Christmas tree at another New Lexington house, 1984
In July 1983, I planted a new church in Somerset Ohio. I would, for the next 11 years, pastor Somerset Baptist Church, starting in a storefront and later holding services in a 150-year-old brick church building purchased from the Methodist Conference. I would learn a lot about myself during the time I spent pastoring this church For a few years, the church experienced rapid numerical growth, leading to scores of professions of faith. And then, just as quickly, the church numerically receded, returning to a typical country church of 50 or so people. I could spend months writing about my experiences as pastor of this church, but for now I want to focus on a house we lived in on Water Street in New Lexington, Ohio.
When I started the church, we lived in Buckeye Lake, 25 miles north and west of Somerset. Wanting to live in the area where I would be ministering, we sought out housing in Somerset. Unable to find housing, we rented a house in New Lexington — a community built on a hill nine miles south of Somerset. After moving into the home, we noticed the carpets had a smell. The longer we lived there the worse the smells became. I mentioned this to the owner. He said the previous tenants had animals and that’s why the carpet smelled. Determining that we were likely going to move if he didn’t do something about the smell, the owner had the carpets replaced in the living room and main bedroom. Despite the fact that the owner replaced the carpet, the house still had a faint smell of animal urine. I suspect the urine and had soaked into the wood floors underneath the carpet, and as anyone who has ever had to deal with such a problem knows, once this happens either the floors must be sanded and refinished or shellacked to seal in the odor. Six weeks later, we would move to a ramshackle farmhouse northeast of Somerset, near Glenford, Ohio.
There are several stories I would like to share from the few months we spent living on Water Street. I have always been a pop (soda) drinker. My drink of choice was/is Pepsi, but I would, from time to time, drink other brands such as Coke and Sprite. These were the days when pop came packaged as eight returnable 16 ounce glass bottles. Many of my fellow baby boomers have memories, I’m sure, of collecting pop bottles or using pop bottles for ashtrays or emergency urinals The returnable bottles were sent by grocery stores to bottlers who would sanitize the bottles and refill them with the proper soft drink. One day, I decided to drink a bottle of Sprite. I grabbed the bottle opener, popped the cap off the bottle, put it to my lips, and tipped the bottle so the sugary drink would flow. Suddenly, I felt something hit my teeth. I quickly stop drinking, and upon investigating I found a barrette with hair still attached in the bottle. Gagging, I quickly put the bottle down. To this day, I find it hard to drink Sprite. Irrational as it might be, all I can think of when I think about drinking a Sprite is that barrette with hair attached hitting me in the teeth.
As a young adult, I did a good bit of walking and talking in my sleep. My brother and sister have all sorts of stories about my sleepwalking escapades, including walking through the living room brushing my teeth. A short time after Polly and I were married, she awoke to find me standing in the corner of the bedroom urinating. Sound asleep, I thought I was in the bathroom. The sleepwalking continued into my later life. One night, while living in New Lexington, we had gone to bed, and as had been the custom for the past 38 years, Polly quickly fell asleep and I fitfully tossed and turned before finally drifting off into that night’s dream world. Several hours into the night, Polly awoke to find me crouched over her — eyes wide open. I was sound asleep, but Polly thought I was a psychopath fixing to kill her. After a few moments, I rolled over, while Polly was left shaking, fearing for her life. Both of us wondered if I would someday do something hurtful and not know that I did it. Fortunately, Polly and our six children survived. These days, the only sleepwalking I do is the wide-awake kind as I make one of my nightly trips to the bathroom or the kitchen. I still talk in my sleep from time to time. Polly no longer fears becoming the next day’s headline, though she does enjoy retelling what I said to her in one of my sleep talking moments. I can, in her words, still be quite entertaining.
A few days after Thanksgiving,we decided to move from Water Street to our newly-rented house in Glenford. We had very few possessions, so we were able to do all the moving with a pickup truck. Having just put up our Christmas tree several days before, we decided to leave all the decorations on the tree as we moved it to its new location. I still remember how hilarious it was to see that Christmas tree sitting in the back of the pickup truck, fully decorated. As you might imagine, by the time we got to our new house, all the tinsel had blown off the tree , as had some of the glass bulbs. I know– the stupid stuff kids do, right? We put the tree back together, in preparation for what we still call to this day the Christmas from Hell. But that’s a story for another day.
The Etch-a-Sketch is made by Ohio Art, a Bryan Ohio Company. Once Manufactured in Bryan, it is now Made Overseas.
