Yesterday I published what I thought was a mildly-worded post stating my preference for not renaming the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
In saying that, I was following what I believed was the stated view of the late Rep. John Lewis, whose passing is being marked across the country this week — just as I had actually marched behind him across the Pettus Bridge on the historic march to Montgomery in 1965.
But to judge by some of the comments the post evoked, saying this was tantamount to admitting that I had really been an undercover Ku Klux Klansman & hardcore white supremacist back then and all along.
Unless, many said, I demanded that the bridge be renamed for Lewis, right now, I was unmasking myself as a stone racist and a supporter of every evil up to and including the Nazi holocaust.
Good grief. Shaking my head, I asked, almost in despair: “WWJD”??
[NOTE: See also this UPDATE to this post, here.}
I feel torn about renaming the Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama. On the one hand, Pettus was all those odious things: traitor, KKK leader, etc., etc.
On the other hand, John Lewis & many others shed their blood under that sign, and seared its letters onto the conscience of the world. They made it a sacred place of pilgrimage on the long road to justice.
History is like that: sometimes ironic, paradoxical— thank God.
So I say leave it be, as a sign that sometimes much unexpected good can come out of much unrequited evil.
Whenever I imagine how Pettus would react to the Bridge’s renown among those who rolled back the slavery & oppression he upheld, it brings a smile that’s rare in these haunted days.
I know the decision will be made by others, mostly younger. But I still carry my memories of standing with Lewis and others when the “Bloody Sunday” March was announced, then crossing the Pettus bridge behind Lewis, more than once. (I was lucky; the clubs & gas were in abeyance for these treks; but the armed federal troops guarding us were very real.)
It’s something to study & debate peaceably. There are many other places & memorials that could be named for John Lewis. Yet things change. I’ll accept the verdict. There are bigger fish to fry.
SAYMA’s Representative Meeting gathered on Zoom the evening of July 20, and lasted amost four hours. More than forty persons were on the line. It was not an easy session.
The main agenda items were a summary review of the 2019-2020 budget, and the initial reading of the 2020-2021 proposed budget (their fiscal year begins in October). SAYMA budgets are typically presented at one business session (usually at their yearly meeting, canceled for 2020), then acted on by a later session.
While the budget was the stated main item, the elephant in the room was the URJ Committee and its Clerk, Sharon Smith, and her demand for $20,000 of SAYMA’s funds for next year. This “elephant” appeared in comments about how URJ’s reporting on how it spent funds granted this past year lacked adequate accountability and raised “integrity issues” for the body. Indeed, these concerns are broadly shared enough that some meetings (e.g., Celo and Chattanooga, here) and individuals have called for an end to any funding for URJ and its replacement after careful and searching SAYMA-wide discernment.
So the elephant made itself known frequently, but without any clear resolution.
The proposed budget includes a $2500 allocation for URJ, quite a comedown from Smith’s $20,000 demand, but still $2500 more than than some preferred. That figure was not discussed, however.
What was discussed, at length, was a proposal not in the budget, but put forth by the new Finance Committee Clerk, Geeta McGahey.
McGahey wanted to add $500 as initial funding for a new Committee on “Conflict Transformation,” which would hire a facilitator from the Friends Center for Racial Justice, a project based in Ithaca, New York. The new Committee, she explained, would begin consultations in SAYMA aimed at “transforming” the ongoing conflict over URJ and Smith.
Here’s a quick racial justice history lesson, with a moral:
In January, 1960, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was indicted by an Alabama grand jury on two counts of felony perjury, charges that could have tossed him into one of the state’s rotten, segregated penitentiaries for up to ten years.
This case is forgotten now, but was a harrowing, months-long ordeal for King.
The indictment charged that King had evaded taxes on $45,000 of donation income from his civil rights work after the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, and had perjured himself by signing false state tax returns.
The segregationist state administration of Governor John Patterson thought the indictment was a slam dunk, their chance to take King off the board for maybe the next decade.
“This case was tried before an all-white Southern jury. All of the State’s witnesses were white. The judge and the prosecutor were white. The courtroom was segregated. Passions were inflamed. Feelings ran high. The press and other communications media were hostile. Defeat seemed certain, and we in the freedom struggle braced ourselves for the inevitable.”
