The following is an excerpt from Holy Troublemakers and Unconventional Saints by Daneen Akers. It’s a featured Speakeasy selection, and there are still limited review copies available for qualified reviewers.
Rachel Held Evans profile from Holy Troublemakers & Unconventional Saints
On a hot summer night in 1991, a 10-year old girl lies in bed, trying to get to sleep. Everyone else in the house is already sleeping, but for young Rachel Held Evans, nighttime is often miserable. She has a skin allergy called eczema, which means she often has patches of red, itchy skin on her body. At night, with nothing else to distract her, the itching and stinging feel so intense she can’t relax or fall asleep. Often her eczema sores ooze drops of blood, making her skin even more uncomfortable and her bed sheets a mess.
Daytime brings its own challenges—Rachel feels different from other kids. Often she can’t participate in P.E. class due to her rashes—the ones on the back of her knees especially bother her if she gets sweaty. But nighttime is the worst. Some nights, her parents make her take a bath in vinegar because doctors say it’s supposed to help, but Rachel is left with an overwhelming smell of vinegar all over her body that turns her stomach.
“Hey sweetie,” Rachel’s dad gently calls as he opens her bedroom door. “I got up and heard you were still awake. Are you okay?”
Rachel melts into tears as her father comes over and kneels beside her bed. He strokes her cheek and hair.
“I hate this smell,” she says, through her tears. “And the vinegar didn’t even help. It still hurts everywhere.”
Her father sighs and holds her while she cries. “I’m so sorry, honey.”
“Dad, why did Jesus let this happen to me?”
There it was—that was the big question that had been turning over and over in Rachel’s mind at night as her body itched, burned, and refused to fall asleep. As her body ached, her mind wrestled with the basic idea of how a good God could let this happen to a small child.
Rachel grew up in Alabama and Tennessee in the “Bible Belt” of the U.S. This nickname refers to the many churches in the region and the fact that most people identify as Christian. Rachel’s parents taught her that God loved her and cared about her. Everything about God was good. But Rachel had been struggling to reconcile the idea of a good and loving God with her daily pain and misery. If God was so powerful and so good, why did she have such terrible eczema?
“Rachel, I don’t know,” her dad said. “But I do know that God loves you.”
This answer stunned Rachel. Her father didn’t know? Rachel thought her dad knew everything there was to know about God. Rachel’s father was a pastor and religion teacher. He had studied for many years at a seminary, a school where people study ideas about God, learn the languages that the Bible was originally written in, and train to be pastors and religion teachers.
Looking back on this night when she was 10 years old and struggling with both her physical pain and her complicated ideas about God, Rachel later saw her father’s answer as a beautiful gift. He helped her learn that it’s okay to question God. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know.”
Rachel became well known for her questions about God and faith. Her first book chronicled her journey to learn more about science and evolution. She grew up in the town where the famous Scopes Monkey Trial happened in 1925, and figuring out if she could have faith while also trusting scientific knowledge was a challenge for her. Rachel studied and read widely about theology—ideas about God—yet she still had plenty of questions. One of her favorite Bible stories was the one about Jacob wrestling in the night with a stranger who later turned out to be God. “It’s okay to wrestle with God,” she said. “God is truly okay with that.”
Rachel wrote numerous magazine articles and blog posts in addition to four books talking honestly about her faith, especially questions about God that she didn’t have easy answers for. “My dad taught me that night that I don’t have to have God all figured out to have a relationship with God. You can wrestle with the Divine,” she said. “At the same time, my dad also gave me a solid foundation in which to wrestle. What he did know for sure was that God loves me.”
Rachel’s honest writing about her own doubts and questions have become beacons of light for many others who find themselves with the same questions, often late at night when the rest of the household is quiet and still. People find Rachel’s writing full of honest insights, regardless of where they live. Reading her words makes them feel less alone.
Rachel was able to be a comforting presence to others, just like her father was to her that night when he came into her room to check on her. Because of him, Rachel boldly said, “I don’t know all of the answers. It’s okay to have questions. It’s okay to be angry even. But I do know that the essence of the Divine is love. In the midst of your questions, you are fully loved right now, just as you are.”