I am a member of the Growing Up in Bryan, Ohio Facebook group. The group is made up of people who live/lived in Bryan, Ohio. Recently, the subject of racism was brought up and this provoked a lively discussion about the state of race relations in Bryan. This got me to thinking: does racism still exist in rural NW Ohio and Bryan? Have we reached a place where we live in a post-racial era? Before I answer this question, I want to spend some time talking about demographics and my own experiences as a resident of northwest Ohio.
My father grew up on a farm three miles south of Bryan and attended Bryan High School. My mother moved to Bryan as a teenager. Both of them worked for local Bryan businesses such as K&R Cleaners, The Hub, Carroll Ames, and Bryan Trucking. My father was part of a close-knit ethnic Hungarian group that settled in the Bryan area. My parents considered Bryan home and in 1957 it became my home. My brother and sister were also born in Bryan.
Even though I have spent most of my life living other places, Bryan is home for me. Try as I might to flee the boring flatlands of Bryan and rural northwest Ohio, I consider Bryan my home. Over the years, I’ve lived in California, Michigan, Texas, Arizona, and southeast Ohio. I’ve also lived in or near the northwest Ohio communities of Farmer, Deshler, Harrod, Alvordton, Mt. Blanchard, and Findlay. Currently, I live in Ney, six miles south of Bryan.
Bryan was settled in 1840 and is the seat of Williams County. In 1950, the population was 6,365 people. In 2010, the population was 8,545 people. Bryan saw a 12.9% population growth between 1970 and 1980 and 5.9% growth between 1980 and 1990. Since 1990, the population has grown 8.2%.
The Bryan of today is more racially diverse than at any time in its 175 year history. While this is good news, the reason for the diversity is non-white medical professionals moving to Bryan to work for the local hospital and medical group and white-collar professionals moving here to work for local companies. This diversity is primarily driven by economics.
The Bryan of my youth was 100% white. I was five years old before I saw a black person for the first time, a porter at the Chicago train station. As a teenager, I was told by one proud and ignorant Bryanite that Bryan was 100% white and proud of it. According to him, any black caught in town after dark was run out of town. I suspect his attitude was quite common
In the 1970s, I attended high school in Findlay, Ohio, a community 75 miles southeast of Bryan. The 1970 population of Findlay was 35,800 people. Like Bryan, Findlay was as white as white could be. There were two black students who attended Findlay High School and they were brother and sister. Today, .3% (886) of Findlay residents are black.
In the mid-1970s, I attended a Baptist church in Bryan. I can still remember the day that a woman who once attended the church and moved away, returned home with her new black husband. Oh, the racist gossip that ran wild through the church: why, what was she thinking…marrying a black man! Think of the children! It was not long before she and her husband moved on to another church.
It was not until I moved to Pontiac, Michigan to attend Midwestern Baptist College that I came into close contact with blacks. Freshman year, one of my roommates was a black man from Philadelphia. The college was connected with nearby Emmanuel Baptist Church. Emmanuel ran numerous bus routes into Pontiac and Detroit, busing in thousands of blacks. Most of the children from Detroit attended B Sunday school. The B was the designation given for the afternoon Sunday school. It was not long before I figured out that the B stood for black. When an overtly racist man became the bus pastor, one of the first things he did was stop running the buses to Detroit. We were told this was due to budget restraints, but many of us thought the real reason was race.
The college and church were located in a bad part of Pontiac. (Some might argue, is there a good part of Pontiac?) The projects were nearby and the area east of the college was decidedly black. My experiences with the local black community, with its rundown housing and rampant crime, helped to reinforce the racist stereotypes I had been taught by my parents. It didn’t help that gangs of black youth repeatedly broke into the dormitory and ransacked the place while everyone was at church. A few years back, the college relocated to an overwhelmingly white community.
My parents, typical of their generation, were racists. It is impossible to paint the picture any other way. Whether their racism was from their own upbringing or their membership in the John Birch Society, they made no apology for their fundamentalist Christian-driven racism. They had a special hatred for Martin Luther King, Jr. My mother thought King got exactly what he deserved when he was assassinated in 1968. Like it or not, this is my heritage.
In the 1980s, Polly and I lived in southeast Ohio. For a number of years we were foster parents. One of children we cared for was black. We had made arrangements to rent a house outside of Somerset, Ohio where I was pastoring at the time, from a retired school teacher. When we looked at the house we did not have our foster child with us. Several days before we supposed to move in, the matronly pillar of the community called and said that she decided to not rent the house. We found out later that she told people that she was not going to have a nigger living in her house.
