Sarah Bessey and Jeff Chu are authors and, with Rachel Held Evans, co-curators of the Evolving Faith Conference.
Above the desk where she wrote the books, tweets and blogs that reached millions, our friend Rachel Held Evans had a small sign: “Tell the truth.” Rachel, who died last week at 37 after a sudden illness, would look up at this reminder to recenter herself. She wanted to tell the truth about the world as she saw it. As a progressive Christian writer, that often meant engaging in theological debates and calling out injustice.
But we misunderstand her if we see her primarily as a renegade and an eager sparring partner. She never positioned herself simply “against” anything. To tell the truth is to recognize Rachel for who she was — someone who, inspired by Jesus’ love for her, poured out uncommon love and worked relentlessly “for” the good of all people, whether they agreed with her or not.
Rachel was “for” words — beautiful, thoughtful words. Her writing brimmed with wisdom and wit, authentic storytelling and heart-rending language. And how she loved the Bible. While her relationship with Scripture evolved, her respect for it only deepened, moving her to devote her last book, “Inspired,” to its stories.
Rachel was “for” knowledge. An irrepressible learner, she delighted in theology. She wrestled with sacred texts and peppered scholars with questions, in a way that put seminarians and journalists to shame. Her intellect was remarkable, and her humble discipline and steady (if often incorrect) refusal to believe she was the smartest person in the room made her formidable.
Rachel was “for” Dayton, the small town in East Tennessee where she’d lived since age 14. She loved its green, rolling landscape and especially its people. Outsiders might have asked how a progressive daughter of a conservative town could feel so at home, but to Rachel, the question answered itself: She may have disagreed with them sometimes, but Dayton’s people were her people. She honored them, wanted the best for them and insistently stayed among them.
At the same time, all people were Rachel’s people. Rachel was “for” an all-embracing vision of Christ’s church and the relentless inclusion of refugees and those suffering poverty, of LGBTQ people, of women and especially women of color, of the unseen and unheard and swept-aside. She recognized the real geometry of God. She used her writing to build the bridges so many of us needed to get back to God’s love, to one another and to the church. And in a world that covets power, cash and influence, she lavishly gave away all three. She centered the marginalized, quietly offering expertise, introductions, endorsements, speaking invitations, money and more.
Rachel was “for” Jesus; in many ways, she would have gotten in much less trouble if she hadn’t believed so deeply that Jesus meant what He said. She was especially for Jesus’ table. At every conference she hosted, Communion was served, and the table was always open. She knew how important its tangible reminders were, especially for those told they had no business imbibing the bread and wine.
Rachel was “for” her husband, Dan Evans; “for” her young son; “for” her daughter, who turns 1 next week. When she stood at Dayton’s outskirts with a sign that read “DAN IS AWESOME,” yes, it was a stunt during her year of literal biblical womanhood (Proverbs 31:23: “Her husband is respected at the city gates”), but it was also simply a declaration of affection for her college sweetheart. And once, when she was caught onstage during a Q&A with a fussy baby in the wings, she didn’t press on; she stopped, went backstage and brought her daughter out to finish the session — one hand around her baby, one around the microphone. She modeled the integration of faith, family and vocation.
Ultimately, Rachel was “for” the abundance of ordinary ways we encounter God. Everything she did pointed to these encounters: feeding people, opening her home, stirring our laughter, attuning our ears to the predawn song of a mockingbird. Since she died, it has often felt as if we are longing for morning — and perhaps there’s a lesson in that, too.
One of Rachel’s favorite books to read to her son was “The Dark,” by Lemony Snicket. It tells of a boy who learns not to be afraid of what he can’t see. “Hi, dark,” he says, with ever greater courage. Rachel walked with us through the dark, urging us never to fear and reminding us that we are loved. She told us there was always room for us and our messy complexity. And as we struggled with uncertainty all around, she always returned us to her core conviction: We are loved. We are loved not just by her but also her all-embracing Jesus, with whom she now rests.
It’s the love her whole life was “for.”