Our Rachel.

When I first heard the name Rachel Held Evans, I made one major assumption. I thought she was a white woman writing for other white women. I knew she had a popular blog, and I heard she wrote a book called A Year of Biblical Womanhood. But I didn’t pick it up until a huge announcement came from Lifeway Bookstore. They weren’t going to sell her book in their stores. That was major. A prominent white woman not being able to sell her Christian book in Christian bookstores would mean a hit to her sales for sure, but it also was a significant power play. Rachel would have to decide if she would alter her manuscript to make it acceptable or not. She chose “or not”.

The prevailing story was that Lifeway wouldn’t sell her book because of her use of the word “vagina”. She later wondered if that was the whole reason… but suffice it to say, the issue was that Rachel was being too extra. At first she was willing to “clean it up” but then she heard from all of you. Bolstered by your adamant voices that she publish the book as she wrote it, she made her decision. She wrote on her website, “I’m disappointed, of course, and not just because I’ll take a hit in sales. While Lifeway certainly has every right to choose its own inventory, I think the notion that Christians should dance carefully around reality, that we should speak in euphemisms and only tell comfortable, sanitized stories, is a destructive one that has profoundly affected the evangelical culture as a whole.”

Now, if you read A Year of Biblical Womanhood you know that Rach was questioning a lot about white, evangelical culture before the Lifeway controversy. But I think Rach began to see that if even she was a white woman could be punished, pressured, pushed aside- than what did that mean for the rest of us who didnt carry her privilege? This moment was a spark in Rachel’s unwavering commitment to fight systems of exclusion.

When I picked up her book and laughed my through it, I never imagined Id soon hear from her. I had just started this blog. I began so sweet and gentle and here-allow-me-to-teach-you-all-the-things-dear-ones. But as I watched the country treat our first Black president with hatred and disdain, as I read about Trayvon and Mike Brown, as I watched a little black girl get assaulted by police at a pool party and dealt with my own rising fears following Sandra Bland’s case, my writing quickly shifted. And Rachel found me.

Back then, my blog was just a baby. I had very few followers on social media. I never really intended to become a writer. I just had no other avenues for talking about the things I was most passionate about. So my blog became my outlet. But I was mostly talking to myself. Until Rachel popped up in my email and said, “Would you be interested in being featured on my blog?” I couldn’t believe it! Overnight my follower count grew and suddenly I had this thing called an audience. I wasn’t just talking to myself anymore. I was writing and people were reading.

Then Rachel joined forces with Nadia Bolz Weber. The pair decided a new kind of conference was needed. A conference full of testimonies. A conference that asked, “in light of all the shit in the world, why the hell are you still a Christian?” Rachel and Nadia decided not to ask all of their famous friends to be speakers. Instead they found a bunch of misfits. The only thing we had in common as a group was a fearlessness of dropping f-bombs. Other than that, we were from different backgrounds, different denominations, different family structures, difference races, different, different, different. And the success of the conference was entirely dependent on the audience of Rach and Nadia because they purposefully chose to uplift new voices.

Those who attended the first Why Christian conference know what a powerful community those two women created for everyone. What went unseen was the mentorship Rachel and Nadia provided behind the scenes. They brought us in a day early. Gathered us into one room. Sat us down in a circle. And said, “What do you want to know?” For a couple hours they answered every question we had about writing, publishing, speaking, money, travel… anything we wanted to know. They pulled back the veil on how one becomes a “writer and speaker” as a career. Kind. Generous. Funny. Honest.

It was my first time meeting Rachel in person. And I was sick as sick can be. Rachel took care of me. She gave me her stash of medicine. She had volunteers go get me more medicine. She watched over me as I slept on the couch in the greenroom between sessions. And when it was my turn to hit the stage, she was right there, steps away, making sure I wouldn’t fall over.

That group of women she gathered together have become such faithful friends. We call ourselves The Hedge because we are still a collection of misfits who like the f-bomb.

After Why Christian, Rachel didnt disappear. She offered me a personal introduction to her speaking agent, who decided to take me on. When publishing houses started expressing interest because of the blog, Rachel made a personal introduction to her literary agent, who decided to take me on. At every step in my career, she has been there. Cheering and supporting and making shit happen.

I have tried to read through all the emails she sent. The advice for marketing my book when you have just given birth to a human. Advice for choosing an accountant. Advice for traveling with kids. Advice for choosing an agent, a publishing house, an editor. Advice for advances and royalties. Advice for calming my anxieties. Celebrations over the little things. Encouragement. Reminders- not only that she believe in my voice- but why she believed in my voice. She was always specific about what made each voice she valued so special.

I once emailed her to ask what I should do about all the requests I was receiving for “a quick coffee date”. She gave me some great advice about boundaries. But then she wrote, “Of course there are exceptions. I make a special effort to respond to anyone who is coming out for the first time, because its such a big deal and I want that first time to be a good experience. And I usually take time for parents of LGBT kids. They are special to me. So know who is special to you, even as you think about boundaries.”

That’s who my friend was.

She was a champion of inclusion- not just in theory… not in some vague sense that writers can often get away with. She was a true champion- in real life- with her platform, her money, her time, her contacts, her access.

Just before my book released, I was shooting my shot everywhere i could to get it into the hands of people I admire. I reached out to Rachel. “Want to do something really, really silly with me?” I asked. “Want to DM Ava DuVernay about my book?” Rachel took exactly zero seconds to say, “Yes, I want to shoot that shot with you.” We both knew it was the longest of long shots. She didnt care. She believed impossible things were possible. And she never underestimated the mischievous nature of the Holy Spirit ( a phrase she used a lot).

Generous is the word I keep coming back to. And she was a lot of other things, y’all. Funny. Kind. Grounded. Analytical. I mean what a big, beautiful mind. But she was also generous… to me.

Just today, I received my very first royalties check. And all I want to do is text my friend who found my blog, who encouraged my writing, who introduced me to a literary agent, who promoted the book endlessly, who believed I could be a writer before I believed it. Im not entirely sure what to do with myself now.

So I think what I’ll do is what she did. Here is an author you can support today:

Rozella White is a wonderful human who just released her first book Love Big. Her book explores many kinds of relationships in which we can choose to Love Big, but since I know you all love racial justice as much as I do, here is just a sliver of an excerpt:

All too often in conversations about racial justice, people jump immediately to talk of reconciliation. No one wants to directly address the harm that has been done. But true reconciliation requires facing hard truths head-on and giving back what was taken from Black and Indigenous people, honoring the labor that built this country and created generational wealth for white Americans. Any other starting point is bullshit…

Buy this book.

Remember Rachel well.

Because Rachel loved BIG.

(*as always, sorry about typos. You know what i meant.)

Austin Brown