Recently I received an invitation to propose a workshop for SAYMA 2020 this June.
[NOTE: SAYMA is the Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting & Association; it has member meetings in North & South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, West Virginia & Kentucky.]
I have many fond memories of lively workshops and rich Quaker fellowship at SAYMA, going back over fifteen years.
And I have just the topic for a workshop: a new book, Passing the Torch, which combines the stories of eleven Friends of a certain age, an appealing and diverse sketch of the elder generation.
But I won’t be sending SAYMA a proposal this year, I’m sorry to say. And I’m even more sorry to say why:
I won’t be proposing a workshop for SAYMA 2020, because SAYMA is not safe.
I believe you know why I was forced to reach this sad judgment:
It’s because over the past three years, SAYMA’s annual sessions have been invaded and repeatedly disrupted by an Intruder who has done great harm to the yearly meeting and its reputation. Keynote speakers have been derailed; members and visitors have been subjected to frequent, loud expletive-laced rants; campus security has even been called; all to no avail.
[“The Intruder” is my name for Sharon Smith, based on a long, well-documented pattern of intrusive, disruptive behavior. Smith is not a member of any SAYMA meeting; indeed she is not a member of any formal Friends Meeting. She claims to be a “birthright Friend,” but is habitually vague about which meeting. The last Meeting she had any overt connection with, Sandwich Meeting on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, found her so disruptive over several years that in 2007 it reluctantly issued a minute of disownment against her.]
Her intrusions at SAYMA have been under the guise of a self-styled “anti-racism ministry,” and she brands any objection or disagreement with any aspect of it as “white racism” or worse terms. But that “ministry,” over several years and in numerous Quaker settings, has left a trail of disruption, division and demoralization that few avowed enemies of Quakers since the anti-abolitionist mobs could match.
And last summer, the disruption at SAYMA sank to a new low. For one thing, it torpedoed an approved SAYMA workshop. The Intruder pronounced herself the Overseer and Ruler over SAYMA’s program, then entered and disrupted a workshop that was underway, because the leader had not asked the Intruder’s permission.
That charge was technically correct. The workshop leader had not sought the Intruder’s permission; because the Intruder in fact had no such authority. Instead, the workshop proposal had been submitted to the SAYMA planning committee, which weighed it as it did others, and then accepted it. That is, the leader and the Committee had followed SAYMA’s good order.
This good order meant nothing to the Intruder. (In fact, she later bragged about her achievement in wreaking havoc in the workshop in an open internet posting.) The workshop was thoroughly derailed, and the leader was reduced to tears.
Two Friends spoke up in protest during later open sessions, urgently objecting to the Intruder’s behavior. But the pleas for redress for the workshop demolition went unanswered and unheeded. SAYMA is not safe.
Nor is its bank account. Thus emboldened, the Intruder pushed through a demand that she be made Clerk of the Racial Justice Committee, and that she personally be paid on its behalf more than $10,000 from SAYMA’s funds, with zero accountability.
I have heard several Friends who were present speak of the deep unease they felt about both the procedure and the content of these actions. But all were then either intimidated or cowed into silence, and left with continuing regret afterward.
It pains me to say this, but SAYMA from 2018 through 2019 in this and other incidents, has showed itself progressively unable, or unwilling, to protect its own good order, its approved workshops, its program, speakers, attenders, officers and budget from flagrant abuse.
The uneasiness of the Friends who were silent last summer has been fully vindicated in the months since. After being paid several thousands of SAYMA’s dollars, much of which was admittedly used for the Intruder’s personal expenses, the fruit of the new committee’s labor has thus far been 1) a steady barrage of obscenity-laden email tirades including demands for more money, and 2) a handful of links to various race-related articles, videos, and fee-charging workshops.
Setting aside the tirades, the Intruder’s concrete work product, namely the link emails, have cost SAYMA something like $600 apiece over nine months. Most recently the committee announced a daylong workshop for May at Berea KY Meeting; SAYMA participants, besides the $10,000, are to pay $50 each. It also urged SAYMA Friends to join a video seminar for $95 each. Someone clearly hopes to profit off the committee connection.
