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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.
Your journey is so similar to mine. I met Rachel twice and had her sign my favorite chapter in “Searching for Sunday”- the one about Pando.. She laughed and said, “Oh, you DO know my work.” I attended three of the four Why Christian events including the last one in SanFrancisco. They announced that it would be the last one….little did anyone grieving that fact know that we would be grieving for another reason so soon. I feel for her close friends and Dan. Their grief is overwhelming at times but they soldier on. Ironically, Rachel’s last blog post was about Ash Wednesday and death. Thank you for this post. I’m right there with you.
Paths, ideas, cross at the right time … thank you for your tribute to her – I didn’t know her, and was only cursorily acquainted with her work … though it was keenly evident to me that her journey out of evangelicalism and her reflections upon that deliverance were hugely important for so many making, or trying to make, that same journey. Her contributions to the life of the American Church are inestimable, with life-bearing fruit to continue in those whom she helped liberate.
The Episcopal Church welcomes all. I’m glad to see many people leave the Evangelical movement and come to welcoming Place such as the Episcopal Church. I hope that as you leave things behind, bad theology, exclusivity, marginalization of women in the lgbtq people, that you will also leave behind your bad music. Embrace the Anglican tradition.
I haven’t read any of RHE’s books but knew of her and sort of followed her from afar. And I appreciated her voice… especially how she spoke to those in the Evangelical world who were struggling with faith and doubt and finding a place at the table. I admit a few times I’d think to myself “why doesn’t she just join the Episcopal Church and leave all that pain behind?” And then she did.
Had I stayed in the Reformed church a bit longer I probably would have devoured her books and eaten up her words because I would have needed them. But I joined the Episcopal church a few years before Rachel. I left for a different reason (married a Roman Catholic so a compromise was necessary) but I stayed for the same reason. The Episcopal church became home. I learned to love the liturgy, the music, and finally the theology (well, most of it). I certainly love the radical hospitality that the Episcopal Church offers to anyone who walks through its doors.
I’m glad Rachel had those few years of experiencing that radical hospitality before she died. She was a brave soul and the world is a better place because she was in it.
Thank you for telling your story and paying tribute to Rachel Held Evans. My most recent blog post was about her too. I quote her from Searching for Sunday: “I was surrounded by the people who knew and loved me best in the world, yet it was the loneliest hour of my week. I felt like an interloper, a fake.”
I felt like that too, and made changes in my life. For me, the ELCA feels like the right fit.
Having attended three of the four Why Christian? conferences like Jan, what impressed and helped me was seeing how gracious RHE was. She genuinely loved all kinds of people. She taught me to get beyond linear thinking and bitterness, and to be guided by love and grace above all else. I pray that I can have a fraction of the impact she had in her short life.