Mighty grain elevators—1,500 broad-shouldered “Sentinels of the Plains”—once stood guard over farm towns across the State of Texas. Today, less than a third of the aged watchmen report for duty. In their place, prison towers now shadow the edge of many rural communities.
I spent the first week of November in one of those prison towns. Normally, the opportunity to serve a rural community invigorates me. On this particular assignment, however, a vague sadness lingered in my soul.
I blame the derelict elevator on the south side of town.
For Catholics, the month of November is set aside for remembering. In Hispanic parishes, for instance, on November 2nd, All Souls Day, pictures of departed loved ones greet the faithful at the door of the church. Sometimes, portraits of deceased grandparents, spouses, soldiers and high school graduates, arrayed with ribbons, flowers and candles, are displayed at the foot of the altar.
If I could do so without appearing disrespectful, I would place a picture of a grain elevator among the photographs. Alongside the family mementoes, it would serve as a symbol of a lost culture that I mourn, a time and place of close-knit communities, hard-working men and reverence for the land.
November: a time of memories. And harvests.
This time of year, I seldom pass abandoned elevators without recalling my father. I see him breaking off heads of wheat in the field then rubbing the grain between his fingers. If he judged it to be sufficiently dry, he would head off to the elevator in town to test a sample of it. Later that afternoon, I’d be whistling happy and hauling wagons loaded with wheat to the same elevator. I’d listen to the rumble of augers beneath a wood plank floor, nod to neighbors in the office, collect the weight slip, then return home to hitch to another wagon already filled to the brim.
A young man sits across from me in a room with barred windows. I’ve been his spiritual director for more a year. During our sessions, we ponder God’s plans for his life when he gets paroled.
When that day arrives, he will likely be released to a city similar to the one from which he came. As his spiritual father, this leave me feeling inept. I am unfamiliar with the streets on which he grew up. I worry about his returning to former acquaintances and his former way of life. I would give anything to steer him to a time when men wore work gloves instead of tattoos, weekends meant square dancing and sex was wedded to self-sacrifice.
November memories. Empty silos.
His eyes are earnest. His intentions sincere. Still, I can’t help but notice his hands folded on the desktop between us. His fists have fought some tough fights, but his palms never weighed handfuls of grain.
Unless a grain of wheat dies, it remains but a grain.
But if it dies, it produces a rich harvest.