ESSAYS FROM WEST OF 98: VACANCY AND LIFE

By James M. Decker

My very first essay, written way back in November of 2017, was entitled “On Vacant Buildings and Vacant People.” It was inspired by a national sportswriter’s visit to Stamford, in which the author noted Stamford’s vacant buildings. However, he also noted something more important, something that captivated him—its people. The people themselves were far from “vacant.” The author found good, hardworking people who support their community and its youth. I concluded that essay with the following:

“Vacant buildings can be changed. It’s a lot harder to change a culture of vacant people. When I read over the words in that article, I am energized to ensure that the buildings and economy of Stamford match its people.”

I’ve been thinking more about that lately. Have you ever passed by the same vacant structure repeatedly for a period of multiple years? I’m thinking of some old farmhouses and barns on long abandoned homesteads, in which the current farmer now lives in town or in a newer house up the road. One day, you look up and that building is gone. Maybe it had help from a fire or a bulldozer’s blade. Or maybe it just slowly deteriorated day by day, week by week, year by year. The intermittent changes were slow enough to be imperceptible to the passerby. You didn’t notice the daily decline until the building just quietly sank into a heap on the ground.

There’s something about vacancy that destroys a building. You might’ve learned that if you’ve ever compared the cost of insurance on a vacant building to the cost for an inhabited building. You would think that traffic and wear and tear would be harder on a building. In reality, it’s much more destructive for a building to sit silent and vacant. Vacant buildings deteriorate much faster than inhabited buildings. That’s why vacant building insurance is exponentially more expensive.

This concept randomly came up in Sunday school a few weeks ago. In the second chapter of the Book of James, James admonishes Christians to live out their faith through action. He asks “what good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds?” What good are we to encourage others in need, but do nothing to actually help their needs? He closes this discussion with this line: “in the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”

In our Sunday school discussion, we considered how faith without action is dead just like a building without life is dead. Our buildings deteriorate when they’re not inhabited. So, too, our faith deteriorates when not inhabited by action. In a broader sense, our communities are the same way. Thinking back to the rousing success of the 2019 edition of the Texas Cowboy Reunion, Stamford was full of people and full of life. Even if a person didn’t care about a rodeo, they could feel energized and hopeful by the activity in town. Traffic was on the streets, restaurants were full of people, convenience store parking lots were packed. Money was flowing through the community in a way that would benefit our businesses and our local governments, and thus, it would benefit each of us. The Texas Cowboy Reunion lasts only five days out of 365. Other events bring activity, but all of our rural communities struggle to keep a sense of activity and life throughout the year. During those slowest times of year, particularly vacation and holiday seasons when so many people are traveling out of town, our communities can feel somewhat “vacant” themselves. Frankly, it can occasionally feel a little bit depressing or gloomy. Just like in other areas, it’s up to us to change that. “They” aren’t going to fix it, because there is no “they” out there of magical elves waiting to help.

Next week, I’m going to talk more about how we can breathe life into vacant buildings and into our towns year round. But like I said back in 2017, you can fix vacant buildings. It’s a lot harder to fix vacant people. A community of vacant people, lacking life and action, will slowly sink back into the dirt just like that vacant farmhouse. However, even if our communities feel a little vacant now and then, we know better than to think it’s a result of vacant people. Until next time, let us reflect on ourselves to ensure that our personal faith is accompanied by action and that our communities, whether they have vacant buildings or not, have life breathed into them by the passionate, caring people who call the place home!

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James Decker is a lawyer, farmer, and mayor in Stamford, Texas, and the creator of the forthcoming “West of 98” podcast and website. He may be contacted through Facebook at facebook.com/james.decker. Listen to our podcast interview with James here.

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