Primrose Everdeen from The Hunger Games – MockingJay part 2Last week was eventful.
On Tuesday (11th December) I received a message from a friend about a recent post on Medium titled The Ezer Rising Story.
The friend was Sierra White, who founded and runs a small social media platform called Ezer Rising. The post was an account from six people, five of whom were former members of the Ezer Rising team, about how Sierra was abusive and the platform wasn’t a safe space.
Sierra said she was “just floored.”
It wasn’t the first time she had messaged me and others in this way. Like the previous times, I encouraged her not to respond. Though, unlike the previous times, I decided I would.
I say this post is not a defence of Ezer Rising, that’s because this post isn’t about Ezer Rising, per se. It’s about evangelicalism and why this whole sorry mess makes me weep.
This post is mammoth, so here’s an overview of what’s in it:
- The allegations
- Where I fit into this picture
- Putting things in perspective
- Accusation 1: Lack of recognition or respect for others’ creative works
- Accusation 2: Failure to provide a safe space
- Accusation 3: Affiliations with problematic ministries
- Accusation 4: Abandonment and betrayal of true vision
- Accusation 5: Sierra’s failure to listen and address concerns
- Accusation 6: Continued abuse after the former ER team members resigned
- Looking through the lens of evangelicalism
The criticisms made of Sierra and Ezer Rising (‘ER’ from here on) in The Ezer Rising Story are broadly these:
- Lack of recognition and respect for the team members’ contributions to the platform, including:
- Harbouring content without consent
- Censoring content without consent
- Plagiarising a logo
- Sierra’s failure to provide a safe space in the Facebook groups she started and within the ER admin team, particularly to a woman of colour, Amanda;
- Affiliations with problematic organisations, namely Bethel church and Kingdom Bliss Ministries;
- Abandonment of true vision;
- Sierra’s failure to listen and address team members’ concerns when these were aired;
- Targeted abuse, slander, gossip from Sierra and the current ER members against those who left.
I met Sierra a few years ago when I was a newbie blogger myself and I jumped at the chance when in Spring 2017, she invited me and a number of others to team up together on an egalitarian Facebook page. Its purpose was promote equality for women in the home, church and society.
I didn’t stay part of the core team for very long. This was partly because I didn’t have the time to commit to regular contributions. Also, I knew the page would not be discussing issues such as LGBTQ+ inclusion; given that I blog about matters even more controversial, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be part of the ER leadership.
It wasn’t long before I lost all substantial interest in the page’s output, though I did (and still do) occasionally blog for the ER website.
Then, on April 15th 2018, I woke up to find various posts (such as this one here) that four members of the team were stepping away from Ezer Rising: Katie Pridgen, Steve Neu, Charissa Garver and Mel Andrews. Their friend Tabi Wells was also supportive. These five are all listed as contributors towards The Ezer Rising Story.
The main reason cited for their departure was that ER was not a place that allowed them to be their full selves, particularly as they wanted to campaign for the marginalised in “ALL types of intersectionality”.
Over the following months, other messages broke out on social media and Sierra asked friends again about whether she should make a statement. Each time she talked a bit more about the background and what had happened, but I didn’t pry.
This time though, seeing the extent of comments on Facebook surrounding this post, and the severe tone in many of them, I asked her to tell me the whole story.
(As much as she could practically tell me, at any rate.)
EDITED TO ADD: I should stress here that what follows here, regarding the specific events around Ezer Rising, is largely based on Sierra’s account to me and my recollection of the events, inasmuch as I saw them unfold at the time and can remember them. This isn’t a piece of investigative journalism; I have not deliberately put in misleading statements, but neither have I fact-checked everything that was relayed to me. Overall, as per the title, the aim of this post is not to exonerate Ezer Rising; it is reframe how people talk about what happened.
This is not about a ‘spiritually abusive ministry’. This is about the failures of evangelicalism.
At the moment, all the energy of this storm seems caught up in the particulars, without stepping back to look at the wider context.
But then, evangelicalism doesn’t teach perspective.
I don’t blame people for getting swamped in the details — hey I’ve done it myself. But it doesn’t help us.
What I think might help us is looking at this situation from the perspective of the impact of evangelicalism. So that’s what I’m going to do. Be warned, this post is seriously long (9,000 words), partly because it goes through all 7 accusations in some depth.
Let’s start with some definitions.
Most abuse is about an individual or group of people trying to force compliance in another individual or group of people.
For that reason, abuse might be more helpfully called ‘coercive control’. A desire for control underpins the abuse. This control is made possible through the exploitation of a power imbalance between the abuser and victim.
In the UK, the crime of ‘coercive control’ is defined in the context of domestic violence; hence it only applies between people who are ‘personally connected’. (An assault by a stranger therefore, is not coercive control, though evidently harmful.)
Even so, it’s helpful to look at this definition to understand what abuse is.
For one thing, coercive control is a pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour or violence. This takes many forms and encompasses, but is not limited to, psychological, physical, sexual, financial and emotional abuse.
Another point worth noting is that a person can only be convicted if the coercive behaviour has a serious effect and the abuser either knew or ought to have known that it would have a serious effect.
A ‘serious effect’ means that the victim either feared violence on two occasions, or has felt serious alarm or distress and it has had a substantial effect on their usual day to day activities – that is, if it has caused the victim to change the way they live.
For the purposes of this post, when I consider whether or not an action was abuse, I’ll be asking whether it is characteristically similar to the crime of coercive control.
For those less familiar with the term ‘evangelicalism’ it’s worth bearing in mind that this is not a formal Christian denomination, but more a strand within Protestant Christianity that came out of a movement in the 18th Century. It looks different in different parts of the world, though the UK’s Evangelical Alliance defines evangelicalism as having five traits: holding the Bible as the supreme authority, cross-centredness, Christ-centredness, conversionism and mission-focussed.
