On December 12, 2018, several persons who had formerly held positions of leadership within Ezer Rising brought allegations that the organization had created and fostered an abusive, bigoted, and toxic environment both within its leadership structure and affiliated Facebook group.
For those unfamiliar with these allegations, they can be read in their entirety here.
On December 12, 2018, a response was published by a current member of Ezer Rising leadership, Noelle Toscano. I was asked by those who brought these allegations to offer an in depth response on their behalf.
That analysis is available here.
And, on December 18, 2018, Christine Woolgar – a former Ezer Rising leader and personal friend of Sierra White – wrote a wordy defense of White. While I chose not to reply formally to this rather paper thin post, I did comment on both its glaring inconsistencies and its profoundly racist tone in separate tweet threads.
Today, I return to this ongoing series.
In this post, I will be focusing specifically on a series of screenshots portraying dialogue between Sierra White and various Ezer Rising leadership. These conversations occurred within their Facebook Admin Chat, the Direction Team Facebook Chat, and in personal correspondence with former Ezer Rising staff members.
All screenshots featured below were provided by persons directly involved in these conversations. Where names have been omitted, it is at the explicit request of certain persons wishing to protect personal information.
It is my hope, and the hope of those who have provided these photos, that the reader will recognize the continued pattern of abuse being alleged, and respond accordingly.
While this series has been about a specific organization, it also serves to highlight a larger culture of bigotry that permeates many Christian, and specifically many so-called Egalitarian, spaces.
With this in mind, we also hope to equip the reader to recognize these same patterns wherever they may occur.
It is our conviction that bigotry does not get to hide behind a veneer of “private conversation.” These attitudes and ideologies aren’t just “personal convictions.” There are actual lives harmed by them; and, as such, they should be called out publicly.
Setting the Stage
In order to understand the impetus for this post, the reader must first encounter a specific public figure, his bigoted ideology, and how he came to be a source of controversy and division in the Ezer Rising community.
The controversy first arose when, on April 5, 2018, former Ezer Rising staff writer Charissa Garver began a series of posts in the ER FB group reviewing the book Fashioned to Reign by Kris Vallotton. Charissa has acknowledged that she intentionally began the series by posting the positive things she took from the book.
That same day, another staff writer objected to this use Vallotton’s work. In the FB page’s admin group chat, this leader pointed out a March 25, 2018, sermon by Vallotton containing queerphobic rhetoric and open misogyny. This person also chose to openly critique the sermon on Twitter.
The sermon is available here for those wishing to listen, however the reader is cautioned that the sermon contains instances of transphobia, homophobia, and mockery and blaming of sexual assault victims.
Among the many bigoted and hateful lies promoted in this sermon – made even more staggering by the fact that this was how Vallotton chose to reflect on the events of Palm Sunday – are:
- “Biological sex” and (cis)heterosexuality are identical, binary, biologically hardwired, and immutable.
- The American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommends transition for all children with gender dysphoria.
- Comparing being gay to murder.
- Claiming that women who dress or act certain ways are asking to be sexually assaulted.
- Mocking the #MeToo movement as promoting sexual immorality
As with other posts, the persons who have brought allegations take full responsibility for the roles they played in the abuses alleged against Ezer Rising.
After these concerns were raised, a conversation began among the various persons on the admin team as to whether Kris Vallotton’s sermon ought to give pause about continued use of his work. Sierra White made it very clear that she is perfectly fine with using works that may deny fundamental equality to some persons, if she has taken personal benefit from those works.
This was met with stern objection by the original objector, noting explicitly that the harm done by conversion therapy is not up for debate.
The objector, a staff writer for Ezer Rising at the time, continued by noting that treating intentional harm of queer persons in the same way one would address a doctrinal dispute was a gross false equivalence.
This person also offered direct knowledge of persons who had been subjected to and/or encouraged to undergo conversion therapy by staff at Valotton’s church.
This objection was met with support from a seemingly unlikely source, given her open defense of White’s decision in this matter, Noelle Toscano. Toscano, along with several other members of the admin team (including Charissa herself) felt that Vallotton’s support of conversion therapy, promotion of queerphobic rhetoric, and victim-blaming rhetoric made his work unsafe for use in a group claiming to stand for equality for women.
However, other leaders refused to consider their objections. Amber Picota, for instance, stated that regardless of the content of the sermon she couldn’t see it being enough to convince her to abandon his work all together.
Again, what Picota is saying here is that, if a pastor otherwise argues for including women in ministry, she is willing to ignore him promoting misogynist, victim-blaming, and queerphobic rhetoric.
