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Ken Wytsma

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

Posted: 04/03/2013 1:36 pm

A few weekends ago, 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 regard to truth. He was hard as nails when it came to excuses from others who would argue with truth or try to compromise truth in a timid or political manner. 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.

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 we do) and find a diversity of voices who also can 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, however. 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 any more.

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, maybe Richard would 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 and the neglect of diverse representation within the typical speaker line-up of Christian conferences is a 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 ethnicity 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." Lack of diversity hurts some and affects everyone.

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.

The truth, for many white male evangelicals, like myself, is that this conversation is scary. It means an increase in competition for speaking engagements and 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 difficult necessity of avoiding 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.

Again, diversity doesn't trump competency, character or having a message. 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 can 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 growing and being challenged in these areas myself. 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!"

 
 
 
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