I’m still trying to process Rachel Held Evans’ sudden death a few weeks ago, on May 4, 2019. Her funeral was last week and her birthday is tomorrow, June 8. She would have been 38 years old.
She was one of only a handful of Christian authors who I could really resonate with and wrapping my mind around the idea that she is just gone has hit me harder than I expected.
I had read a few of her blog posts over the years and I heard her speak in 2014 at the Festival of Faith and Writing. To be honest, I don’t remember much of what she said at her presentation.
I’d been divorced for about 1.5 years at that point, and my ex was still popping into my life unannounced on a sporadic basis. As RHE took the stage that day, I pulled out my phone to text the friend who had first introduced me to her writing, to tell him that I was hearing her speak, and as I texted, an email notification came through from my ex. My stomach clenched and I felt dizzy and I clicked it because I knew I wouldn’t be able to concentrate if I didn’t read it right then. The email was trivial and stupid, equal parts condescending and demanding and I shot off yet another email telling him to never contact me again, but I was still reeling all the way through RHE’s presentation and the rest of the weekend, honestly.
So, I don’t remember what she said that day but what I do remember is finding comfort in her words, her voice, her presence. Her realness and the space she created with her words and actions for everyone. For me.
You see, when I’d finally made the hard decision to separate from my abusive husband, I felt abandoned by my family, my friends, and by my church community. I felt utterly alone and while I struggled through feeling like I’d failed God, that I’d done something wrong, that I deserved the way my ex treated me, while I went through this roller coaster of emotions alone, my church rallied around my ex. They showered him with love, welcoming him while they cast me out. He was actually baptized into my church a year after our divorce, baptized in the same baptismal font I’d been baptized in at the age of 9, in the only church I’d ever known since I was a baby.
So, I’m sitting there listening to RHE, and I can’t focus on the words she’s saying but I feel the comfort she’s emanating, and I think that’s why I’m struggling so much with her death now. Because she was such a comfort to so many, including me. Here I was, fighting back tears in the back row of an auditorium not hearing a word she’s saying but knowing without a doubt in my mind that all the misfits and all the failures and all the outcasts like me had a place in the Christianity she embodied, even if we no longer felt welcome in the church communities we were raised in. She gave us that. She opened our eyes to Jesus’ love when all I saw was God’s anger. And I can’t thank her enough for that.
But I mourn how cold Christianity has felt in the wake of her death. I’m ashamed of how I took her comforting presence for granted. How her books were always on my “oh yeah I need to get to those sometime soon” pile.
I finally, in the weeks following her death, read her first book, Faith Unraveled and it was everything I thought it would be and so much more. I laughed, I cried, but mostly I felt that comfort again. That reminder that the Jesus Rachel loved and embodied is the God of misfits and outcasts, the God of comfort and compassion for all. And there’s a place at the table for me, for you, for everyone who has ever been made to feel less than. And that version of Christianity is still there in the wake of her death. The path toward it feels dimmer, but maybe with everyone working together, we can light the way again. For ourselves, yes, but also for everyone who’s coming after us. Because there’s so many more who need to hear about the Jesus Rachel knew.
Photo by Alisa Williams