Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of five columns written by Ron Byler, Mennonite Central Committee U.S. executive director, to mark 100 […]
Dear Rachel Held Evans,
I’m writing with an overdue note of appreciation. Last week’s news of your passing shook me at a deeper level than I anticipated, and I wondered if putting words on paper would help me process some of what I have felt.
I think my first memory of you was hearing about your second book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood. I’m guessing my reaction to hearing about an effort to live according to a legalistic reading of Scripture was typical of many short-sighted folks at the time. Hadn’t A. J. Jacobs already tried that and written a book about the experience a few years prior? Was yours just going to be the female version of that?
Despite my reservations I picked up your book anyway.
In its pages I found a powerful narrative of your journey to make sense of a biblical text that was both life-giving and frustrating. You had the ability to weave humor in with frustration, sarcasm in with reverence, all the while blending a passion and commitment to Scripture even when it didn’t seem to make much sense. Your writing felt like sitting down with an old friend, and you invited your reader to share in the journey and experience with a candid intimacy I had rarely experienced in theological texts.
It wasn’t long after finishing that book that I ordered your first published book, not wanting to let go of that experience. I was pleased to find that your first book was just as compelling as your newer one. It provided my own faith transition and journey with context and perspective. It reminded me that we were all on a journey, from wherever we begin, to wherever we are now. Again you gave permission to your reader to share in your frustration with church tradition and to examine a better way of engaging Christian faith and spirituality.
Your most recently published book was your best one yet. When you read a passage from your not-yet-published book during your visit to State College, Pennsylvania, not a sound was made in the venue space. Everyone hung on the words you had written, as they illuminated the biblical story of Hagar in new and profound ways.
Rachel, your honesty validated my own journey. Your transparency about your own childhood allowed me to own my conservative upbringing and understanding of theology as part of who I was, and helped me make sense of who I had become through high school, college and seminary. Your story was validating because you were, without realizing it, telling my story, and the story of so many of our peers.
Your commitment to a God of love and inclusion, rather than a God of anger and exclusion, provided me with words that gave clarity to who God could be. And thanks to Amazon’s book-suggesting algorithm, finding and buying your books led me to many other authors I would later learn were some of your dear friends: Nadia Bolz-Weber, Sarah Bessey, Pete Enns, Austin Channing Brown.
It is not an understatement to say you helped make me into the kind of minister I am today. In fact, it is a very good possibility that without your influence, and the influence of many of your peers and my own mentors I would not still claim my Christian identity.
A few years ago I finally got to meet you in person when 3rd Way Collective co-hosted your visit to Penn State. I ended up with the privilege of picking you up from the airport. I remember texting a few friends with a celebrity-influenced kind of enthusiasm, hardly believing I was going to actually meet you face to face. Minutes into our short drive you were cracking jokes about how hard it is to keep cars clean when you have kids making Cheerio dust, sharing with me your excitement about having just found out you were going to have your next child (and worried about feeling nauseous during your time with us), and asking deep questions about my work and my personal call to campus ministry. You spoke clearly about your own need to find personal time in your unique kind of ministry, and how you had been learning to set boundaries that provided yourself and your family with space to rest. I was amazed by your ability to make people feel feel valued almost instantly, and your presence made even a 15-minute car ride feel like sacred space.
It was a gift to watch you interact with the people who had shown up to hear you speak. You took countless photos and answered far too many questions. You took even the most narrow-minded or naive questions and answered them with sensitivity and honesty. Your time with us felt like watching someone who had so clearly discovered exactly what they were meant to do and who they were called to be.
At the end of your visit I felt like I was saying goodbye to an old friend. In that space, and for the many months until recently hearing about your death, I had assumed I would have your voice with me for the rest of my life. My assumption was that you would continue to author relevant books about how to re-imagine faith, theology and being a part of humanity. I expected you would continue to use social media to widen the circle of inclusion and to speak out against hatred in so many ways.
Even though your life was cut far too short, you have given the world an incredible gift in the many ways you spoke out for what you believed to be good and true. Thank you for your willingness to continue to wrestle and engage with a faith and a tradition that was often not ready for your prophetic words. Though our hearts are broken, you will continue to inspire.
Rest in peace, rest in power, and rest knowing that you have had an impact on countless lives who will continue to work for a better world in your memory.
Ben Wideman is campus pastor for 3rd Way Collective at Penn State University in State College, Pennsylvania.
Photo: Rachel Held Evans. Photo by Vada Snider.
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