I met Rachel Held Evans on October 30th, 2015. She didn’t know it then, and neither did I; but the night I met her, the course of my life took a sharp turn.
Picture this. It was 2015, and I was a passionate, fast-talking, self-conscious 22-year-old. For the past few years, I’d been studying Religion at a rigorous liberal arts college. Raised secular, I had started studying with intent to become an academic; but somewhere along the way, I’d tripped and fallen headfirst into faith. Six months earlier, I’d been confirmed. As new Christians go, I was still in diapers.
And somehow, in that same timeframe, diaper-clad baby-Christian me had found a platform. I’d been blogging for years, but in the last six months, my blog had been steadily gaining steam, from 2,000 to 20,000 to 200,000 hits a month. Two weeks before meeting Rachel, I’d spontaneously announced a small creative challenge on my blog: a Bible journaling challenge for Advent that I had thought up literally a half hour earlier. Overnight, 800 people signed up. Suddenly, I had to deliver.
I was home from college that semester, having declared a leave of absence in a haze of depression and defeat. This Advent guide lit a match in me. I started reading, researching, and writing, and once I started, I couldn’t stop. For one week, I sat, seemingly possessed, on my parents’ couch, and wrote a book. It was short — just some 80 pages — but I poured my whole soul into it, barely stopping to eat something or shower. In those few days, I felt God closer to me than I ever had; the words arrived in my head faster than I could type them out. In the meantime, the challenge had grown to 2,500 people. The book was set to launch on October 30th. And then I found out Rachel was coming to town.
I’d been reading Rachel’s books for years. Long before I’d found a home in the Christian faith and adopted it as my own, I read her books and blog posts with a kind of inspired hunger. I loved her honesty, her humor, and how her deep dedication to a life with Jesus wasn’t encumbered by questions, but ignited by them. At the time, I saw her willingness to share that as humility. In hindsight, I know it to be courage.
When I heard Rachel was coming “to town” — in actuality, to a town about an hour from me — I begged my godmother to take me. Kristen was my brilliant, loving, hysterically funny godmother-by-choice. She was sick then, already, but she said she’d love to go, so we drove together to the Christian college in suburban Pennsylvania where Rachel was slated to speak.
I was extremely anxious. First, I was scared to see, and maybe meet, Rachel, whose words had played such a big role in my life that I was almost worried she wouldn’t live up to them. But second, going to this event meant missing the release of my Advent book. As the audience for it had grown, so had my mounting feeling of public pressure. There were thousands of people in the Facebook group for this challenge, and I felt the weight of their eyes on me as I shared about my beliefs, either in that group or on my blog. I was so new to the faith, but so deeply possessed by a love for, and desire to do right by, God.
For years, I had longed for a spiritual home; a community that said “you’re ours. Come here, sit down; you belong with us.” I had finally found it, and yet, I worried didn’t meet the mold of what a perfect Christian girl ‘should’ be. I was a political liberal, a strong supporter of the LGBTQ community, a survivor of abuse. My greatest fear was that all my hope and faith and love for God wouldn’t be enough; that people would read these words that had flowed out of my soul, words that praised God for the life He had given me and the world He had built, and still find something so wrong with me that they didn’t just render the book worthless, but also outed me as a fake.
That night, I listened to Rachel speak as she wove together her own stories of faith and doubt and fear and conviction. I sat on my hands as she talked about my favorite book of the Bible, Ruth, and what it taught her about the model of courageous, unconventional, biblical womanhood. She poured words of encouragement and faith into the cracks that fear had etched into my soul. And when the time came for questions, I raised an anxious hand.
She called on me. I had readied a question about Ruth, but when my mouth opened, instead I heard myself ask, nervous and wavering,
“How do you handle it when someone looks at your beliefs or your life, and says that you’re not a true Christian?”
I wish I could find a video of her talk so I could quote Rachel’s answer verbatim, because I’m sure that what she said was thoughtful and funny and true. But the truth is, I don’t remember exactly what she said. I mostly remember the way she said it: like a kind and loving older sister, but also like one who is about to kick someone’s ass. I hadn’t planned to ask this question, but I think I did because I was scared of the path before me, and she seemed like someone a few steps ahead. And I like to think that maybe, when she saw the nervousness in my stance or heard the way my voice quivered, she looked at me and saw the person she’d been once, before the harsh and unforgiving spotlight of the conservative Christian media had found her true and beautiful faith, and tried to call it fake.
I think this because she sounded at once deeply welcoming and fiercely protective. She told me that what I felt and believed were what made my faith true, and that nobody could take that away. The way she said it made it feel real. We spoke for a few minutes after her talk. She hugged me and told me we should meet up if she was ever in the area. I was elated.
