I met Rachel Held Evans once. My friend and I picked her up from the airport because she was coming to speak at our university. On the way from our small college town to Indianapolis, I remember thinking what a crazy thing it is to write—to put yourself in a situation where strangers are picking you up from an airport and you are fully aware that they know more about you than you will ever know about them. I was thinking about where to place my excitement. I didn’t want to come across as “too excited,” and I wasn’t sure I could “casually” mention that I’d read every single one of her books and that even following her on Twitter made me stand up straighter.
In true form, Rachel was generous with us in the short amount of time we spent together. Rachel asked us about the challenges of attending an evangelical college, listening to and, what honestly felt like learning from, what we were saying. At the time, I was quietly working with some friends and trusted faculty to start a campus group for students to safely and confidently talk about sexuality. Rachel, listening intently, briefly interrupted me to say, “This is the work, Kinsley! This is it—I’m so glad you’re in the middle of it.”
This small moment, I believe, is what is so magical about Rachel—that among the beautiful tributes of her friends and colleagues since her passing, there’s been a small army of voices expressing similar moments to mine: Rachel in some short moment speaking life, offering encouragement, naming and blessing the good work others took on. She so fully embodied what she believed that she was able to make small moments have significant influence on those she was, even briefly, around. The multitude of these stories is a testament to Rachel’s authenticity and shows the confidence she had in people, sacred people of God, to make the world better.
For the last few years I’ve essentially bowed out of the middle. I’ve quieted, I’ve stopped writing, I’ve been too tired to engage, I’ve lost confidence and care. I’ve been outraged, of course, by various things, but only in my living room. I’ve been so unsure about where my voice belongs that it didn’t feel like anyone was speaking for me anymore, not even Rachel.
I’m not really sure how to get back in the middle of things. But I know that through these years of quietness and disorientation, Rachel’s charge to me has never expired. I have Rachel’s presence in the world to look to when my body and my words are tired. I have the example of Rachel’s public life in which she, fueled by a strange fiery kindness, continuously loved those who simply refused to hear what she was saying. Through her writing I learned that questioning and wandering are faithful acts, that they are perpetual, and to force them into a “season” is dishonest. This is something I know that I want to teach to others. Rachel’s refusal to give up allows people like me to find their way back to the middle of things. She’s lined the path with lanterns; she’s left as many crumbs as possible, and she’s saying, “This is it, guys. This is the work.”
Kinsley Koons Whitworth lives in Durham, North Carolina with her husband where she reads books, goes on walks, and keeps up with an impressive amount of tv shows. She works at Duke Divinity School and moonlights as an editor. You can read her tweets at @kinsleywhit.
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