Words Matter

Date posted: Thursday 18 January 2018

"We have heard about your great loss and we have been praying for you."
This sentiment, or a variation of it, greeted my fellow travelers and me at every preaching point we visited. It was August 2002 and the first ever visit from Shepherd of the Valley in Apple Valley to Tungamalenga Parish in Iringa. The dust of the Great Rift Valley mixed with the dust of the World Trade Center towers that had fallen nearly one year before. It was unexpected. It was humbling. And it was profoundly moving.
"Peter, is your family okay? A bridge has collapsed in Minnesota..."
I was on a bus from Dar es Salaam to Iringa on August 1, 2007 as sections of I-35W collapsed into the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis. Utterly oblivious, I was made aware of the tragedy in real time through a string of text messages on my old-school Nokia from Tanzanian friends waiting for me in Iringa. Embedded in a relationship, their concern was not abstract or general but immediate, specific, and genuine.
News travels. Words matter.
The importance of these simple truths has been made abundantly clear in recent days as our national discourse has been saturated with statements, alleged or actual, and a flood of talking about, rather than with, our global neighbors. This isn't a conversation that is taking place in a vacuum. With the instantaneous, global reach of 24/7 news cycles, social media, and the twitterverse, our companions and friends in Iringa and beyond are watching, listening, and responding in ways that are both surprising and heartbreaking.
Those of us who have been privileged to accompany our companions in Iringa know that reductionist stereotypes and dangerously simple stories fail to capture the complex reality of their life, their community, and the country that they call home. Like us, each has their own song to sing - with both high notes and low. Like us, each is beautiful, fallible, and lovingly made in the image of God. Simultaneously saint and sinner, with lives and livelihoods that are utterly intertwined, we are - all of us - in the same wonderful and vulnerable state.
While Bishop Lull has joined other ELCA bishops from across the state in signing a public letter that calls upon all Minnesotans and their elected representatives to repudiate racism and bigotry in all forms, each of us has a voice as well. Your words matter. In public and in private, as you speak of what you have seen and heard through this companion synod relationship, your words have the power to build up and to tear down.
Following Luther's explanation of the 8th commandment, may you use them wisely - not telling lies, betraying, slandering, or hurting our neighbors' reputation in any form but, instead, defending them, speaking well of them, and explaining everything in the kindest way. And when, not if, your words should fail you, may you... may we... be bold and vulnerable enough to admit our mistakes and to seek both grace and forgiveness.
The Rev. Peter Harrits
Director of Bega Kwa Bega & Assistant to the Bishop