LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Refuting the children’s rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” Meagan Manas, staff specialist for Justice and Peace with Presbyterian Women, told those at her workshop that “Words can cause the biggest hurt.”
Manas was the leader of the Aug. 3 Words Matter workshop held at the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s recent Big Tent event.
Words Matter, according to Manas, is a project that began three years ago when women’s groups in different denominations began talking about language and the power that it has.
She spoke of the earlier inclusive language efforts of the various women’s groups to encourage churches, seminaries and others to be inclusive in their speaking and reading of the Bible – instead of saying “brothers,” say “brothers and sisters,” and instead of talking about the “men of God,” speak of the “people of God.”
During their meetings, the women discussed the fact that some churches and seminaries were not taking part in the inclusive language effort. Others were being more inclusive in their language but only because they “had to,” and still others didn’t know why the language of the Bible was being changed.
Manas said the women began to “think about how important words in our own lives … words have a power to do things … if a little girl hears all her life that God died for all mankind, does she know it means her? If we continually sing about taking the blackness of our hearts and making it white – does that not become racist?”
The women wanted to have a deeper conversation, she said. “We do not want them to say ‘brother and sister’ because they are supposed to” but instead, she said, use language that would “reach out to those wounds that fester and heal them … This is how Words Matter started.”
Manas then divided the 15 attendees into three small groups, where she asked them to “share a story where you noticed the power or importance of words.” Each participant had three minutes to share their story, but there was catch. After each story was shared, the group had to sit in silence for one minute. “No questions or comments,” she said. “We are just listening.”
Before the small groups began their discussion time, Manas shared with them the group norms that she wanted them to follow during their time together. The norms were:
- “Listen with open heart. Try to place yourself in the shoes of the person sharing.
- “Listen attentively and in love instead of planning what you will say next.
- “Speak in ‘I’ terms – ‘I think,’ ‘I feel.’ Share from your experience only.
- “What is said in this room stays in this room. Do not share with others outside this gathering without asking permission from the person who shared.
- “Assume good attentions
- “If something said is offensive or hurtful to you, say ‘ouch.’ This way the offense is marked and can be explored at that moment or at a later time.
- “Allow for a person to ‘pass’ on the timing of sharing their story and return to them later.”
Following the time of sharing, Manas asked the group to consider what they had learned from the stories they had heard. Responses included:
- Communication is key: The words used, how it is said, body language.
- What is not said can be just as important as what is said.
- It matters who says it.
- Cultural differences matter.
- Once said, words can’t be taken back.
- Words can be interpreted in different ways.
- Language can unite or divide.
- Sarcasm and irony can be dangerous.
- There can be a gap in awareness of one another’s realities.
- Pain from words can last a lifetime.
To close the workshop, Manas asked, “So now that we know these things, what do we have to do? What do these stories call us to do? The answers included:
- Practice listening.
- Count to 10 before speaking.
- Be thoughtful.
- Balance liturgy.
- Put honor in all words.
- Look behind the words.