After much discussion, Sierra White stated that she would bring the concerns to the Direction team, and that objections would be taken “very seriously.”
It is telling, then, to see how the objections were actually discussed in the Direction Team Chat.
Direction Team Chat
In response to this staffer’s objections, Sierra White decided to consult the ministry’s “direction team” about the objections raised, offering her opinion of both the sermon in question and the person who brought them.
The following are screenshots taken directly from that chat, provided to me by a former member of the Ezer Rising “direction team,” who has offered them as corroboration of the allegations that have been made.
From this, it is clear already that White did not consider Valotton’s comments offensive enough to disqualify him as a self-proclaimed defender of women. In fact, she would later say so explicitly.
In another exchange, Sierra White and her pastor and employer Mark Calkins (whom the reader may remember from the original allegations) discuss whether Valotton’s words qualify as “victim-blaming.”
Notice, that Calkins, like White, insists that Vallotton is a “champion of women” and both insist that only those who are particularly sensitive would hear his words as “victim blaming.” White even says that she doesn’t believe that Vallotton intended to comment on abuse assault/abuse.
It is telling, then, to consider Vallotton’s actual words:
I’m just saying, if you catch somebody with your butt and your boobs, I don’t know how you’re gonna maintain ‘em; there’s always someone with a better body. I’m simply saying […] ‘If you live with the sword, you’re gonna die with the sword.’ If you live in immorality, don’t be surprised that you become a victim of the very thing you’re promoting […] I’m also trying to say to women, if you’re trolling with shark bait, you’re gonna catch sharks. Then don’t complain that you’re catching sharks if you’re trolling with shark bait.
It doesn’t end here, however. In fact, it gets worse. In defending the use of Valotton’s work, despite his words above, Calkins and White feel that those raising objections were merely using “victim blaming” as an excuse to advance an “LGBT issue.”
Note that White and Calkins both want to use Vallotton’s work because “David literally raped a woman and yet we benefit from the Psalms.”
This still was not the end of White’s refusal to engage honestly with Vallotton sermon, however. She went so far as to claim that Valotton was not endorsing conversion therapy.
It is important, then, to consider precisely why Vallotton chose to speak out against the queer community in this sermon. By Vallotton’s own admission, his purpose was to condemn three separate bills that were introduced into the California legislature: AB 1779, AB 2119, and AB 2943.
Each of these three bills was specifically about protecting LGBTQ+ youth from forms of conversion therapy. Further, the transphobic video that Vallotton shared during his sermon explicitly endorsed the supposed efficacy of conversion therapy on transgender youth.
This did not stop White or Calkins from proposing that staffer’s calling out Vallotton’s abuses in the ER admin FB chat, and on Twitter, were not a good fit for the organization’s mission.
Further, Calkins was worried that his personal association with Ezer Rising could hurt his personal and professional reputation and ministry if staffers were allowed to speak in favor of queer equality and against Valotton’s victim-blaming rhetoric.
It seems pretty clear that the cause of equality for queer persons was seen as a threat to the mission of Ezer Rising, and that those who refused to let queer people and abuse victims be thrown under the bus were viewed as threats and enemies.
Calkins was so content in his continued support of Kris Vallotton, that he suggested Sierra White take a picture with Vallotton on their next visit to his church, seemingly intending to mock those critical of using Valotton’s work.
In looking at why, precisely, Sierra White decided to defend the continued use of Valotton’s work, despite his clearly misogynist and queerphobic rhetoric, it is helpful to further consider White’s words in personal messages exchanged with two former Ezer Rising staff members.
In these messages, these ER staffers – and members of the group bringing allegations against Ezer Rising – attempted to personally confront White regarding her adamant defense of Vallotton against those within the organization criticizing him.
White is very explicit that she considers her own personal benefit (and the benefit of cishet women like her) more important than potential harm done to the queer community.
She even admits that she wanted Vallotton to promote ER’s work, she desired access to his platform.
One stark difference between the Admin Discussion, the Direction Team chat, and this convo quickly emerges.
In the Admin chat, White promised she was listening and things would be taken seriously. In this personal correspondence, she refers to Valotton’s words as “terrible” and insists that no one is denying it.
Yet, in the Direction Team chat, she and others explicitly stated that they did not see anything particularly awful about what he said. They were quick to blame those objecting for being too sensitive and even discussed ways to mock their objections.
It is notable, then, that the persons trying to get through to her argue that sexual and gender minorities should be treated with the same respect and consideration as racial minorities.
And Sierra White is explicit. She does not think queer people deserve those considerations. She instead reduces the actual lives, the very humanity, of queer people to “a doctrinal issue.”
