our flesh, but God did give us the victory. At the beginning, we only went to church on Sundays, but realized how important that midweek service was in our growth. Not only did I watch a thrice-Holy God changing my life, but also transforming my husband into another man, from a man whose mouth had a cuss word coming out every other word, to one thanking and praising God.

These excerpts are typical of testimonies of those saved in IFB churches. Years ago, an Amish-Mennonite neighbor confided in me that he was troubled because he didn’t have a sin to salvation story like Baptists have. Raised in the church — a devout Amish-Mennonite — he grew into salvation. He wanted to know if his salvation was defective because he didn’t have any bad sinner stories to tell. His question illustrated the fact that IFB congregants and preachers play up the bad sinner part of their testimonies. Everyone wants to be viewed as the baddest sinner in town, a sinner whom God miraculously delivered. As I mentioned previously, most of these testimonies are a mixture of lie, half-truth, fabrication, and fact.

The Hardmans were saved in an era when the IFB churches made much of bad sinner testimonies. While these testimonies were meant to give God all the glory, what they really did was make much of the sinners and their debauched lives before Jesus. Who wants to hear the testimony of the aforementioned Amish-Mennonite man when they can hear the testimony of Mike Warnke, Chuck Colson, Pat Boone, Joanna Michaelsen, and Eldridge Cleaver?

Nine months or so later, in the spring of 1978, “God spoke to his (Don’s) heart about full-time service.” According to Laura, a short time later, God gave Don his life verse, 2 Timothy 4:5:

But watch thou in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry.

Laura writes, “of course, he never understood what that meant until later on.” Don later told their church family that God had called him to preach. Pastor Fred Crown, also a pastor at First Baptist Church, came and talked to Don about his call to preach. Laura writes:

Pastor Crown looked him dead in the eyes  and said “So you feel God has called you to preach” and Don said, “Yes Sir.” He (Crown) said, “Then you need to consider not stealing from Him.” Of course, he was dealing with tithes and offerings. Don told him we could not see how we could pay our bills and tithe our income. The wisdom from this preacher never ceases to amaze me. He told us to try tithing for a month, and he would take care of every unpaid bill himself. Needless to say, we never had an unpaid bill and never again robbed from God.

While Don and Laura may never have robbed from God again, they did rob the U.S. Treasury. Some of the churches Don preached at over the years, including the churches I pastored, paid Don in cash. Don did not claim some or all of this cash income on his tax return. This proved to be quite a financial boon to the Hardmans.

Chapters four through six detail Don’s life as a pastor and evangelist. In 1980, Don graduated with a one-year certificate from Jerry Falwell’s Liberty Baptist correspondence school. By this time, Don was on disability and he and his family moved back to eastern Ohio to be near family. While in eastern Ohio, the Hardmans helped Victory Baptist Church in Kensington, Ohio, and the Lisbon Baptist Temple in Lisbon, Ohio.

Jim Midcap was their pastor while they attended the Lisbon Baptist Temple. I preached for Jim in the late 1980s when he was pastor of Bible Baptist Church in Negley, Ohio. Jim returned the favor and preached for me while I was pastor of churches in Mt. Perry and West Unity, Ohio. For several years, Jim operated a clothing and food ministry that provided the Hardmans with food and clothing to distribute to the poor and homeless in New Orleans. I had the privilege of taking a trip with Jim and a few other men from Ohio to Louisiana to deliver and distribute food and clothing. I had a great time, and my eyes were opened to the plight of the poor in cities like The Big Easy.

In November of 1980, the Hardmans moved to Pennsboro, West Virginia to begin pastoring Pennsboro Baptist Church.  According to Laura:

…We used all of our money to transport our mobile home and did not have enough money to have our gas turned on…Here we were far hence unto the Gentiles and not a penny to our name until the disability check came in. Still, this Preacher had not come here to become a Pastor, but to be a Servant of the Lord in whatever capacity he was needed.

