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In the week after Rachel Held Evans’ death on May 4, I read over and over again on Facebook and Twitter people articulating this sentiment: “My heart is broken.” I feel the same. The majority of people who are articulating this reaction never met Rachel—a Christian, evangelical best-selling author and speaker—and yet we feel we have lost a dear friend.
I think many of us are feeling suddenly overwhelmed with this feeling: Rachel made me feel un-alone. She used her gifts to beautifully express things I felt and couldn’t say, or things I said but felt un-understood. She helped take away the un- feelings. She used printed pages and computer screens to make a home for so many of us who needed a reminder that God can handle our doubts, that Jesus takes us in despite what others say, that God’s kingdom is bigger than we’ve been told.
We mourn because that unique voice is gone.
We mourn because, despite never meeting her, this someone was real and vulnerable and transparent enough that we knew her. She became a friend on the journey of faith.
Rachel articulated with grace and beauty so many things I had felt and experienced in my faith journey and continuous struggles with doubt. Her words empowered me and other women in ministry to take our place in the line of Miriam, Deborah, Anna, Lydia, and many others who shared the gospel.
I found out about Rachel’s death while preparing a sermon I was to deliver the next day on Cornelius, a sermon about God bursting our expectations of the gospel, about welcoming the outsider, about evolving faith. I stood in shock as I read the news on Facebook, and then unexpected tears shook me as I thought about this woman my age, with two tiny children, who had in her short life done so much to welcome the outsider, to invite us to let God burst our expectations of the gospel, to vulnerably express her evolving faith. I scrolled through and found friend after friend rocked by her death and expressing the impact her writing had had on their life, reading quotations from her books, all of which related so well to the story of Peter and Cornelius.
When I returned to my sermon edits, and finally selected a quote from Rachel to end my message with, I thought about the fears I had that people might be put out by some of the challenging statements I was about to say, my worries that I might make people uncomfortable, that I might make myself uncomfortable. Then I thought of Rachel’s bravery, the way she stood up for the marginalized, the way she coped with receiving hate mail through making origami, the way she had courageously shared Jesus’ love and grace with so many.
I have to admit that I haven’t really understood the collective mourning of celebrities until now. Online mourning seemed sentimental, an insincere excuse for catharsis—how could people be so moved for someone they didn’t know? Not that RHE (as she’s affectionately known on the internet) was a celebrity per se. She was a leader, a writer, a social justice warrior, an empathizer, an advocate. It hurts particularly to lose someone so young, at 37 years old, and so suddenly.
But in the way of her death, the internet—the initial place of her writing and impact—has provided great comfort for me. It has become the location of shared grief over her loss. Blog posts, news reports and Facebook statuses paid honour to her legacy. Over the past month, the Twitter handle #becauseofRHE has filled with story after story of the ways she touched others’ lives: “Because of RHE I returned to church,” “Because of RHE I realized Jesus accepts me just the way I am,” “Because of RHE I found my voice.”
Online relationships and communication are often justified in being critiqued as superficial. Social media and messages through screens run the risk of stripping us of our humanity. And social media has also been the source of great pain and frustration for people like Rachel over the years, who faced great backlash for their perspectives. But the internet can also provide powerful platforms for ministry, spaces of genuine vulnerability, where people who feel alone read the words of others and say, “Till now, I thought I was the only one.” Rachel provided those spaces, and in her death, people have come together online to grieve and remember.
Rachel’s husband announced on her website that her funeral would be livecast on June 1. Her family provided this gift to her many followers, readers and friends, allowing her vulnerability and generosity to continue even in her death.
In announcing that Rachel Held Evans’ funeral would be shared online, her close friend and fellow author, Sarah Bessey, tweeted, “please feel free to gather together under the hashtag #RememberingRHE or #becauseofRHE – we don’t want you to grieve alone during that service so look after each other, okay?”
As I watched people in her life I came to know through her writing—her parents and sister, her husband and children, her youth leader and later pastor—people who had been characters came to life as they allowed their mourning to go public and continued her ministry to those of us who have known her from a distance and been deeply touched by her ability to come close to people who have never met her in person. (Can this be a small metaphor for the incarnation?) Her legacy continues online and through her books, and God continues to work through her words.