The long-simmering dysfunction in SAYMA (Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting & Association) quietly boiled over on First Month (January) 2, 2022.
Swannanoa Valley Monthly Meeting, in Black Mountain NC, adopted the following minute:
We at Swannanoa Valley Friends Meeting are called to remove ourselves from continuing to support, enable, and normalize abusive behavior in SAYMA. This includes our witness to the breakdown of Quaker process. As a result, please remove us from Yearly Meeting membership effective immediately.
However note that we intend to continue our relationship with the SAYMA Young Friends program (SAYF). This includes offering our personal and financial support, as well as our meetinghouse for furtherance of its work.
[This text is not yet online, but was confirmed by a member who was present.]
The abuse spoken of is a years-long pattern of disruptive behavior centered on the self-identified “Quaker anti-racism ministry” of a person, Sharon Smith, currently based in South Carolina.
Smith falsely claims to be not only a “birthright” Friend, nor has she ever joined a meeting. Nonetheless she insists she is also the pre-eminent expert & authority on critical race theory in the entire southeastern United States.
She also says she is the reigning matriarchal “elder” of the Native American Saponi tribe, and overlord of any activities relating to all Native Americans in the southeast, especially initiatives by non-Native Americans. (However, Saponi tribal authorities contacted by Friends claimed no knowledge of Smith or her connection with the group.)
Smith’s actual history includes, since the beginning of the 21st Century, a long string of unsavory incidents involving financial milking and other exploitation of guilt-ridden liberal Quaker groups, accompanied by recurrent abusive behaviors.
In 2007 Smith (as an attender) and her mother (a member) were ejected and disowned from Sandwich Meeting on Cape Cod. She later disrupted annual sessions in Philadelphia, wangled a lengthy scholarship at Pendle Hill in 2007 (supposedly to write a book, unfinished as of the end of 2021), took advantage of aid and hospitality by Friends in Nashville, and later spent several years milking Asheville NC Meeting and some of its members for free housing, a car, and other items of personal value.
Smith ultimately left Asheville after being evicted from a squat in a long-suffering Friend’s home, and Asheville Meeting rebuffed her demand that they grant her permanent residence in their meetinghouse. In March 2018 she was arrested and physically removed from an anti-racism workshop in Asheville by the Black staff, after insisting her status as reigning authority be recognized. She soon left for rural South Carolina.
Smith by then had also trained her sights on SAYMA. She managed to obtain a one-time grant of $18000 for her “ministry” of telling white Quakers nonstop how racist they are. She insisted that the SAYMA grant thereafter be made a permanent stipend, and when this was denied, became repeatedly disruptive in its annual sessions.
She also engineered the creation of an Uplifting Racial Justice Committee (URJ), to be populated by all Friends of color; however, all the Friends of Color appointed to it quit after becoming targets of her ire themselves. Ironically, for one supposed to be pursuing a ministry of Quaker anti-racism, she has long made a habit of bitterly denouncing a long list of notable Black Friends, as “desperate or despicable” sellouts who have sold their souls to Quaker racists for jobs or scholarships.
Last spring the appointments to the URJ Committee, including Smith’s, expired, and the SAYMA Nominating Committee was unable to make any successor appointments and declared the group no longer active.
But Smith has gathered a handful of white supporters, and they acted as an organized caucus to disrupt the sessions where URJ’s expiration was reported,demanding that it be renewed and the funding be revived. In the ensuing bedlam, the session minutes, though overwhelmingly supported, were not finalized. Since then, two successive meetings of SAYMA’s Representatives have been disrupted by this claque, such that the minutes from last spring and the rest of 2021 remain unrecorded, and the sessions have repeatedly dissolved into rank disorder.
The Nominating Committee did report that almost 40 committee slots for SAYMA stand unfilled, reflecting the general revulsion from the broader state of paralysis in the body. It is unclear at this point whether SAYMA can organize an annual session for 2022, even if the pandemic recedes. And if they did, who but masochists and opportunists will want to attend?
After four years of this toxicity, more than one SAYMA monthly meeting has had informal discussions of how to build a positive Quaker future beyond it.
Swannanoa Valley becomes the first to decide that doing so requires leaving SAYMA behind. A prominent member told me that they had not begun to discuss what any future affiliation might look like.
There is no rush. It is easy enough to be an independent Quaker monthly meeting: the group does not need a “license” from any other body; they get to keep their meetinghouse and bank account. Members can take part in say, annual Gatherings of Friends General Conference, and attend many other Quaker events.
Given the breadth of both a hunger among Friends for authentic racial justice work, and functional Quaker community, it seems a safe forecast that there is still potential for a healthy Quaker association in the southeast.
But whether SAYMA, which long was that, can be that any longer has been increasingly in doubt; and Swannanoa Valley may not be the only meeting to decide it’s time to find or create another, more serviceable and safer umbrella group.