“Did you know Rachel Held Evans personally?”
A friend asked me in a Facebook message the other day. It was a hard question to answer. I had written about Rachel’s influence on my life on every social media platform and I tried to explain to my friend my connections to her: our mutual friends in Birmingham, our Twitter and Facebook interactions, the years of comments and replies on her blog and others in our circle, the time I wrote a little blurb for her blog about being a virgin on birth control for medical reasons.
It seemed inadequate, though. “Not really.” I prefaced my answer before my explanation. “Ah. I just wondered because of how much you were mourning and the comments people wrote,” my friend responded. She didn’t mean the question unkindly, but still, I took my post down, hidden for only me to see. Perhaps I didn’t deserve to post my grief. Despite seven years of secondhand connections and blog comment interactions and thousands upon thousands of her words published and read, I didn’t really know her, after all. She might have recognized my name, but we weren’t close.
And yet, I had felt anxiety for weeks in part because of her condition. I dreaded opening Facebook or Twitter and reading she had passed. Friday night, a mutual friend let me know that it wouldn’t be long. Rachel died Saturday morning.
Though I certainly felt sad Friday night, it wasn’t until the outpouring of condolences and memories and grief on Twitter and Facebook Saturday that it really hit me. Maybe my friend was wrong, I thought on Friday night. Maybe God would pull off a miracle yet. I’d just edited a story about modern-day resurrections for CT, and if anyone could make good use of one to draw people into the kingdom of God, it was Rachel.
But Saturday’s announcement came. And I wept for hours as I read through tweets and articles and blog posts. The #prayersforRHE hashtag became #becauseofRHE. We switched from talking about healing to talking about her legacy. Women who were pastors because of her defense of women in leadership. Queer people who stayed in the church or came back to Jesus because of her welcoming. People of color who she helped break into an industry often working against them. Questioners and doubters like myself who ended up working for ministries instead of becoming jaded agnostics or atheists because our curiosity was mirrored in her own and she did the work. She always did the hard work, the research, the bridge-building with others who disagreed with her. She was constantly reevaluating her own beliefs in public ways so that we could trust she had weighed the options and spoke out of conviction when she did speak truth for certain. She was imperfect and messed up and apologized. She encouraged and shared her platform and championed others instead of competing.
So yes, we felt like we knew her personally. Our grief is personal because she was personal.
And yet, I remember one Lent where she cautioned against celebrity culture in her own heart. She decided to give up “consuming” others as her Lenten fast. By this, she meant she was fasting from treating people as objects instead of as real fellow humans. Loving them like neighbors, even the ones we want to tell to get off our lawns or wish would move out of town. She loved us, each of us, but there was a healthy boundary between the real Rachel and the “RHE” that was her brand. The one her critics and fans both were all too happy to “consume.”
This is a balance we will all have to walk more and more as time goes on. Much has been said throughout my millennial lifetime about the increasing digitization of our world, in particularly our influencers. Heroes seems too idolizing and role model too naive, but to know Rachel was to be influenced by her. In the tweets mourning her, other influencers appeared and were thanked and honored. Even those who didn’t know Rachel saw the tweets in her hashtags and were reminded to be grateful for their own influencers.
How do you grieve a life you knew through the filters of social media? A voice you can replay in your head through memories of conferences and podcasts and audiobooks, but rarely heard say your own name? How do you lament with a community that you only know through profile pictures and usernames? What does it look like to lose an internet friend?
Author, professor, and cancer patient Kate Bowler and her team are welcoming all to direct message or email them for digital grief counseling and resources. Kate’s work is already beloved by many of us for the questions she asks and researches and writes about regarding suffering and healing, pain and blessing, but I still find myself wondering if I’m deserving of such ministry, these free condolences, this grace-filled invitation. I didn’t know Rachel personally, after all. We weren’t that close, I say, not wanting to claim to deserve the comfort that others much more affected should receive.
These questions of our digital age will never have easy answers and will vary from person to person, but they are ones we will be forced to confront in the years to come, no matter our theological circles or interests or involvement in the world of the “Twittersphere.” Our influencers feel like friends, and we will mourn them like friends in our bodies and our hearts, even when our minds try to tell us they were not. Perhaps this is even biblical, as our own bodies tell us what is real, the body of Christ tells us we were connected. When one part is hurting, when one member is lost, it is only natural that we feel that loss.
Who knows, perhaps the early church mourned together through letters at the loss of each of the apostles. Perhaps they gathered in their spaces of worship to remember leaders they had only heard about through epistles. Perhaps they felt what we feel today, that they really knew Paul and Peter and Silas and Timothy and Junia and Phoebe, even if they had only met them once or twice and primarily knew their handwriting or their way of phrasing an insight about the gospel.
Forgive my Bible fanfiction. I guess I’ve been reading too much Rachel Held Evans.
Who’s that? you ask? Oh, she was a friend of mine.