The power words have

Scott Reeder

An unexpected conversation with a college acquaintance this past week has me thinking about the power of words.

I first met Bill 40 years ago when I was a freshman in college. I was going through a rough time. I was away from home for the first time and was a assigned a roommate that I just couldn’t stand. 

Bill was a community college transfer from the Chicago suburbs. He had grown up in a devout home but wasn’t regularly attending church. One day, I was sitting in the laundromat in the basement of my dorm when he came and sat beside me.

He asked what I was reading and I told him it was the New Testament. He asked where I went to church and I explained that I attended a congregation near campus but wasn’t particularly happy there. Although the church was the same denomination that I had grown up in, the pastor’s messages were about as deep as a coat of varnish. 

For whatever reason, I shared this with Bill. He told me of a church that he visited once that met in the college student union. The pastor was elderly and battling cancer. But he was sincere. There was no stained glass, pews or organs. Folks sat in folding chairs in a borrowed upper room.

Bill told me I should try that church.

His suggestion altered my life. I fell in love with the tiny congregation and adored the pastor and his wife. My cynicism dissipated. For the first time since leaving home, I felt like I had a place where I belonged. 

The pastor joked that Bill made me a regular attender, even though he didn’t come himself.

During the past 40 years, I have lived in cities all over the United States. But the first thing I would do when moving to a new community is join a church. Some advice given 40 years ago by a casual acquaintance altered the trajectory of my life.

When Bill and I spoke this past week, his recollection of me was dim at best. I’m certain he doesn’t remember that conversation. But his words mattered.

A number of years ago a co-worker took me aside and told me how something I had said changed her life. 

The two of us were young reporters working the nightshift at a newspaper and as she tells it she joked about getting drunk after work and driving home. 

According to her, I said I didn’t respect that and asked: “How would you feel if you killed someone because you were driving drunk?”

Years later, she took me aside and told me how my words altered her life. She immediately quit drinking and driving.

When she told me this, I was flummoxed. While it sounded like something I might say, I have no memory of that long-ago discourse.

I have chosen a career of words. Words matter particularly when they are delivered with sincerity and kindness. 

Another former co-worker, Gary Schneeberger, tells of how a past supervisor’s words changed his life.

“It was my first ever professional job review, and I think it might have been one of his first, because he had just become an assistant city editor when he did my evaluation. … In the summary he said, ‘If Gary continues to apply himself and learn his craft I can see him working his way up into management one day. That was the first time, I ever thought higher than the byline. I was like, ‘Wow, you mean, being like an editor and a leader and helping other writers and reporters. Is that something that's open to me, too, someday?’”

Schneeberger has gone on to a distinguished career heading up public relations for Focus on the Family and other endeavors.  He added the editor who gave him the encouragement has no recollection of doing so. 

I’d be remiss in not noting that the person Schneeberger said inspired him to greater things, was the worst boss I’ve had in my 35 years in the workforce. He criticized me during a job evaluation for abstaining from alcohol and living too sheltered a life to be a good journalist.

The biblical book of Proverbs says: “The soothing tongue is a tree of life, but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit.”

In my 58 years, I too have said things I have regretted. To this I can only ask the listener’s forgiveness. But I pray when I do speak, I’m offering words of encouragement.

Why? Because words matter. 

Scott Reeder, a staff writer for Illinois Times, can be reached at [email protected].