I Remember Her as a Young Miriam

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This past weekend, we lost a sister. Rachel Held Evans was a woman of valor.

My thoughts went to Exodus—as they often do these days.

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A woman stands near the reeds, holding a baby boy. She lives on the right side of the Nile, under Pharaoh’s roof and patriarchal purview. The boy cries out. She stares down at him. She knows that what she does next matters for both of them—to walk away or tend to him.

She is a royal daughter paralyzed by her privilege, unsure that she can make any difference. As she stands waist deep in the river, she can’t remember any other woman who saw a Hebrew boy, much less conspired to save one.

“What can I do?” she says under her breath.

“Should I go and get a Hebrew woman to nurse the baby for you?”

The young girl presents an option that just might work. A nursemaid contract addresses the most immediate need—his hunger. And it will give her time to think of a next step.

“Go!” she answers the young girl.

It’s the bravest thing she’s ever done. She exhales and sits on the bank of the river before her knees give out. She can’t stop shaking. But she watches the girl disappear into the water, swimming to the other side to fetch another woman for their salvific scheme.

“I’m in this now …”

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Rachel Held Evans was familiar with Nile crossings, traversing rough waters of doubt, patriarchy, discrimination, and hate for the sake of freedom. She wrote, spoke, and convened. She accomplished much. And when she breathed her last, she was a mere 37 years old. She was so young, and so strong.

One of the gifts of youth, beyond immense energy, is the ability to be supple and envision new ways forward. Rachel resisted the calcification of male dominance and their gatekeeping. She refused to be hardened by traditions that demanded certainty and smiles. She pushed against systems that threatened people because they were women or not white or not straight. She would not abide a hard heart.

Instead, Rachel proved to be a tender shoot out of a dead stump. She chose kindness and generosity. She chose a softness that allowed her to listen well to her sisters of color, to LGBTQ2S+ friends and even her detractors. She chose to transform hate mail into origami swans—a favorite memory of mine—to disarm hostility, instead of empower it. She chose to make space for us to gather and create something new together.

She was young enough not to be cowed by the old guard, the gate keepers, the proponents of the-way-it’s-always-been. She eschewed the former things in order to collaborate with the Spirit’s new things. It was brave work. And her work and friendship made many of us brave, too.

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I will remember many things about Rachel Held Evans. But today I remember her as a young Miriam. Undaunted by her youth, she braved the waters. She came to many of us when we were holding a vulnerable thing, unsure of what to do or if we had the capacity to do anything at all.

“Do you need a nursemaid?” she asked.

What do you need to sponsor this life you’re holding? What do you need to bring this holy thing to maturity? What do you need to be faithful in this propitious moment? She dared to ask, and then got back into the water to be part of the answer that moved so many of us forward.

She told us there was work to do—and we could be part of it with our voice and our vision. She offered to find a nursemaid, to connect us to others who would benefit from our words, to those who might support our work and to people who could even amplify it beyond our imagination. She waded back across the water to make connections for us, knowing it was holy work.

She didn’t only connect us to herself, but to an entire network of other brave souls. I call it the Nile Network, that informal group of women (and men) willing to do subversive things to bring about freedom. A network that is active on both sides of the river, bringing together people of good will to upend empires chock full of former things and death edicts. Rachel understood that liberation was not solo work, but only possible with true solidarity among those willing to wade in and confront injustices together.

Like Miriam, Rachel curated a community of strong and subversive operatives. She wove us together with her words and her witness. She taught us how to trade our tambourines for drums and beat them with holy vigor. She helped us sing redemption songs to one another and to a world craving liberation.

In her young life she crossed the Nile many times over, facilitating many small salvation operations. She taught us the rhythms of love to carry on in our freedom songs and liberative work, even as she fades from view.

We must keep singing, keep working, keep crossing the Niles of our time—together.

Rachel saw us standing there with a baby in hand and invited us to do something brave. Her own bravery made us brave.

May her generosity make us generous.

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Kelley Nikondeha
Kelley is co-director and chief storyteller for Communities of Hope, a community development enterprise in Burundi. She is also the author of Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World (Eerdmans).
Kelley Nikondeha
Kelley Nikondeha

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