Speaking with an Accent

In Luke’s account of the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit creates the Church. Look carefully at what happens. The story says loads about who God intends for us—the community of Jesus-followers—to be.

For nine days the disciples had huddled together in an upper room praying. On the tenth day the Holy Spirit made them a new creation: the Church. And what they did as the community of Jesus followers is unlock the doors, throw open the windows, and head out into the streets. God was doing something out there. They wanted to be a part of it.
In other words, they didn’t do what church-folk tend to do today. Many of us think of starting a church as erecting a building and inviting people to join us inside for prayer. We even put up signs, design websites, and pay for newspaper ads inviting people to join us inside the building. They can join us whenever they want.

John William Waterhouse’s “Windflowers”

Even when we are in the world, we use the term “outreach” to talk about it. Think about that word for a minute. Outreach. The image is that we reach out from inside. But inside is where we belong. Evangelism takes the form of making outsiders into insiders. One of us. 
That’s exactly how the attractional church operates. And the declining vitality of many congregations in America tells us that this is not a winning strategy.
No wonder.
The Church portrayed in the Acts of the Apostles is missional to its very core. These early disciples knew that God has a mission in the world, and that God has created a Church to pursue that mission. That mission takes various forms, but its essence is reconciliation.
That newly formed Jesus-following community engages God’s mission from the very start. They pour out onto the streets in the midst of an ongoing festival to tell good news.
They did not demand that their listeners become just like them, adhere to their own strict code of conduct, or submit to their own interpretations of just how the world works.
They were delivering the news. God loves you. And that love is active and powerful. That love heals your wounds, nourishes your body, forgives your sins, rebuilds your shattered relationships, empowers you to make a contribution in this world, and brings you peace of mind.
What you say matters. How you say it matters just as much. Sometimes, maybe even more.

The disciples delivered this news in a language that the listeners could understand. More precisely, they found themselves speaking in languages not their own. In the power of God’s Spirit each disciple spoke each listener’s own native tongue.
They delivered the message of reconciliation not just by conveying a set of ideas or by constructing winning arguments. They connected with strangers on the strangers’ own terms.
And there was something humbling about it. They didn’t speak these foreign languages as expert linguists or native speakers. At least, that’s not what the text suggests to me. 
Remember that some in the crowd said, “Aren’t these guys a bunch of Galileans?” Others said, “These guys are loaded, and it’s not even noon yet!” In other words, they spoke so that people could understand them, but they had a noticeable accent.
Like I said earlier, what you say matters. But how you say it matters just as much. Maybe even more.

Odilon Redon’s “The Sermon”

We infer things about a speaker on the basis of his or her accent. Unlike tone and volume—vocal elements that can indicate a speaker’s mental and physical state—what we attribute to a speaker’s character on the basis of his or her accent has a great deal to do with our own preferences, assumptions, and prejudices.
Accents have played a significant role in my life.
As a preschooler and then again in middle school and high school, I lived with my mother and my maternal grandparents. Post-war immigrants from Austria, my family spoke German at home. Outside the house they spoke broken, heavily accented English.
Any foreign accent would have contrasted sharply with my deep South contexts in South Carolina and then Georgia, but remember that this was post-WWII America. 
We fancied ourselves a melting pot. We were all supposed to be the same. And a German accent carried a distinct stigma. There was something shameful about being the losers of the great conflict and something sinister about being associated with the bad guys.
So, my grandparents’ and my mother’s accents were the source of not-so-good-natured fun for some of my peers.
During the first few years of elementary school, my parents tried to reconcile, and my mother joined my father in tiny Louisville, Georgia.
I didn’t realize it, but while I was in Louisville, I was developing a very thick Southern accent. How would I have known? An accent is an accent only when you’re the outsider. And south Georgia was shaping my speech patterns and pronunciations to fit right in. (Sort of, but that’s another story for another day.)
When my parents finally split for good, my mom and I moved to Atlanta, where I attended Catholic schools. Within minutes of opening my mouth my new classmates made it clear that my accent marked me as a hick and a rube. 
They had already learned to pronounce “I” like midwestern news anchors and mercilessly ribbed me by repeating my long “i” pronunciation with cartoonish exaggeration. They thought I was a hilarious curiosity. Clearly unsophisticated, poorly educated, and perhaps a bit dim.

