BYM-FUM Update: Dodged A Bullet

(Dear reader, this post will not likely make much sense if you’re unfamiliar with a series of posts from last week.Part I of the series is here; then Part II is here; and Part III is here. Part IV is here, and a last-minute postscript is here .

Anyway, the BYM Interim Meeting convened at Richmond (VA) Friends meeting Saturday afternoon. There were a few preliminaries, including a fulsomely orchestrated report from the Intervisitation Program (which was a creation of the 2004 Witness regarding FUM, which also included withholding and redirecting funds for regular membership payments. Then we plunged into the labor of deciding what to do about the proposed minute to resume membership payments.

Bottom line, we approved sending the money. But that bare statement does not do justice to the proceedings.

The “money quote” of the proposal came wrapped in a bloated two-page pre-amble and “post-amble,” of which the actual decision minute was a mere two sentences. The earlier posts here analyzed this explanatory text in detail, critiquing it as making the Witness sound like some kind of shameful misdeed which we were now finally ready to apologize for and repent of. This framing was utterly unacceptable. My view was and is that the 2004 Witness was a huge success, something to celebrate, not lament.

During the discussion, an intriguing dynamic emerged: The Intervisitation Program, which was an integral part of the Witness, has exceeded our hopes, and built many connections with other YMs in FUM. And as a result, some of those who have done the visiting were the most eloquent supporters of resuming the membership payments. Furthermore, among these, several were gay and lesbian Friends, who testified that they began the visits very alienated from FUM, but as the contacts deepened they had bonded with these other Friends and now wanted to maintain full contacts. Not that this meant all the problems were solved; but they wanted to pursue their work on behalf of a Yearly Meeting back in “good standing.”

Such testimonies were very impressive, and the general sentiment was clearly supportive.

However, there remained the problem of the “wrapping,” the two pages of text which basically trashed the whole Witness. This did not fare so well in the discussion. In this case, the disparaging (and self-contradictory) comments about how “money is not the issue” [so send money], and money can’t convey our spiritual concerns [so send money], and so forth were subjected to a devastating deconstruction by Pierce Hammond from Bethesda Meeting, who recounted a long list of occasions in which some of the most revered early Quakers made the use (or non-use) of money a key vehicle for conveying their spiritual witness.

There were also objections to the “wrapping” text’s apologetic tone. And another Friend exposed the bias and error in its statement about how New England and New York Yearly Meetings opposed our Witness/ Where were the documents expressing this opposition, he asked? There were none, it was acknowledged, because in fact, these bodies had done no such thing. Rather, a few individuals from them have raised such objections personally — and it appeared that few of our BYM Representatives were prepared to stand up for their body’s Witness, which is not to their credit.

The upshot was that, piece by piece, Clerk Meg Meyer agreed to delete the “wrapping text,” until by the time the decision was made, all that was left were the barest of specifics: the amount of money involved ($6300) and a statement that we would hereafter deal with FUM on the same basis as we do other Quaker bodies.

Considering how pervasive were the factual errors and the rhetoric of putdown and shaming in the “wrapping” text, this action constitutes a welcome vindication of the validity of the 2004 Witness, if only by silence. A comment in the discussion, about the general uselessness of Quaker minutes in giving the background and texture of a body’s labor, does not apply as fully here. That’s because the negative “wrapping” text is contained in the BYM 2010 Yearbook; and the repudiation implicit in its glaring absence from the records of the ensuing year will be apparent to future historians. Not to mention that there are other sources, such as this blog, which can help fill in the context.

With this funding issue now behind us, I hope BYM will turn much more attention in relation to FUM to the ongoing work of rooting out corruption in and around FUM international projects, principally in Kenya. As I have pointed out before, among other places here and here, a culture of silence and “let-the-insiders-handle-it-we-know-best” has long been part of the problem, and still needs to be decisively broken with.

Yet there is one other aspect of this whole process which, while delicate, can’t be avoided. Besides the heartfelt individual expressions on Saturday, there was in this process, especially since 2008 when the first version of the “wrapping” text was presented, very much a sense of a BYM “Establishment” working behind the scenes to get the hoi polloi backbenchers back in order, after the uprising of 2004 which had disrupted the Establishmentarians’ familiar and comfortable notions of how things should be done.

This attitude was evident throughout the “wrapping” text — perhaps most visibly by the way it completely left out any account of the actual grass-roots upheaval which produced the 2004 Witness. As noted in Part II of my initial posts, such neglect amounts to falsification of the record, and could not be permitted to stand.

It was also visible in the way the “wrapping” text was tweaked at the very last minute before the session, in an attempt to turn the bulk of it into a “report” which need not be formally acted upon — but which would still appear in the record. (This transparent ploy failed.) It surfaced again in the paragraph which falsely declared the opposition of New England and New York Yearly Meetings to the 2004 Witness.

Personally I don’t think this misstatement was a deliberate deception; it simply articulated the tendency of some to identify themselves, and the other yearly meeting poohbahs they interact with, as the embodiments of their respective bodies. This is a common failing in both religious and political settings, but one which needs to be corrected, as this one was.

The Establishment bias was even obvious in the ballet of the report on the Intervisitation Program, which notably failed to mention its origins in the 2004 Witness.

This outlook was expressed more baldly in caustic comments on the BYM peace and social concerns email list in the last days before the Interim Meeting. One BYM rep to FUM posted there, charging the questioners of the Proposed Minute & “wrapping” text with hypocrisy and cowardice, evidently because we were not prepared to quietly let our betters handle things behind the scenes, informing us as and when they felt it meet.

One hopes this “Establishment” will take some lessons from the outcome of this labor: such framing and the notions behind it can be challenged and effectively resisted. And such “Establishment” behavior does not go unnoticed or unremarked.

Visiting the Future? Below: The very first BYM Intervisitation group, in North Carolina, pauses at Guilford College in Greensboro to contemplate a student artwork made entirely of bottle caps and jar lids. Photo from October 2005.
bym Visitation Committee IN North Carolina

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