A reflection by Jenny Fife
Rachel Held Evans died on May 4, 2019 at age 37. You’re either grieving this “fearless seeker of truth and servant of Jesus” according to Bishop Curry or you’ve never heard of her. Google her.
I “met” Rachel Held Evans in a journey group last fall, reading her Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again. This spring I joined another journey group, reading Shameless: A Sexual Reformation by the Reverend Nadia Bolz-Weber, Rachel’s friend who gave the Dodson Lecture at St. John’s in 2017. These two women were shaking up the church with their emphasis on radical acceptance and grace.
Rachel and Nadia hosted their fifth and final Why Christian Conference at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco April 5-6, which coincided with a visit to my sister – a chance to spend two days listening to these two amazing women! Off we went and for two days we soaked up the insight, humor, joy, energy and welcome of this unlikely pair of authentic “evangelists” (I’d like to help reclaim that word for Episcopalians).
Nadia opened the conference with a welcome and confessed that she hadn’t prepared an opening talk but Rachel had. That pretty much set the stage. If you’d heard Nadia at St. John’s, you’d seen this towering, tattooed, sometimes foul-mouthed Lutheran minister veer off of her assigned topic of Luther and read about sex from the not-yet-published manuscript of Shameless (and she was brilliant).
Rachel began to share why she was a Christian, coming onstage, confessing that she would have been scared of Nadia in high school. She would have invited Nadia to “meet me at the pole” (evangelicals meet at the flagpole before school to pray). Rachel was president of the Bible Club. And, she told us, at each of the previous four Why Christian Conferences she’d either been “pumping or pregnant” (this year, her husband Dan was looking after her toddler and almost-one-year-old back in Tennessee).
Rachel was funny, warm, self-deprecating, approachable. She was short and soft and wore those long flowy sweaters we like that hide bumps and lumps. You’d want her for a sister, a niece, a friend, a neighbor. You felt like you could tell her your story and she’d be interested. She cared so darn much about the gospel, for including everyone in God’s embrace. I’ve been in the Episcopal church forever and Rachel was helping me look at faith and the church in a fresh way.
I took lots of notes as she spoke. Someday her opening talk will be available, but for now, here is some of what I caught.
“I am Christian because of women.”
“We are here because Mary said ‘yes.’”
“Easter is not as compelling as incarnation.”
“God trusted women for survival.”
Rachel reminded us that God was once an infant, and that we don’t like to think of God needing to be physically cared for. This, from a woman whose baby girl was across the country, whose husband was holding down the fort. Rachel was keenly aware that God needed Mary to take care of Him.
“I am a Christian because women stuck around. It was the Sabbath and they were worried – ‘Who will help us roll away the stone?’”
“I am a Christian because of the rich, comforting theology of God.”
The conference was wonderful. Bittersweet because it was the last one. Speakers came from across the gender continuum, budding theologians who were answering that question, Why Christian? By April, Nadia had ended her pastoral ministry, had transitioned to yoga from crossfit, and was speaking more often to wellness groups than religious groups. Rachel was also moving on, planning to lead a conference in October in Colorado, Evolving Faith.
Some people had attended all five conferences and had the stack of wrist bands to prove it. The final Eucharist was glorious – a completely open invitation to all humans. I’d gone with my 80-year-old sister, my gay soon-to-be-step-niece and the mother of her grandson, who breezily announced that she was pansexual. And none of that mattered. We were in that gorgeous cathedral where we’d hung out for two days singing, hearing testimony, meeting amazing people.
One of my most vivid memories was that of Nadia folding Rachel in a big hug, towering over this mighty woman who was in the midst of raising babies, writing, going to conferences, mentoring young theologians, exploding the Gospel and expanding it to include all.
The conference ended on Saturday, April 6. By April 12, Rachel had the flu and was asking for prayers (if we were the praying type!) from the hospital, through social media. Her condition worsened with a perfect storm of maladies and by May 4 she was gone.
You can read about her in the Washington Post, The New York Times, the New Yorker. Her online community uses words like heartbroken. We grieve for her babies, her husband. We’ve lost a prophetic voice too soon. We’ve lost a sister.
So when I look at St. John’s beautiful stained glass window with the Marys and the angel over the tomb, I’ll always remember Rachel’s words: “I’m a Christian because of women. Women stuck around. They showed up.”