Vincent Van Gogh’s “Portrait of a Young Peasant”

Atlanta—and my peers—gradually did its work on my accent, sharpening up pronunciations and substituting country usages like “ain’t” and “yonder” with more suitable urban constructions.
But then a funny thing happened when I would return to Louisville to visit my father. He and my half-brother Joel would mock my new pronunciations as uppity and phony. Their criticism and condescension only increased as I advanced in education.
So here’s a revealing thing that happened years later. 
My oldest son Andrew heard me talking to somebody on the phone. When the conversation had ended, Andrew said, “You were talking to Grandpa. I could tell because you’re Southern accent gets really thick when you talk to him.”
He was exactly right. I don’t do it consciously, but my accent shifts depending upon my context. With professors in the philosophy department at Emory, my pronunciations and cadences will still echo their own sophisticated tones and rhythms. Back in rural Georgia, I think I sound a little like Andy Griffith.
Maybe my shifting accents mark me as a big phony. But honestly it’s not something I do intentionally. The habit of matching my listener’s accent started when I was very young, filled with self-doubt and the kind of yearning for acceptance and approval that comes from feeling excluded and deprived.
These days, something else is going on I think. Connecting with other people motivates me. I thrive on being a helpful part of other people’s lives. At one point in my life I was so afraid of rejection that I insisted that people meet me on my own terms. I didn’t meet many people that way. So now I habitually seek to meet people on their terms.
You see, echoing another person’s accent does not begin with speaking. It begins with listening. I really have something to say only once I have genuinely heard the other person. Only then do I know how to connect.
And reconciliation—God’s essential mission—is all about connecting. What we say is important. What we do is probably much more important.
Just listen to what the world is telling us. This summer thousands of children whose nutrition comes from the subsidized school lunch program will go hungry every day.
In the land that highly values equal opportunity, a family’s earning power significantly affects the children’s range of opportunities. Just listen to these statistics:
“If your family makes more than $90,000 per year, your odds of getting a college degree by age 24 are roughly 1 in 2; if your family income is between $60,000 and $90,000, your odds are roughly one in four; and if your folks make less than $35,000, your odds are 1 in 17.” (Thanks to Dr. Paul Baker, ESA Headmaster, for this quote from an address by Prof. Andrew Delbanco.)
In a country with an ever-widening income gap, this puts our commitment to equal opportunity at risk.
God sends us into the world to listen and to connect. That’s what it means to proclaim the Good News. And as we go out into the world to engage God’s mission, we do well to remember St. Francis’ instructions to his monks. Preach the Gospel. Use words if necessary.
What we say matters. How we say it matters just as much. Sometimes, maybe even more.

This sermon was preached at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Lafayette, Louisiana.


  1. Thank you. So enjoyed it and related to it. As a Cuban-American my sons have enjoyed my pronunciation, and at times confusion of words. I remember, when they were really little saying, “Boys, please pick up your clothes and put them inside the clothes hamster,” to which my boys wide eyed would say, “But where's the hamster Mom? The eldest saved the day by saying, “Hamper, Mom, hamper…” Loved the St. Francis quote as well. Lovely.


  2. That's a wonderful story, Tersi. It reminds me of some of my mom's pronunciations. She never could get “mule” right. God rest her soul. Thanks for reading and responding!


  3. Today when I pulled up your site to do what I do every Sunday, I couldn't believe what the title said, and as I continued to read, I couldn't help but think about how God works in mysterious ways. This past week I have been bothered by the fact that in one day, I was told by four different people that I have a very thick Southern accent, and well, none of those people intended that to be a compliment. As I am growing up, I can't help but think, what will my professors, peers, or coworkers think of me with this accent that is thought of as anything but educated? As the week went on, I figured out that among different people my voice and accent tend to adapt. Later on, I came to the realization that people tend to adapt to their surroundings. In the church, people begin to adapt to certain ways causing our pews to become empty because we are blind to change. We are all missionaries of The Lord. We should get up and go spread the good news.


  4. Jordan, the question I normally get is, “Where are you from?” It's interesting that the Southern accent still bears a stigma. I have a friend who is now retired as rector in Atlanta. He intentionally kept his Southern accent even while attending prestigious Northern boarding schools and college precisely to challenge the stereotypes he encountered. Yet all of us present different aspects of ourselves in different contexts. And you're spot on about the Church! I love your leadership and heart! Thanks for reading so faithfully! And by the way, I'm sure your professors and coworkers will quickly become impressed by your intellect, openness, and strong work ethic.


  5. St. Paul would like and understand this one: “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.” (1 Cor 9:22b-23)


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