Don began filling the pulpit at the Pennsboro Baptist Church every Sunday. Some liked him, and some did not like his free spirit in decision, but the congregation asked him to candidate as Pastor anyways. He was voted in as Pastor in December of 1980.

I am sure readers will ask, as I did, why move to Pennsboro unless you planned on pastoring the church? Why move without having the funds necessary to turn on the gas? What happened in Kensington and Lisbon, Ohio that resulted in the Hardmans quickly moving to West Virginia? The book answers none of these questions.

According to Laura, while at Pennboro Baptist, Don became “a friend to the friendless, a father to the fatherless and a teacher to the unlearned.”  All Don wanted to do was “try to make a difference in people’s lives and get them to the God who changed his life.” Don spent two years trying to change the church, but, according to Laura, Don “could not seem to override the traditions of the church.” In the fall of 1982, Don resigned from the church and moved down the road to start Freedom Baptist Church. Five years later, Don left Freedom Baptist and began working full-time on what he called the Streets of America. From this time, until today, Don’s ministry is operated from a base in New Orleans and Midway Bible Baptist Church in Fishersville, Virginia.

I looked in vain for any mention in the book of myself and Somerset Baptist Church, Mt. Perry, Ohio. While Laura mentions numerous churches and preachers who gave Don his start, she makes no mention of me or Somerset Baptist. Laura seems to have forgotten that I was one of the first pastors to have Don hold a meeting for them. She seems to have forgotten than Don held at least five meetings for me — most of them two weeks long — at Somerset Baptist Church and Grace Baptist Church (later Our Father’s House) in West Unity, Ohio. She also fails to mention that we spent time with them at their parents’ home, named our youngest daughter after her, and brought a group from our church to their church’s Bible conference in Virginia. Again, an uninformed reader would never learn that Bruce and Polly Gerencser, Somerset Baptist, and Grace Baptist, played an instrumental part in Don getting started in evangelism.

Of course, I understand why Laura might want to edit me and the churches I pastored out of Don’s life story. Nothing like having a preacher-friend-turned-atheist muck up Don’s story of spiritual ascendency from drunk to Holy Spirit-filled man of God.

As I mentioned in my review of Laura’s first book:

Hardman portrays life in the ministry as one of standing for the truth at all costs. She details loss of friends and loss of meetings because of their stand for the blessed truths of the King James Bible. Not one time does Hardman ever speak of a problem being their fault. It’s always the liberals’ fault. There is always an enemy, imaginary or real, they are fighting. This is the kind of life narrow Baptist Fundamentalism brings.

This thinking is on prominent display in The Preacher. Not one time does the book implicate Don or Laura. It’s always family, a church, or a pastor, who is to blame for broken fellowship or lost relationships. In Laura’s mind, her husband is a God-called man who is tight with the Almighty. Those who take issue with Don’s preaching are liberals or carnal. Over the years, I saw Don repeatedly browbeat church members with the Bible, calling out their sins. One time, he went from teenager to teenager pointing his finger at them, exposing their secret sins. These tactics worked, with church members, visitors, and teenagers alike getting saved or repenting of secret sin. Was this God? Of course not. Like most skilled Baptist preachers, myself included, Don was an expert manipulator of emotions. He knew how to set the hook and reel the fish in.

And here’s thing, I know a lot of things that I cannot share in this review. Since I have no way of verifying what I know, I can’t share it. I mentioned Don impregnating a thirteen-year-old girl and marrying her because I have a copy of the marriage application. Other things that I think are likely true lack evidence. I can say this: there are those who think Don Hardman is an Elmer Gantry-like grifter; that he and Laura have spent four decades making an easy living off their marks. For readers not familiar with the term grifter, a grifter is someone who swindles you through deception or fraud.

Is it possible that Don and Laura Hardman are frauds? Sure. I have no way of knowing or proving this, but I do know that the IFB church has turned out a number of con artists, some of whom have gone on to pastor large churches. Bob Gray pastored Trinity Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida for decades. He was finally exposed as an adulterer and child molester, a life of perversion that began when he entered the ministry in 1949. I heard Bob Gray and Don preach at the same preacher’s meeting in Cambridge, Ohio in the 1980s. The Hardmans are or were close friends with a number of the men who operated IFB teen group homes. Many of these men have been accused of child abuse, sexual assault, and rape.