We moved to New Lexington, Ohio and enrolled our foster child in the local public school, thinking little about how hard it might be for her to be the only black kid in the school. Needless to say, she was subjected to daily racial taunts. One day, the principal called us and said our foster child had created a disturbance in class. One of her classmates had called her a nigger and she threw her book at her taunter and stormed out of class.
I was quite upset at her behavior. Having never walked in her shoes, I had no way of knowing what it was like to be singled out and taunted. I gave her the stern Pastor Gerencser lecture, reminding her that she was accountable for behavior and that she couldn’t respond this way every time someone called her a nigger. While my words had a ring of truth to them, they were quite insensitive and showed that I didn’t have a clue about how difficult it was for her.
In the mid-1980s, the church I pastored had a black missionary come and present his work. I took the missionary on a tour of area and we stopped at the Somerset Snack Bar for lunch. The Snack Bar was where locals hung out and it was always a busy hive of storytelling and news. The Snack Bar was quite noisy when we walked in the door, but as patrons glanced up to see who was walking in, the noise quickly dissipated. I later learned that several of the locals were upset over the Baptist preacher bringing a nigger into the Snack Bar.
In 1995, I moved back home to northwest Ohio, pastoring a church in Alvordton for a short time and pastoring a church in West Unity for seven years. Polly and I have lived in this area now for 17 of the last 20 years. This is our home. Our six children and ten grandchildren all live within 20 minutes of our home.
It was during my time as pastor of Our Father’s House in West Unity, that I began to address my own latent racism and the racism that percolated under the surface of the local community. As my politics began to move to the left, my preaching took on a social gospel flavor and this included preaching on race, racism, and race relations.
When a church member would talk about colored people I would ask them, so what color were they? Oh you know what I mean, preacher! Yes, I do. So, how is the color of their skin germane to the story you are telling? I did the same when members talked about “those” people, those meaning blacks, Mexicans, or welfare bums.
What made things difficult was that we had a black man attending the church. He was a racist’s dream, the perfect stereotype. He was on welfare, didn’t work, lived in Section 8 housing, had an illegitimate child, and spent most of his waking hours trying to figure out how to keep from working. The church financially helped him several times and we brought him groceries on numerous occasions. One time he called me and told me he needed groceries. I told him that I would have someone bring over some groceries. He then told me, preacher, I’m a meat and potato man, so I don’t want no canned food. Bring me some meat. He’s still waiting for those groceries to be delivered.
As I read the comments on the Growing Up in Bryan, Ohio Facebook group, I noticed that there was an age divide. Older people such as I thought Bryan was still, to some degree, racist, while younger people were less inclined to think Bryan residents were racist or they thought local racists were a few bad apples. I think that this reflects the fact that race relations are markedly better now this area.
The reasons are many:
Older generations, those raised in the days of race riots, Martin Luther King Jr., and Jim Crow are dying off.
Local residents are treated by doctors who are not white.
Interracial couples now live in the area.
Migrants workers, once a part of the ebb and flow of the farming season, are now permanent residents.
Younger adults and teenagers no longer think race is a big deal.
Music and television have brought the world to our doorstep, allowing us to experience other cultures.
Sports, in which the majority of athletes in the three major professional sports — football, basketball, and baseball — are non-white. Cable and satellite TV broadcast thousands of college and professional games featuring non-white players.
Exposure breeds tolerance. Bigoted attitudes about gays and same-sex marriage are on prominent display in rural northwest Ohio. These attitudes remind me of how things once were when it came to race. Time and exposure to people who are different from us can’t help but change how we view things like race and sexual orientation. My children are quite accepting and tolerant of others, and I hope that these attitudes will be passed on to my grandchildren. We are closer today than we ever have been to Martin Luther King’s hope of “a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
We haven’t arrived. Latent, subtle racism must continue to be challenged. Unfortunately, on both sides of the political divide, there are those who use race and fear to stoke distrust and hate of those who are different. We must forcefully marginalize those who want to return America to the 1950s. We must also be willing to judge our own attitudes about race. We enlightened liberals gleefully look at the extreme right and we see racism and bigotry in all its glory. Yet, if we are honest, such things exist in our own backyard. None of us can rest until we have achieved a post-racial world. We have much work to do.