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The importance of language
pastor corner

Pastor Devin Strong, Spirit of Peace Lutheran Church.

I’ve been thinking a lot about language these days. For instance, when we mispronounce someone’s name, it can cause that person to feel like we’re not entirely seeing or hearing them. 

Sometimes I see posts on social media about folks struggling with using the correct language to describe members of the LGBTQ community, and I understand the challenge.

 Personally, I was tripped up on transgendered and non-binary people preferring the use of the pronoun “they” when being described because, in my experience, “they” meant plural, not singular. But I had to let that go when I understood that, because they don’t fit perfectly into the he/she gender “box” and the pronoun “they” is gender-neutral, it feels right to them. Sometimes younger LGBTQ members refer to the whole community as “queer,” a word that was considered an ugly slur when I was growing up. Once again, I realized that, if I’m having a hard time with the words “they” or “queer,” it’s my issue to get over, not theirs.

Names are especially important when forming relationships. In the Old Testament, God gave us acceptable names to use for God, which enabled us to enter into relationship together. When we know somebody’s name, we can communicate with them. We can ask something of them, just as we can with God. Using someone’s preferred name is not just important, it’s critical.

Likewise, it’s not up to able-bodied people to choose what language best describes the disability community.

When I was growing up, it was not uncommon to hear the word “cripple” used to describe someone with a disability.

Then, as disabled people were more fully acknowledged in everyday life, the language began to change.

Today, some people like to use the words “differently abled” or “handi- capable.” While meant to lift up disabled people, I don’t really care for those terms because they tend to be created by the able-bodied community to enable them to feel more comfortable. I prefer to describe myself as disabled or handicapped because neither one ignores the reality of my disability. I say I’m disabled because of the fact that I can’t walk across the room, and I never will.

Some radical members of the disability community go so far as to call those who are not disabled “temporarily able-bodied,” to show that no one knows when a future disability might befall them. While I personally don’t use that term, it certainly makes one think. A person’s disability needs to be recognized as a part of who they are, but not all of who they are; language should name a person’s disability honestly and respectfully, but not in a way that limits them to it.

I consider myself a pastor, husband, father and friend with a disability, not a disabled pastor, husband, father and friend – and the distinction between the two is hugely important. We’re all more than one thing.

The people who are being described and addressed are the only ones who should determine their preferred language, not the other way around. They get to choose and the rest of us — if we care — need to adapt to that decision. We’ll mess up a million times, but what matters most is the relationship we’re building, and that whoever we’re building it with knows they’re important enough for us to lovingly and respectfully do our best to get it right! 

God loves you, and so do I.

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