In Memoriam: Dr. Richard Leo Twiss | Sojourners

In Memoriam: Dr. Richard Leo Twiss

Dr. Richard Twiss
Dr. Richard Twiss

On Saturday, Feb. 9, the world received the news that our dear brother, Dr. Richard Leo Twiss, Lakota, co-founder and President of Wiconi International, had passed from life to life. The news was devastating, but, for the circle of family and friends that held vigil in his hospital room over three days, it felt like God had prepared us.

On the evening of Wednesday, Feb. 6, Richard collapsed from a massive heart attack while attending activities surrounding the National Prayer Breakfast. His family arrived and held vigil with friends throughout the day on Thursday. That night we learned that Richard had suffered a heart attack, heart failure, lung failure, and brain injury. According to the doctors, we would know within the next 72 hours whether Richard’s body would be able to heal or not.

On Friday afternoon, I received an email and call from Sue Martel, the editor of Richard’s forthcoming book,Rescuing Theology from the Cowboys: An Emerging Indigenous Expression of the Jesus Way in North America. As we finished the conversation, she shared that she had a vision of someone anointing Richard’s feet with oil. I shared that earlier in the day I felt called to do the same, but I didn’t know the meaning of the vision. On the way to the hospital, I read the story of Lazarus and the grave (John 11: 1-44) and felt called to read it over Richard. So, when I arrived at the hospital, I learned that during the day, Richard’s kidneys failed. I shared the conversation with Katherine Twiss, Richard’s wife and co-founder of Wiconi, and she blessed me to read and to anoint Richard’s feet. As I read, we all wept. I never noticed this before, but the scripture begins with an explanation that Lazarus was the brother of Mary — the one who anointed Jesus’ feet for burial. I anointed Richard’s feet and prayed.

In the prayer, it was clear that we were being called to believe that God was going to do a miracle. It was one of two kinds of miracles: either God was going to say “Richard, come forth!” and call him out of the grave to walk among us once more or God was going to say “Unbind him” (John 11:44a) from this broken body. “Let him go.” (John 11:44b) “It is finished … Well done good and faithful servant,” thus completing the miracle that was Richard Twiss’ life. As we stood around his bed that night we didn’t know which miracle it would be, so we waited.

When I arrived at the hospital on Saturday morning there was a sweet spirit of peace that could only be explained by the presence of the Holy Spirit. The boys played Richard’s favorite music. They held his hands. They joked and prayed … and waited. A wonderful couple from a local church came to pray over Richard. They are native Washingtonians (Asian-Americans who were born and raised here). They blessed Richard, welcoming him to this land. 

As the doctors explained the procedure for turning off the machines, there was a strong sense in the room that God was preparing us to let him go.

After some time, Katherine came into the waiting room where we were all huddled and announced that Richard had passed away. We all wept and held each other.

When we re-entered the hospital room, we gathered around our brother, father, husband, and friend. Terry LeBlanc officiated a traditional cedar ceremony. The boys took sprigs of cedar, crushed them and laid them over Richard’s hands, feet, and chest. Terry prayed that the smell of cedar would stay with Richard as he walked in the new place, reminding him of the land he walked on in this life. Terry sang and prayed in his Mi’kmaq language and read Psalm 27, a favorite Psalm of Richard’s. 

After some time, we all said our private “goodbyes” and then we joined hands and did a round dance around Richard — right there in the hospital room. It was beautiful.

We stayed with each other throughout the rest of the day, toasting Richard and telling funny stories over great wine back at the hotel later. Then we went out to dinner and laughed some more, telling jokes and stories. 

It was all at once devastating and sweet.

I can’t help but think back to the moment when I anointed Richard’s feet. It is clear now. We were anointing our brother’s feet for burial. As I moved the oil over his feet, I repeated the words that Richard’s editor had said to me when we talked earlier that night: “Beautiful are the feet of the one who brings good news.”

Dr. Richard Twiss brought us all “good news.” 

His Lakota cry broke through the morass of confusion that surrounds race, ethnicity, culture, and the proclamation of the Gospel. His was among the first voices to challenge the church to examine its “good news” for the corrupting influences of cultural empire. Through his first book, One Church Many Tribes: Following Jesus the Way God Made You, Richard taught me the importance of contextualized ministry. He also embodied for me and thousands of others the freedom that comes when one exercises the embrace of “self” and “other” that theologian, Miroslav Volf, talks about in Exclusion and Embrace: A theological exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation

Good news, indeed.

A-ho … and Amen.


Lisa Sharon Harper is director of mobilizing at Sojourners. She is also co-author of Left, Right and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics and author of Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican ... or Democrat.

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