They say only love can break your heart. Since I first got the news of Richard’s heart attack, like you, my heart has been broken. But, it also feels like my whole life has been broken, or like one of my legs has been cut off. Richard’s Lakota name was translated “He Stands With His People” but there were many ways in which Richard helped me to stand.
We began phone calls and emails 16 years ago. We were both very critical of each other in our approach to Native American culturally contextual ministry. He thought I was syncretistic and that I was imprudent. I thought he was doing culture without proper rights and protocol. It turned out we were both partially right and partially wrong. I guess some might say at first that we were not quite friends and not quite enemies, we were, “frenemies.” But, as often is the case, in such great causes, we found out we needed each other for the big task, which for both of us, would be life-long journey.
When I think of mine and Richard’s relationship these two verses from Proverbs come to mind:
- A man of too many friends comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.
- The wounds of a friend are trustworthy, but the kisses of an enemy are excessive.
I simply wanted to be Richard’s friend and was fortunate to count myself as one. Some of you have seen and heard Richard and I verbally “slug it out” and were amazed that we could remain friends. I think our relationship, and that of our little “band of brothers,”* often saw the reality of the worst in each other and by confronting it, sometimes through humor or ridicule, or sometimes in anger, it eventually brought out the best in one another. Much of that speaks to the grace Richard gave me and other people in his life. He understood loyalty in friendships. And as critical as we could be of each other, when it came to it, Richard knew I, and a few others, always had his back. I knew he had mine.
Richard “stood with his people” and, he also gathered them. Just look around you—he’s still gathering us. I believe this gift of his will continue, and bear much fruit, especially through the young people’s lives he personally touched. He once told me didn’t have the heart of a pastor but I saw the deep passion he had for young people, those young lives he touched, the ones he called his nephews and nieces, it was true concern and care…he had a pastoral heart of love for these young ones and they are the ones who will have the courage follow their dreams of an indigenous community in Christ, and hopefully, have each other’s backs. (If you are one of these, a niece or nephew as Richard called you, please stand).
Richard was part of a close team of brother/friends that eventually became NAIITS (The North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies). He was an incredible team player and as the NAIITS community developed and matured in our theology and perspective, so did Richard. Even though it may have appeared from the outside that when he was up there speaking, that it was “all about Richard,” It was not that way at all. He always promoted the movement and the community above himself. In this regard, he was generous and thoughtful and he understood his own giftings and his own limitations, as well as, the giftings of each of us.
It may be very difficult for Americans from such an individualistic society and a persona driven church, to understand how our little Native community worked so well together. In our Indian way, individuals move the ideas of the group forward because they are secure in the group’s identity. To try and understand Richard Twiss as a man who was just interested in building himself up in a ministry is completely the wrong picture. To try and understand Richard Twiss apart from his Native American community is a misunderstanding as well. Maybe this is the greatest lesson Richard still has to teach us. He was a community builder. He loved to gather us together because he knew this is where our strengths’ lay—together.
And, for that small group who grew up together in this battlefield called culturally contextual Native American ministry, he was our golden boy—the voice and charisma and fantastic communicator for our movement and our community. I often told people, Richard was not just the best communicator in Indian country, but one of the best anywhere. I would often see our group’s ideas (which he borrowed liberally) amplified and universalized in his big tent communications. And we loved it. That was a gift that we will sorely miss.
Richard was an incredible innovator in our movement. As his closest friends, we understood what Richard was accomplishing as the Spirit moved through our Indigenous people. No one else could do what Richard was doing better than Richard. His unique giftedness was his extroverted personality and his innovative mind, which was like a sponge. He soaked up new information, then was able to communicate it in very easy to understand, humorous, ways. His framing on the subjects we all battered around for decades, was unique and refreshing. His humor allowed him to get by with some of the subject matter that most of us could not. He had folks laughing and bleeding simultaneously.
Even though as a group, we had many “knock down-drag out” fights over the years, he also kept us laughing at ourselves. And, Richard was always willing to reconcile. After a while, it just became normal for us all to fight and love without holding grudges (for too long). Much of that was because of the influence of Richard’s generous spirit and his jovial demeanor.
In the past several years I saw Richard really hitting his “intellectual and integrative pace.” He had so much more to give and to speak and to write. I think he was actually just in the bloom of his career in terms of his message and developing a worldwide platform with it. Now, it will be done in another way—but still through Richard’s influence.
Like he did with some of you, Richard greeted me with a kiss on the cheek every time we saw each other—so, while I can’t say good-bye, because Richard will always be a part of my thoughts and my life, I’ll just say, “I’ll see you later buddy.” Here’s my last kiss for a while.
*Richard Twiss, Terry LeBlanc, Adrian Jacobs, Ray Aldred and Randy Woodley.