That night, I came home and saw that my Advent guide had risen to briefly be the top-selling Bible study on Amazon. Between that and Rachel’s words, I felt like God was smiling down on me.
I met Rachel once more, almost exactly a year later. In the months between our first meeting and now, the community around my Bible studies had grown to 5,000 people. I had written and published three more guides since we’d last met, the most recent of which was called Women of Valor, inspired by Rachel’s chapter on a particular verse from Ruth in one of her books. The week before, I’d gone to Washington, DC as part of President Obama’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge; now, I was in Chicago to hear Rachel speak at the Why Christian conference. I was a senior in college, thoroughly exhausted by everything I was doing, and feeling beaten down by the voices of criticism that would comment in my Facebook group or email me about the trueness of my faith. The fears I’d had back in October had realized themselves, and whispers of condemnation were working hard to etch deeper fractures into my sense of belonging. That conference, and the few minutes that I spoke with Rachel there, were like balm on the wound. She had a way of making you feel like you belonged, and your story mattered.
I wish I could tell you that it had been enough; that my faith stayed strong and I kept writing. But the truth is this: a few months later, I graduated college and moved abroad to live with my long-term boyfriend. Our choice to live together, unmarried, coexisted with the love I had for God and the calling I felt to not just study, but write about faith. I got angry comments, condemnation emails, and even a blog post in my honor about the need to rebuke and renounce false teachers. At first, the criticism chipped away at my voice, and I wrote less and less often about God, trying to hide from the rejection that I’d feared for so long. But eventually, it also ate away at my faith. It was as though the shame and rejection I felt from this community that I loved so much, made me feel unworthy of the love of God. I always thought that sin drives a wedge between us and God because it separates us from Him. But looking at this time in my life, I wonder if sometimes, we drive the wedge ourselves, when the shame makes us feel like we need to run. Like Adam and Eve in the garden, hiding in the bushes so they don’t have to face God with the naked truth about what they’ve done, I turned away from God for fear of not being enough.
My godmother Kristen grew sicker, and then died. I felt more and more alone on the spiritual road; I stopped going to church, and stopped praying. As winter set in in my new Dutch city, far away from my family and friends, the world grew stale and gray. That winter seemed to last a year, but slowly, it turned to spring. I started therapy to process an old, damaging relationship; I formed new friendships and started a new job. But even as some splotches of color resurfaced in my world, my faith lay cold and dormant. I was too afraid to pick it up, to run my hand over the leather cover of all that hope, and blow the dust off of its gilded pages. It was too scary, after all this work, to look for a seat at God’s table, only to be told again that I didn’t deserve one.
And then I heard, on Twitter, that Rachel was sick. After a hospital stay and an allergic reaction to some antibiotics, she had been having seizures and was placed in a medically-induced coma. So I prayed, my words choppy and rusted from lack of use. In the days following that news, I prayed for her; for her husband, Dan; for their two young children. I prayed for healing and recovery; for courage; for light. As I prayed for her, and the words shook off their rust, I also began to pray for me, asking God if He could help draw me near to Him once again. Even from her hospital bed, Rachel cracked a door in my heart for God, which in turn sparked a flicker of hope that maybe there was still space for me in God’s family.
When, over a week later, I found out that Rachel had died, I was devastated. I sobbed like I had when I’d lost Kristen; like you do when you lose a sister, a mentor, and a friend. Because somehow, that’s what Rachel was to me, even though we only spoke a few times. Her books, blog posts, tweets, and sermons, made me feel like I, too, with all my questions and trauma and mess, had a place in the Kingdom. Her courage made me feel like there was a place for me and my voice; her convictions pushed me to grow. For years, I had felt like Rachel and I were on the same path, with her up ahead, lighting the way and showing me it was safe. Without her, how could I dare walk on, not knowing what lay ahead?
In the hours after her family announced Rachel’s passing, I scrolled Twitter and Facebook, looking for others to put into words the way that I felt. But I found something else; something unexpected. It seems that, unbeknownst to me, I was never the only one on this road. There is a generation of Christians — queer Christians, disabled Christians, Christians of color, Christian women – who felt pushed to the margins. Rachel fought so hard to make us feel included at God’s table; to tell us that we were not out of the reach of God’s love. She is nearer to that love now than any of us here on earth can know, and so it seems that the lantern she carried has gone out. But in the absence of her lighting the way for us, we are striking our own matches to light the way together.
I’ve seen more than one person comment that, without Rachel’s courageous voice to inspire us here on earth, we will have to gather our own courage, and raise our own voices. For the last few years, my voice has faltered in fear. But there is nothing that I can do to honor Rachel’s life and legacy more than strike my own match. Her lantern may be out, but her light lives on.