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A little over a month ago, Rachel Held Evans passed away after a brief illness. After her death, there was an outpouring of grief from people across the religious spectrum. Just recently, beautiful reflections on her life and legacy were featured on The New York Times’ The Daily podcast.
I think like many others, most days I find myself still processing the fact that she’s gone. Her tweets, blog posts, books, and political and religious commentary had been my constant companion for the last five years.
In some ways, I’d felt like I’d “outgrown” Rachel in the last year or so. Yet her death opened something raw in me, and now that she’s gone I realized how much I had relied on her in my own journey out of evangelicalism.
At least one of my major steps in faith was due largely to Rachel’s work and influence. I’d been a casual fan of hers starting around 2012, following her on social media and periodically reading her blog. I was still attending an evangelical church at the time, but in the summer of 2015, I finally broke up with evangelicalism for good. Due to several factors, including my church’s stance on LGBTQ issues and its treatment of women, I’d finally had enough, and I left with little idea of where I might end up.
I took a hiatus from organized religion for a few months. By the end of the summer, however, I started feeling like I was ready to find a new church. But where to go? I had drawn a line in the sand when it came to issues of LGBTQ inclusion and the role of women and was fairly certain I was done with evangelicalism completely.
This is where Rachel came in. I was enough of a fan to remember that she was now attending an Episcopal church and thought to myself: “If it works for Rachel Held Evans, maybe this can work for me too.” I said as much to my two close friends who had left our previous church with me. This was shortly after Rachel’s book Searching for Sunday came out–though I’m not sure I’d even read the book yet at this point.
But that was Rachel’s power; her online presence was enough to convince me that maybe it wasn’t time to let go of church completely just yet. And her very public breakup with evangelicalism helped point me in a new direction. So one Sunday near the end of the summer, one of my friends and I ventured to a nearby Episcopal church.
Nearly four years later, I’m still a regular attendee at my neighborhood Episcopal church. It’s not really an overstatement to say that if it hadn’t been for Rachel Held Evans, I might not have stuck with this whole church thing.
Rachel led the way for us in so many ways. As for many others, Rachel’s public work–her own practice of voicing doubts, asking questions, and calling out white evangelicals–was a bridge out of evangelicalism for me, and it gave me permission to voice some of my own doubts.
At the same time, her work was also a reminder that, despite these doubts and questions, I could still belong. Thanks to her faithfulness and her witness, I gave church a chance again. And in the four years since trying out the Episcopal church, the same church Rachel had made her new church home, I’ve found that my little local church has become a place I hold dear and a place where I am dearly loved.
A little over a week after Rachel’s death, I was invited to serve on my parish’s vestry for the remainder of the year. They gave me a few days to think about it when they asked me to join but I knew almost immediately that I’d agree.
It felt a fitting way to honor Rachel’s memory–becoming more involved in my local church, supporting the work of the parish, and honoring Rachel’s role in guiding me there.