Just scrolling through the tweets on the hashtag #BecauseofRHE is enough to give a flavour of the impact and legacy of writer Rachel Held Evans, who died last week following a sudden illness. Obituaries in the Washington Post, the New Yorker plus numerous tweets from the likes of Bishop Michael Curry, Brene Brown and Hilary Clinton show the reach of her work.
But it was the countless “non-celebrity” tributes that were most moving. People on the edges of faith, ready to walk away from fundamentalist, exclusive theology who testified to the way Rachel's writing had saved them from leaving it all behind completely. Through her blogs, her books and her speaking she continued to affirm that there was enough room for everyone, that theologies of division and hierarchy needed to be gently dismantled to make way for a new, all-embracing faith. I found parallels with the tributes paid to Jean Vanier, who died a few days after Rachel. Both these gentle souls quietly looked for those on the margins and invited them in.
I first came across Rachel on Twitter, maybe 8 or 9 years ago. Her blogs on a range of subjects spoke to me and many others looking for an “alternative” to the black-and-white theology of conservative evangelicalism. We wanted to find ways of following Jesus, of honouring scripture and of serving our communities without the problematic questions of “yes, but what about those people?” Her confessional, conversational way of writing was accessible to many and the ease of social media meant that communities naturally formed around Rachel and her writing. “I was reading a blog by Rachel Held Evans the other day” became code for “I’m on the progressive end of Christianity, I’m affirming, I’m trying to be inclusive and welcoming”. As the New Yorker tribute to RHE affirmed:
”She fiercely insisted that God’s love included everyone, and she attempted to offer those who’d been shunned by the church a way to return.”
On Good Friday this year, I didn't feel much like entering into the drama of the liturgy. I felt that there was enough drama in real life. I could see the imprints of the cross everywhere. One of the holiest things I did was take part in a Twitter vigil for Rachel who had, at that time, been in a coma for nearly a week. The prayers went up on twitter under the hashtag of #PrayforRHE. Heartfelt prayers for healing, recovery and wholeness. So many of them a variation of the words "I don't really pray anymore, but for Rachel I will" or "I'm here praying because Rachel kept me from walking away from faith". A litany of intercessions, of laments, of modern-day psalmists bringing their fear and doubts to God.
So many people have clung to a dying faith because of Rachel’s writing. I think that’s because she modelled that kind of attitude to faith – the kind of faith that was big enough for doubts and questions and hurts.
One particular blog post has stuck in my mind the over last week. One Lent she embraced a practice of turning her hate mail into origami. Rachel came under fire often and was used to people telling her what they thought of her position on certain issues.
“I’ve been making origami off and on for forty days now, letting my fingers pray out little swans and sailboats and flowers and foxes, and I’ve learned some things: about reverse folds and crimp folds, about trial and error, about patience, about retracing steps and following directions, about forgiveness, about letting go, about redirecting some of my anxious and self-focused energy into purposeful acts of creativity and healing, about building bridges, about asking for help.”
Seeing the streams of tributes pouring in, I realised this was what she was doing for so many: taking the hurtful words and making something beautiful out of them.
Rachel’s vocation was in amplifying the voices on the margins. Not speaking on their behalf, but being the mic through which they could be heard.
So many women, LGBT people and people of colour tweeted how they were preaching at church the day after Rachel’s passing because Rachel had affirmed and encouraged their calling. So many blogs and articles came out saying “I wouldn’t be writing if it weren’t for her.” I include myself in that.
I’ve spent time listening to Rachel this week, as various podcasts reissue their “Rachel episodes”. I hear in them a prophet: an articulate, funny and wise woman who was a breath of fresh air in the stuffy corners of church and theology. In her conversation with Jen Hatmaker she summed up what was the driving force of her work:
“I always think about the people I meet when I'm traveling and like in a book signing line, and they tell me their stories. I always think about them when I'm kind of pushing and fighting. I always, always think about the mom who hugged my neck and cried so hard, I had tear stains all over my shoulder.
She said, "Thank you for teaching us how to better love the gay community. I only wish it had been in time for my son." ….
….then that made me feel like I needed to, as much as I could, use the platform that I have to try and listen to and advocate for and share the stories of people who, for whatever reason, have been kind of marginalized or left out or pushed to the sidelines, so that I don't have to hear stories like that anymore from moms like that. No mom should have to go through that.”
And yet, she recognised
“I think I've shifted in the last few years to realize that it's not just about me, a pretty privileged white, Christian girl opening up the table, opening up the table to the marginalized. It's actually, you know what needs to happen, is I need to be in the margins having them serve me communion.”
In her writings Rachel returned over and over to the ancient Jewish notion of “Eshet Chayil”, the Woman of Valour from Proverbs 31.
Instead of Proverbs 31 being a measuring stick to remind us of how we fall short, she learned the intention and named it for the blessing it is. She heard it around shabbat tables and brought it to thirsty souls—a generation of women who longed to hear this blessing.
The tributes that her passing has inspired prove just how much she has inspired a generation of us to learn what it means to live the way of Eshet Chayil. We have lost a great woman of valour and now have the great task of building on her legacy.
This blog was written by IC supporter and Disability Conference planning team member, Emily Richardson.
Rachel Held Evans was a giant of inclusive Christianity. You can find out more about Rachel and the books she wrote here.