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Usually I am very conscious of my words, but this past week I was especially reminded of the significance that words may have in a person’s life.
My week started with an email from a former student. It was a beautiful email where she described how attending the Christian Latina Leadership Institute training had made a huge impact in her life, and how she was encouraged by observing the faculty (mostly Latina women who are accomplished leaders in their fields of expertise). Then, she went on to share about my own influence in her life, and asked me if she could come to my office to talk more about this.
Once in my office, she recounted a question that I had asked her during the CLLI training. She shared that this question opened a new world of possibilities and dreams for her. The question was: Are you planning to attend a master’s program after college?
She discussed that she came from a particular Texas Hispanic background where acquiring an education beyond high school was foreign for both her family and friends. In this setting, high school counselors often discourage Latino and Latina students from considering attending college. Unfortunately, many of these students hear something like this: “You are not college material, find something else to do.” Given this environment, after her high school graduation, her goal, and that of her Latino and Latina friends, was only to climb the work ladder of fast food restaurants.
In light of this background, she was shocked by my question about a master’s program. It had been so hard to find her way to college, that a master’s program seemed almost impossible. However, my question continued to ruminate in her mind and heart. Dreaming now about the possibility of pursuing a graduate degree, she started to work harder on her academics. Eventually, she started her master’s degree, and soon she will be graduating with very good grades.
After listening to her story, I remained quiet for a moment, and then I started to cry as I repeated her name a couple of times, and then said: “Look at you, at the bright Latina that you have become. I could not be more proud of you.”
We continued the conversation, and then she shared her plans to apply for a Ph.D. program. I encouraged her again, telling her how intelligent she is, and how much she can contribute to her field of studies, and to the Latino/a community. I proceed to give her tips about the process of applying to doctoral programs, and succeeding once you are in one. (Conversation used with permission.)
Later in the week, I received another email from a Latino student (who at this point has his master’s degree). He thanked me, too, for encouraging him in his studies.
As if that was not enough for one week, I spent the weekend at the North Carolina Christian Latina Leadership Institute training. I was delighted to participate in the students’ last session because we were able to work on their capstone reflections together. Again, I heard about the impact of words, and how the faculty had encouraged these students to believe in themselves, increase their self-esteem, and feel empowered. Some mentioned that due to this impact, they had started additional educational endeavors at different levels.
If the impact of positive, good, encouraging words is powerful, the impact of negative, careless, harsh words is just as powerful. I can only imagine how many dreams and lives of minority high school students have been shattered by the words of careless teachers and counselors who have damned them to a life of underachievement and poverty.
The Bible is clear about the proper use of words:
- Death and life are in the power of the tongue. (Proverbs 18:21, NRSV)
- A gentle tongue is a tree of life. (Proverbs 15:4, NRSV)
- Rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. (Proverbs 12:18, NRSV)
- Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones. (Proverbs 16:24, NIV).
- A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver. (Proverbs 25:11, NRSV)
- Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. (Ephesians 4:29, NIV)
- Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt. (Colossians 4:6, NRSV)
Finally, James 3:1-12 encourages us to be careful with the words that we use because they can be as destructive as a powerful fire.
Positive words are like a tree of life, a honeycomb, salt, or apples of gold that bring healing, edification, benefits, grace, and life. Negative words are like harmful swords or fires that destroy life and bring death.
The use of words is important for any person, but especially for those who hold positions of authority, and have the possibility of tearing down or building up a person’s life. In the case of kids and youth, I believe that parents are the main generators of their self-esteem. Pastors, teachers, and counselors also play a vital role in their positive or negative development. We need to be careful with what we say. If you tell a child or young person “yes, you can”, they will believe it. If you say otherwise, “no, you cannot”, they will believe it, too.
May God help us to be careful with our words. They can be a source of life or death for another person. As I closed my conversation with this Latina student, and wished her well in her future doctoral program, I asked her to remember where she once was, and how we are part of a chain. I told her that one day someone encouraged me, then another day I encouraged her, and now I was charging her with the responsibility and privilege of continuing with this chain of encouragement. It is not that hard; we just need to be intentional in remembering that we can always find something good in a person, and then affirm it. These words will make a huge difference in this person’s life, his/her circles of influence, and eventually in the whole world as more and more people pronounce words of grace and life. Let’s join the movement.