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Staff photo by Doug Strickland / The casket of author Rachel Held Evans is borne into her funeral at First-Centenary United Methodist Church on Saturday, June 1, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Evans was a Dayton, Tenn., resident who authored books including "A Year of Biblical Womanhood," "Searching for Sunday" and "Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again."

A year may have gone by, but it remains difficult for family and friends to talk about the person they love in the past tense.

Only recently was Amanda Held Opelt able to start reading the hundreds of letters her family received after the death of her sister Rachel Held Evans.

Hearing the stories of people Held Evans influenced is difficult, she said, because it is in a way admitting her sister is gone. But the letters have helped create a time and space to step into grief, a feeling that has shadowed Held Opelt since last spring.

"It feels like she left us mid-sentence," Held Opelt said.

Last spring, the religious community prayed together, progressive and conservatives alike, as Held Evans struggled with medical complications related to an infection, then died on May 4, 2019. The 37-year-old's death shocked thousands of people who had followed her journey to becoming one of the leading voices of progressive-Christian women.

The best-selling author took on traditional evangelical Christian views and wrote openly about her own journey stepping away from evangelicalism and becoming affirming of people in the LGBTQ community. From her home in Dayton, Tennessee, she amassed a large following online. In 2012, she wrote "A Year of Biblical Womanhood," detailing her experience trying to follow all of the Bible's rules for women, such as making her own clothes and publicly praising her husband.

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Rachel Held Evans / Photo contributed by the Rachel Held Evans family.

When Held Evans died people from across the ideological spectrum — from conservative Catholic blogger Matt Walsh to Hillary Clinton and musician Brandi Carlile — mourned her. Hundreds of people attended the funeral service at First-Centenary United Methodist Church in Chattanooga.

Along with her thousands of fans, Held Evans left behind two young children and her husband Daniel Evans. He was the one posting health updates to her blog in the final days of his wife's life.

There are fewer media requests and notes than there were a year ago, but no less a sense of loss, Evans said.

"My head is full of ideas and memories while my hands are full of tasks and challenges," he said. "My life is in flux. I continue to raise our two kids and I'm almost finished building the house we started just before Rachel got sick."

Held Evans' work to invite more voices into the theological conversation often got lost in her very public critique of conservative Christian voices, said Austin Channing Brown, author of "I'm Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness."

"That wasn't the heart of what Rachel was doing," Channing Brown said. "Rachel wasn't just, for lack of a better word, picking on white men. She was changing the discourse. She was offering a new journey through scripture. She was offering freedom from the ways conservative ideology often tries to make everyone submissive to a white male god."

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Rachel Held Evans funeral

In 2013, Held Evans asked Channing Brown to write for her blog about racial reconciliation. Their friendship grew from there and Brown participated in several conferences Held Evans organized. Held Evans used her platform to widen the cast of who gets to speak authoritatively about the Bible, Channing Brown said.

Channing Brown and the Rev. Jes Kast, a United Church of Christ pastor, are among the many people who credit Held Evans for helping launch their careers. Kast was also invited to write on Held Evans' blog, an experience she described as terrifying given Held Evans' large following.

"Rachel had an uncanny ability of finding the kernel of calling in somebody's life and encouraging that just so graciously," Kast said.

People were drawn to Held Evans' work because it was honest and vulnerable, Kast said. She wrestled with difficult questions and was willing to listen to people's stories to better understand the world. In 2014, Held Evans detailed her decision to leave the evangelical faith. She also wrote about being against abortion but voting for pro-choice candidates.

"Rachel wrote from her own questions and put thoughts out there and would try them on and would be open to changing if she was wrong," Kast said. "There was just an openness and teachability and also this knowledge and confidence that she had a lot to offer."

The impact of writers continues after their deaths through their writing. Even months after Held Evans' death, people continue to post on social media about how they miss her voice or how a line in one of her dozens of blog posts touched them.

While many knew her for being outspoken and challenging traditions in evangelicalism, family and friends said what was often missed was her deep love for her family. Her commitment to being a mother, a wife, a sister, a friend. She cared deeply about people, Held Opelt said.

"This was not an act. This was not a brand. This was not something she did to sell books. This is something of how she always had been. She had always been the one that saw the kid in the corner of the classroom that didn't have a friend."

In some ways, her husband Daniel Evans continues her legacy. He negotiates contracts and is working with others on projects based on her words.

"We were partners in life and business," he said. "Privately we called ourselves 'Team Evans.' She was in the spotlight and I wore many hats running the business and managing our long-term personal goals."

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Rachel Held Evans / Photo contributed by the Rachel Held Evans family.

In Oct 2019, Evans posted a new article affirming LGBTQ Christians on his wife's blog. Held Evans began the piece and Evans finished it using notes and other things she left behind. "It's important enough to be public even though it's imperfect and incomplete," Evans wrote in the post.

And, for Evans, there is a less public legacy to carry on for his wife. For the moment, it has less to do with books or blog posts or reshaping the American religious landscape.

"[It's] continuing to raise our kids to be emotionally empathetic, ferociously determined, unreasonably kind souls that have the impulse to speak up for others, fearlessness to speak out against injustice, and judgment to be kind," Evans said. "Like their mother."

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.

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