Welcoming words

Welcoming words

Sometimes the simplest language can be the most effective.

Liz James
Illustration of one person talking with a word cloud filled with many random letters, engulfing another person's head.

© alashi/istock

© alashi/istock


In 2001, thousands of people descended on Quebec City to protest the Summit of the Americas trade talks. I was one of them. It was made clear to all of us who were heading to Quebec City how important it was for us to speak French. Canada is a bilingual country, and the Francophone parts of it work very hard to preserve their culture and language. Speaking as much French as you possibly can is a way to demonstrate respect, even if your French—like mine—is a grammarless mishmash of whatever words you have gleaned from product packaging and airline safety announcements.

So, when I found myself lost and trying to find my way back to our flat, I asked for directions in my best grade school French. The guy I was talking to paused for a while—presumably to rearrange my terrible grammar into a comprehensible sentence in his head. Then he answered slowly—presumably understanding that I was not a native speaker and needed the extra time to absorb each word. We continued back and forth like this for several sentences before I noticed a mistake or two in his grammar and suddenly asked, “Anglophone?” He answered “Oui,” and then I blurted, “Oh thank God, me too!”

I have a similar experience in the world of Unitarian Universalist leadership. Because high-level degrees are so common, particularly in our pulpits, our language tends to skew towards highly educated patterns of speech. I wish our sermons didn’t so often feel like recreations of academic papers. And yet, with training that focuses on a lot of, well, writing of academic papers, how could it be any different?

When I was in seminary, I learned to interpret convoluted phrases filled with big words. I learned to generate them, too. I quickly became aware that a term paper written at a grade seven reading level wouldn’t do as well as one with big words. Like I had on the streets of Quebec City, I knew I was an outsider. And so, I learned to speak the local language.

I began noticing cues that others were doing the same thing: a word thrown in here or there or a shift in grammar when someone got excited. As I opened up about my roots, I had the same conversation over and over. Seminarian after seminarian would say, “Thank God . . . Me too!” I wasn’t the only one consciously crafting my language.

Eventually, I completely stopped thinking, “How am I going to pass as the type of person who belongs in this faith?” I realized I didn’t want to learn to speak like someone I wasn’t. I began studying stand-up comedians and storytellers. I started creating sermons that were more reflective of who I was and the way I speak. I tried to craft writing that was still interesting and thoughtful but in a way that wasn’t academic. I became less and less tentative about this as more and more people—including people I thought of as academics—told me how much they appreciated what I was doing.

At some point, it stopped being about passing, or giving up on passing, and wasn’t about my identity at all. It was about making space for others from a variety of backgrounds and levels of education.

When I see pictures in our official publicity materials that feature various types of diversity, I always give an inner cheer. I imagine what it would be like to be one of the minorities featured. I think about how showing a person a reflection of themselves is a way of saying they’re welcome.

I wish we did something similar with language. I wish that we were intentionally diverse in our showcasing of “us.” Since so many of our pulpits are filled with people with graduate degrees, it is easy to drift towards academic language. But when we do, we demonstrate an exclusiveness that is not in line with our vision of ourselves. We tell people—often the very people we are fighting for—that they don’t belong in our conversations.

Imagine if we included a wider diversity of theological role models. Imagine if we also studied some of the many stand-up comedians who talk about white privilege and gender and sexuality with the language of jokes and stories. Not only would we embody what we are fighting for in a new way, we’d create much more accessible spaces and materials. I had one professor at school who insisted our term papers be written at a grade eight reading level. I began doing this with all of my writing and found that although my sermons and papers became less impressive at getting good grades, they became much more useful in terms of reachingreal-world people. My words would be shared much further when I wrote in plain language.

It isn’t always easy. It’s often faster and simpler to use a longer word, especially if most of the people in the room already understand the concept. But if we want to reach beyond the current room, we need to put in a little more effort. It is more cumbersome to pause and find language to speak to the same concept in a more accessible way. But just like we develop new language around gender or ability, just like we include French or Spanish in a service, we need to speak and write in ways that move beyond the academic voice as the ideal one. We need to tell the funny story that illustrates the concept rather than just using a sentence or two to sum it up. We need to leave room for people to struggle to understand different types of language, but we also can’t assume that everyone has all the leisure time in the world to devote to doing “the work.” We can help by doing some of that work for them.

We need to do this because it’s an embodiment of who we are—not just who we are in terms of our hopes about who can be included and welcomed in our congregations, but also because of who we actually are: people who, like me, can talk the talk but who respond to a sincere story spoken in plain language with “Oh thank God, me too.”

Religion isn’t located in theology texts filled with sophisticated concepts. It’s located in daily life. And daily life is about making it through the day: being more patient with your kids and paying better attention to your spouse telling you about their afternoon; really noticing the changing seasons for the first time this week; hearing your own story in a friend’s words over a cup of tea and making a real connection. So often, the language of real life is that simple. This language may not be sophisticated, but it is universal, and it touches people where they live.

The shortest words are often the most real.

Thank God. Me too. I’m sorry. I love you.