Rachel also spoke up about unfair policies in the church. Above her writing desk, she kept a small sign, on which she had written, “Tell the truth.” She knew that the truth held power. As the Christian scriptures say, “The truth will set you free” (John 8:32). But Rachel also knew that speaking and writing the truth often upset powerful people. She kept on telling the truth anyway. And she kept on assuring people that no matter what pastors and church officials might say, God always loves each and every person.
Rachel was especially passionate when people were being treated in a way that she knew didn’t measure up to the life and teachings of Jesus. She became a vocal advocate for the full inclusion of LGBTQ people in church, as well as for women who were serving in senior positions in the church, despite the protests of more conservative voices who thought only men could have authority in the church. She also publicly reminded Christian leaders that Jesus always would have chosen to go home to dinner with the very people the church was forgetting or rejecting. Rachel’s vision of church included everyone: “This is what God’s kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there’s always room for more.”
In May of 2019, Rachel died unexpectedly after a short illness. She was only 37 years old, with a husband and two young children. Shock and grief spread quickly. Rachel’s words had given life, hope, and meaning to so many people. People from all over the world wrote tributes and remembrances of her. They told stories of how Rachel’s words inspired them—women told of going into ministry because of Rachel, LGBTQ people said they finally realized they were fully loved by the Divine because of Rachel, and all kinds of people said they found their way back to a relationship with God because of her work.
In an interview for this book, Rachel talked about loving the mothering metaphors for God found throughout the Bible. They became especially meaningful to her after she became a mother herself. She particularly loved the image of God the Mother Hen, gathering Her chicks under Her wings (Matthew 23:37). Now Rachel is gathered up in that great mystery of the beyond, somehow gathered under God’s soft, warm wings.
And those of us still on this side of that great mystery have her words and witness to continue to guide us.
Do you have questions that cause you to wrestle with God?
Glossary terms in this chapter:
A person who practices Christianity, the Abrahamic Religion based on the teachings of Jesus, a first-century Jewish teacher. While there are many different types of Christians who vary widely in belief and practice, all find the life and teachings of Jesus to be of central importance.
Scopes Monkey Trial
A famous court case in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925 over whether or not a science teacher could teach public school students about evolution.
An academic word for the study of God; from two Greek words, theos (“God”) and logos (“word”).
The Christian Bible made up of the Hebrew scriptures (or the “Old Testament”) and the New Testament; regarded by Christians as God’s word. The number of books in the Christian Bible varies; for example, the Catholic Bible has more books than most Protestant Bibles, and the Eastern Orthodox Bible looks a bit different still.
- An activity that aims to bring about positive change or support for a person, a group of people, or a cause.
- A person who publicly speaks out or otherwise works for the rights of others to support a cause.
The acronym for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer people; other commonly used acronyms for gender and sexual minorities include LGBTQI, LGBTQIA, and LGBTQ+.
A person who tends to like things the way they are or the way they have historically been; conservatives work to limit political, theological, and social change.
Praise for Holy Troublemakers & Unconventional Saints
“I haven’t been this excited about a children’s book in a long time.”
—Kaitlin B. Curtice
“This book introduces kids to a wide variety of spiritual leaders who believe in the power of revolutionary love. I’m thrilled that my five grandchildren will have a resource like this.”
—Brian D. McLaren
“I love this project.”
“Very excited about the Holy Troublemakers book.”
—Rev. Broderick Greer
About the Author
Daneen Akers is a writer, documentary filmmaker, teacher, and mother who believes deeply in the power of stories. She was a part-time resident in the San Francisco Film Society’s inaugural FilmHouse program and received the Pacific Pioneer Emerging Filmmaker Grant. She co-produced and directed several documentary films that focused on identity, faith, and belonging, especially as related to LGBTQ members of the conservative denomination she grew up in. She’s a former English teacher with a graduate degree from San Francisco State University. Find out more at HolyTroublemakers.com.