The personal impact also went deep: King was often depressed about his prospects. The case
. . . attacked a core aspect of [King’s] self-image and of his reputation—his honesty. He acknowledged as much. His wife Coretta recalled that the case brought with it the greatest suffering of any event in her husband’s life up until that time: “[D]espite all of the bravery he had shown before, under personal abuse and character assaults . . . this attack on his personal honesty hurt him most.” Dr. King’s greatest fear was that his reputation for honesty would be destroyed with a conviction, replaced by the public image of a greedy liar who was out for himself.
If he went down, King knew the movement and its organizations would be tarred as well.
But King wouldn’t go down without a fight. Movement friends raised money to hire two top black defense lawyers.
And it turned out King had a secret weapon: he had long kept a detailed diary of his expenses. This, plus receipts and paperwork, showed that almost all the money involved came as reimbursements for the near-constant travel King was called to do for civil rights work. And reimbursements were not income, and were non-taxable. His returns were not false, his taxes were not evaded.
The internet is a mystifying thing: emails can go round and round, and some end up in my inbox that have been many other places on their electronic journey.
One such came yesterday, and it is germane to the current issues roiling SAYMA (Southern Appalachian yearly Meeting & Association). It is no less than the Enemies List of Sharon Smith, the self-styled uber-anti-racist activist and Indian elder/matriarch, whose demand for $20,000 of SAYMA’s funds (& $10,000 per year thereafter indefinitely) will come before the group’s representative meeting this evening.
Of course, it is not titled as an “Enemies List. ” The email was originally sent to the Friends Center for Racial Justice, a relatively new project based in Ithaca new York. But Smith does say explicitly that “the above list are those known to be upholding white supremacy, causing the most harm to Friends of color, particularly URJ members, through their leadership roles in SAYMA . . .”
The names are below. I’ll point out here that for a Quaker body, it’s a pretty weighty lot. It includes
>> A former YM Clerk, the current YM Clerk, and the incoming YM Clerk;
>> The former Clerk of its Finance Committee, and the Committee’s incoming Clerk; the Clerk of its Ministry & Nurture Committee; a distinguished Quaker historian; an experienced CPA; and
>> A founding member of SAYMA, and at least one who has been arrested in civil rights protests.
It’s also worth noting that they are scattered from Asheville to Memphis, and are hardly a homogeneous, well-oiled machine. What they do have in common is the temerity to have questioned, or even opposed, Smith’s demands for money and control.
And so, these are the “white supremacists” who she identifies as obstructing her path to a SAYMA sinecure, and she wants them out. Note that her “list” of “Root Causes” actually specifies only one: “White supremacy/racism among Friends.” That is the only basis she has been known to recognize for pushback against her plans and demands. She has also stated in other emails that she intends to block the nominations of those on the list who are incoming officers.
If she were to achieve her organizational and financial goals, the apprehensions about a schism, or at least a major purge, in SAYMA would be all but realized.
One might think that, as Smith is neither a member of SAYMA nor of any other Friends meeting, such a cleansing might be difficult. But in fact Smith has already driven away numerous former SAYMA stalwarts, so she is not to be underestimated.
In yesterday’s post, we revisited a letter from the late Friend Alan Robinson on making some sense of the controversy over SAYMA paying Sharon Smith for her “ministry” on racism among Quakers. He proposed applying the test in Jesus’ parable (in Luke 6:43-45) about judging trees by their fruits.
One of the “trees” targeted by Smith in her harangues about SAYMA was the plan by some of its meetings to host a workshop on Native American concerns. Smith denounced the idea and the invited group in lurid terms. The sponsors later replied. This correspondence circulated on the net and is brought together and excerpted here as a case study for judging these “trees” and their fruits.
The operative query they can help readers weigh is: should SAYMA be paying for this behavior? That’s on on the agenda for the representative session on July 20.
On Thu, Mar 5, 2020 at 10:46 AM Sharon Smith fired the first rhetorical shot:
Friends in Asheville, Swannanoa Valley and Celo NC, are up to no good. They are moving ahead with a plan to pay Paula Palmer to do her workshop on “How to be in Right Relationship with Indigenous People” against my objections as a Saponi Matriarch. . . .
This is by no means OK, my Friends. Because, as a Saponi matriarch, it is unfortunately my responsibility to organize a contingent of NC Natives to shut this workshop down. . . .
