My elder, mentor and brother Richard Twiss died, aged only 58, on Saturday February 9th, after a heart attack in Washington, DC. Since I met Richard four or five years ago, I felt close to him; and it’s clear from the tributes emerging since his death this weekend that many others felt the same. I know that he loved me, that he wanted me to succeed, that he welcomed me as an immigrant into his native land. I will miss him a great deal. Of course, many others knew him better, and will memorialize him more elegantly, but I want to record some of the thoughts I’ve had since hearing of his sudden illness and death.
The first time we met, my friend Denise and I ended up sharing a tall round table with Richard in a Valley Forge, PA pub. Something in the air led us to decide to tell our best stories, our wildest versions of ourselves. I felt compelled to speak of the time I took all my clothes off in an attempt to intervene with someone who appeared to be close to a violent act, in a front yard in Santa Cruz; Richard laughed with me, the laughter of one who knows that sometimes a crazy fucked-up world requires crazy fucked-up interventions. It was the first time I had ever told that story. Richard had a way of helping you to find the better version of your story, and to live from a place of amused courage.
Next time I saw him we were in Atlanta for a public conversation on post-colonial theology, empire religion, and hearing the voices that are typically ignored. I was going through some personal difficulties at the time, and he invested time to listen and care; enough to call later to ask how things were going. Richard was realistic about personal suffering, and willing to sit in the ashes with you when you were going through it.
A month or so thereafter, we were at a gathering convened for leaders to offer mutual support and encouragement on the road. We found ourselves amidst an intense dialogue about sexuality and theology; a bunch of good people trying to come to good solutions about challenging questions. I spoke up, naming my own challenge: that the religious conversation about sexuality has scapegoated LGBTQ people and ignored both the wound and the gift of sexuality granted to each human being, whatever our sexual identity; among other things, I suggested that ‘queer’, for some people, has become a way of turning an insult into a sign of strength. That, so, yes, maybe I’m queer and I delight in my queerness – God has created me different (and you too), and I delight in my uniqueness. This can, with respect and care, be extended beyond the specific reference to sexuality, and apply to any form of difference that has caused marginalization, exclusion, or dehumanization. When we retired to the pub later, I announced that the four spaces in my car were reserved for anyone willing to identify with, or as, queer for the night: not as a token, but as a way of inviting conversation about the very thing we all seemed to want to address: who is ‘them’ and who is ‘us’, and how do we make journeys toward each other when the very roads we walk on depend on structures that have already committed genocide. Richard got in my car that night, and I’ll never forget him walking alongside me in my own sense of vulnerability and loss. I don’t know if he was afraid of what people might think, or if he even cared; I do know that, to him, solidarity with the marginalized meant more to him than his own reputation.
More recently, he taught me a brilliant lesson about success: when planning a large community gathering last year, I asked for his advice amidst my anxiety and fear that it might not work. His response was priceless: in my community, he said, we’re so used to failure that we don’t judge ourselves too harshly when things don’t work out the way we wanted them to! And so, not for the first time, Richard helped me not take myself too seriously.
The last time I saw Richard Twiss, my elder, mentor, brother and friend, was two months ago; at the annual gathering that our friend Tony convenes. He led a substantive conversation about diversity in Christian contexts; and powerfully challenged us to respond to the fact that there is not one nationally recognized Native American Christian leader. My inner monologue wanted to scream ‘But Richard! It’s YOU! You are the voice we need to hear!’ Of course he was speaking from a place of characteristic humility; and it has already been noted by others that he had recently spoken of wanting to take a step back from being on the road so much, and to spend time among his people, so perhaps he was speaking out of hope that others would come forward in his place. Whatever the case, Richard Twiss’ voice was internationally recognized – and rightly so – for calling attention to his people’s experience, suffering, and gifts. I am richer for having had the opportunity to hear it. I want to learn to listen, and as I pray for his family’s comfort, and for his peace on what has now become this vast new journey, I want to commit to not forgetting what he taught me, how he showed me love, and why so many people loved him so much.