Remembering Rachel Held Evans: a love note

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I’m still struggling to believe it’s real. That she’s gone. In my mind’s eye, Rachel Held Evans stands tall and strong, a woman of valor speaking truth to power, a fearless champion of the church-wounded, generously sharing her platform with those whose stories had been excluded and overlooked. She sought us out and gave us a place to speak. She was a bridge-builder, a trail-blazer and above all, the kind of friend who came alongside and cheered you all the way to the finish line.

How is it possible this courageous warrior has been struck down by a brief, vicious illness? In our liturgies we say: “From ashes to ashes…” and yet, it doesn’t seem real until the living, breathing flesh of someone you love passes through that veil. And so, our woman of valor has passed through the veil and into the splendor of glory. We who are left behind feel it is all too soon, she still had babies to raise and so many more words of blessing to pour out upon us. Didn’t she? We need her.

And yet, this is life. This is death….Rachel taught us this. She taught us how to redeem the time. Eshet Chayil! was her battle-song of blessing and our woman of valor fought bravely to the finish.

Meeting Online

It all seems like a far off dream now: those early years of blogging. It seems like a lifetime ago even though it was just perhaps just 10 or 12 years ago. I don’t remember exactly how it happened, how I found Rachel or how Rachel found me. But I remember around 2010 we were both blogging along similar themes and soon we were sharing conversations in comment threads, exchanging emails, asking the hard questions and writing every day. Looking at her archives and mine, our peak interactions happened between 2010-2014. During those years we had extensive conversations in the comment sections of her blog, she invited me to write a guest post for her and when she ran a series called “Sunday Superlatives” (which was a roundup of the previous week’s best faith writing on the Internet) she often linked back to my blog or featured something I had written. Sometimes she emailed me to say how much she appreciated something I had written. I fell in love with Rachel during those years. She was so brave and such a tireless encourager. I didn’t feel alone. I felt like I could ask the hard questions because Rachel was asking them, too. It was a rare and special treat to wrestle with issues of faith with other faith writers online, engaging conversations, challenging the assumptions of evangelical patriarchy.

Meeting In Real Life

In 2011, Rachel and I joined a team of other bloggers on a trip to Bolivia. That’s where I really got to know Rachel in person. She was that rare combination of intelligence, compassion and generosity. She wrote and thought like a journalist—she always asked the most interesting questions and applied her amazing criticial thinking skills to the problems we were witnessing. She was also fearless. I kept freaking out about all the plane rides in small planes at high altitudes and Rachel just breezed through them with nothing more than a: “Wow, look at that view!” And during one particularly treacherous bus ride winding up and down a mountainside, Rachel and I clung to each and shrieked and laughed. “Get out your Rosary beads, Elizabeth!” she chortled. “We need all the help we can get up here!” Her lighthearted sense of humor and the deep conversations we had while traveling together formed a beautiful bond between all of us who were on that trip. After a long day of traveling, we’d all pile into someone’s hotel room and write together and laugh and talk and talk and talk. During this trip, Rachel encouraged me to start writing a book about my fundamentalist upbringing. She even offered to read some of my initial chapters. After that trip, I knew we were friends for life.

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Rachel Helped Me Write My First Book

A year later I had a book contract thanks in large part to Rachel’s encouragement. She even put me in touch with her literary agent who eventually signed me on as a client. Rachel was a rare woman. She never ever competed with other women. She was never petty or gossipy. She constantly sought points of connection and constantly and graciously offered her platform time and again to emerging writers. Rachel tirelessly cheered me on during the whole process while I wrote my book. When I was writing my book, Rachel sent me an email telling me she wanted to help get the word out about my book. And when my book was finished, Rachel wrote the endorsement that landed on the front cover: “Witty, insightful, courageous, and compelling—the sort of book you plan to read in a week but finish in a day.” I’ve memorized those words because her belief in me made me believe in myself. Her generosity astonishes me to this day.

What Rachel Taught Me About Life, Being a Writer, Being a Friend, Being a Christian

She held herself to a high standard. She DID THE WORK, ya know? When she had a question, she went looking for the answer. Rachel loved the Lord with her WHOLE MIND. I’ve never met anyone like her. So honest, so determined, so unafraid to wrestle with the hard questions.

Rachel also knew how to let others be fully themselves. She believed in a Big God. A God who was big enough to love and accept all of us. Rachel showed me what it looked like to be an affirming, welcoming, generous Christian. She also showed me that it was ok that I was prickly and asked lots of questions. Essentially, Rachel taught me that it was ok to be fully myself.

After 2014, our writing journeys took us in different directions. I continued to write about recovery from abusive religion and Rachel went on to write NYT selling books, traveling, speaking and organizing conferences to bring people together. The old days of daily blogging were over. But I always knew where to find Rachel: on Twitter. I always looked up her feed first because I always wanted to know what she was thinking about, what she was doing, who she was reading, how her faith journey was progressing. All the way to the end of her life, Rachel sought out emerging writers and promoted their work. I respect that so much. She was a true bridge builder.

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The last time I saw Rachel in person was September 2015. She was in California on a speaking trip. We met up for lunch at Laguna Beach with our literary agent. We ate a wonderful lunch overlooking the sparkling Pacific Ocean. We laughed. We talked about life and about her pregnancy. We shared stories and updates. She was so happy to bask in the California sunshine. I’ll always remember her that way. Laughing and talking and having such smart, wonderful things to say and so many ideas for bringing people together.

My Goodbye To Rachel

I feel very unmoored right now. I always looked to Rachel for leadership. I thought I’d have many more years of following her, listening to her and learning from her. All I can do is hold fast to the truth we both believed: that God’s love is big enough for everyone. And in the end, all will be well.

Rachel, I miss you. I love you. Thank you. It was an honor and privilege to know you in this short life. Eshet Chayil, woman of valor! xo, EE.