This is a warning. IF you will not organize among yourselves to stop Paula Palmer from doing her workshop in SAYMA Meetings, it will cause a similar diplomatic disaster as what happened in New England with FGC.
Don’t say I did not give you an opportunity prevent such a thing from happening. Don’t say you did not know better, either.
There’s been a good bit of feedback to yesterday’s post about SAYMA, some quite vitriolic.
In reply, I can think of nothing better to than to offer this guest post, by the late Alan Robinson of Asheville NC Meeting. He was a longtime member there, and suffered through several years of Sharon Smith’s intrusions there before his death in early 2018. Much of it was also included in the post of March 11. But this week, it deserves to stand on its own.
During his last months, Alan was moved to write the letter below, to a Quaker group struggling with similar issues. I believe there is still comfort, depth and timely good counsel in his words:
Alan Scott Robinson:
Friends, this whole topic is fraught with difficulties. I happen to be tangentially involved with the goings-on in this particular case and it is affecting more than one monthly and yearly meeting, including mine. . . .
I am sure that each of us Friends has been aware, at various points in our lives, of when we have encountered a “difficult” individual. I am not speaking about a personal dislike. Rather, I am speaking about someone who, for a variety of reasons including criminal behavior or a mental aberration or health condition, or damage to a personality due to some event in that person’s past, makes interactions with that person impossible to sustain over the long haul, and makes the person refractory to change. Many of us have been a part of a Quaker meeting at one time or another that has had to face the question of what to do in such a situation.
The cases I am talking about do not involve matters of philosophical difference, political diversity or even different belief structures. Not really, although in the cases I am talking about, one of those important issues is being used as a smoke-screen to mask and to try to justify the real behavior problem. Behavior that simply doesn’t comport with that required to be in fellowship together.
I’m sure you can think of examples. Behaviors like name calling, wild accusations with little or no basis in fact, paranoid thinking patterns, blaming others for one’s own inappropriate actions (look what you made me do!), taking advantage of another’s good will, failing to contribute to the group in any way that furthers the purpose for which the group is established, expecting the group to “take care of them”, the list goes on and on.
Friends ought to be open to new light, new ideas, new ways of thinking about a problem, and, in most cases, we are. That is the great strength of Friends. But where to draw the line about what behaviors are acceptable and what behaviors are not? Clearly, behaviors that would be out of line in a college classroom setting, a city council chamber or a kindergarten classroom probably cross the line. Screaming, tantrums and physical violence shouldn’t be tolerated in any group setting, and certainly not in a Quaker meeting for worship or business.
One of the strengths of Friends practice is that we are always open to new in-breaking of Spirit. But herein lies a trap. How do we know when a new message is of the Spirit, and when it is an offshoot of a damaged or disordered behavior pattern?
One way to know with unfailing certainty is to watch what the actions produce. “A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit,…Wherefore, by their fruits ye shall know them.” I do not think that Jesus was saying that people are analogous to the trees in this parable. Instead, I think he was talking about ideas or behavior patterns as being the trees that bear fruit.
If, over the course of a significant period of time, one’s behaviors prove repeatedly destructive to, and out of line with, the group, and if that behavior occurs in repeated patterns that seem to get worse with the passage of time, then it is easy to discern the “fruit” that is borne from those actions or behaviors. Something is wrong and action should be taken, both to help the one suffering from the aberrant behavior as well as the others in the group.
Some problems are beyond any solution that can be implemented within the group. If there is some kind of dysfunction or illness mechanism at work, whether physical or mental, most meetings are clearly not equipped to do more than refer the sufferer to professional help.
But what if the sufferer whose behavior continually disrupts the functioning of the group refuses to get help or denies that there is anything wrong or consistently blames others for that person’s own bad behavior, what to do then. What do you do after the same worsening patterns of behavior are displayed over the course of many years?
Our meeting is suffering under this type of affliction right now. . . .
Last First Day, during Meeting for Worship, a visiting Friend arose to speak after several of our meeting’s Friends had already shared vocal ministry. One message had been offered beautifully and there was a wonderful spirit present. Two or three other friends who have become personally involved with, and supportive of, the disruptive person also rose to speak, and the atmosphere was quite different.
Though couched in “Friend-speak”, the messages were filled with accusations, unfounded assertions, name-calling and general enmity. Such a contrast to the previous message!
