soybean field offered education | Featured Columnist

A fine powder of dust settled on my shiny black shoes. I walked through the soybean field towards a crowd of about 15 people. Some were wearing their Sunday outfits. Some were wearing their work clothes because they had taken time off work to attend. I belonged to both groups in a way. I wore my nice clothes because it was my job to be there.

I was again a pastoral intern for the second summer of my stay at the seminary. I gazed curiously at the bleached stones that stood out above the green of the soy vines. It was the smallest cemetery I have ever seen. A handful of gravestones that gradually disappear as the crops grow. It puts things in perspective when you look at an ancient gravestone and stop and think: someone cried here many years ago. And then their grief seems to echo quietly through the years.

The pastor, my supervisor for the summer, opened his Bible and the already rather quiet group went completely silent. “We gathered today in this place to celebrate the life of…” I don’t remember his name, but chances are it was either Woolard or Alligood. Locals have often reminded me that half of the county’s population is named one or the other. When they got married, people jokingly changed their last name to “Wooligood”.

I prepared myself a little for the calm but for the unexpected. I had never been to a funeral like this before, but I felt it was not unusual for the rest of the people present. Some of their best Sunday clothes wore sneakers so they wouldn’t mess up their good shoes like I did. Nothing says “burying in a bean field” like a coat, tie, and tennis shoes.

The pastor looked at me with a look that said, “You go, kid. So I read a few passages from the Bible, then said an impromptu prayer that I had repeated a hundred times. The churches in this corner of the woods have never used the prayers of the book of worship; it was their custom that “if you read it, it does not come from the heart”. I never understood why it was OK to read the Bible (if you haven’t memorized it all yet) but not OK to read a prayer. I guess reading a prayer sounded too much like the big church in town.

The pastor said very little to me as we returned to our cars. He looked at me suspiciously, since I was from Duke Divinity School, that bastion of liberalism and other heresies. (And what most of the students thought was unbearably conservative, but what is life without variety?)

Regardless, we were still friendly with each other; his silence was due to the solemnity of the moment. He was really happy to work with me. My presence would make it easier for her to take time with her family. The fields of eastern North Carolina are the perfect place to bring together big things and small things. Like life, death, eternity and “When can I go on vacation?”

The theological school had an ongoing program of sending students to work in local churches so that we could gain some practical experience. They called it “education on the ground”. But that day was “soybean field education,” learning to be a pastor in whatever situation comes your way.

The school also called it “field ed” for short. And students sometimes called him “feeling dead”. Most were joking, of course, but some of the boys and girls in town actually suffered culture shock from the rural south. But not me, of course. I grew up in a Baptist church in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in Alabama. So I was able to sing “Softly and tenderly, Jesus calls” with the best of them. Although being a kind of foreigner, I was generally accepted in the local tribe. Ultimately.

All of these thoughts crossed my mind as I drove my granddaughter to school. As we walked through the rural landscape, we passed gravestones trying to see over the soybean vines, like Zacchaeus trying to catch a glimpse of Jesus.

“Have you ever noticed those gravestones over there?” “

“I had my first funeral at a place like this.”

On the scale of eternity, human life and death may seem like this: “Yeah” and “Oh”. But for a human being, life is at least as big as a soybean field is for a gravestone.

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