On Rachel Held Evans and Losing a Fellow Traveler

When I learned of Rachel Held Evans’ death, I sat down on the kitchen floor and sobbed. I screamed. I punched the cabinets and floor. At one point I was screaming so hard that I threw up. The rawness of my grief shocked me even as I felt it.1 I did not know Rachel. I hadn't actually read any of her books (I've got Inspired checked out now). I didn't follow her on Twitter. But I spent the rest of Saturday crying.

While I wasn't a dedicated follower, I had engaged with her work over the years. I had read a lot of her blog posts. I had read interviews. I'd heard her speak. I had seen some tweets with which I connected at a visceral level. Her statement “the story of Jesus is the story I'm willing to risk being wrong about,” is a real summation of my own faith choice. But until yesterday, I don't think I'd have listed her as one of my spiritual influences.

As I process this grief and numbness, I'm starting to realize that her influence on me was not that of doctrine or politics, places in which we sometimes differed. Instead, I see her as a different kind of Tabitha (whose life was very important to me), because of the way she changed the lives of those around her. Coming out of a religious background which treats women as less-than, she loved, honored, and supported women.

I was grateful to see these words of Austin Channing Brown. This was how I perceived Rachel's life from far outside. Austin confirmed it from her own experience:

“While it's certainly true that Rach was [not] afraid to spar with male evangelical leaders, I guarantee the seeds of her legacy that will produce the most fruit are the women she inspired, uplifted, supported and conspired with.”

“Rach didn't just tweet about women she admired. She created conferences with them. She featured us on her blog. She invited us to speak on stages that included an honorarium. She introduced us to her literary agent and her speaking agent. She was so generous.”

“Those are the seeds that are going to outlast any sparring with evangelical male leaders. Her deep support of us- of other women- just might change the world.”

“My heart hurts so much by this loss. Eventually I will detail her generosity in my own life, but today, I just want to say that she wasn't just a fighter. She was filled with deep love for us.”

Or as Candice Marie Benbow wrote, “Rachel held open doors she didn't have to.” She did. But although she didn't have to, this loss would be not nearly so affecting if she had only been a writer grappling with her own faith. She did not have to open doors. She would not have been the woman we're mourning if she hadn't.

Just as when Tabitha died, so many of my siblings, and especially sisters, in the faith are mourning, from tributes to her life to the Psalmic/Ecclesiastic:

“this god i pray to fucking sucks, i want a refund. i want one that works. fuck this.”

or

“Dear God, I am so immensely grateful and fuck you. My heart hurts. So very much.”

These are how I feel. I grieve deeply that we lost an outspoken Millennial woman who was not afraid to grapple with hard questions and admit doubts. I had taken for granted that we would have her so much longer. That, unlike those of prior generations, she would still be around when I was old and we would both be growing and changing and grappling with hard questions.

She was not my friend. But she was my fellow traveler.

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.

Notes


  1. It was also the two month mark of finding out that my father was going to die (he died 3 days later), a loss I'm still in the middle of experiencing and processing. The uncomplicated grief I felt at Rachel's death certainly opened the floodgates of that more complicated mourning. ↩︎

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Ruth Kitchin Tillman
Cataloging Systems and Linked Data Strategist

Card-carrying quilter. Mennonite. Writer. Worker.