At any given moment, there are more than 57 million Words With Friends matches happening around the world. When two of its players recently connected in real life, the internet collectively swooned, and their story went viral.
“It was a cool experience,” 22-year-old Spencer Sleyon told The Root after he was able to meet with his 81-year-old “best friend” in Florida, thanks to a New York City pastor, the Rev. Amy Butler of the Riverside Church.
Sleyon, born and raised in Silver Spring, Md., moved to Harlem about three months ago to pursue his dreams of being a music producer. In New York, he reconnected with his high school friend Hannah, who happened to be Butler’s daughter.
“One night, a few months ago, they started a conversation about who their best friends were, and Spencer said, ‘My best friend is an 80-year-old white woman who lives in a retirement community in Florida,’ and I said, ‘What?’” the Rev. Butler told The Root.
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Sleyon recalled how he and the retiree, Rosalind “Roz” Guttman, first connected about a year and a half ago.
“One day I searched for a random game, and that’s how I ended up finding her. And we pretty much played every day for five months,” he says. Sleyon said he won the games about 60 percent of the time.
“Sometimes we’d speak about personal things, but nothing extra personal,” he said. “Politics, the election, hurricanes.”
After he wished her a merry Christmas last year, Sleyon found out that his best bud was Jewish, and she told him all about Hanukkah.
Sleyon said he logged off the game about this time last year because his life had become “too hectic,” but before he did, he asked Guttman for advice, including her thoughts on a move to New York.
“Always reach for the stars,” Sleyon said she told him.
Not too long after the conversation in her living room, the reverend asked Sleyon if she could reach out to Guttman “because I’m in the business of bringing people together.” She said that she found the octogenarian amazing and hilarious, “like a Golden Girls character, and I pitched the idea of meeting Roz to Spencer, and he said yes.”
Sleyon and Guttman had a bit more in common than surface details would indicate. She actually used the word “phat” during one of their first games, and the pastor said that Guttman was enamored with Sleyon’s user name, “FUCKFACEFILTH,” calling it “masterful alliteration.”
Butler and Sleyon traveled to West Palm Beach, Fla., to see Guttman on Thursday evening and spent Friday with her, having lunch at her favorite restaurant and taking a tour of her neighborhood.
Right before coming back to New York, Sleyon tweeted photos of the meetup and then lost internet service on the two-and-a-half-hour flight.
When he and the pastor arrived in New York, his tweet had more than 20,000 likes. As of press time, the tweet has garnered more than a million likes and nearly 250,000 retweets. The comments have been mostly been over the moon, though, of course, there were some trolls as well.
When I asked why he thought the story went viral, Sleyon replied, “Besides the obvious—the fact that I’m a young black male and this is an old white woman—a lot of people enjoyed the fact that we were able to get so close, especially given the tension in the country.”
The company that brought them together, Words With Friends, is thrilled by the meeting (and publicity), too.
“Spencer and Roz’s story is a wonderful illustration of how powerful games can be in bringing people together across generations and geographies,” said Frank Gibeau, CEO of Zynga, the makers of Words With Friends. “Since launching eight years ago, Words With Friends is an incredible platform for connection.”
“I think we’re living in a country right now that is being manipulated by fear, that drives us away from each other, that makes scared of each other, and I see my work now, more than ever, to cross those lines,” said the Rev. Butler. “It’s what I do at church, and it’s what we have to do in this country to save ourselves.”
But the pastor did note that she was a little surprised by the response.
“I’ve been living with this story for several months, and I know how powerful it is,” she began. “And I hope this story encourages people to connect across lines that they were unwilling to before, because there are beautiful friendships to be found.”
Sleyon takes the attention in stride.
“Whatever people want to take from this story and however it makes them feel, I’m just glad and Rosalind and I can bring that to people,” he said.
He paused, then added, “Only positivity.”