Often called the “Hall of Faith,” the people listed in Hebrews 11 either “escaped the edge of the sword” or had been “put to death by the sword” as they followed God. In both cases, the writer of Hebrews says, “the world was not worthy of them.”
Many faithful folks have been inducted into the Hall of Faith since the time of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the others who are listed. Two of them are assuredly Wycliffe’s Richard and Charlene Hicks. The couple was “put to death by the sword” in a tragic 2005 murder while helping translate the Wapishana New Testament in Guyana, South America. Richard was 42; Charlene 58.
But what was lost has lived on, as Wapishana Christians and other Wycliffe missionaries carried the Hickses’ work to completion. Inspired by the couple’s sacrifice, the team rallied against darkness in the power of Christ’s glorious light.
The Hickses may be absent from this earth, but they are alive and well in the presence of the God of the living. They must have rejoiced with Him as 1,600 copies of Kaimana’o Tominkaru Paradan (“God’s Holy Word”) became available to the Wapishana people this past fall (see "Carried Like Cassava").
A Lasting Impression
The Hickses’ fingerprints are all over the Wapishana New Testament, and their efforts contributed greatly to its completion. The memory of the couple’s presence is also cut into the rutted roads of the Rupununi savannah, which they traversed in their Toyota Land Cruiser, its beige doors labelled in black lettering: “RICHARD AND CHARLENE HICKS.” On those trips, they visited old friends in various Wapishana villages—friends on whose hearts the couple also left a lasting impression.
At San Jose Ranch (home base for the Wapishana translation project in Guyana's remote Rupununi savannah), cotton trees that Charlene planted still grow, and the outbuildings that Richard constructed still stand. In the translation centre there, a plaque commemorates the Hickses’ contribution to the project: “In memory of Richard and Charlene Hicks, who served the Lord by helping with Bible translation into the Wapishana language from 1994 until 2005.”
The translation centre was reconstructed on the foundation of the Hickses’ home, which was burnt down the night of their murder. They named their humble abode Matariapa or “Peace” in the Wapishana language. The peace and joy they experienced while living there is captured in photo albums that Charlene lovingly crafted to show to family and friends back in Canada and the United States. (Charlene was an American; Richard had dual Canadian/American citizenship.)
One of the albums is titled “The Team,” and displays pictures of Richard and Charlene with the Wapishana translators while working, sharing meals, singing, building puzzles and playing games. Added to the thousand words that each photo already represents are “thought bubble” stickers, on which Charlene wrote thoughtful captions.
“Make sure your translation is clear, accurate, natural,” she penned on one, a reference to the principles that guide all Bible translations involving Wycliffe personnel worldwide.
Wycliffe missionary Bev Dawson (see “A Day at a Time”), who has worked on the Wapishana translation for 40 years, says Charlene was a “wonderful hostess” and Richard a “creative wordsmith.”
Dawson remembers that before they arrived in Guyana, it was Charlene who asked about practical details, like what tools they needed to bring with them. Richard, a true linguist focusing on the language itself, was more single-minded. “He was just asking questions about Wapishana,” says Bev.
“It was a perfect match. They both needed each other and made it work,” she adds. “It was just a really good relationship, a good marriage and a good team.”
On March 30, 2005, the Hickses were at a Bible conference in the town of Lethem, close to San Jose. The next day was a big one; they were planning to visit two of the Wapishana translators, Jerry and Juram Browne (see “Like Father, Like Son”) in the village of Aishalton. The trek was to be at least a six-hour journey. They decided to leave the conference early, so they’d be prepared to start their drive by morning.
Without any witnesses, what happened next is not completely known. But police investigators have pieced together probable events from the murder scene and tips from residents in the area. It seems that a little while after the Hickses arrived home, someone called out from the gate of the fence surrounding their property. This wasn’t unusual, as their elderly neighbour, who owned the ranch on which San Jose is situated, often had her hired men go ask the Hickses for medicine or other supplies.
That was likely the excuse the two men at the gate used that night. Richard and Charlene were killed in the attack that ensued. Their house was burned down after the murderers poured gasoline on it and set it ablaze.
Miraculously, the fire did not reach the other buildings in which Bev and her partner at the time, Chic Ruth, lived. If it had, Bev's computer could have been lost forever, and much of the translation along with it.
A few valuables were stolen from the property, but others weren't—leaving robbery as an uncertain motive.
