I’m sitting here in seat 27B, about 35, 000 feet over the Dakotas, coincidentally the land the late Richard Twiss grew up on. I’ve just spent an emotionally exhausting weekend of memorializing my friend Richard “He Stands With His People” Twiss. While I expected a weekend full of laughing, listening, and even considering the complexities of culture– I did not expect to have my concepts of American church and culture uprooted.
For those unfamiliar, Richard Twiss died suddenly and tragically after suffering a massive heart attack while attending the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC. I decided to fly out Friday and spend the entire weekend with Richard’s community as they grieved and celebrated the life of this accomplished cultural theologian, Indigenous peoples activist, speaker, writer, friend, prankster, cigar- lover, and global gatherer of peoples.
Fittingly, the circles of friendship formed over 58 years, could not be contained in a single service…no…it took five gatherings in Portland over the span of four days to gather all those who saw it fit to come and pay their respects.
I witnessed thousands of people travel from the four corners of the earth to honor my friend. I met Aboriginal wise-men, fierce young women from New Zealand, soft spoken Native Elders from across North America, powerful personalities for justice from the African American community, Latin leaders of community development, Asian theologians of importance…and the list goes on and on and on…
It did not escape me that even in death Richard Twiss was still gathering people.
With that context in mind—I want to share a few lessons I learned during the weekend. Now, these are my lessons and nothing more, but I suspect that if I benefited from them, then possibly you may also. These are lessons that I believe American culture (including the ‘American Church’) could richly benefit from:
Lesson 1: I grew up with the false idea that leaders birth communities. I’ve listened to Richard speak on a number of occasions—and as I laughed and smoked and listened to his friends tell stories I realized something: I had it backwards. I thought Richard had birthed this community—but it was this community that had birthed him.
Listening to this community completely flipped my understanding of leadership— and eroded my flat and false idea that it took great individuals of power and personality to birth a community. I am inclined to think that our leadership paradigms are still rooted in our Western idealization of rugged individualism and while charismatic leaders may naturally gather people—it’s the people of the community who share their collective wisdom with a leader. It allows a leader to synthesize this collective wisdom into a singular and powerful thread. It’s in the midst of this context that a leader is incubated and eventually birthed onto stages across the world. I’m forever grateful to Richard’s people for birthing this great leader—and hope that our out-dated Eurocentric ideas of individualism can be tempered by our Indigenous brothers and sisters’ deep understanding of community.
Lesson 2: I’ve found community at the center of many church names, but rarely at the center of churches. We’ve championed young church leaders to become brand builders, and not community builders. Sadly, and as a direct result, our churches have become more brands than communities. American churches often fall prey to attracting customers excited to join a particular theological brand (or cult of personality) but reticent to engage in the hard work of relationship with one another. Both congregants and leaders are mostly good-hearted people…we’ve all simply bought into a consumer model of church that is designed to grow a loyalty to a brand or personality—not grow relationships.
I found a different mindset among Richard’s community. It was almost entirely based on relationship and building community—and its leaders bore that out. For a practical peek, I offer you my new friend Garland, who spent a solid 20 minutes discussing his heritage, his relationships, and his stories. Then I found out he was the President of the Board of Directors for Richard’s organization, Wiconi International. I thought to myself: “Oh, man! Why didn’t he tell me who he was???” That’s when a little voice inside my head whispered “He did exactly that…he just doesn’t define himself by his position like you assume. He defines himself by his relationships within community.”
Lesson 3: We are all common humans. I really love this next simple but powerful thought. Richard taught me a Lakota phrase that translates to ‘common human being”. His community had a thread of common decency, respect, and a lack of ego, that I rarely encounter in Western society. The respect extended to one another, created a safe place for people to laugh, talk, tell jokes, weep, and sit quietly together. It created a reverent foundation that assumed the good in one another. I found time and time again people sought out what was held in common and celebrated the commonality. I’m used to being in a society where people compete and try to be the big-shot…but here people seem unconcerned with titles and honored humility along with just being a decent common human-being. Ironically, there were no bridges to be built amongst us, because we were all already from the same place.
American euro-centric churches need to learn to be better common humans. Common humans are willing to forsake individualism and euro defined success for the sake of a community of others. Only then will we realize the powerful truth that is eclipsed by all our striving for success. This truth is simple—all people and cultures come from the Creator. All people and cultures are inherently valuable and carry an important piece of the human story.
The American church could take a lesson in civility and loving one another from our Native brothers and sisters.
