This guest post is written by Left Hand Church community member Jody Rae.
I didn’t know Rachel Held Evans was as famous as she was. I only knew her as the niche-y author of Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, a book-length rescue rope I grasped hold of when my faith floundered in the mire of what I now know was white supremacist Evangelicalism. Over a weekend of turning trembling pages, her book changed everything for me. In it, I found validation for myself and others, those of us who never found a place in faith communities that branded The Other as inherently deceptive and dangerous. Dude, we’re all just trying to jam a chair up to a table that is boldly labeled “All are Welcome”, but instead we’ve been rudely turned away, or told to sit on the floor, or instructed to return after the meal is over to pick the scraps off greasy plates and sip from backwash cups. But for many of us, Rachel was one of the first people to beckon us towards a longer table, with plenty of room, where Jesus miraculously sits next to everyone all at once.
Did I know I was waiting for permission, from anyone, to ask taboo questions? Did I need permission to sit comfortably in murky ambiguity, rather than squirm in the certainty of suburban, middle-class interpretations of scripture? Did I expect someone like RHE to confidently swoop in on solid, sturdy homemade wings of stone tablets wrapped in ancient parchment, her soft talons gripping a magnifying glass and a cup of cocoa, indicating her preparedness for a lengthy study session on Jesus-in-Context? And did I expect her to lift me out of that oppressive pit, at once taking my breath away and replenishing my lungs with the fresh, clean air I learned to survive without for so many years? Of course I didn’t. Her rescue mission was so covert, so unassuming in its approach, few of us saw it coming, or else gave up hope before it arrived.
So I was stunned to see her tragic illness and death publicized in mainstream media, such as the Washington Post, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and the New York Times. It’s not that I believed she existed only in the Twittersphere or on her own speaking circuit. Of course I knew she led a counter-cultural movement of ex-evangelicals and progressive Christians, or anyone who merely wonders if our spiritual salvation hinges solely on a die-hard allegiance to a specific set of church-sanctioned rules. But I mistakenly believed our little subculture has remained unnoticed in the grand scheme of things. That’s the slightly aloof cynic in me, standing on the outskirts with the proverbial cigarette dangling between my lips. In any event, RHE’s steadfast message never wavered: that all are worthy and welcome in the Kingdom of God. She responded to our tweets and publicly sparred with her fiercest critics and harassers. This is an indication of how well RHE connected with her readers: We did not know how famous she had become.
And not only that. Some of us are left wondering who comes next? Who will fill this massive void in our community? How do we find a replacement for someone like Rachel Held Evans, and do we even want to? Aren’t some of us secretly hoping to preserve her legacy by sealing it in a tomb? If we wanted, out of respect for a renegade theologian who knew every law and how to break them, we could simply let the spirit of her tireless work rest with her. But is this the most effective way to pay homage to a trailblazer that bucked the system and threw caution to the wind? I don’t think we’ll do that. After all, we’ve heard of something like this happening before: A rebel dies and the movement is left standing in the aftermath to ponder what comes next. Am I comparing the death of Rachel Held Evans to that of Christ’s? Of course not. But a type of resurrection? Yes, absolutely.
It is important to grieve. It is a mechanism by which we heal, and there is no single right way to do this. But we must do it, one way or another, consciously and purposefully, however imperfect it may be. And, ready or not, we must get back to work even if we are still crying, or we’re angry and want to break stuff, or we haven’t cried at all yet, or we just want to kneel a little while longer where we first gasped and fell to the floor. But even the work of Jesus would not have resurrected with him had it not been for the faithful few who continued the work he began, albeit imperfectly. We would not be followers of Jesus if not for them.
When I read Rachel’s book in 2015, I wept for my lost time stuck in ineffective spiritual isolation, but I laughed at her plainspoken, ain’t-this-some-BS observations about church culture that, when thoughtfully examined, is pretty absurd. But ultimately, I was encouraged. Women, divorcees, and LGBTQ believers are permitted and called to lead faith communities. It was like learning a new language I didn’t know I already spoke. Rachel’s book alerted me to the fact that there are others like me, and I should go find them. If not for Rachel’s book, I might not be a member at Left Hand Church.
Rachel and I are 24 days apart in age. That we might have been peers in another time and place feels that much more poignant for me. That she was able to amass such a vast platform in her young adult life is noteworthy in and of itself, but more so was her ability to stay true to who she was in body and in spirit. She honored the person God made her to be. She honored the person God made all of us to be, and she helped amplify so many important voices in our society.
At Left Hand Church, we’ve heard Paula tell us, “The call toward authenticity is sacred, and it is holy, and it is for the greater good”. And aren’t we grateful Paula answered that call? I believe RHE answered that calling as well. I am certain that we at Left Hand Church are answering that call. This will look different for some of us, but it is us: We are the ones who will help resurrect RHE’s legacy.
I learned of Rachel’s passing mere moments before Avengers: Endgame came on screen in a movie theater. I fought tears while thinking of her babies and her family, and all of her close friends. And later in the movie, Queen Frigga says something that made me think of Rachel: The measure of a hero is not how well they succeed at being who they are supposed to be. The measure of a person, of a hero, is how well they succeed at being who they are.
May we honor Rachel’s memory each in our own way. At Jen and Eric’s house, there is plenty of room at the Community Dinner tables, and all are invited. Heatherlyn dedicates her platform to a diverse range of voices in our community. Paula tirelessly travels the world to personally connect with members of her audience, and offer kind, gentle encouragement arranged neatly on a leafy bed of facts and figures. Aaron is a powerhouse, sometimes literally, for newly-activated churches in regions where LGBTQ-affirming congregations were once an unrealistic goal. I know that we at Left Hand remain committed to providing a safe and joyful church for everyone. Go forth, Men and Women of Valor.