If you want a potted history of US evangelicalism in the 20th century, and how it links with fundamentalism, then I’d recommend this sensational Patheos article: “We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us” Thoughts about American “Evangelicals”.
I’ve written previously about why I don’t identify as an evangelical.
I have deliberately chosen to use the word ‘evangelical’ rather than ‘fundamentalist’ in this post, though there may be times when what I describe may be more applicable to fundamentalism.
I once heard a story (may or may not be true) about sheep in a field with an electrified fence. The sheep learned to stay away from it. Even when the farmer replaced the wire with string, the sheep still stayed away.
In a similar way, I often feel the effects of evangelicalism constrain people’s behaviour, even after they have left.
People may leave behind dogmatic statements (e.g. regarding biblical inerrancy, or hell) in favour of different beliefs, but they may still patrol their new beliefs in the same way as they used to with their old ones.
People may abandon their old spiritual leaders in favour of new ones, and with good reason, but people won’t necessarily shed the cowed mindset their old leaders instilled in them.
Also, and perhaps most significantly, people may reject the superficiality of many evangelical ministries, but they won’t necessarily learn how to discern substance from form (what something actually is versus how it is presented).
I think The Ezer Rising Story and the events around it present a case study of evangelicalism’s failures. In particular, it shows how evangelicalism fails to provide the key skills that people need when they navigate life, church and social media. More than that, it shows how a mindset instilled with evangelical habits and assumptions can easily misdiagnose what it sees.
I’m not going to pretend that this post is wholly without bias.
I don’t think ER is a spiritually abusive ministry, nor do I consider Sierra White to be an abuser. I’m sharing some specific details of her account, having spoken to her in some depth; I’ve not spoken to her accusers, and I’m not sharing details of their account other than to the extent these are set out in The Ezer Rising Story.
But then, this post is not about me accusing the former ER team members.
It’s about me laying a case against evangelicalism.
How it doesn’t teach perspective or cultural exegesis.
How it zones in on differences instead of looking for common ground.
How its models of leadership, consent and self-care are defunct.
And how its macro-environment of white supremacy, misogyny and queerphobia constrains the path of theological progression.
You know, the one thing that I really, really want as an activist, campaigner, whatever, is for people to value and be encouraged by my work.
So it’s tough, it’s so tough when people don’t like, don’t read, don’t bother. Even worse, when you go out of your way and your efforts are thankless, or even criticised.
Thing is, evangelicalism doesn’t teach people how to hone their craft. (Seriously, how much good evangelical art do you know of? All I see is diagrams and sentimental pictures captioned with Bible verses.) Moreover, the culture is so loaded with notions of acceptability, that it’s easy to interpret any criticism of a work as inherently shaming of the person who created it.
Whilst I was still part of the core ER team, I said I didn’t like the quality or tone of some of what I was seeing, but Sierra wanted to let people do their own thing. That was her choice; I respected it; I drew back. Sierra was fine with me doing so.
Later Sierra tried to put more quality control in place, by having posts go through the ER ‘direction team.’ She did it this way because she didn’t want to single anyone out and (she tells me) she never changed words without people’s consent.
Evidently Sierra’s efforts didn’t have the desired result and, as per The Ezer Rising Story, the members felt censored.
Thing is, I reckon there was a fundamental problem that Sierra didn’t fully appreciate. Namely, evangelicalism is combative. The former ER team members had been taught to fight for evangelical causes, and having come out of evangelicalism they were taught to fight again – this time against evangelicalism. Sierra on the other hand, did not want Ezer Rising to be combative.
My conclusion here is that Sierra’s management style wasn’t controlling or abusive but she did have an irreconcilable modus operandi with her team members. Moreover, when differences came out, if these were interpreted within the same shunning culture that evangelicalism perpetrates, then Sierra’s actions could well have been taken as abusive. That doesn’t, however, mean that what Sierra did was abuse.
The former ER team also say that their content wasn’t taken down from the Facebook page after they left the team. No, it wasn’t initially. I said to Sierra at the time that she probably should do this; she replied saying this was impractical because it would require sifting through them all in some detail, because it wasn’t always clear who authored them. She also said it was hard for her to talk about this with any of the former ER team because they’d blocked her.
Anyway, in time (and the former ER team say this in their post) their content was taken down. I therefore don’t see this as a significant issue or abuse.
If some content from the former ER team members remains and they want it taken, they can provide a list (to me if you want) and it will get taken down.
Lastly, the former ER team say that Sierra later plagiarised Katie Pridgen’s blog logo, offering this comparison:
Frankly, I think the ER logo looks a lot more like the Fundamentally Free logo:
Curiously, Sierra is not accused of plagiarising the FF logo; nor is FF accused of plagiarising Katie Pridgen.
You know what I think?
I think evangelical thought is a cage and it’s unsurprising if people who want to escape it have an image of a bird leaving a cage.
This is not about stealing people’s ideas. It’s about people independently witnessing to the same hard, horrible truths.
Sierra isn’t combative. She aspires to be a bridge-builder and she set up a Facebook group “Christian Egalitarians – A safe space to ask, discuss, learn” as a place where comps and egals could talk about complementarianism in a respectful way.
Although Sierra started this group (and a few others that were similar) it should be clarified that they were never associated with ER. The Ezer Rising Story mentions this Facebook group because most, if not all, of the former ER team members were involved in this group; they saw how Sierra led it for a time, and a number of them later became admins (and now run it).
Here’s the thing: being an ambassador for a cause, such as egalitarianism, means speaking diplomatically with your enemies. Some people have the privilege and/or resilience to do that. Others don’t.
Am I surprised that some people didn’t like the purpose with which Sierra ran this group? No. Were people overreacting when they said they didn’t feel safe? No. Was what she was doing was abusive? Actually, no.
Let’s take an example. In June 2017 that Sierra asked what it was that made soft-complementarian abusive, given that she saw what she thought were loving soft-comp marriages. Her post went down like a ton of bricks.
