A couple months ago, I was sitting down to dinner with a friend, Tabi Wells, when the conversation turned an abusive organization she had been involved as a member of the admin for their Facebook Group. I was aware of the group, Ezer Rising, and one of its co-founders. Sierra White, has been a friend of mine for a while.
The story Tabi told me was heartbreaking. She recounted how the leadership of Ezer Rising had resorted to shaming and gaslighting techniques, and engaged in instances of racism and openly homophobic rhetoric and ideology. It was frustrating and infuriating to learn that someone I consider a friend would engage in this sort of abusive behavior.
A short time later, a former member of ER leadership and friend of Tabi’s, Charissa Garver, came forward on Twitter with her own account of the abuses and bigoted behavior perpetrated by ER leadership.
Charissa reached out to me and asked that I help promote her Twitter thread, and I agreed to do so. I also communicated both Tabi and Charissa that, should those hurt by ER ever choose to come forward, I would use my platform to help boost their stories.
Yesterday, December 11, 2018, Tabi, Charissa, and several other former admins and leaders published their account of the toxicity that permeates ER and explaining why they chose to resign.
What follows is a reproduction of that post, with the permission of the original authors, detailing multiple allegations of abuse and bigotry against the founders and leadership of this organization.
The original post can be accessed here.
The Ezer Rising Story
Former team members of the Ezer Rising Facebook page come to you in transparency and authenticity to unfold for you in our words what we experienced while working with this social media platform. During our time there, we championed it as a safe space when in fact, in many different ways, it was not. This was true both for ourselves and for those we encouraged to follow the page and groups. With our resignations, we aimed to break the silence and hold the Ezer Rising leadership accountable.
Despite our continued advocacy for survivors of spiritual and sexual abuse, racism, and bigotry, it became clear during our participation that safety was only applicable to certain groups of women, which excluded survivors and the marginalized in many areas. Through this document, we hope to highlight the ways safety is lacking, but also provide discussion on how to stand with survivors and stop the spread of abuse. Authors include Katie Pridgen, Steve Neu, Amanda Flowers Peterson, Charissa Garver, Mel Andrews, and Tabi Wells, who would like to thank those of you whom assisted with transparency and accountability throughout this endeavour.
Since resigning, we have continued to experience ongoing spiritual abuse, personal online attacks, and manipulation. We have also received requests for more clarification regarding the reasons behind our resignations, leading us to provide this complete written and documented account.
If any of these things, dear reader, are situations you have experienced or are experiencing in religious settings, please know that you are not alone, and that it is no small thing. Listen to your intuition, trust yourself, and set yourself free from oppression and spiritual abuse.
In the spring of 2017, several of us began assisting with Ezer Rising. We wholeheartedly devoted ourselves to growing the page as each of us were deeply passionate about helping people escape the fundamentalism we had once known. During our time, the page received its most exponential growth, growing from under one thousand to over five thousand followers.
By autumn 2017, we were each “administrators” of the page. We had full access to the website, behind the scenes Facebook page tools, along with a private group for ER Admins. Each volunteer admin of the page was expected to contribute multiple pieces of written, graphic, or audio/visual content every week. We created custom graphics, art designs, and wrote original content, including lengthy blog posts. We also provided custom video content and assisted with technical skills, including live Facebook interviews with more prominent Christian writers, such as Sarah Bessey and Jory Micah. Admins were also expected to assist with promotion, using their own pages and the affiliated FB groups as dumping grounds for the page posts, as well as combing through new post likes and sending them invites.
Per Sierra White and Amber Picota, members would meet on a semi-monthly basis via Facebook video chats to talk about ways to grow “the ministry”. Everything we did for Ezer Rising was purely on a volunteer basis: we received no compensation for contributions.
Although the preferred narrative from the remaining ER leadership is that the team split on the basis of a disagreement on LGBT+ issues, other issues began to fester long before the matter of sexual orientation arose.
Ambivalence toward Spiritual Abuse
Sierra and Amber were frequently quite disturbed whenever the subject of religious abuse came up. Sierra periodically became angry about people using the word “abuse” when it came to church leaders or congregation contexts, making it clear her opinion was that most of the time, people misuse the word. She forced us to remove the word “abuse” when it was in any way connected to religion within any of our posts. Some team members — as well as many of ER’s readers and community members — had survived abusive religious environments where Christianity had been weaponized to torment and manipulate them. The decision to censor content about this dynamic served to isolate and ostracize these survivors.
