Rachel Held Evans, the progressive Christian writer who never stopped questioning the role of evangelical culture in America and whose message of radical inclusivity in the church opened the door for hundreds, if not thousands, of new voices of people of color, LGBTQ folks, ex-vangelicals and other sidelined Christians, died Saturday, May 4, in Nashville, Tenn. She was 37 years old. She is survived by her husband Dan and their two young children.
Evans, or more commonly known as RHE, was hospitalized April 14 for flu complications. During treatment, she started having seizures and was put into a medically induced coma to help alleviate the symptoms. After going to three different hospitals, she started experiencing “sudden and extreme changes in her vitals,” according to health updates from her husband Dan. “The team at the hospital discovered extensive swelling of her brain and took emergency action to stabilize her. The team worked until Friday afternoon to the best of their ability to save her. This swelling event caused severe damage and ultimately was not survivable.”
Some doctors think she may have had encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain.
The tributes and outpouring of grief were immediate following her death. The hashtag #BecauseOfRHE started trending on Twitter, showcasing her influence into every corner of Christianity.
This was RHE’s mission — radical inclusion, always another seat at the table. Christian author Jen Hatmaker wrote in a TIME Magazine tribute this week that
“A better ally didn’t exist. She was Rachel Held Evans, prophet and preacher, author and friend, generous beyond all comprehension.”
I first experienced RHE’s writings in college, when I stumbled on a book called “Evolving In Monkey Town,” (later re-published as “Faith Unraveled”) about her hometown of Dayton, Tenn. and that town’s legacy of the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial.
Both sides of my family are from Dayton. Every time I tell someone this, the follow-up question is always, “Where’s that?” and I explain its proximity to Chattanooga (only about 40 miles to the north!) and explain what the Scopes Monkey Trial was (short version: the ACLU paid for a high school biology teacher to challenge the Butler Act, which made it illegal to teach evolution in Tennessee public schools, and a media circus erupted. The trial remains the biggest event in the town’s history).
“Evolving” is part memoir, part interview session on RHE’s evangelical life growing up in Dayton, where she moved when she was 13 after her dad took a job at Bryan College (named for William Jennings Bryan, who defended creationism during the Scopes Monkey Trial), the small Christian school in town. Reading it, I saw many of my same questions about faith and my family’s hometown reflected back at me, with no judgments.
“Rachel was ‘for’ Dayton,” Sarah Bessey and Jeff Chu wrote in a tribute to RHE this week in the Washington Post.
“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.”
Indeed, in looking back at the many underlined passages in my copy of “Evolving,” this one jumps out:
“Whether we like it or not, love is available to all people everywhere to be interpreted differently, screwed up differently, and manifested differently. Love is bigger than faith, and it’s bigger than works, for it inhabits and transcends both.”
I read “Evolving” at the right time in my life, when I was exploring faith options that I didn’t grow up with. I converted to Catholicism from Southern Baptist, and although RHE stayed Protestant, her book “Searching For Sunday” was a comforting reassurance that it was OK to not have everything figured out, and it would be OK to carve a space out for yourself in your faith. My faith identity now is somewhere in between Baptist and Catholic — someone who is as at home with standing, kneeling and confessing as I am with singing “Are You Washed In the Blood” and practicing “sword drills.” I’m still figuring it out (aren’t we all, to some degree?), and that’s OK.
I say all of this not to make someone else’s death about me, but to illustrate how I’m but one of the many people who didn’t know RHE who were impacted by her words and her faith. If that message — It’s OK to question — was important for me to hear, how much better it must have been to hear for those Christians who are gay, or who felt disenfranchised because of their gender, or the color of their skin, or their political beliefs.
And now, when people ask me where my family is from, and the follow-up is, “Where’s that?” I’ll explain that it’s where Rachel Held Evans was from.
A GoFundMe has been set up for Rachel’s family to help pay for funeral costs, hospital bills and other living expenses. If you would like to donate, click here.
News also broke this week that Rachel’s last book, “Inspired,” won’t be her last. HarperOne will release her final book, “Wholehearted Faith,” in October.