“It really doesn’t make sense,” says Bev, who explains that everyone in the region knows who the murder suspects are, even though they haven’t been arrested yet. The criminals, who may have ridden bicycles, escaped across the nearby border to Brazil.
Sadness and Horror
One suspect is a Brazilian and the other a non-Wapishana Amerindian from Guyana, both of whom worked on the ranch off and on. Just a week prior, they’d even been helping replace some of the thatched roofing at San Jose on Bev and Chic’s house.
Rumours have since surfaced that the men were seen drinking at a bar before the heinous crime that night, bragging about what they were going to do. Others say the two used to sit on the ranch house’s porch, speculating about all the Hickses might own.
“I don’t think we’ll ever know what was premeditated and what just happened,” says Bev. “It just shocked and shook up everyone in the area.”
In Bev’s words, the reaction of the Wapishana community and other locals was one of sadness, loss, disbelief and horror. The murder suspects, whose arrest warrants were issued about two years ago, are still seen occasionally in Boa Vista, a Brazilian city approximately 130 kilometres from Guyana’s border. The two nations do not have an extradition agreement.
For years after the murder, locals told Bev that they wished there was some way they could tempt the men back over the border to be arrested. But neither Bev, nor any of the Hickses’ other friends or family members, have pressed the issue. Bev says as Christians, they don’t necessarily feel the need for that kind of closure. Instead, they are praying for the men.
“The important thing was for us to be able to continue the work and finish it,” says Bev, “so I didn’t want to cause problems or waves.”
The tragedy caused a definite change in the attitudes of local non-Christians, who had previously steered clear of the missionaries working on the Wapishana language project.
“I think it made them realize that we weren’t just people coming out to do something fun,” says Bev, “but we’re really serious about this, and we’re willing to give our lives because we feel that this is important.”
Hope of Eternal Life
In April 2005, memorial services in both North and South America were held for the Hickses, in locations as diverse as Nova Scotia, Minnesota and the Rupununi.
On a January morning this past year, some of the Hickses’ friends who helped plan their funeral in Guyana eight years ago stood in a semicircle around their gravesite, holding hands.
The couple’s bright yellow tomb is like a ray of sunshine on a grey day. Large, all-cap letters have been carefully stenciled on its surface: “FAITHFULLY SERVED GOD AMONG THE WAPISHANA.” A Bible-shaped block of cement at the head of the tomb lists their dates of birth and death. A flower at the tomb’s foot looks as though someone traced it with their finger in the still-wet cement before walking away, full of grief.
The Hickses had celebrated their 13th wedding anniversary shortly before they died. Their friends, who always emphasize Richard and Charlene’s “togetherness,” say it was a blessing that they died together.
Jackie D’Aguiar, a friend from Lethem who spoke at the Hickses’ funeral, says, “They always stuck together. They uplifted your spirits for the day, just seeing them, because they were such lovely people.”
Elaine Foo, another friend from Lethem, has “little memoirs” from Charlene that she treasures, including a knitted cushion cover, a plastic bag holder and other handcrafted gifts.
She remembers Richard as a handyman.
“Rich was that kind of fellow where you'd say, ‘I have these curtains to hang up,’ and he’d say, ‘Get the hammer, get the nail,’ and he'd jump up there and get it done.”
The Hickses also had a profound influence on Elaine’s son, Jason, who was 21 at the time of their death.
“They were a warm, lovely couple,” he says, “a couple that I believe should be one of the models of the Rupununi.
Jason always sensed that he and his young family were close to the Hickses’ hearts. He remembers them driving all the way to Boa Vista in Brazil to buy Jason a quality carpenter’s hammer for his wedding. And when Jason’s first child was born—a daughter who’s now eight years old—Charlene had prepared knitted gifts for the occasion.
Jason was distraught at the news of their deaths. The heartache of those dark days is still written on his face.
“The one thing that I comfort myself and console myself [with] is that they served the Lord—they knew the Lord,” says Jason. “They are home with the Lord now, and they are in His presence, and they are comforted.
“One of the things that we as Christians have, and that is very special to us, is the hope of eternal life.”
Swallowed Up in Victory
The Bible, about which the Hickses were passionate, is filled with messages of
hope. The missionary couple helped translate many of those hope-filled passages
into the heart language of 6,000 Wapishana people in Guyana and 1,500 in Brazil.
The Wapishana can now take as much comfort in the Word of God as the
Hickses no doubt did throughout their lives—
verses such as, “Death has been swallowed
up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54b).