Concurrently, Sierra began to get pushback on social media concerning her refusal to take a stance for victims, for routine victim-shaming, and for insistence to cater to soft complementarians and fundamentalists. She received such a backlash via comments and PMs from victims of comp theology within her largest group: the “Christian Egalitarians Safe Group”, that she became quite upset and removed herself as a group admin. At this time, she begged the current admins to take over and find a new head admin, which they did with reluctance, and only at her insistence. Eventually Amber Picota also resigned as an admin of that Facebook group as well, citing time concerns. Recent narratives show a spinning of this reality, as if this group had been stolen or forcibly taken in some way. This is false and, due to the way Facebook works, also impossible.
An Unclear Stance on the Organization’s Cornerstone Issue
Many people don’t know the story behind the name Ezer Rising, and are unaware that this inspiring moniker is the result of a compromise on the organization’s founding principle: advocacy for women. When the organization was originally put together it had been been dubbed “Christian Feminist”, a name that unambiguously declared its vision. It was only a week or two before Sierra began to get pushback from the leadership of her local church, and she responded by removing the word “feminist” from the title. It was decided that the emphasis would be “egalitarianism” in order to appeal to the sensibilities of more conservative or soft-complementarian evangelicals. In the 18 months since the organization’s birth, this stance has been softened and Ezer Rising has increasingly mentioned Feminism in positive fashion, but this certainly would not have been allowed early on. Sierra and Amber often insisted proudly that Ezer Rising “is not a feminist group”. It was serendipitous that such a catchy and effective name was able to hide this development.
Of similar note is the inclusion of men at the highest levels in leadership, over most of the women, in fact. One of these men, Steve Neu — a fellow author of this statement — expressed on multiple occasions his discomfort with the clout he was being given over the rest of a ministry that was supposed to be advocating for women. He had to specifically request that his photo and bio not show up directly under Sierra’s in a place of prominence.
Though the specifics were never made terribly clear to the majority of the team, another man, Sierra’s pastor, Mark Calkins, was involved deeply in the administration of the page, ostensibly to “advise on business matters”. The explanation, whenever anyone asked, was that he was a “silent partner” of sorts, to support Sierra behind the scenes. However it quickly became apparent that his role was much bigger than that. Anytime members of the team would question decisions or the way something was being handled, 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 and continue his efforts with Sierra behind the scenes as her “advisor” or “supporter”, unhindered by the opinions of the female members of the team. This effectively gave Mark a direct and unchecked influence on the path that ER took, although Sierra was the only person who had any relationship with him. Unfortunately, he showed no experience or ability when it came to leading or serving victims of spiritual abuse and racism.
Betrayal on Matters of Race
White supremacy and racism began to blatantly rear their ugly heads in US society and ER leadership was being challenged by women of color (WOC) for some of their problematic views on racism. As a result, Amanda Flowers Peterson was invited to come on board to a completely unsafe environment: an environment that she now personally regrets adding her voice to before checking. As she began to post regularly, her posts brought the white, racist feminists rapidly out of hiding. Amanda began to be ruthlessly attacked. Regrettably, the team did not notice and she had to bring these attacks to their attention. During this time, some of the ER team would defend her in the comment section and were subsequently rebuked by leadership for being too radical and offensive.
In follow-up discussions, Amanda approached the team on several occasions with her hurt. She challenged fellow admins for not being available for her as a team member when she was being attacked. Each time she did so, she was dismissed and silenced by Sierra and Amber. She was also dismissed by the rest of admins, through their silence. In private discussions that excluded Amanda, she was constantly gaslighted, and it was made clear the ER admins should not see her as anything except an overly hostile, wounded person. If any of the team desired to serve and care for her, they were not allowed to do so by both Sierra and Amber. At this time, Amanda was undeniably forced into resigning for her own safety. The abuse continued as Sierra, Amber, and Mark made a new admin chat group where Mark would praise Sierra and attack Amanda in passive aggressive ways. He made many implications as to her inability to be effective, without pushback. Sierra and Amber agreed with each attack. The remainder of the admins were at a loss upon finding this out, paralyzed with confusion and concerned.
