The Sorry, Not-Sorry Apology

The. Most. Lame. Non-apology apology. Ever.

Bethel Church leader Beni Johnson released a weak-ass Instagram apology three days after FFT/ANC first broke the Oct. 13 story that exposed Johnson’s coastal Instagram video that mocked face masks for COVID as “frickin’ worthless”.

She and her daughter ridiculed residents’ public-health compliance in the little sea-side town they were visiting.

They said masks were nothing more than people’s security blankets. Like a couple of spoiled girls taking their marbles and stomping home, they said that coastal town and its cute little shops would not get any of their money, because they’d spend it in Willow Creek instead.

Take that!

Not counting Johnson’s most loyal followers, the viral video that featured the Bethel leadership mother-daughter duo was widely thought of as appalling, ignorant and clueless at best, and destructive and even dangerous at worst. Dangerous because of the tens of thousands of Bethel followers the world over who take Johnson’s words as, well, gospel.

As public outcry mounted, it took Johnson multiple tiny text tries and a few days before she eked out her official apology, which was pathetic as can be. She started with a few explanations on Facebook.

What kind of a a tone-deaf, out-of-touch, bizarre response was that? What did Bethel’s shutdowns have to do with Johnson’s tasteless, cringe-worthy video? How are her assertions that neither she nor her daughter are “on staff” or “get paid” relevant to that tacky video that showed zero awareness of a small coastal community’s attempt to stay safe during a pandemic?

Next she posted a message on social media that acknowledged the FFT/ANC story, about which she said, “apparently it wasn’t very nice.”

(By “haters” I can assume she’s talking about yours truly.)

On Oct. 14 Bethel released a statement by the church’s communication director, Aaron Tesauro.

On Oct. 15 No. 2 Bethel leader Kris Vallotton took a crack at the controversy with his videotaped Facebook message.

To summarize, both he and Tesauro said that the church is awesome and diverse, with many voices and leaders. Beni Johnson was just one voice, don’t you know. Nothing to see here, folks. Just move along.

Nice try, gentlemen, but no cigar. Beni Johnson is far from just another Bethel Church voice, or even just another leader. She’s a Bethel Church co-founder. She’s one of Bethel’s senior leaders. She’s a Bethel pastor, author and speaker who’s flown all over the world representing Bethel Church. Most of all, she’s wife of Bill Johnson, Bethel’s lead pastor.

However, Vallotton did mention Johnson by name a few times, in the middle of all his talk about what a stellar  job Bethel did and continues to do with regard to the COVID outbreak among BSSM students.

He said that despite what “some Bethel leaders” might have said on Facebook – such as Beni Johnson and some other leaders – the masks are the law.

“We personally believe it’s more than about the law,” Vallotton said. “It’s about love.”

Well, I agree with Vallotton’s statement 100 percent, words of mine that should now accompany flying pigs whooshing by my window at this very moment. But Vallotton’s words beg the question: If masks are about love, what does that say about Johnson’s claim that they’re frickin’ worthless? It is worthless to show love by wearing a mask? If someone doesn’t wear a mask, even when requested, does that mean the maskless person loves only herself? When Johnson mocked that little coastal community for being compliant to public health coronavirus mandates, where was the love then?

And is it true, as the old church song says, that people will know Christians by their love? (Even without a mask?)

So confusing.

Toward the conclusion of Vallotton’s video he mentioned Johnson again and took another pass at that idea of golly-gee-whiz individualism within the church.

“Just because somebody on our team posts something – like I’ll refer to Beni’s post because it’s the most referred-to post right now; she doesn’t think masks help – and she’s speaking as an individual. She’s not speaking for Bethel Church, she’s not on the Bethel’s website talking about how masks don’t work. She’s speaking on her own Instagram page.”

Vallotton added that Bethel doesn’t tell people what to do or how to think.

“That feels like a cult,” Vallotton said.

