Since Rachel Held Evans’s sudden death on May 4, the internet has been filled with tributes to the beloved Christian author and her work. Her willingness to be honest about her faith journey left many readers, especially those who grew up in conservative evangelical churches, feeling less alone.
I have followed and loved Rachel’s work for the better part of a decade. Her third book, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, especially influenced me.
I first read it in the summer of 2016, fresh from a breakup with an evangelical church. It was full of people I loved and who loved me, but I no longer fit in there. I was daunted by the process of finding a new church home, and Rachel’s meditations on the church—full of honesty and hope—felt achingly familiar.
The same questions that had complicated Rachel’s relationship with the church of her youth and young adulthood had complicated mine.
I found myself increasingly unsettled by rigid gender roles that prevented women from freely exercising their gifts in the church; by millstones placed around the necks of LGBTQ Christians by straight pastors and leaders who never seemed to doubt that a happy, heterosexual marriage and family was God’s will; and by an attitude to the biblical text that prized supposed doctrinal correctness over human flourishing.
In fact, Rachel had already been a guide for years as I navigated these questions, through her books and through the space she cultivated on her blog.
Rachel’s own writings, and the gay Christians whose voices she amplified, opened my eyes to the work of the Spirit in the lives of LGBTQ Christians and opened my heart to affirming theology.
She challenged me to look to the margins of the church, rather than the halls of power, to see God at work.
Even as her work challenged me to broaden my theology and expand my definition of faithfulness, Rachel also modelled what it looked like to have grace for the faith traditions and churches that had shaped her. She boldly called out harmful theology, but she also reflected deeply on the gifts conservative evangelicals had given her personally and the church at large.
In Searching for Sunday, she likened the church to “the Trembling Giant,” a clonal colony of quaking aspens. What appears to be a forest of trees is, on closer examination, a single tree, held together by a giant, interconnected subterranean root system.
“Our differences matter,” Rachel wrote, “but ultimately, the boundaries we build between one another are but accidental fences in the endless continuum of God’s grace. We are both a forest and a single tree, stirred by an invisible breeze.”
In Searching for Sunday, and in all her writing, Rachel cast a vision for what the church could be. It could be radically inclusive, secure in the knowledge that Jesus sets the table and none of us has the authority to turn others away from it. It could be committed to sitting alongside people in their pain and doubt instead of offering quick fixes or easy answers.
Most of all, it could dare to hope for Resurrection instead of clinging to the status quo at all costs.
I kept this vision in mind as my husband and I began the search for a new church home, a search that brought us to Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church in the fall of 2016.
For the first time in a long time, we found a place where our whole selves fit.
We found a church committed to listening and learning from those on the margins of church and society. We found a church that wasn’t afraid of our unanswered and unanswerable questions. We found a church that took the Bible seriously enough not to be satisfied with interpretations of it that did harm to others.
Rachel taught me, and all her readers, to love the church enough to fight for it and all that it could be.
The world is poorer for her loss, but immeasurably richer for her legacy.
Christina Entz Moss recently completed a doctoral dissertation on Anabaptist history at the University of Waterloo. She lives in Kitchener, Ont.