Lesson 4: The future of American Christianity will no longer be white-washed…
Without going into a large history lesson, I’m sure that you’re aware that for centuries now, there is a lineage of groups who have laid claim to being the ‘exclusive’ arbiters of God in society. Dating as far back as the Pharisees, these self appointed Middle-Men for God feel that (for a variety of reasons) God has divinely commissioned their group to assimilate others to their particular theological and cultural bent. Faithfully, God responds each time by raising up counter-cultural movements that broaden Christianity and remove these self-promoted gate keepers.
For purposes of our conversation, the last big one of these was about 500 years ago—and it originated in Europe—producing a great cultural and theological white-washing of Christianity. European Christians (both then and now) do not simply convert people to following Jesus, no, we culturally colonize them also. For Richard, this meant away go the drums, away go the dancing, the powwows, away go all of Richard’s beautiful culture. In fact, for a time Richard pastored an institutional church; at the memorial his friends referred to this time as when “Richard was white”.
Most recently the Evangelical Church here in the USA has adamantly assumed the role of God’s Middle-Man—claiming the “biblical” right to correctly interpret the Bible and divinely dictate the social norm theologically, culturally and socially.
As this era rapidly comes to an end—my hope is that the American church wakes to its desperate need to learn from the deep wisdom of indigenous and minority communities. Leaders like Richard Twiss come from cultures that carry critical threads of theology and community building that have laid too-long dormant in euro-centric Christianity.
Currently, the American church ethos seems to pigeon-hole any leader that does not conform to a traditional euro-centic model. Sure, we allow Indigenous leaders to add some sort of a ‘seasoning’ to our already established euro-vanilla model…but we have yet to be humble enough to work together to build new cultural and theological foundations. This has to occur if we have any hope of reconstructing what it means to be common humans patterning their lives after a risen Creator. We can no longer afford to be satisfied giving lip service to a diversity of perspectives yet in practice continue to engage other genders, cultures, races, and orientations as people we’re attempting to assimilate into ‘our’ euro-centric theological, social, and political future.
Let me be blunt– I’m talking the radical deconstruction of 500 years of colonial and consumer driven Christianity —and a reconstruction that involves the beautiful myriad of cultures into which God has birthed Christianity.
Let’s tear down our cultural white-washed walls and let some fresh air in.
If we are unwilling, we may find these walls become our tombs.
Lesson 5: God is behind the broadening of Christianity—not opposing it.
Here’s one last thought I’ve pondered since I left…
I’ve witnessed an outcry amongst conservative circles of Christianity that the American Church is losing a cultural war…and there is a desperate plea for God to help ‘reclaim’ the United States as a Christian nation.
But what if we have our story confused?
What if Christians, as self-appointed gate-keepers of society, have been poor stewards, and God has tired of hearing the cries of people systemically abused by the Christian culture we’ve created?
Remember, when Jesus walked the earth, he intentionally chose to associate with— and work through the discarded segments of society. So this would not be the first time God decided to work through ‘discarded people’ to wipe away the systems of power protected by religious gate-keepers.
Today, this same thing is happening across the United States.
Today, God is widening Christianity and shaking the foundations of what it means to be a follower of Jesus, and is indeed, once again, wiping away pieces of dominant culture that have barnacled themselves to the Gospel message. Today, God is once again championing people that culture disregards as invaluable—and using them as agents of change— as full and equal brothers and sisters of the Kingdom of God, and without any need to assimilate into the dominant culture. In truth, the Kingdom of God has not changed—only our juvenile understanding is beginning to be wiped away. This is the continuation of God’s great work to perpetually pull humanity toward a common future where we finally realize that every culture is a piece of the common human pattern. Until we reach the era where we are willing to beat our weapons into plowshares, learn to love each other without agenda, and treat one another with dignity and respect— we as humans will remain fragmented slivers of who we were created to be.
Thank you Uncle Richard for gathering me to your community. I honor your life as an Elder. I celebrate your life as a brother in Jesus. I’ll work to carry on your legacy—and continue on as a common human.
I’m beyond humbled at this moment, with tears streaming down my face in seat 27B, that as a shaved head, white guy—I’ll get to be a small part of such an exciting and bold future that we will all create together.
I’ll see you soon uncle.
Jimmy Spencer Jr. (@jimmyspencerjr) is the founder and CEO of Love Without Agenda and author of Love Without Agenda: Moving Our Spiritual Goalposts from Heaven & Hell to Wholeness. He’s just a good guy trying to change the world—and himself—one act of love at a time.
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