Many people knew Rachel Held Evans far better than I, and have captured her generosity, kindness, and fierce love. I don’t have much to add to the mammoth matrix as we make meaning of her life and ministry. But what I do want to add is this: very few straight people — especially straight people who don’t have a queer family member — really get what it means to be an ally to the LGBTQ+ community.
RHE listened to the stories of queer people. When my wife, Rachel Murr, wrote the first memoir of a lesbian coming out of the evangelical sphere (Unnatural: Spiritual Resiliency in Queer Christian Women), she had a hard time getting Christian leaders to pay attention to it. Stories of gay Christian men were being lauded — and rightly so! — but, again, women’s voices were suppressed. My wife attended a Gay Christian Network conference (now Q Christian Fellowship) — where she was denied leading even a workshop — and handed RHE a copy of her book. As my wife puts it, “Conference officials tried to pull her [RHE] away, but she made it clear that she had time for me. She read my book when she didn’t know me from anyone and then she promoted it. She has been an ally and a hero.”
But RHE didn’t just listen, she acted. So many “progressive” Christians feel like they’re allies by just changing their minds. But to be an ally you can’t sit in the same old pews and be generally quiet about the injustices you see in your faith communities, and you can’t continue supporting systems that make it clear they have no interest in changing their exclusionary policies.
My wife reminded me that the World Vision fiasco of 2014 was when RHE decided to leave evangelicalism. That was when the organization implemented queer-friendly hiring practices and offered same-sex spouse medical and retirement benefits and then quickly rescinded the policy after thousands of conservative donors decided they’d rather see children starve than have an organization they support hire openly gay people. In this post from 2014, Rachel wrote: “I’m not sure I can defend a label when the label has come to mean something in our culture that isn’t worth defending anymore and when it’s been made abundantly clear that I’m not welcome at the table anyway.”
At that point, she joined the marginalized. I’m queer and was decidedly kicked out of evangelicalism. Even if I wanted to fight for a seat at that table (which I don’t … I think it’s super damaging for LGBTQ+ to continue doing so), I couldn’t. So why do straight “progressive evangelicals” continue fighting for seats not worth having? Privilege they’re not willing to give up. They don’t want to leave churches they love and where they feel included. Or, if they’re pastors or authors/speakers, they don’t want to give up the money and influence that comes with the evangelical tag.
RHE gave up her privilege. She left her church and she left the nest in which she was raised and nurtured because people she knew and loved weren’t welcome there on equal terms.
I co-pastor a church with Ken Wilson (another straight ex-evangelical who gave up his immense privilege), and probably 1/3 of our congregation identifies as LGBTQ+. We were thinking of using RHE’s book, Inspiried, for a class on how to read the Bible, but I noticed it was published by a company that I knew wouldn’t hire openly queer people. So I popped her off a message asking her why she decided to continue working with that publishing arm, because it felt weird to ask my queer congretants to spend money that would benefit an organization that would discriminate against them. She wrote back, saying she’d been under a three book contract signed years before and, now that it was complete, her next book would be with a different publishing branch for that very reason.
She left her church. She left her denomination. She left her publisher. All because queer people couldn’t participate on equal footing. That’s courage, conviction, and leadership. I respected the hell outta that woman for that.
Those of you who believe LGBTQ+ people are good creations of a good God, but who are sitting in non-affirming “progressive” evangelical pews: learn from this woman. Leave. Find your home among the outcasts and misfits — the company of the marginalized, the company of Jesus. Help us imagine and create something new. That’s where RHE found her true friends, and that’s where she found sustenance.
She once told me that, if she lived in Ann Arbor, she’d attend my church. Oh, how I wish she had — the fun we would have had wrestling with how our shared tradition can bring life, justice, and joy to the world around us. To honor her legacy, let’s all live our lives in full prophetic mode. If the whole danged lot of us who resonnate with the authenticity with which she approached her faith summon the courage to be allies to people of color, women, LGBTQ+ people, immigrants, and other non-majority groups … well, we could change the world around us for the good. Just look at the ripples one truthful person made! We all feel them.
Live as RHE lived: bravely, vulnerably, and with a heaping load of honesty.