As a young girl, she heard the adage that "sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt you," but as she grew into adulthood, Dr. Leah Gunning Francis learned that was not completely true.
"Even as a child I knew there was something illogical about that familiar refrain, but it was not until adulthood that I came to understand how sticks, stones and names have the power to hurt the body and bring sullenness to the soul," she said. "Fortunate for me, my childhood world was filled with words of affirmation, hope and love, so the occasional zinger from a peer didn’t do too much damage, I don’t think. But what about people whose worlds are dominated with negative and dehumanizing words. What kind of world has been created for them?"
Gunning Francis was the keynote speaker at Martin Methodist College’s annual Convocation on Religion and Race, held Jan. 24. As assistant professor of Christian education at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, she is a passionate teacher, drawing on her marketing experience, pastoral leadership and academic training to creatively equip graduate students for transformative leadership in congregations and society.
But standing at the podium in the Curry Christian Life Center on the Martin Methodist campus, just eight days after the national holiday celebrating the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, she had a single focus and a powerful message: words and the different types of worlds they can create.
"Ask any advertising executive, seventh grade English teacher, psychologist or speechwriter, and he or she will elaborate on the nature and scope of the power of words, and the meanings we attach to them," she said. "Words can persuade, influence and inspire.Words can heal. Words can hurt. Words can empower. Words can oppress. It is no wonder the writer of (the biblical book of) James cautions us to listen more quickly than we speak, so that our actions and words might correspond with God’s idea of righteousness. We can bless and praise God, yet curse those who are made in God’s image? My brothers and sisters, the writer goes on to say, this ought not be so."
Once that truth is established, she told the Martin Methodist students, faculty and staff assembled for the convocation, a larger question comes into focus.
"So instead of diminishing the effects of words with the sticks and stones logic, what if we took seriously the claim that words create worlds, and ask ourselves, ‘What type of world are your words creating?’ In our classrooms, are our words subtly reinforcing antiquated patterns of exclusivity, subjugation and indifference? Or do they open the way for the classroom to become a sacred space where critical thought, exchange of ideas, and construction of new realities can take place without diminishing or devaluing anyone in the room? What about our common spaces on campus and out and about town? Do our words create a world that is conducive and healthy for all people, or only a select few?"
Dr. King, she reminded the audience, dreamed of a different world than the one facing the United States during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, and he chose his words – both those he said and those he chose not to say – carefully, with the hope that his words would help create that world.
"What if we, through our words, embodied the type of world we long for, hope for?" Gunning Francis asked. "What if we, like King, mustered the courage to dream a world where love was the order of the day, and peace and justice were inextricable bedfellows? We may not be about to always influence discourse in the public square, but what worlds do our words create in our homes, among our friends, on this campus, in this town?
"Are our words creating a world where God’s tenets of faith, hope and love can take on flesh in ways that transform us, and the world we inhabit? Or do they regularly contribute to the promulgation of indifference, prejudice or even despair? Do we believe that our words have the power to create a pattern of action that inspires a new reality?" she added.
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