Once Amanda had fully resigned, Sierra told team members that some people stay in their victimhood for too long and encouraged them to believe Amanda was acting out of being “too triggered”. Sierra also expressed that it was a good thing for everyone that Amanda had resigned and even expressed to former admins that she wished Amanda would apologize for the way she reacted: a further example of the victim blaming and shaming to which the team was regularly exposed. Amber Picota urged the admins to support Sierra who painted herself as a victim in this scenario due to Amanda’s perceived aggression. The ER team was forbidden from discussing Amanda’s resignation with the many people asking about her and her posts. Amanda had originally come to the team communicating that she was experiencing these exact same issues as a WOC in her local church, Bethel. The ER team missed a vital opportunity to serve and support her as a victim of abuse. Those who are drafting this document have personally apologized to Amanda for this reason. As a team (Amanda included), the authors additionally want to apologize to women of color experiencing spiritual abuse who sought ER for refuge while they were in leadership. The authors’ partnership with the facade of safety ER projected allowed all of their hands to be involved in the continued abuse WOC endure in every space in which they engage.
The Breaking Point
At the final FB video chat meeting, Sierra announced the creation of a “direction team”: people she had handpicked to make final decisions and have full editing power to change any original posts submitted by the fellow admins. At this clearly delineated point, the page made its final change from a family to a fundamentalist look-alike hierarchy. Since many of its former team members came from fundamentalist backgrounds, and have decades of personal experience in this regard, they are qualified to recognize these authoritarian toxic tendencies. This was a wakeup call for most of them.
Access was revoked to the Facebook page for everyone except the “DT” (direction team) and posts went through a mandatory “editing” process by the direction team in which basic spelling and grammar errors were overlooked, but wording like “feminism” and “abuse” or anything viewed as remotely “controversial” was altered or removed entirely without the OP’s consent.
The stage was set, and it didn’t take long to reach the flash point. Within a matter of days, 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. Though the majority of the team regarded his sermon unfavorably, admins who voiced the fact they were uncomfortable continuing to support and promote him and his ministry were treated as if they were rebellious employees. Admins were rebuked and chastised, even told at certain points that they were “forcing a gay agenda” for not wishing to be aligned with Bethel ministries. Sierra admitted during this time that she and her pastor had close personal ties with Kris V. and attended Bethel leadership conferences.
She 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. But matters only escalated as leadership doubled down on their stance. Admins that resigned, and even some that didn’t, expressed how they felt like something was wrong, but didn’t know what to do about it and wished they had spoken up sooner.
At first, the admins were going to quietly leave. Each resigning admin felt shame, sadness, and tension, but none of them spoke to each other about it, until one admin who was so disturbed by what was happening lovingly confronted two others she felt were being treated especially poorly. Amid tears, the admins finally began to speak about the abuse they had all been witnessing in silence. They 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.
At this time, resigning admins spoke to another individual who had served as an administrator in ER-affiliated FB groups seeking an objective, but independent perspective. After they had reviewed each of the admins’ thoughts, as well as the conversations that had incurred, this third party also reached the conclusion that this was abusive behaviour and chose to step down from any duties alongside the admins.
The resigning admins wrote a brief statement that attempted to both be respectful and also make it clear they no longer aligned themselves with Ezer Rising’s vision and agenda.
At this point, Steve Neu (a member of the direction team since Ezer Rising’s inception, who had been watching this unfold) began to doubt that he could continue with things as they were. Since assisting with founding Ezer Rising, Steve had been uncomfortable with the tension that existed between Ezer Rising’s stated goal to be safe for the marginalized and the reality that the organization catered to evangelicals in a way that made it unsafe. After hearing what had been said and done to the resigning admins, which didn’t line up with how he had been told they were treated, he decided to step down from the team completely, but quietly. Upon further reflection, he realized that his complicity in the silencing of his friends would only continue if he simply backed out without comment. He informed Sierra that plans had changed and posted a confession of what he had allowed to happen as a member of the direction team. He then stepped down and tried to make it clear that he was no longer aligned with the vision of the Ezer Rising team.
Upon this exodus, other events began to unfold that can only be explained as further spiritual abuse.
