Rachel Held Evans, 37, passed away this morning. My heart is in shock, but deeper down I really understand that we lost an important writer in these turbulent times.
Many of us who have emerged from a fundamentalist upbringing feel like we’ve lost a family member today. Evans had become an important voice for many he past 10 years as we watched the church we grew up in increasingly embrace a political form of institutional racism, homophobia, and sexism. Evans gave us space for lament, but also for realization. Our current political moment is not a moment, but a culmination of institutional problems that some of us had been blind to in our churches for years (and this includes me). Evans’ work was convicting because it challenged us to not be ignorant, and that in the face of revelation our only charge was to stand for justice.
Rachel Held Evans was our voice, helped us find our voice, and helped us use our voice. Her writing has kept me sane the past couple years, but it also has felt like she’s walked a journey with me out of the confusion and darkness I found myself in a few years ago.
Her work was rooted in justice, and demanded that our hard questions be answered in empathy and love. She called out the systemic toxic sexism, racism, abusive culture, and patriarchy that is embedded in white Evangelical church culture — she was a critic who loved the church and its people but who also grieved what it had become in America.
One thing I loved about her work is she constantly was repping underrepresented authors and voices. Through her work, I got a steady stream of recommendations for people to follow on social media and work to read. I heard voices and read ideas from people who never populated the churches and Christian institutions that were part of my upbringing, and it changed me forever. Better still, Evans made sure we were hearing from LGBT voices, people of color, and others who don’t normally have a seat at the table, and not through her but rather directly from them. It was valuable allyship, but it was also modeling how it ought to be done.
But I’ll let you read the voices who are saying it more cogently than I am. This Twitter Moment has a lot of them captured.
I want to add something about what Evans meant to me as a journalist. Jack Jenkins with Religion News Service tells a story that many journalists can affirm:
I’ve had a couple interactions with Evans. I had hoped to base a chunk of the book I’m working on around her work (I don’t lament the loss of potential source material so much as the possibility of an in-person conversation; it’s a goal that gave me life and animated my work). She represents a new phase in religion writing in the U.S., and she will be remembered as a trailblazer.
But I will tell you something else I got from my interactions with her. She is the first person I have known in the church who was truly affirming of the work journalists do. Not of me (“you’re one of the good ones” was my favorite backhanded Evangelical compliment) but of the work itself and how meaningful it was.
Rachel Held Evans knew the work journalists do is important. She stumped for it constantly in her writing and on social media because she knew that the search for truth — any truth, regardless of the answers we find — was compatible with the faith journey. More to the point, she was consistently someone who understood the hard conditions journalists work under. The low pay, the constant threats of violence, the cultural derision of people just trying to do their work honestly.
Jenkins’ anecdote struck me because she encouraged reporters even in disagreement.
Imagine using your light in such a way rather than taking the path too common among Fundamentalists I’ve known, ripping the news media and treating us like enemies or the devil himself. If that sounds personal, it is. My friends in journalism are being threatened and demonized daily, many from quarters of the U.S. Evangelical church. Attacking them is attacking me.
It was partly this constant sniping and condescension that took me away from the pews. I will admit to times of bitterness and lashing out in anger and pain; the relationships in that culture run so deep that confronting abuse cuts against relationships that go back years. But Rachel’s work has been healing for me the past couple years. I’ve learned to confront that attitude and rest in lament, but more importantly that I’ve given myself permission to get out of a situation that was killing me inside. The church has become a place of harm for many of us; I left because people like me weren’t wanted, and I’m learning to make peace with that because of her writing.
Rachel Held Evans gave me hope I could return someday. I’ve spent today crying for what we’ve lost. It feels selfish to want her with us still, because I feel like we still need her voice. I have a feeling she’d tell us we have that voice too.
But we lost something important today. The world feels like a lesser place tonight without the hope that tomorrow will bring us more of Rachel’s writing. How desperately we still could use her in 2019.