Then our visitor rose. She began by saying that, prior to visiting our meeting, other Friends had warned her not to come. She was very gentle, but she was also wonderfully and refreshingly truthful as she explained that she had witnessed firsthand that very day why the warning had been given, and why the warning had been justified.
It was hard to hear so directly from another Friend that my own spiritual community now had gained a reputation of divisiveness and as a home where the truth is not honored and abhorrent behavior is tolerated. The sad thing is that our visitor had this reaction even though the person who has been the origin of all the disruption wasn’t even there that day. Only her “disciples” were there, and it was enough that their bad behavior and distorted messages and, quite frankly, their frequent lies, came through so loud and clear.
This visitor didn’t even have to know the details to understand that something was terribly wrong in our meeting. It was easy for her to discern where the problem originated even without knowing the details. She could feel it in the Spirit just as strongly as if someone had struck her with a stone.
We lost a few more members that day. It was Meeting for Business, and two more Friends joined the ranks of those who have left our meeting for some other spiritual places rather than any longer endure the spiritual (and in a few cases physical) assaults. Our Meetings for Business long ago shed virtually all vestiges of spirit-led activities. Those who come now inure themselves to the inevitable assault and accusations month after month until, finally, they can take no more. The assaults continue in Meeting for Worship. There is no respite except in withdrawal. . . .
Is it any wonder that we have lost so many faithful, seasoned and weighty Friends, including three of the last four meeting clerks, several members of Ministry and Counsel committee, and Friends and attenders new and old?
We have even had first-time visitors end up in the parking lot in tears after witnessing turmoil and destruction during their first Quaker experience, and watching it as it turned into a screaming tantrum display or a bunch of baseless accusations. When the person around whom all the trouble has been centered was informed that our visitor was in tears and would not be back, the disrupter responded, “Good.”
What is a Friends meeting to do in this case?
It would be one thing if this kind of behavior happened once, and the person who was the source of the difficulty was open to listening to “eldering” given in a loving spirit that was designed to point out why the behavior caused troubles, and how to effect changes so that the situation wouldn’t arise again. If a person who has been disruptive once were open to such guidance in Friends’ practices, all would be well.
But what does a meeting do when such a person is refractory to all attempts at counseling and guidance, or even admonishment when unacceptable behavior happens repeatedly? What does a meeting do when there is a display of overt physical violence, violence of such a nature that there would be potential for real physical injury if it were to be repeated?
When is enough, enough?
In these situations, there must be a mechanism of separation, lest the whole meeting be destroyed. George Fox would not have tolerated this kind of behavior, and indeed didn’t. Read the story of the life of James Naylor to see what happened to a dear and weighty Friend who “went off the rails.” History has much to teach, and we ignore its lessons at our own peril.
One last comment. Casting someone out because of who they are (gay, transgender, bisexual, intersex, black, brown, yellow, white, tall, short, blond hair or black, language spoken, prior spiritual paths taken, ethnicity, wealth or poverty) should never be accepted or perpetrated.
Behavior is a different matter. Quakers are accepting and open to diversity, but there have to be limits of comportment that cross the line. . . .
Likewise, we may not be able to give a bright-line definition of what is and isn’t acceptable behavior, but the test of the fruit trees always provides an answer that can be trusted by anyone willing to look and listen.
If, over a prolonged period, the fruit is predominantly or wholly evil, then there is no doubt as to the nature of the tree. Every good tree sometimes produces a piece of rotten fruit, but not all the time, or even most of the time. It is rare. Friends, use the test of the fruit of the tree in your pondering.
Over the past decade, I’ve witnessed and reported on the breakup of five U.S. Yearly Meetings.
This “assignment” was at best unpleasant, and often disheartening. After the fifth schism, I had hoped the ugly epidemic was over.
But now there’s a possible Number Six. A showdown for it is coming on July 20.
The previous five were all pastoral-evangelical YMs, and the matter of welcoming/affirming LGBT persons was the tripwire issue in most. But there were others too: the place and work of Jesus; interpretation and authority of the Bible; church governance (more plainly, who’s the boss), etc.
It’s early for grand interpretations, but in my view, what I refer to as the Separation Generation looks to be as extensive and consequential as that of the Hicksites-Orthodox fracture in 1827.