A member of the group, Michawn Madden started a lengthy comment with the following (shared with permission):
I am absolutely floored (and honestly, sickened) by this thread.
I’m going to be just really blunt here. I’m usually not. I always tell the truth…but I usually do so in a different way. But, this is different. No…something else is needed. A little righteous indignation and turning over some tables.
No…I’m not being a drama queen. That is not who I am. But…this is needed here.
It is quite unbelievable that some here say that hard comp is definitely oppressive/abusive, but hey…that soft comp…it might be ok (in SOME marriages).
Note: I’m not speaking this way because I’m ‘triggered.’ No…I’m speaking this way because I KNOW. I know right and wrong here. I’ve lived it all.
Michawn subsequently had a long conversation with Sierra and they’re still friends.
In other words, Sierra was trying to live out the purpose of the group to “ask, discuss, learn” regarding egalitarianism. That’s not abuse, and it’s tenuous to say that Sierra’s subsequent departure from the group was her running away from accusations of abuse.
Some LGBTQ+ people in the group felt isolated because they saw Sierra taking care around complementarian sensitivities, without allowing discussion of LGBTQ+ issues. I won’t deny that’s a horrible feeling; however, given Sierra’s style and that she wasn’t an LGBTQ+ ally, I’m really not sure she was capable of hosting a space to accommodate LGBTQ+ discussion. I think it wise that she didn’t try.
Meanwhile, the group expanded beyond Sierra’s capacity to manage it effectively. Being an administrator is hard work; being an administrator for a group like this (particularly in the wake of the Trump election) was beyond Sierra’s ability. That doesn’t make her an abuser.
You see, Sierra was still working out things for herself in many areas and these things take time. People might have pinned too many hopes on her or the spaces she created, and were subsequently disappointed and hurt; if so, I think that’s very sad, but more a reflection of evangelicalism than Sierra.
The question raised by all of this is what people understand by safe people and safe spaces – and this is key given how relentlessly unsafe some people have felt in evangelical contexts. What’s more, the only tactic taught by evangelicalism for managing danger is ‘quarantine and cut off’. There is no concept of holding intermediate boundaries as a way of handling someone who is still learning.
As I said above, being an ambassador is not something that everyone can do; it requires the ability to hold one’s own boundaries often in uncomfortable places. Not everyone has the skill or privilege to do that – especially when they’ve come from a context that never valued their boundaries in the first place. (The question of whether to stay or to go, is one I specifically discussed in another post.)
Importantly, Sierra was not someone who wanted to violate people’s sense of self, being herself a survivor of childhood abuse. She may not always have got things right when she discussed complementarianism, but people like Michawn were able to be an ambassador for her.
What’s more, unsafe people don’t learn; Sierra on the other hand later sent a heartfelt apology to Michawn. Yes, this took time, but that’s how life works. What people believe about God is deeply personal and something that needs time to take root, grow and mature.
If people expect instant conversion and transformation then again, I think this is a failure of evangelicalism. After all, evangelicalism’s common narratives of repentance, forgiveness and healing are characterised by sudden and marked change (e.g. the prodigal son, Saul/Paul), rather than gradual growth.
Eventually Sierra saw that the group was moving in a different direction, so rather than try and claw it back, she handed it over to several of the former ER team members. (She also was massively overstretched.)
I therefore don’t see Sierra as an abuser and I don’t see what she did as abuse.
Amanda is the sixth person listed as contributing to The Ezer Rising Story.
EDITED TO ADD: the narrative in this section was (and remains) written largely from my conversations with Sierra. It’s not a third party or independent account of what happened, and my evaluation is obviously influenced by the account that I heard. That said, as evidenced from the end of this section, the conversations I and others shared with Sierra over the last week meant Sierra offered an olive branch to Amanda.
Given that this was included in the original version, I had thought it was clear, or clear enough, that this section of this post was NOT intended as a criticism of Amanda.
That said, in view of specific comments I’ve received regarding my previous wording, I have reworked this section to clarify my intended meaning.
The accusation against Sierra concerning her is this: Amanda joined the team as a woman of colour and her contributions to the platform were not always well received by white readers; Sierra then failed to support her, so Amanda left for her own well-being.
Sierra told me that Amanda came from a white space (Bethel church) and that Amanda expressed that was a difficult environment for her; the content Amanda published on ER made a number of white readers uncomfortable and upset, and they lashed out at her. Instead of rallying to help Amanda firefight comments, Sierra asked Amanda to approach her content differently.
Talking to me about this, Sierra said that – as a woman of colour – she urged Amanda to ‘make friends’ with white people before being blunt. After all, this is what Sierra has learned to do herself in white spaces. I asked her, “So you see Ezer Rising as a white space?” “Oh, yeah!” she replied.
That’s the issue here.
I think it tragic that a bi-racial (tri-racial?) woman of colour such as Sierra operates in an environment so constrained by white evangelicalism, that the platform she founded is a white space.
But as for whether what Sierra did was well-intentioned-but-misguided, or outright wrong, when she asked Amanda to ‘make friends’ with white people — people of colour need to be the judges of that. We can presume that Amanda did judge it to be wrong and, make no mistake, hers is a legitimate voice. I do not, however, believe that the other authors of The Ezer Rising Story have the right to make a complete and/or authoritative judgement here.
Some people of colour are no longer talking to white people about race. That’s legitimate. Sierra still is though. That doesn’t make her racist. I am making this point because I have seen other former ER team members (not Amanda) accusing Sierra of racism.
Any decision to work with someone in the way Amanda came to work with Sierra and the ER team requires consent. The giving and accepting of consent is a form of wisdom. It’s not straightforward. Getting this right needs an assessment of an environment and whether it has the relevant support structures for the person who’s going to work within it.
