The evangelical and questioning blogosphere was a different place when I first entered it back in 2010. I, for one, wrote under a pseudonym. I was afraid that if it was publicly known I’d been expelled from Bob Jones University (and that it was because I’d had sex) that my dad would be asked to step down as an elder at his church and my father-in-law might be asked to step down as pastor at his.
Processing my time at BJU turned into processing evangelicalism and fundamentalism at large. I began to notice the extreme disconnect between what I’d been taught a good, loving person looked like…and what my current Christian communities behaved.
And that’s when I was introduced to the writing of Rachel Held Evans.
Rachel Held Evans was a NYT best-selling author of several books focused on Christian living. On April 19 of this year, she was put into a medically-induced coma due to non-stop seizures resulting from standard treatment for a bacterial infection. She died May 4, leaving behind a husband & 2 small children.
I’m not entirely sure how I found her blog. My online community at the time was almost exclusively former BJU students and faculty. From there, I found writers like Sarah Moon, Dianna Anderson, Sarah Bessey, Jamie “The Very Worst Missionary”…and Rachel.
If only I could fully explain how much I needed to hear what these women had to say. I was hurting, reeling, trying to find my way in the world after having my faith so thoroughly shaken. And when I found Rachel’s writing, and then received A Year of Biblical Womanhood as a gift and devoured it, I knew — if Christianity were tenable, if there was a version that was good and right, it had to be the Christianity Rachel championed.
She even linked to my writing once, in one of her Sunday Superlatives. A great number of my readers and therefore many friends came as a result of the platform she gave me. I felt so honored. And it brought me no end of joy to see the graphic that Eve Ettinger asked me to design for the Spiritual Abuse Awareness Week displayed right there on Rachel’s blog.
For a while, we followed one another on Twitter. We even were Facebook friends, though I won’t pretend that we were anything like close. We were more acquaintances than anything, but to be connected to her, however casually, made me feel seen and valued.
And that Hebrew phrase she used to encourage so many of us! Eshet chayil. Woman of valor. What a battle cry it was! What a balm to wounded souls who had so often been pushed to the margins, silenced, and shamed. We persevered. We were women of valor.
Rachel and I weren’t even casual friends the last several years. Not after she and Nadia Bolz-Weber publicly defended Tony Jones.
That was such a time of upheaval in progressive Christian circles. So many of us looked up to both women as champions of survivors, using their platforms to unveil injustice, tireless leaders in the face of abuse. That’s why hearing them dismiss allegations of abuse and reiterate their plan to work with the abuser…it was crushing.
I unfollowed Rachel — and a slew of others who defended Tony and threw Julie under the buss — at this point. I’m not sure which of us unfriended the other. But I needed to distance myself from the fray. A survivor of sexual abuse myself, enduring domestic violence at the time but unwilling and unable to identify it as such…I simply couldn’t continue walking the same path.
In recent years, I heard from several people that Rachel came to regret her actions and words regarding the Why Christian conference and Tony Jones. I was already an atheist at this time, but I was glad to hear it. I still believe there is a non-traumatic way to be a Christian, and Rachel seemed to be someone who could do that and show others how, as well. I wish she had addressed it as publicly as she defended Tony, Nadia, and herself. But I recognize that sometimes simply doing and being better is the path that doesn’t re-open old wounds.
Regardless, it’s still incredibly difficult to process these emotions in the wake of her death.
I deeply appreciate her gentle steady way of living and questioning things and making room for those of us who also wanted a healthier life within our faith. She created spaces for us to grieve and heal, and uplifted our voices when no one would listen. Eve worded it so well: Rachel wasn’t angry, and that allowed us to be angry. Her calm patience validated our anger and allowed others to hear us.
And yet there is still such disappointment and anger at how she publicly initially defended her decision to work with an abusive man. I’ve written before about the difference between making a mistake (however large) and having a pattern of harmful behavior. And she was human. Of course she made mistakes, and I do believe that awful decision doesn’t define who she is. But it was still enough to have done damage to so many who looked up to her as someone safe.
So here I am. Processing and meditating. I want to honor Rachel’s memory without discouraging the feelings those of us who were hurt and disappointed are having now.
Rachel Held Evans changed the world. She challenged me on how to hold accountable people I looked up to when they made decisions I thought were wrong. And she did make my world a better educated, more compassionate, more loving place.
Back around 2014 or 2015, a friend asked me to calligraph the words “eshet chayil” for a tattoo design. I played with a few options, meditating on the phrase and what valor looked like in practice. I found myself revisiting the phrase this month, as a meditation and expression of grief at the loss of someone so good and kind and willing to do the work of helping and healing.
I’m so incredibly sad that Rachel Held Evans is gone. But I hope this small artistic tribute expresses the appreciation and affection and gratefulness I have for her and her legacy.