Bestselling author and speaker Rachel Held Evans died on May 4 after a short illness. She was only 37. I didn’t know Rachel well; I never met her in person. Nonetheless, she had a profound impact on my life, not only because she helped change the trajectory of my writing career, but also because as a questioner and a spiritual wrestler, Rachel was a kindred spirit. Though our spiritual journeys were very different, her story touched me deeply and resonated with me as someone who has struggled with doubt – a topic she wrote about in two of her books (Searching for Sunday and Faith Unraveled) as well as on her blog.
I wrote this essay the day after Rachel died. It ran this past weekend in my local newspaper, but I wanted to share it with you here, too.
Bestselling author and speaker Rachel Held Evans died unexpectedly a little more than a week ago. She was 37 years old — a wife, a mother to two young children, an influencer, an advocate and a generous supporter and encourager of many, myself included.
I first connected with Rachel in 2011, shortly after I’d started blogging. I don’t recall exactly how our paths crossed online, but at some point, after we had exchanged a few emails, I summoned the courage to ask if she would be willing to read a couple chapters of my memoir manuscript. Despite her own full schedule of speaking and writing, Rachel didn’t hesitate to say yes to my request. A few weeks after I emailed her the rough draft of my book, she asked if she could send it to her literary agent.
This was no small gesture. By that point I had been pitching literary agents for two years and had had zero success. I’d already received nearly a dozen rejections, including one from Rachel’s agent. It seemed every door on the path to publishing had closed. Until, that is, a woman I’d never met in person offered to help.
Rachel’s agent eventually signed me as a client. Seven years and four published books later, I have Rachel Held Evans to thank. Without her generous offer to use her influence and connections to benefit me, a virtual stranger, I truly believe I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to publish a single word.
In the days following Rachel’s death, my social media feeds were filled with a near-constant stream of similar testimonials, a telling memorial of her generosity and kindness. Turns out, I wasn’t the only one Rachel had helped along the way.
Countless authors shared stories of how Rachel had encouraged them, used her influence to give their careers a much-needed boost and championed their work. Others shared how Rachel’s own writing had shaped their faith and renewed their hope in God. Still others testified how Rachel had used her platform to advocate for the marginalized, particularly members of the LGBTQ community, people of color and women in the church.
Rachel Held Evans stewarded her influence well, but the truth is (and I learned this from her), regardless of whether we are famous or not, or whether we have a substantial platform or not, each of us has the opportunity to do the same. We may not have the reach to impact thousands like Rachel did, but we can offer encouragement, extend kindness, love extravagantly, champion others and give generously in our own small ways and within our own individual spheres of influence, just as she did in hers.
Maybe this looks like writing a letter of recommendation for the high school student who aspires to attend college, or providing a stellar reference for the friend in the midst of a job search.
Maybe this looks like advocating for a marginalized person in your community or validating someone who feels unseen.
Maybe this looks like emailing your boss to praise a colleague’s efforts that otherwise would have gone unnoticed or offering a word of encouragement to a struggling neighbor.
No matter how small our sphere, there is always someone we can lift up.
I didn’t know Rachel Held Evans well, but I am grateful for her, not only because her generosity made a difference in my own career, but also because she left a beautiful and powerful legacy, reminding me that I can and should use my own bit of influence to benefit others. I want to be more like Rachel: an “influencer” in the very best sense of the word.
Rachel leaves behind her husband Dan and two children under age three. If you would like to support her family, you can make a donation in her memory here.