Who Will Be Our Rachel Now?
“What’s wrong, mama?”
My four-year-old daughter and I were riding in the back seat while my husband drove us home after a run to the hardware store. I was scrolling mindlessly on my iPhone when I felt myself gasp. Rachel Held Evans had died at age 37. The news was like a pummeling fist – I couldn’t seem to catch my breath. I felt gutted by the shock of such an unthinkable loss.
Evans grew up in an evangelical Christian church in the South. Her questions about God were not always welcome there. But despite her critics, she earnestly wrestled with the teachings of her childhood. In one of her better known works, The Year of Biblical Womanhood (Thomas Nelson, 2012), Evans challenged contemporary conservative understandings of “biblical womanhood” by adhering for a year to both the profound and absurd instructions given to women in the sacred texts.
Through her writing and speaking, Evans opened up space for wonder and granted her followers permission to question core tenets of evangelical Christianity without shame or guilt. She modeled for us a faithfulness that was ever seeking, ever evolving, and ever embracing.
Since her death in May of this year, I and many others have struggled with the question, Who will be our Rachel now? During these times marred by daily political chaos, I find myself longing for her insight and wisdom. What would she say to us about the children being torn from the arms of their parents and suffering, even dying, in concentration camps at the hands of the US government? What insight would she share about the draconian attacks on reproductive freedom while Black women continue to die in childbirth at alarming rates in the states dominated by legislators who dare call themselves “pro-life”? What hope would she manage to dredge up out of this desolate place and offer to those of us who are hungry for a good word?
Earlier this year I was invited to a breakfast gathering for clergywomen, activists, and other change-makers that was sponsored by an evangelical organization. With some reluctance, I agreed to attend. Now that I identify as a “recovering evangelical,” I enter these sorts of spaces with a certain level of anxiety. For over a decade, my ministry has focused on advocating for reproductive health and rights, including expanding access to abortion. I rarely shy away from discussing my work, but I am not particularly inclined to engage in a debate before my morning coffee. Shortly after finding my seat, the speaker for the day stepped up to the podium. “Many of us are looking for a model,“ she began. “But what if God is telling us, ‘You are the model?’”
In the wake of Evans’s death I have been re-reading a number of her books. I was struck by this line in The Year of Biblical Womanhood: “There are times when the most instructive question to bring to the [Bible] is not ‘What does it say?,’ but ‘What am I looking for?’” What I had been searching for in the months since her passing, and really for years, was a model of how to live into the calling of doing justice and caring for my neighbor. In fact I’d just spent three years writing a book about the long-forgotten and oft-dismissed women of the Bible. I was confident I’d find examples of fierce heroines who resisted oppression and rallied for justice – models I could emulate in my own work. But the deeper I got into these narratives, the more I realized that even the texts I cherished most required my critique as well as my compassion. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised by what I found – women who were flawed and guilty of abusing power – but I was disappointed nonetheless.
In the absence of a model, I considered the breakfast speaker’s challenge: What if this moment requires something we have never seen – and we are the ones to do it?
After the morning’s closing remarks, as plates and cups were being cleared, those of us gathered around the table lingered. The inevitable question made its way around to me: “Katey, what kind of work do you do?” I took a deep breath before responding: “I’m an ordained Baptist minister, and I advocate for reproductive dignity and freedom.”
Sometimes what we are most longing for is already within us. May we be brave enough to proclaim it boldly.
The Rev. Katey Zeh ’08 M.Div. is interim Executive Director of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, based in Washington, DC. She has written extensively about global maternal health, family planning, and women’s sacred worth. She is the author of a new book, Women Rise Up: Sacred Stories of Resistance for Today’s Revolution (FAR Press, 2019).