When I stepped back from hearing Sierra’s account (and it’s easy to speak with hindsight), I came to the view that, overall, there had been misguided judgement in the decision for Amanda to join the ER space.
I say this because the ER environment operates within a culture saturated with white evangelicalism. It might be an ambition for ER to grow beyond a white space, but it was still in its infancy at that time. Moreover, the team dynamics were still developing and, given that it was all on a volunteer basis, there were constraints on how much support could be offered to Amanda practically.
My take on this is that the above were not sufficiently reckoned with when Amanda joined the team.
Given how things subsequently deteriorated, it also raises the question of whether Sierra had the support she needed – both in terms of affirming her leadership and in terms of challenging it. It is not as if she tried to handle and address Amanda’s concerns all on her own.
If Sierra voiced that there were links between what Amanda experienced at Bethel and how Amanda was interacting within the ER team, then yes, I think that was unwise. However, Sierra was verbally processing in (what she thought was) trusted, private conversation. Importantly, she wasn’t trying to change other people’s behaviour towards Amanda.
When Amanda left, Sierra said she “would also ask” that the ER team not discuss Amanda’s resignation; Sierra’s account to me was that her goal was to not cause a spectacle or further pain for Amanda by having people guessing at her reasons for leaving. Yes, Sierra’s request to the ER team also included the words “do not discuss it”, but I think it a stretch to call this abuse. At the time, Sierra saw herself as the more aggrieved party, yet despite this she made it clear she wanted the team to only speak well of Amanda. Again, it’s a stretch to say this was abuse.
And remember, aside from the white evangelical pressures weighing on both Sierra and Amanda, this was all happened in a context where Sierra didn’t want ER to be combative. If this modus operandi meant the white members of the admin team felt censored, I can only imagine Amanda felt it even more.
The underlying problem I see here is that Sierra was swamped and out of her depth. It seems Amanda was looking to Sierra to support her in ways that Sierra simply was not able to do. It’s also possible that Sierra didn’t appreciate the significance. But you know what? When you’re out of your depth, it’s hard to recognise that you’re out of your depth. And it’s not like evangelicalism teaches consent or self-care. Instead, its models of leadership are to keep going like Moses before Pharaoh in the hope that God will make it all work out – and if you don’t, the implication is that you don’t have enough faith.
Life isn’t always like that though.
At this point, I had expected to write the following:
And Amanda – if you’re reading this and would like an apology direct from Sierra, she’s willing to give you one.
However, after I shared a draft of this post with Sierra, she discussed what happened regarding Amanda with me and at least one other person. As a result, Sierra approached Amanda, offered an apology of sorts and asked if she’d be willing for further dialogue.
…the subject of Bethel church and its lead pastor, Kris Vallotton, arose after an admin promoted his book, unaware of his problematic background and a recent sermon fraught with extreme homophobia and hate speech, including promotion of conversion therapy. … Sierra admitted during this time that she and her pastor had close personal ties with Kris V. and attended Bethel leadership conferences.
This highlights two issues with evangelicalism, no, three.
Firstly, evangelicalism doesn’t know when it’s punching down because power dynamics are not in their thought processes. Rather than seeing themselves as in positions of privilege, evangelicals see themselves as minority, exiled Daniels, working against the oppressive forces of ‘the world’ (such as feminism and LGBTQ+ activism). It therefore has no qualms about punching down at LGBTQ+ people, despite the fact that LGBTQ+ people face discrimination and face much higher mental health and suicide risks.
Secondly, evangelicalism is everywhere in the US. Pretty much anyone is at risk of being tainted by association.
Thirdly, evangelicalism teaches Christians to look for differences, not common ground. You know that trope about job applications? There’s a job description with 10 criteria. Men look see they can do two, so they apply. Women see they can’t do one, so they don’t apply.
Similarly, evangelicals look at the one area of difference and cut themselves off.
To say that Sierra is abusive because she has a trusted relationship her pastor and her pastor has friends in a church that is apparently hostile to LGBTQ+ people (and from Amanda’s perspective, people of colour), is a stretch. There are many reasons why good people can choose to participate within problematic institutions and, importantly, Bethel church does not constitute a cult. (Or if it does, that’s news to me.)
Meanwhile, Sierra didn’t want to be in a world of blacklisting people. This was, I believe, another pervasive difference between Sierra’s modus operandi, and that of the former ER team members. But Sierra had the right to make this decision and it doesn’t constitute abuse.
(Kris Vallotton’s sermon was a flashpoint between Sierra and another member of the team, though I’ll cover that in more detail further down.)
Pastor Rene Picota, team member Pastor Amber Picota’s husband ran a ministry, Kingdom Bliss, which was
urging people to “sow the seed in obedience” by contributing financially and selling “anointed cloths” on their website, asking for donations into the thousands of dollars. Admins who had no idea of the details of this ministry and who would not have originally joined Ezer Rising had they known of this previously were baffled at this discovery, especially since it had not only been promoted by, but had also been inextricably linked with Ezer Rising.
I can’t comment about the “promoted by” or the “inextricably linked with” ER, and the former team members don’t give details.
[EDITED TO ADD: It’s been pointed out to me that the practice of selling cloths was happening as early as September 2017; there was also a post in May 2018 which the ER team linked to. I note though that the Kingdom Bliss post had been uploaded by Rene, not Amber. I also note that the footer text about anointed cloths is beneath both Amber’s sign off and the Kingdom Bliss logo. I know it’s easy for me to say this, but I can see how it could be missed by someone who wasn’t expecting to see it.]
I do remember Amber distancing herself very strongly from Kingdom Bliss. Given how deceitful the practice of selling ‘anointed cloths’ is, it wouldn’t surprise me if Rene kept it hidden from Amber.
Nor does it surprise me if Rene sent an aggressive (and, yes, spiritually abusive) message to former ER team member Mel.
But should Sierra be blamed for this?
