Rachel Held Evans’ father on his daughter’s final days and the ongoing impact of her life

‘I was her dad, and was proud to be so. I didn’t try to put the brakes on Rachel. Controversial issues were hers to play out,’ Peter Held tells RNS in an exclusive interview a year and a half after his daughter’s death.

Peter Held speaks about his late daughter, Rachel Held Evans, in Tennessee. Video screengrab

DAYTON, Tenn. (RNS) — Peter Held is sipping coffee on the deck of the house his daughter had built but never lived in. After agonizing over whether or not to complete the dream home they had designed together, her widowed husband and their children have now moved into the finished house that is just five minutes away from Held’s own.

Sitting on that deck, looking out over the changing fall leaves on the Tennessee mountains, it’s hard not to think: There was so much more than a house left for Rachel Held Evans to finish.

It’s been a year and a half since the popular author and blogger died, at age 37, after a brief illness — a simple and unforeseen allergic reaction to medication, seizures, three weeks in the hospital and an induced coma from which she never emerged. The loss stunned her followers and friends: How could this outspoken and treasured voice be so suddenly silenced?

RELATED: Remembering a woman of valor: 4 gifts Rachel Held Evans gave us

Many saw Evans as a passionate and courageous woman, wearing her heart for the marginalized on her sleeve. Her father saw that too, but he also remembers the little girl huddled under the covers reading for hours after bedtime. She once asked for a thesaurus as a gift, he recalls.

Religion News Service was granted an exclusive interview with Held, who is a professor and senior fellow of Christian studies at Bryan College. And it didn’t take long into the conversation to see that Evans’ biggest fan was her father. To be clear, Held takes pride in the accomplishments of both of his daughters — Evans’ sister works for Samaritan’s Purse. 

Evans was the author of four books, including “A Year of Biblical Womanhood,” which became a New York Times bestseller. She was a sought-after speaker and was appointed to former President Barack Obama’s faith-based advisory council. All of this, Held says, was something Evans often downplayed. “Oh, Dad, it’s not a big deal,” he remembers her saying.

Not everyone warmed to Evans’ written revolution. Conservative Christians, in particular, pushed back against her embrace of egalitarian views on women, her full acceptance of LGBTQ Christians and same-sex marriage, and her frequent critiques of evangelical culture.

Author Rachel Held Evans died in May 2019. Courtesy photo

When asked how he handled the critics in Evans’ life, Held is firm in his words. “I was her dad, and was proud to be so.” Held adds, “I didn’t try to put the brakes on Rachel. Controversial issues were hers to play out.”

Although Rachel was an influential writer and speaker, according to Held she never wanted to be famous. “Rachel had to write. No matter what.” Later, he adds, “Rachel wasn’t motivated by book sales; she was a humble person, which came from deep within her.”

Held recalls taking his daughter to meet one of his friends in the writing business. Held always knew she was good, but he also recognized his fatherly bias. Hearing someone in the industry say, “This is good,” was validating for both father and daughter. Watching the subtle magnetism she had and the way people gravitated toward her was rewarding, he says.

However, Rachel saw her writing through a different lens, according to Held. “Rachel had to write, no matter what, because she felt like she had a message to get out there.” This may explain why Rachel seemed unrattled by the noisy pushback from conservative circles. Held paints a portrait of Evans’ principles; he says she always had someone in mind she was writing to. Someone she believed “needed to hear this.”

“It was always about somebody else. If there are kids out there that are being marginalized for whatever reason, and they need to hear someone speak up for them, then she was going to speak up for them,” Held says.

So, she quietly turned her back on lucrative contract deals from influential publishers who did not embrace her principles. Other times, she was not so quiet and would take to her blog or Twitter to call out publishers and bookstores for what she saw as a type of censorship. 

“In an interesting way, she started shaping the market and creating a space for those kinds of books and that kind of writing,” Held says.

He sees Rachel’s legacy as one that still lives on. Yet, Held is also very aware of the reality he and the family live in without her. His deliberate calmness of voice is a reminder he is still grieving, yet he also maintains a quite reservedness about him. 

RELATED: What would Rachel Held Evans do? Late author’s voice lives on through those she championed

He walks through the timeline of Evans’ final days. She had just gotten back from a speaking engagement and became ill suddenly with the flu and a urinary tract infection. A medication led to a severe allergic reaction, which caused her to go into seizures. The doctors induced a coma, hoping that would stop the seizures. But it did not and the doctors couldn’t explain it. As her condition worsened, Evans was airlifted from Chattanooga to Vanderbilt. Held confesses he initially thought circumstances would turn around. She would get better. “I thought if anyone could offer her medical help, then Vanderbilt Hospital could.”

Unfortunately, Held soon realized this would not be the case. After leaving his daughter’s bedside one night, he remembers driving home and the fullness of that reality settling in. “I can remember crying out that I’m not going to let Satan steal my faith,” he says.

This vow guided Evans’ father when the medical team of experts met with the family to tell them there was nothing left to do. No miracles hid around the corner. “They had tried everything, and were perplexed by it,” Held remembers. 

Now, more than a year after losing his daughter, how is he doing? Held gave one word as his simple answer: hopeful. What makes Held hopeful, he says, is his faith and the support of his daughter’s community. These individuals have reached out to the family, letting them know how much Evans meant to them.

“On one hand, you love hearing the words and reading the letters. On the other hand, you’re still sad because she’s not here.” It is in this balance that Held and the family must live. The grief of two children who no longer have a mother. A husband and now-single father living in the new normal he never wanted. “Dan loves those kids and has made them his top priority,” Held says. “There are moments you don’t want to live through it.”

“I don’t think the pain will ever go away. But that’s OK, isn’t it?”

Sitting on the deck, overlooking the hills and the turning of leaves from one season to the next, Held says he has decided to trust God in this dying season and in all the living seasons to come. Has he ever asked why God took his daughter? Shaking his head, Held says, “Even if answered, it would not make sense.”

Watch the full interview with Peter Held.

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