The funeral for a titan of the progressive Christian world drew several hundred people from across the U.S. to First-Centenary United Methodist Church on McCallie Avenue Saturday afternoon.
Rachel Held Evans, 37, of Dayton, Tennessee, challenged Conservative Christian beliefs online and in her best-selling books as a Southern liberal who followed the teachings of Jesus. She died May 4 of compounding medical complications that resulted in brain swelling, according to her husband. She was the mother of 3-year-old son, Henry, and 1-year-old daughter, Harper.
"This month of May 2019 has been a time of mourning for me and my family," her husband, Daniel Evans, wrote in a statement posted to his late wife's website. "But I hope to start piecing things back together after Rachel's funeral; after a final official goodbye. I hope to start re-assembling my shattered imaginary future."
Held Evans authored four books including New York Times bestseller "A Year of Biblical Womanhood." Her first book was published in 2010 and her most recent was published a year before her death. She posted messages about faith and life to her popular Twitter account and was also a blogger and columnist.
She saw herself as an advocate for gender equality, respect for the LGBT community, and acceptance of science and biblical scholarship, she wrote, and was considered a leader in the emerging progressive Christian movement.
"The unique thing about those here today is you literally have all the leaders in the entire social movement that has now spanned years," fellow progressive Christian author Benjamin L. Corey, of Maine, said before the funeral. "Rachel was very much the one who brought us together and our leader, even at a young age."
Her funeral included scripture readings, prayer, hymns and eulogies by her sister, Amanda Held Opelt, and her former youth pastor, the Rev. Brian Ward.
"She raised questions about all of my lessons, and most of the time, she was right," Ward said. "I learned later on, she had zero tolerance for inauthenticity. That's where we found common ground,"
Held Evans' younger sister thanked those who had offered the family support. She told stories of growing up with a loving sister who once dressed as a dog for a day when Held Opelt was younger and wanted a pet.
Held Opelt recounted a long, meaningful text her sister sent the family weeks before her death. Held Evans thanked her parents for their support throughout life and expressed her gratefulness for their love, openness, compassion and patience.
"I replied, 'ditto,'" Held Opelt said to laughs. "Sometimes, I feel like my whole life I've been saying 'ditto' to Rachel, and now I find myself in a situation where I can't do that."
Held Opelt sang before a tearful goodbye: "Rachel, I'm so sad you're gone and am so happy you're my sister."
Held Evans was an outspoken supporter of love and forgiveness while denouncing Christians who used biblical passages to justify actions she didn't believe followed Christ's teachings.
She left the evangelical church in 2014 due to her frustrations with what she saw as exclusivity and attended St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Cleveland, Tennessee.
"Instead of fighting for a seat at the evangelical table, I want to prepare tables in the wilderness, where everyone is welcome and where we can go on discussing (and debating!) the Bible, science, sexuality, gender, racial reconciliation, justice, church, and faith, but without labels, without wars," she wrote in a post explaining her decision.
Held Evans was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1981. She moved to Dayton, Tennessee in 1994, graduated from Rhea County High School in 1999 and earned a bachelor's degree from Bryan College in 2003. She lived in Chattanooga from the fall of 2003 to the summer of 2004 before moving to Dayton, Tennessee, where she would live for the rest of her life.
Held Evans tweeted in mid-April that she was hospitalized with a flu, urinary tract infection and severe allergic reaction to antibiotics. She asked for prayer and was upset she would miss the latest episode of the popular HBO series "Game of Thrones."
Her health quickly worsened, and her husband began posting health updates to her website. She was moved to an intensive care unit after experiencing constant seizures and was put into a medically induced coma less than a week after posting about her hospitalization. She was moved to several medical facilities but died early May 4 from extensive swelling of her brain, her husband posted.
A viewing and funeral were held today. She will be buried Sunday in Rhea Memory Gardens in Dayton, Tennessee.