This led to these persons begging White to consider the impact Vallotton’s words have on the queer community.
They also plead with her to recognize that, despite her claims that she didn’t want Ezer Rising to comment on “LGBT issues,” by supporting Vallotton even after that sermon came to light was, in fact, taking a clear position.
White deemed that “unfair” and refused to consider or recognized that, as a cishet woman, it is not her place to determine what is or is not harmful to the queer community.
Despite passionate pleas from persons she considered personal friends, White offered nothing but deflection and rejection.
Throughout the conversation Sierra White made it quite clear. Her concern was for her own privilege and platform, even if that came at the expense of queer people.
After all these discussions, Sierra White posted on ER’s admin FB page the direction team’s official decision.
While it is unsurprising the statement entirely ignores how Vallotton’s sermon contributes to the harm of queer persons, it’s staggering to see the tone taken here. For example, it is great that they acknowledge to the admin team how terrible the comments were toward women, but this does not at all reflect the tone of the Direction Team discussion.
Further, the setting for this statement is telling. That is, the toxic and bigoted nature of Vallotton’s words were never addressed in ER’s public FB forum. Instead, this explanation was offered only to a select group of people, to whom it was made explicitly clear that silence on the matter was expected.
This is compounded by the fact that, instead of reanalyzing Vallotton’s work to see if perhaps they had missed the seeds of misogyny in other avenues, White and the Direction Team chose simply to dismiss his words as aberrations.
One is forced to wonder: How would a victim of sexual assault feel about Ezer Rising considering Kris Vallotton a “champion of women” after these comments?
Interestingly, at no point does this appear to factor into the decision making process.
The reader is encouraged to remember that Vallotton explicitly said women who dress or are sexually active in certain ways are asking to be sexually assaulted. His exact words were: “I’m also trying to say to women, if you’re trolling with shark bait, you’re gonna catch sharks. Then don’t complain that you’re catching sharks if you’re trolling with shark bait.“
One wonders how that is a matter of differing opinion. Can you say that certain women invite sexual assault with their attire and demeanor, and still claim to be a “champion of women”?
It is also odd for Sierra White to claim that they are trying to avoid slander. It is indisputable that Valotton’s words were disgusting, promoting violent and bigoted attitudes toward women and the queer community. On the other hand, slander, by definition, must be false.
How, then, is asking for a pastor to be held accountable for his bigoted and oppressive rhetoric risking slander?
Also, while White and the Direction Team appear to make the proper decision in deciding to take the post down, the reader is reminded that at no point was this decision explained to Ezer Rising’s public audience. Instead, this matter was handled quietly and internally.
And this was not mere oversight. White makes the intent of the Direction Team in this matter explicit.
Notice exactly how White says she wants these things to be discussed in the future. She does not want the admins to control conversations, or to have open discussions.
Instead, she asks that they send “private messages.” From all appearances, she intends to maintain a hierarchy, keeping those beneath her from being able to engage with and garner support from one another. Her insistence on solely private discussions is intentionally isolating, and a hallmark of abusive leadership.
Finally, it must be noted that she subtly paints the persons who brought both internal (admin chat) and public (Twitter) objections, and those who supported them, as creating “unnecessary tension.”
In White’s estimation, it is not Kris Vallotton who is to blame for promoting conversion therapy and engaging in victim-blaming rhetoric.
It is not the fault of Ezer Rising leadership for refusing to consider the impact on sex assault victims and queer people.
According to White, the blame lies solely on those she deemed “more sensitive than me” in the Direction Team chat.
White further drives her intent home by emphasizing that what is most important is that they don’t burn bridges (i.e. not lose access to Vallotton’s platform) and maintain unity.
While checking the boxes of respectability, and putting a neat and tidy face on the their decision before the admin team, the reality is that Ezer Rising’s Direction Team, and those who continue to side with them, explicitly treat sex assault victims and queer persons as acceptable categories in pursuit of platform and audience.
Calling for a unified front while isolating dissenters and enforcing a top-down hierarchy which maintains the status quo is a toxic and abusive leadership tactic.
In response to these allegations, Ezer Rising and their allies have demonized their accuser, engaging in openly racist, queerphobic, and victim-blaming rhetoric. They demonstrate that conformity, under guise of “unity,” is far more important to them than promoting actual justice for marginalized communities.
You cannot claim to stand against patriarchy if you are only willing to speak against those forms of oppression which affect white cishet women. That isn’t promoting justice, it’s puppy-guarding personal privilege.
Instead, wherever racism, queerphobia, misogyny, or any other form of oppression is given platform, this must be publicly and unequivocally condemned.