When I was in college, at Franciscan University of Steubenville, my friend Luke was a big Mel Gibson fan. In Luke's defense, this was way before Mel had done/said the things that now come to mind when you hear his name. This was way back when Mel Gibson was just known for making a lot of violent movies. (Yes, I know, Luke really shouldn't have supported movies that had lots of violence. But that's beside the point. Luke's a better person now. Back to Mel . . . )
We had heard that Mel was a Catholic, just like us, and it was just a few months before The Passion of the Christ was released. A friend and I decided to start a little rumor and we told Luke that Mel Gibson was going to be visiting our school in the Spring.
The story we concocted was that Mel's daughter was a high school student who had attended a Steubenville Youth Conference and that she was considering attending Franciscan University the following year. I'll never forget the hope in his eyes when we told him or the profound look of disappointment and betrayal that followed when we admitted a few days later that it was just a joke. Luke's reaction was nothing compared to what was coming . . .
Did You Hear?
It was around November, and the plan was that we wanted to spread this rumor and see if we could actually have people excited for 'the visit' by the following April. We thought that would give us about 5 months to build up the suspense. Little did we know how quickly it would be out of our control. The first people I told were a group of younger students; I assured them that it was really confidential information that they shouldn't share with anyone else.
Two days later, I overheard a few girls saying something about Mel Gibson coming to visit our school, but they had the dates all wrong. I tried to intervene to save my perfectly planned story, but they insisted that the Gibson family would be coming to visit the following week. When I said that I had heard from a reliable source that Mel wasn't coming until April, one girl turned to me and said, 'You don't know what you're talking about.'
Today’s the Day!
By the next week, people were ready for Mel. His fame, combined with his faith and the upcoming release of The Passion of the Christ, created a frenzy and people started writing messages to him with chalk on the sidewalks of the campus.
Everyone was so excited to express their gratitude to the man who was about to bring Jesus back to the big screen, and it just seemed so good that it had to be true. When the admissions department and the public relations office claimed to know nothing about the supposed visit, it just fueled the rumor because of course Mel Gibson wouldn't want everyone to know that he was coming! One day, several professors found many of their students absent from class because the word on the street was that Mel was going to be at the noon mass on campus.
Mel never ended up coming though plenty of people in town swore that they saw him at bars, gas stations, and grocery stores over the next two years. The rumor died down after a few weeks on campus, but it lasted much longer in the local community.
It really was funny to see the story take off, but I had no idea how fast it would happen or how fast I would lose control over the information that was going around.
This ridiculous excitement was all based on a funny story that we told to 3 or 4 people. That's all it took.
Scripture speaks often of the power of our words, and James 3:5 compares our words to a small fire that is capable of burning down a huge forest. We should always be careful with our words, because once we speak, we can't take them back.
I'm sure that if the Letter of James was written today, the author would've added something about the power of our texts, our tweets, and our status updates. As any athlete, politician, or once beloved movie star (who was allegedly spotted at Franciscan University) can tell you, words have power. The things we say, the words we type, they may just spread like wildfire.