Some might consider this $10,000-plus for spasmodic clipping and forwarding a steep price tag for markedly sparse output. Yet the Intruder is now loudly insisting that $10,000 more be allotted her annually in the coming two years, again with no accountability, along with the presumption that such payments will thereafter be made permanent. Again, any doubts or questions are loudly derided as more proofs of white racism.
SAYMA will have a spring representative session on March 14th, to consider, among other items, its next budget. The omens for it are not promising: I have seen recent emails from the Intruder, threatening SAYMA’s Presiding Clerk, Assistant Clerk, Finance Clerk, and Clerk of Ministry & Nurture, unless her demands for continuing payments are met.
Quite frankly, this whole affair has the look of an old-fashioned protection racket: “You pay me, or I’ll make your lives hell.” The Intruder has certainly been making good on that threat. SAYMA is not safe. She’s turned liberal Quaker guilt and habitual conflict avoidance there into a substantial payday, and may well do it again.
If so, the cost will be more than the number on a budget sheet. I am advised that, as a result of these disheartening spectacles, attendance at SAYMA in these years has declined measurably, with indications that in current conditions the decline is likely to continue. Furthermore, there are reports that more than one SAYMA monthly Meeting has quietly resolved to withhold contributions to the yearly meeting under these circumstances.
To be sure, the Intruder has a circle of supporters. In mid-January she was already warning them of a “racist conspiracy” by one SAYMA Meeting. Had they joined the Klan en masse? No, merely expressed doubts about future funds.
Such conversation-stopper epithets may not work this time. But one other effect of this simmering dissension is that SAYMA may be drifting toward another bitter distinction, of being the first liberal yearly meeting since the 1850s to suffer an outright schism.
A liberal split? Wait — isn’t that what happens to pastoral and evangelical groups??
Well, usually. But I am not exaggerating what has been bubbling below SAYMA’s surface. It could happen informally, by accelerating the attrition of recent years. But it could happen more formally. Given a few more of the Intruder’s obscene diatribes, threats or workshop-like debacles, it would be lamentable but no surprise to see one or more SAYMA meetings heading for the door. (One lesson from recent evangelical splits is that, if a meeting owns its own meetinghouse, institutionally a split is relatively painless. Psychologically and spiritually are another matter, though.)
My pondering of this, and the invitation to propose a 2020 SAYMA workshop, were all made more disheartening by poignant memories: twice in the decade past, I brought a granddaughter with me to SAYMA, hoping she would have an uplifting young Quaker community experience there.
Both of them did — in fact, each had a terrific time, for which they and I are still very grateful.
Today I have seven grand- and great-grandchildren, more than half of them multiracial. In the “good old days,” I would eagerly look again to SAYMA as a time for them to have a superior Quaker community experience, plus a chance to learn something constructive about the ongoing work of racial justice.
But let me speak plainly here: I would not bring any of them within 50 miles of a yearly meeting in which the Intruder has so distorted and undermined Quaker processes and values. SAYMA now is not safe for them.
The Intruder’s brand of “ministry” has repeatedly produced the opposite of its stated goals. It has sown open rancor and division, and reaped destruction and alienation. That “ministry” is a model only for what not to do, and has made SAYMA unsafe and unsuitable for the nurture of a rising Quaker generation.
It would also be hazardous for an adult workshop, such as I have presented in years past. I have told the Intruder plainly of my views of her so-called “ministry.” Also, some of the writers in my book have said and written things she does not like. And she has more than once been allowed to pervert SAYMA into a stage on which to act out her resentments and vendettas.
I’m not afraid of her profane harangues. But what business do I have subjecting other visiting adults to such an unwelcome hazard? Why does SAYMA permit –- and pay for it?
It has been tragic to see, even from a distance, the disarray into which the Intruder has pushed SAYMA. It’s even sadder because there is no real need for it to continue. A few other groups have dealt with the Intruder firmly, to re-establish and preserve their good order.
SAYMA could do this if enough of its weighty members recovered some Quaker grit and resolve. We value those virtues so highly in our stories of classic Quakers, women and men alike. SAYMA needs some now.
I wish SAYMA Friends the best as they gather to do their yearly meeting’s spring business. They can handle this challenge, if they’re ready. After all, they’re not being asked to make SAYMA perfect.
We just want them to make it, once again, Safe.