Interesting choice of words from Vallotton, considering that’s exactly the word some people use to describe Bethel.

By Oct. 16, the story about the mother-daughter mega-church-leaders’ nastygram video had gone viral, even garnering the attention of The Daily Beast.

One of the things I liked the most about many of these stories was the inclusion of courageous comments expressed by Dean Germano, Shasta Community Health Center CEO here in Redding, during last week’s public health media briefing.

Germano was not happy about Johnson’s video. He spoke from the standpoint of and on behalf of stressed-out medical providers.

“It’s disconcerting to see leadership in any role disavowing the basic public health tenets of distancing and masking,” Germano said. “So, to the extent that Bethel leadership needs to step up, I think it matters because it matters to the people who are taking care of sick people.”

In my private award book, Germano gets this week’s nomination as a smart, transparent, truth-speaking hero. So refreshing.

Finally, Beni Johnson’s non-apology apology

At last, on Oct. 16 Johnson wrote her official Instagram response. We may never know what precipitated her Instagram message; whether she was pressured by Bethel insiders to release this statement, or if, upon further reflection, she arrived at her own conclusion all by herself.

My bet would be on Door No 1.

Either way, Johnson’s anemic apology came across about as heartfelt and genuine as when siblings are forced by parents to say I’m sorry. They may go through the motions of parroting those words, because they have to, but they’re not sincere, and they don’t mean a single syllable. What’s more, they resent having to make the apology in the first place. That’s how flat Johnson’s “apology” fell.

If that’s the best she could do, Johnson would have been better off to have skipped the response entirely. She offers the excuse in her so-called apology that her video was intended to be lighthearted and make people laugh. Does she seriously think we’ll buy that? You’ve seen the video. Look at the expression of anger and contempt upon Johnson’s face in those first few frames. Nothing funny about it whatsoever.

But worst of all was that second paragraph in which says she’s still questioning the importance of a mask. Well, damn. There you have it. That statement undid whatever semblance of an apology she was shooting for. She missed both the point and the target completely. Plus, content aside, it’s lame that she posted her message on Instagram. It’s as if she didn’t think her task rose to the level of a video (which is where she made the error, so that’s where she should have delivered her apology) like Vallotton, or even a formal letter, such as what Tesauro used for his press release. For all the seriousness that her words imparted, she may as well have written them in Crayon.

And “Stay strong, friends”? Let’s see, she’s speaking to her friends (not the haters), and her friends no doubt share her disdain of masks, so it’s basically a wink and a nod to carry on the good fight against the tyranny of worthless masks.

For the record, I wasn’t offended by Johnson’s video. I was disgusted by the Johnson women’s show of entitlement and arrogance during a pandemic that’s killed more than 1 million fellow human beings around the world. I was sickened by their lack of compassion for the small community that had the misfortune to have Johnson and her daughter visit.

In the end, she says she’s sorry to all those she’s offended. So, for the record, I wasn’t offended. I was furious.

Apology do-over

For Johnson’s apology to carry some real weight and believability, she’d have to start over, but it’s too late now, because Johnson’s already tipped her hand. She’s shown her true colors. No compassion. No empathy. No humility.

Meanwhile, there were new dustups on social media between Johnson and commenters who’d taken issue with her video and apology.

See? Johnson – with her “lol” demonstrates that she’s not taking this topic seriously. Still, it’s all a joke for her.

Later in that same thread, another person sympathized with Johnson, and wrote a long message that agreed with Johnson’s anti-mask stance, and said she/he could never understand the level of criticism directed toward Bethel leadership. The writer continued:

” … I hope that you do not take much discouragement from the negative talk. I am so incredibly disappointed with how people have ignored facts and chosen to jump on the hate-filled bandwagons. Grace to you and your family. Praying for you all and the community and it’s leaders.”

Johnson responded in a way that suggested she’d moved beyond the original topic; the apology.