Pastor Rene Picota, team member Pastor Amber Picota’s husband (who had never before had contact with the other admins), contacted a resigning member and verbally attacked her using threatening and derogatory language: in irony, he became a vivid example of the toxic masculinity and misogyny Ezer Rising supposedly stood against.
It was at this time, admins also discovered the Picota’s ministry, Kingdom Bliss, 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.
In their resignations, a few admins had requested that their original content be removed; this content included custom graphics, original blog posts, and personal stories, even a personal wedding portrait used by one admin as part of her post. Their request was refused by ER leadership, Amber Picota specifically, who informed the admins they “now owned” whatever had been written or designed by them and to not expect anything to be taken down. This continued until leadership was reminded of copyright laws surrounding original content.
Within a few months of the content removal (though some of it still remains), ER had suddenly and drastically changed its logo and entire theme to an almost exact match of Katie Pridgen’s personal blog website. Coincidentally, this admin was one of the requesters for her information to be removed. Now the logo she had created and designed by hand and discussed at length with ER leadership about the special symbolism and story it carried for her was being used to further their abusive ministry. An ER affiliate defended the logo, stating “the spirit of God” showed it to her.
Where to go from here?
When ER’s online community began asking questions, Ezer Rising leadership refused to be transparent about events. Despite the fact that their membership was almost exclusively online, they refused to speak publicly about anything, calling it “airing dirty laundry” and demonstrating an extreme lack of care for their online followers and community who had come to rely on ER as a place of safety. In contrast, those who resigned were willing to walk through the events online in a public way in accountability and worked to try and gain peace and clarity for their community. Meanwhile, ER leadership’s solution was to clean up the “mess” via private messages filled with gossip and never in an open setting, except to openly attack and dismiss those who questioned them. They, specifically Amber Picota, Sierra White, and fellow ER admin Noelle Toscano, spread false narratives, posted passive aggressive attacks online, and made demonstrably untrue statements regarding the resigned admins’ characters: ultimately even calling their personal faith into question. Several times, ER leadership began to suddenly (including recently) attack resigned members by name in the comment sections of completely unrelated posts, baiting them and accusing them of “personal vendettas”, “revenge”, and “hate”. This included Noelle Toscano’s response after dozens of people pushed back on her public comments defending Brett Kavanaugh and shaming the women who came forward for hurting his reputation and not being “forgiving”. After witnessing eight months of misinformation and online gossip that began to escalate to personal attacks, the resigning admins were approached by many people who urged them to make a public statement and shine a light on the lies being spread throughout what once had been loving, supportive communities.
So, what can you do when encountering abusive ministries or the people that leave them? First, examine motive. Like those who left Ezer Rising, whistleblowers will often have nothing to gain and everything to lose. While ER presents a fantastic opportunity for self-promotion, leaving ER in an open, honest manner found the admins facing scorching criticism, gossip, lies, loss of platform and notoriety, and damaged reputations due to falsehoods and rumors. So, why did they do it? Simply put…integrity. The entire reason they joined was authentic and real, born from shared trauma and pain within fundamentalism. When they found they had wandered into just another, more dressed up form of fundamentalism, they walked away, regardless of consequences. Rather than “triggered”, as described by ER, they were in fact, strong enough, toughened by the losses they’d already faced when leaving fundamentalism the first time. They knew, in the end, it is worth it to escape, and that anything using God’s name as a weapon for power and control is not of God to begin with. Any religious group that will excuse, write off, dismiss, downplay abuse or even create comfortable spaces for abusers are toxic and unhealthy, both for equality and for the marginalized. The members that resigned know this and are confident in their calling to stand against it, no matter the “blow back”.
Second, how can you support survivors? Encouraging words are great; affirmative action for healthy ministries and disaffirming action toward abusive ministries is better. If you “like” or “follow” Ezer Rising on their social media pages: twitter, facebook, or instagram: remove the like/follow and replace it with support and promotion of a healthy resource instead. When you encounter misinformation and gossip, fight it by sharing clear resources and refusing to engage in rumors.
Third, how can you personally escape a religiously abusive environment? We’re so glad you asked! Here is a great starting point for resources. If you ever encounter an abusive religious environment, speak up!! It may be hard, but in the end, it is worth it all.