Like the former ER members, Sierra didn’t know about the financial abuse being perpetrated by Kingdom Bliss until it was brought to her attention in July 2018. [EDITED TO ADD: The Ezer Rising Story isn’t specific regarding when the former ER members found out, though their narrative implies it was after they left.] Sierra’s response was probably not as decisive or timely as it would ideally have been, but again, she was working under a number of constraints. In particular, Amber was a trusted friend and Sierra was somewhat overwhelmed by this knowledge; there isn’t a manual for how to handle complex situations such as this and I don’t blame Sierra for not knowing the best course of action.
Whether Amber should have, or could have, been more aware and transparent is a question for Amber and Sierra. Rene’s actions are a betrayal more of Amber than they are of anyone in the ER team. And both Amber and Sierra were angry with him for bullying Mel when they found out about his message to her (in April 2018).
Meanwhile, in no way does either Sierra or Amber condone the financial abuse of people through the veneer of a spiritual ministry. Not only has Amber distanced herself from Kingdom Bliss, but she has also since stepped away from ER – and ER does not support Kingdom Bliss.
I appreciate that there are some loose ends here. However, out of respect for the fact that Amber has indicated that her relationship with her husband was abusive and is in serious doubt (see her statement in the appendix below, which I have not edited), I think the onus should be on us to live with those loose ends for now.
[EDIT MAY 2020: Amber has since asked for her statement to be taken down. Whilst she still considers ‘abusive’ to be an appropriate word to describe her relationship at that time, she and Rene have since been working to right wrongs and be healthier people. As before, there are some loose ends here but, also as before, I consider the onus on me/us to live with them. As such I’ve taken the appendix down.]
Essentially, the former ER members say that Sierra’s pastor, Mark, was controlling things from behind the scenes.
Mark would insert himself like clockwork and “put his foot down” in a paternalistic manner. When his “advice” wasn’t heeded, he would leave the group chats suddenly and without resolution
Speaking to Sierra, this happened once only.
Evidently there were difficulties for Mark given that he had ties with Bethel church (which I’ve already covered above) and that Amanda had left, but not peaceably.
As Sierra’s pastor, he wanted to help Sierra. In the early days I remember Sierra talking about how Mark had asked her how she could really get the ER platform “out there”.
Ultimately, it’s impossible to prove motives. It’s possible he had a destructive or controlling agenda that he wanted to act out through the ER platform. It’s also possible that he felt a duty of care towards Sierra as her pastor and wanted leverage his professional skills so she didn’t burn herself out. I can’t see a coherent case from the former ER team for the first, and Sierra says it’s the second.
And, you know what? She’s the one best placed to know. Because supposing Mark did have ulterior motives – the person he’s betraying most is Sierra.
If the former ER team felt threatened by Mark’s presence, again, I think we need to ask about the wider context of evangelicalism. Instead of being humble servants of small parishes, evangelicalism seems known for mega-pastors (super apostles?) of mega-churches. Yes, that happens. Doesn’t mean it was happening here.
As for the accusation that someone had to insist that Steve Neu’s name had less prominence on the ER website (Steve being one of the former members who wrote The Ezer Rising Story), this is not a betrayal of the women-centred values of the ER page.
Steve was doing a huge amount of technical work behind the scenes, as well as writing content. He also was part of the leadership team shortly before he stood down. Sierra’s account to me here is that she wanted to recognise his contribution. That’s not unreasonable.
Very early on, Sierra changed the Facebook page from Christian Feminist to Ezer Rising. Actually, Facebook doesn’t allow substantial name changes, so she had to create a new page and axe the old one.
What we need to appreciate here is that evangelicalism patrols its left fence. It might be OK to be egalitarian, but it’s not OK to be feminist. On the other hand, it’s impossible to be “too” complementarian, just as it’s impossible for a bride to be “too” much of a virgin. (These insights are from a brilliant Patheos article you can read here.)
If this is the environment Sierra wants to speak into, then I don’t blame her for losing the word ‘feminist’.
Even aside from that, it’s not unusual for people to have a vision that changes and develops – particularly in the early stages. I started my blog as a commentary on 50 Shades of Grey, now I blog about many other subjects, but that doesn’t make it a betrayal of my values.
Also, when Sierra announced the change to the ER team (on 11th April 2017) she also offered the page to anyone in the early ER team who wanted it:
by the way, if someone in this group wants to take the Christian Feminist page and make it your own let me know, you are welcome to it. It is scheduled for deletion in 10 days but I can cancel if one of you wants to take it over and do your own thing with it! I would just ask that you not use the same “About” and cover photo/graphics.
She also didn’t try to hide the change in vision:
It has been a week or so since I decided to cut Christian Feminist and go in a totally different direction. …
…I am looking for a bit of a different commitment for this project than originally was put together for Christian Feminist. This is your free pass out if this is not what you signed up for – because technically, it isn’t – or is not the kind of commitment you can make right now. If you decide to opt out I will completely understand and will not feel bad or even slightly upset if anyone wants out now.
And at the end of the message she emphasised people were to leave as they wanted:
Again, if you need to opt out I will totally understand. Ezer Rising will be a bit more of a commitment than Christian Feminist. ______ had to opt out and it was not a big deal at all.
Again, this strikes me as someone trying to enable people to make their own free choices about what they did.
I don’t see it as a betrayal of values.
The key paragraphs from The Ezer Rising Story are as follows:
[Sierra] expressed great admiration and respect for Kris Vallotton and his teachings. During this time, she stated LGBTQ+ issues were a matter of doctrine, and as such, it would never stop her from promoting someone on her page, despite how extreme their views were or how much pain it caused their LGTBQ+ readers, contributors, and admins.
ER leadership also began to police the admins’ personal social media pages and their public beliefs and views even more closely than before. Several admins spent hours on personal message and phone calls in long conversations with Sierra, desperately attempting to find a resolution and convince themselves things were going to change.
