Richard Twiss, Speaking Plain Truth, and Promoting Diversity at Christian Conferences

By Ken Wytsma 3-21-2013

This past weekend I attended the memorial for a very dear friend and amazing individual, Richard Twiss. Richard, who was a descendent of the Sioux and Lakota tribes of South Dakota, was a scholar, writer, speaker and thought leader. Richard was also a follower of Jesus.

Richard was both one of the most personable and charismatic individuals I’ve ever met. He had a way about him. I’ve never known someone so authentic and full of love as to make everyone he spent time with feel unique, special and valuable. Richard was also one of the sharpest prophetic voices I’ve ever heard. He was unyielding with logic and his respect for truth. He was hard as nails when it came to excuses from others who would try to compromise truth. Truth, for Richard, was unwavering.

If I was able to ask Richard today how best to honor him, I know that — after talking about his concern for his wife, kids, and grandkids — he would expect me to use my voice to speak truth.

In fact, I think it would confuse Richard if I, or any of his other friends, left unspoken his arguments, his call and his critique of modern American Christian culture on behalf of indigenous people and other people groups who have been marginalized or oppressed.

One of these areas of injustice where Richard helped open my eyes and shape my thinking is the problem of power structures and the differences in opportunity within the evangelical world with white males on one end of the spectrum, and minorities and women on the other.

An area where this shows up prominently is in the lack of diversity on the main stage and on the roster of teachers and presenters at Christian conferences and events. In fact, Richard and my relationship began on this issue as he challenged and exhorted me with regard to The Justice Conference when it was in its infancy.

All one has to do to see the lack of diversity at conferences is to open up the latest of any number of Christian magazines and look at the full-page conference ads. It won’t take long and you won’t have to look far for the lack of diversity in speakers to become apparent.

It can be hard for organizers to include other voices in planning as well as get outside their comfortable circle of friends (who often look and think a lot like they do) and find a diversity of voices who can also speak on issues of theology, justice, leadership, and any host of religious and evangelical topics.

Speaker diversity was never an issue I felt was my responsibility to champion. I’m not Hispanic and my kids, who watch “Dora the Explorer” on TV, know more Spanish than I do. I’m not Native American, even though I live an hour away from one of the largest reservations in the Northwest. At the end of the day, even though I’m the son of an immigrant, I’m still western and white. As much as I have cared about this issue and wanted to support my friends, I’ve always felt like my lack of ethnicity made this a topic to which I couldn’t authentically speak.

I don’t feel that way anymore.

In addition to reflecting on Richard’s legacy in my life, I’ve grown increasingly aware in the last few days of the sheer magnitude of conferences without diverse representation. I look at the ads online or in magazines and am beginning to understand in a deeper way how this hit Richard and how it appears to many of my ethnic friends.

I’ve begun to realize that this needs to be my issue, not simply in support of my friends or because it is true, but also because I am a white man. I’m realizing, like has always been the case with civil rights and public equality, there needs to be a plurality of voices speaking to the issue of diversity including voices who are learning and being challenged as they go. To acknowledge truth, Richard might say, comes with the ethical imperative to join its chorus.

Helping build diverse speaker platforms is something I need to work harder on. It is something we all need to work harder on. For most of us, this is a topic we’ve never really thought much about.

Ultimately, however, the lack of diversity in conference planning, speaking, and organizational leadership isa justice issue. It reaffirms and reinforces the stereotype that only white faces are smart enough, creative enough, and powerful enough to teach, lead, and inspire the body of Christ.

Neglecting ethnic and gender diversity as a predetermined and responsible value is a subtle way of creating or perpetuating a form of class distinction whereby non-white men and women by implication, come off as inferior or “less than.” Not only does it deprive young people of various ethnicities and young girls of heroes to learn from and aspire to, it also robs white Christians from being exposed to countless heroes and heroines from different cultures and backgrounds they need to see and learn from. Lack of diversity hurts some and affects everyone.

In this conversation, the push back can sound something like: “What about the great number of quality white male voices that people need to hear from that will have to be eliminated if we limit how many white speakers can be at a conference?”  The answer is, what about the great number of people of color and women who we need to hear from who have already been eliminated because we haven’t given them the same opportunities for exposure?  To perpetuate a system we inherit is the same as creating the system anew for those who come after us. To pass along is to create. We are either building a diverse representation of leaders for a diverse church or we are facilitating a poor and unjust representation of a dominant culture church.

Richard Twiss taught me a lot this way. He argued that after 400 years of missions work with Native American communities, most evangelicals can neither name a single Native leader nor have ever seen or heard a Native speaker at a national level conference. This, by any and all standards, would seem like a failure of leadership development and empowerment. Such epic bottom-line failure certainly couldn’t last in the business world! The simple logic of this still haunts and challenges me. What is it about the structures and the nature of the conversation that would either preclude or discourage the development of prominent Christian voices from within the Native American Christian community or any other ethnic minority?

The truth, for many white male evangelicals, like myself, is that this conversation is scary. It means an increase in competition for speaking engagements or leadership opportunities. It can feel unfair. The truth, however painful, is that the increase in competition and difficulty to be heard will only feel the way it has for all other groups till now.

I’m not trying to be down on white men. I’m trying to be up on equality. It’s not that white men with something to say are bad. It’s not that all conferences get it wrong, either. It’s that I’m learning as a conference organizer, the need to seek diverse representation in decision making and leadership as well as the necessity to avoid the mistake of looking only to one subgroup of people when slotting speakers. To the degree we do, we are consciously or unconsciously discriminating and thereby doing a disservice to the Kingdom.

Of course, diversity doesn’t trump competency, character, or having a message. All leaders and teachers have and should have a high bar of accountability with regard to teaching and influence. It’s just that we need to operate with the theologically confident belief that God has developed and will surface credible, diverse, and dynamic voices to lead us into a fuller, more equitable, and more representational picture of the body of Christ.

I’m not an expert on race. My background isn’t in diversity or reconciliation. I am personally growing and being challenged in these areas. I can, however, as much as anyone else, use my voice for what is right and just. Like Richard, we all need to be willing to speak straightforward truth and stand alongside our brothers and sisters made equal in the image of God saying, “We can do better. We must do better!”

Ken Wytsma is the founder of The Justice Conference and author of Pursuing Justice: The Call to Live and Die for Bigger Things.

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