“Being a leader unfortunately this is our life,” Johnson wrote. “I think you just get use to it.”

Oh great. A martyr is born.

What’s at risk?

If Vallotton looked genuinely concerned and eager to be as convincing as possible during his impassioned video, he has very good reason to appear that way. For the top of Bethel Church’s leadership heap, the megachurch’s members, conference-goers and BSSM students are sources of  incredible wealth and fame. Without that revenue stream, Bethel would tank and become a regular church: no BSSM, no huge conferences, no speaking engagements, no private planes and fancy cars and book deals; no rock-star-quality Bethel Music. All that would be left is a simple Christian church preaching the gospel. Your average pastor will tell you there’s no money in that.

The source of BSSM infection? Not the church, says Vallotton

During Vallotton’s video, he credited Bethel staff’s swift actions once the spike began. He said they quickly provided students with information about how to prevent the spread of the virus, how to isolate, and even how to care for fellow sick students, and bring them food. He said with just a few exceptions, the majority of cases were contracted outside BSSM, inside homes where students reside in sometimes crowded conditions, and in workplaces, and out and about in the community.

He expressed pride for Bethel Church, which Vallotton said has made Redding an international city with its influx of believers, and noted that last year alone BSSM graduated people from 72 nations. He claimed Redding has prospered because of Bethel, because these students bring money to spend here.

He concluded his video presentation by saying that Bethel has 22 years of caring for and loving the community, and he offered a number of examples, such as cleaning the Sundial Bridge and giving money to Carr Fire survivors, as proof.

Vallotton said he’s looking forward to the city opening up again, and to create “one beautiful city”. He said Bethel has a vision for Redding as a city on a hill; “the Paris of America”.

Finally, Vallotton admitted that there are those whose minds won’t be changed about Bethel.

“I know people who hate us will hate us,” Vallotton said. “It won’t matter what I say.”

There’s that word again: hate. When did the word hate apply to any form of disagreement?

A hater? Guilty as charged

OK, if the shoe fits, I’m a hater.

I hate the fact that more 219,000 Americans have lost their lives to the coronavirus.

I hate that so many BSSM students have become infected with the virus because many are crowded into migrant-farm-worker-style spaces, with zero hope for escaping the virus if a fellow housemate becomes ill.

I hate the thought that some of these BSSM students who are ill may be far away from home, perhaps on the other side of the world from family who can care for them.

I hate that Bethel can so easily dismiss its culpability in its students’ COVID cases with the excuse that students caught the virus inside their homes, and alas, if only BSSM had dorms, it would be easier to control the virus. Easy solution: Bethel should ditch the plan for its new building and build dorms instead. It would be good for the community, too, easing up affordable housing for North State residents once again.

I hate that so many Bethel people still believe Beni Johnson’s words of mask non-compliance and ridicule, and why shouldn’t they? She’s their leader. They’re the followers. That’s how it works. The believers follow their leaders. It’s a simple scenario.

I hate that I can be brought to tears just to look at bags of unpurchased Halloween candy on store shelves, and stacks of dishes in my dining room cabinet, because they remind me of kids without traditional trick-or-treating, and families who’ll miss Thanksgiving, Christmas and other holiday meals together.

I hate that my one of my elderly friends who lives in an assisted living facility will return to lockdown soon: no visitors, no eating in the dining room, Styrofoam containers delivered through quickly opened and shut doors, jail-style. To see her, I must bring a chair outside her window and speak to her from there.

I hate that once again, in part because of super-spreaders, mask-deniers, science non-believers, and conspiracy theorists, a great many of whom ignore public health guidelines, Shasta County will be in the purple tier just a few days from now.

I hate that I’m uncertain how long we’ll be in purple, and God forbid, what comes after that?

I hate Bethel’s vision of Redding as the “Paris of America”. How about Bethel moves to Paris, and we can call it good?

Yes, you can call me a hater.

Doni Chamberlain

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain is an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, California.

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