There is a lot mixed together here, very few specifics and no underlying narrative of events.
As I said previously, Sierra and the former ER team members had two pervasive differences in their modus operandi: Sierra didn’t want to blacklist, and didn’t want to be combative. Moreover, she wanted to build a space to bridge the soft complementarian and egalitarian circles.
These alone caused conflict, especially (as is implied from the article extracts above) if the former ER team members thought they could or should change Sierra’s mind.
Given that the comp/egal divide was the overall purpose of ER, Sierra wanted to scope out LGBTQ+ discussions from ER. As I said further up, I’m really not sure Sierra had the experience and perspective to effectively host an LGBTQ+ or LGBTQ-friendly space. It would have been unwise to advertise ER as such and I’m glad she didn’t try. If she had, I think she would have been exposing and/or snaring vulnerable LGBTQ+ people into a space that wasn’t appropriately accommodating for them.
It was not abuse for her hold back from attempting to do something she couldn’t do.
The accusation made against her here though, is that her choices were made in the knowledge that they were causing grievous hurt to people she knew, with the Kris Vallotton sermon being a case in point.
What needs to be understood here is that there was one person in particular who was most hurt by Kris’ anti-LGBTQ+ sermon. [EDIT: As I now understand, the authors of The Ezer Rising Story deliberately didn’t name this person, so I’ve taken this person’s name out and offered an apology to them. I’ll refer to this person as Bray.] Bray is bisexual though at the time they had only come out to a few individuals, Sierra included.
The account Sierra shared with me is that when Bray discussed Kris’ sermon in the context of the whole ER team, Bray only cited women’s equality issues. Presumably, this was because Bray didn’t want to out themself. Sierra meanwhile, also didn’t want to out Bray. As such, Sierra held back from allowing this particular sermon to be the reason for excluding all of Vallotton’s work.
Could Sierra have done better? Totally.
But at the time, she didn’t know how to manage the maze of rocks and hard places she was faced with, and didn’t have sufficient understanding of what it’s like to be bi-sexual and still in the closet.
As such, Sierra made flawed choices on how she handled this specific matter with Bray; even so, Sierra’s overall purposes with ER, and her refusal to change them, does not constitute abuse.
The accusation that Sierra policed the former ER members’ personal opinions stems from a fuck/marry/kill thread that one of the former ER team members started on Twitter. Sierra pushed back on this after more than one person in the ER team expressed concerns about it. I can see why the reaction might have disgruntled that person (no one likes cold water poured on their sense of humour), but what Sierra did does not constitute abuse.
Going back to the wider LGBTQ+ angle: Sierra later had some long reflection and in June 2018 she tweeted this public apology to LGBTQ+ people in general (Sierra has since left Twitter).
I was so struck by it at the time, I took a screenshot:
In September she also sent a private apology to Bray. It included the words:
First things. I want to apologize, from the bottom of my heart, for making you feel unsafe and unheard. I apologize for not loving my friend well and being more concerned about Ezer Rising. I apologize for alienating you and not listening well. You were someone I greatly respected and cared about and I didn’t do a great job with the whole Kris Vallotton thing.
Sierra also explained what had shifted in her thinking and apologised multiple times.
Sierra also tried to explain that it was other peoples’ reactions to Bray and the ER platform that underpinned Sierra’s decisions, rather than Bray’s sexual and gender identity. If I was to guess, I think Bray felt this was a false distinction, given that others’ reactions to them are massively affected by their sexual and gender identity.
Bray has not accepted Sierra’s apology.
You wanna know what I think?
I think evangelicalism doesn’t teach peacemaking.
No, evangelicalism has poisoned the well of peacemaking. It’s given too many abusers free passes after they offered a surface-level apology. It’s centred abusers over survivors. It has rushed people through the forgiveness and pushed them into reconciliations that were either premature or simply inappropriate.
Because of evangelicalism, phrases like “I understand why you did xyz” are read as the presumptuous instead of reassuring. It is read as “I don’t need your experience explained to me” instead of “I’m not going to hold xyz against you.”
Even something like “I hope you will be able to accept my apology” can be taken as a red flag, indicative of someone attempting to wash their conscience. An alternative reading is, “I hope my offering you this apology will mean that you are released from some of the emotional labour you may have had on account of me.”
So anyway, I can understand why Bray didn’t accept Sierra’s apology.
That said, I don’t think it was an attempt at abuse on Sierra’s part when she offered it.
The relevant paragraph from The Ezer Rising Story is this one:
[The for ER admins] discovered they had each been pitted against each other by leadership in personal messages and that scripture was also being used by Sierra and Amber to silence dissenters and force compliance. At one point, Sierra announced to an admin that the “Holy Spirit had told her” that members were talking behind her back and attempted to shame this person into admittance.
You wanna know why spiritual abuse is so easy in evangelicalism? It’s because God is seen more like a cult leader or supreme overlord, than companion, saviour and/or close family member.
At least that’s my working hypothesis.
God is understood as someone who dispenses rare words of wisdom to the favoured few and these must be obeyed WITHOUT QUESTION.
It’s like in Babylon 5, how the Narns hang on G’Kar’s every word after his book is published; it’s like in Red Dwarf, how the cat people go to war over what colour hats they’re meant to wear; it’s like in The Simpsons where Homer joins a cult and the members consider themselves blessed to be splashed with mud when The Leader’s car drives past.
Good grief, God doesn’t want to be regarded in such a superstitious way.
But the fact that people have been trained to hear, share and receive God’s words in this way creates problems.
Firstly, those who experience God freely don’t appreciate the impact they have when they share words. They aren’t afraid of saying “God said this to me”, any more than they would be if it was a comment made by a good friend in a helpful conversation.