Supposedly, a few years back, I can’t remember the exact date, Don had cancer. This cancer was killing Don and modern western medicine couldn’t cure him. The Hardmans raised a significant amount of money so Don could get alternative cancer treatment in Mexico. Yet, Don’s cancer story is not mentioned in the book. Wouldn’t a miraculous healing from deadly cancer be an important story to share? While this story isn’t shared, Laura spends thirty-two pages — almost twenty-five percent of the biography part of the book — detailing the lightning story.

Based on the amount of space given to this story, it’s safe to say that the Hardmans consider this the highlight of their time in the ministry.

July 1, 2003, finds Don and Laura holding a meeting at First Baptist Church in Forest, Ohio. Don’s sermon text for the night is I Kings 8. Laura writes:

About halfway into the message, we could hear the thunder and see the lightning through the stained glass windows, During his preaching, when a loud crack of thunder rang out, Don would say, “Yes, Lord, we are listening.” He made reference to the verse God’s voice was like thunder. (Psalms 77:18)

All of a sudden, a lightning bolt hit the church and burnt out the sound system, blowing the light bulbs out of their sockets behind the pulpit. We could smell the burning wires but still did not know we had taken a direct hit. Not once did we lose our electricity, so Don kept preaching on Solomon’s prayer of repentance. About 20 minutes later, a women came running into the church and said, “the church is on fire.”

This event made the news, from the Findlay Republican Courier to the Toledo Blade. It was mentioned on CNN, and Don had interviews with the BBC, the NBC Today Show, and Paul Harvey. The book has several of the news stories along with a transcript of Don’s interview with Matt Lauer on the Today Show.

Again, what I find interesting is what is missing from this chapter. Laura makes no mention of the name of the pastor of First Baptist Church in Forest. Why is this? Perhaps it is because not too long after God’s lightning bolt sign from above, the pastor of the church was removed for sexual misconduct. The image of Evangelist Hardman must not be tainted by any connection with an atheist, adulterers, child abusers, or rapists. Like the precious blood of Jesus that wipes away all recollection of sin before salvation, Laura conveniently writes out of the book anyone who doesn’t affirm, strengthen, or reinforce Don’s drunk to Holy Spirit-filled traveling evangelist testimony.

Over the years, Don has lost meetings at a number of the churches he once preached for. Whether this was due to his refusal to answer questions about his past or the length and content of his sermons, Don now has just a handful of churches he regularly holds meetings for; churches such as Old Time Baptist Church, (Pastor Lou Guadagno) Buffalo, New York and Lighthouse Baptist Church, (Pastor David Constantino) North Tonawanda, New York. As Laura admits in the book, most of the churches that once had Don preach for them no longer do so.

For the churches and pastors Don still preaches for, Don is a God-called evangelist mightily used by Jesus to win souls and call backslidden church members to repentance. For others, Don is a long-winded, legalistic preacher. And for a few others — perhaps those who know Don and Laura Hardman best — the Hardmans are grifters who have found an easy way to make a buck. For me personally, there are things I have been told that deeply trouble me. While there is no hard evidence for these things, especially since many of these events happened decades ago, there’s enough smoke to make wonder if there is a fire. If I had known these things when Don first preached for me in 1987, I doubt that I would have had him do so. If I was still a Christian, I could play the pious preacher and say that God will make all things known on judgment day. As an atheist, all I can do is review Laura Hardman’s books and make my observations known. It is up to you, the reader, to determine whether what I write is true.

Note: I do not know of any place this book can be purchased. Someone connected to the Hardman family sent me a copy of the book. Laura Hardman’s first book was published by Victory Baptist Press, but I did not find The Preacher in their online catalog.

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Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 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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Bruce Gerencser