But ears trained by fundamentalism won’t hear a kindly suggestion, they’ll hear this:
THE LORD HAS SPOKEN. THIS IS WHAT HE SAYS. YOU MUST OBEY. YOU MUST NOT QUESTION THE LORD’S CHOSEN PERSON. THAT PERSON IS NOT YOU. IT IS THE PERSON SPEAKING TO YOU. YOU MUST NOT QUESTION THEM. THEY ARE MORE FAVOURED. BE GRATEFUL THEY ARE SPEAKING GOD’S WORDS TO YOU. YOU MUST NOW BE SILENT.
The other problem is that if someone believes God has spoken, they may elevate those words so much that they feel they MUST share them, without considering whether this is wise. Sometimes good friends give useful insights to help you understanding something; that doesn’t mean it’s always good to share the fact that they said it. Moreover, evangelicalism doesn’t teach Christians how to avoid racking up the ante in their use of language.
I’ve often seen Sierra talk with her friends and on ER about things she believes the Holy Spirit is saying to her and Bible verses she’s found helpful. With more life experience she’d probably have said, “I’m concerned people are talking behind my back” instead of “The Holy Spirit told me…” But she’s not the first or only person to make this mistake.
Meanwhile, her account is that she was asking two of the former ER members to talk to her rather than about her; that’s not an unreasonable ask and, in these circumstances, it does not constitute abuse. I say this because (a) the two team members had the option of talking to Sierra together, and (b) the platform was a voluntary venture started on the basis of friends working together. As such, Sierra’s request that they speak to her (rather than about her) was (a) not an isolation tactic, and (b) not skewed by a substantial power imbalance.
In the last part of the article, “Where to go from here?” Sierra and others associated with ER are accused of continuing to abuse the former ER team members. The specific examples cited are Sierra’s unwillingness to discuss the matter in public, and comments from another person (Noelle Toscano, still associated with ER) about Brett Kavanaugh. (The discovery regarding the activities of Kingdom Bliss are also listed, though I’ve covered that further up.)
I’ve said it before: evangelicalism teaches people to be combative. Sierra is not combative.
When the former ER team members stood down, several issued public statements, blocked her, and removed her from the Facebook groups where they were administrators. In at least one other private group where Sierra was an administrator, a joint statement was given by four of the former ER team members saying they no longer wanted to stay in the group. (One then removed herself and Sierra removed the other three.)
Sierra chose not to respond publicly in the aftermath and there are various reasons why.
One reason, which she gave at the time, was that she believed the Holy Spirit had told her not to respond. (As I said above, Sierra talks openly about her walk with God; whereas I can’t prove she isn’t doing some kind of elaborate piety-signalling, she has never struck me in that way.)
Another reason is that several of her friends, myself included, urged her not to. Reasons included (1) that she was exhausted and upset, and needed time to process, (2) that it could easily degenerate into a mud-slinging match, (3) it was possible that the whole thing would blow over, and (4) there was no guarantee that Sierra would be believed if she laid out her side of the story.
I still think it was the right decision for Sierra not to respond immediately; this has allowed Sierra to contemplate what happened and how she manages herself. When she tweeted her apology to LGBTQ+ people and when she wrote her apology to Bray, she wasn’t doing it to quell a storm; she was doing it because she was trying to do the right thing.
Evidently though, this matter hasn’t blown over.
For months, Sierra has been shown how her Facebook friends have taken screenshots of things she’s said on her personal profile or in other private Facebook groups, and shared them with the former ER team members.
Moreover, the former ER team members have at times posted threads about Sierra on social media and encouraged others to join in. A notable one is from September on Twitter. Ironically, that one broke within 24 hours of Sierra sending Bray her apology. I don’t know if that was coincidence or deliberate.
And then of course there is the post The Ezer Rising Story.
In managing all of this, Sierra has left private Facebook groups where her comments were being passed back to the former ER members, and culled her list of friends on Facebook, knowing of no other way to stop the screenshotting. I’ve seen Sierra express frustration, hurt and upset over these events, and they have no doubt exhausted her. But I’ve not seen her incite anyone to attack the former ER members, or tell people to pick sides.
That isn’t to say arguments haven’t broken out between Sierra’s friends (such as Noelle – see below) and the former ER team members; but this is unsurprising given the extent and tenor of what Sierra has been experiencing and how enduring it has been.
Noelle in particular has been passionate about defending Sierra.
Anyone who’s followed my interactions with Noelle, will know that I call Noelle out on her choice of words, even when we agree on the underlying point (which is nearly always about theology).
It doesn’t surprise me if the former ER team members have intensely scrutinised her comments and labelled them abusive. With everything that’s transpired with Sierra and ER, it’s not like either Noelle or the former team members are motivated to be charitable towards the other side.
Noelle’s comments about Kavanaugh were that perpetrators need spaces to admit guilt, apologise, take responsibility and move forward. There are various ways her comment might be interpreted; assumptions might be made about what those spaces should look like or whether survivors/victims are a part of that process. Even so, the substance of Noelle’s comment is that even sex offenders need to be offered a path forwards.
In 1 Timothy 1:15 Paul, a former mass-murderer, wrote this: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.” People can disagree with what Noelle said about abusers, though I struggle to see how the substance of her comment is contrary to core tenets of Christianity.
The cross is most surely a symbol of judgement against oppressors (and sex offenders), but it’s also a symbol of mercy. Even for them.
There is a case that could be made that Noelle (a) under-appreciates how her words will be taken by people who think differently to her, and (b) doesn’t fully understand the wider evangelical and exvangelical contexts into which she sometimes speaks, and (c) overvalues emotive language. Even so, it’s not hard to ask probing questions and understand the substance of what she’s trying to say.
I lament how the evangelical mindset, valuing form over substance, means that some people don’t distill what she says before accusing her. And I lament how this has hurt her.
The force of the accusations against Sierra has been considerable; they’ve included racism, spiritual abuse and gaslighting. Evidently Sierra and those supportive of her felt these accusations were unwarranted, and at times they have pushed back and argued. That does not make what they are doing abuse and, in any case, Sierra has little control over what people say for or about her (Noelle included).
A case could be made that Sierra is being abused or at least bullied.
Of particular note are the accusations that Sierra is perpetrating racism and/or white supremacy culture.
As I’ve said, Ezer Rising is a white space. That doesn’t make it a white supremacist space, or a haven for racism. Given that Sierra is herself a woman of colour, accusing her of racism is a low blow indeed and its effects on Sierra have been grievous.
There are other examples I could offer here, but this one alone is enough for me to make my point – that a case could be made against her accusers. It wouldn’t surprise me then if some people who support Sierra have said the actions of the former ER team members (and others who have rallied with them) are abusive.
But such comments do not mean Sierra is abusing the former team members.
In Suzanne Collins’ trilogy The Hunger Games, before 17 year-old Katniss Everdeen goes into the arena in a lethal battle of life and death, her coach/mentor Haymitch says to her, “When you’re in the arena, you just remember who the real enemy is.” He’s referring to the Capitol, the system of governance where the few rich exploit the many poor, and where adolescents are annually forced to fight to the death in a gory spectacle.
There can be no doubt that many exvangelicals see white evangelicalism as their enemy, oppression dressed in Christian garb, and nothing to do with God. To say their daily lives are an arena, where they have to fight to survive, is not entirely figurative – particularly for people of colour and LGBTQ+ people.
I lament this.
More than that, it angers me and I do what I can to work against it.
But what I can’t wrap my head around with The Ezer Rising Story is how so many shots are being fired, with so few of them directed towards the real enemy.
Ezer Rising is a white space where Sierra is still talking to white people about race. When we see that we should point at the stubbornness of white evangelicalism, not label Sierra as a collaborator.
Ezer Rising is not an an LGBTQ+ allied space. So long as it doesn’t pretend to be one, so long as it doesn’t set itself against LGBTQ+ affirming spaces, and so long as it acknowledges its work is neither the beginning nor end of gender equality, then I don’t have a problem.
Moving from complementarianism to egalitarianism means re-thinking much about how to interpret the Bible and the identity of men and women. This doesn’t make egalitarians LGBTQ+ allies, but it does encourage more nuanced thought on the subject of LGBTQ+ inclusion. This is a point well made in a post here (please note – that blog is not affiliated with Ezer Rising, despite its name).
Because of the groundwork that egalitarianism often lays within people’s thinking, I don’t mind occasionally contributing towards the ER platform, even though I am affirming of LGBTQ+ identities and relationships. Even if what I write on ER is not for LGBTQ+ people, I do try to make it accessible to them. And Sierra has never attempted to censor my work or force in cis-heteronormative messaging.
Ezer Rising is a place with a non-combative modus operandi. That is a legitimate choice and doesn’t make ER naïve or apathetic, or indeed the enemy. One of the most stimulating encounters I had this year was hearing Sarah Corbett speak about the art of ‘craftivism’ (also a book). Gentle activism can be very effective and I don’t scorn ER for working along those lines.
As I stand back and review these events, it strikes me that Sierra had a vision and stuck to it, though not everyone agreed with that vision. In terms of power imbalance, the only thing Sierra could really do was to stop the former ER team from working on the ER platform. Even if Sierra had done this, given that ER was on a volunteer basis and no one’s salary was at stake, it would not have had a substantial impact on their day to day lives – certainly not in the way that coercive control is defined.
Meanwhile, Sierra might be someone who makes mistakes, but she’s also someone who is willing to learn and has demonstrated her capacity to learn.
This is vital because that’s how people grow in wisdom – and it’s something that takes time. (This is a point well made in a recent post about Lauren Daigle.)
With all this in mind – I cannot, simply cannot, conclude that either Sierra or ER is a legitimate target for exvangelical activists.
If people have concerns that she hasn’t been held accountable, it is worth highlighting:
- Substantially all of the former ER team members’ content has been removed from the ER platform at their request
- Sierra has offered several specific apologies to individuals
- Sierra has offered a general apology regarding LGBTQ+ people
- Amber Picota is no longer a member of ER and ER does not support Kingdom Bliss.
There are many ways to hold people accountable. However, aggressive accusations, of the kind that have been made against Sierra, are one of the most costly and not always effective.
I do not see what is to be gained by the former ER team members continuing to pursue Sierra and ER.
I do see much that can be lost in time, energy and effort. What’s more, I think this situation has the capacity mislead people into becoming combative and saying or doing things they don’t understand and later regret.
Even if I chose to be combative in a situation, I would grieve deeply if, as a result of my example, someone came into that fight who had no place being there and was harmed as a result – particularly if their injuries were caused by my own ammunition.
I pray I never bear that guilt.
I therefore would urge anyone who wants to campaign for equality to study activism and learn about how people in history have been influencers. Because there are many abuses out there where justice is needed.
And I can take my own advice. The reason why I chose to write this post, lengthy as it is, is because I believe it may have evergreen value. I would love it if in time, all the blog posts and tweets attacking ER came down and the former ER team members rest their bygones. If that happens, I’ll take out the names so that it becomes a shell of events.
In the meantime, enough people have been asking Sierra for specifics. I hope that posting this will ease her load and help her focus on the people and causes that need to be remembered.
I moderate comments on this blog.
I will not accept comments here from anyone who has been named in this post, nor from anyone who I know has actively posted about it on their blog or blog page, regardless of who they support.
Anyone may leave comments on my blog’s Facebook page. Anyone who comments there does so at their own risk. I may or may not respond to comments.
I will accept comments here that are evergreen in nature, referring to what I’ve said about evangelicalism. However, given that this post has taken a week for me to write, and given how close it is to Christmas, I’m unlikely to approve comments over the next couple of weeks.