SAYMA 2021: The Post-Mortem

Bob McGahey, the Clerk of SAYMA (Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting & Association), saw what was coming at last week’s 2021 annual sessions.

What did he see? Trouble & woe.

How do I know?

Because he said so, in a Clerk’s letter sent out as the group was gathering (mostly in Zoom) last week.

The key passage:

Unfortunately, as we approach SAYMA yearly sessions, there are those among us who would enforce their deeply held convictions through pressuring, judging, and threatening behavior. One plenary speaker and two workshops have been challenged and threatened with disruption. One of those workshops has been cancelled, and the leader of the second feels genuinely threatened by escalating attacks, asking for protection. As an open religious society, our protection comes from the divine, which resides deep within each of us, acting from within the body, not from a hierarchy of leaders.

He was mistaken about that last item: protection, especially in SAYMA, comes from leaders and staunch Friends with resolve to uphold good Quaker order, or it will not come at all.

Both were essentially absent from SAYMA’s annual sessions.

Even so, the beleaguered plenary speaker did get to speak. The threatened workshops were delivered, just barely. But by the end of the week, the workshop leader had gone into hiding. As this was written that person was still in an undisclosed location, seeking safety and relief from continued “genuine threats.”

Of course, Clerk McGahey had already been immediately excoriated for having dared to speak a bit of truth. And true to SAYMA’s form, he quickly beat an abject retreat, issuing a second, fulsomely penitent letter, which breathed the embarrassing pathos of a forced hostage video. Among other iniquities, he said,

I need to acknowledge that I was being paternalistic [in the first letter], and at the same time inadvertently protecting the yearly meeting’s place of privilege in a colonialist polity built on all the arrogant assumptions implicit in the old term, Manifest Destiny.

Hmmm. Guilty of “Manifest Destiny”? An unwary reader could have thought he was attempting to uphold some semblance of Quaker good order and safety for SAYMA participants. But no. (Which raises, and perhaps answers another question: have threats and  disruptions become another “New Normal”? In SAYMA, it would seem so.) By the way, how much jail time are judges passing out for Manifest Destiny convictions, these days?

Never mind; McGahey the self-confessed Manifest Miscreant said more about the coming week:

Friends, we need to accept the pain of being confronted with our structural complicity and often, of new racist sins in the  moment, sometimes of being falsely accused. But we cannot tolerate abusive behavior.
If you take these two statements together, you have the crux of our painful dilemma.

In practice, however, those two statements were not exactly taken together. As the week unfolded, White SAYMA Friends were repeatedly expected to “accept the pain” of a continuing barrage of accusations, many false, plus torrents of abuse about their copious purported “sins in the moment”; and meanwhile, continuing abusive behavior, often marked with peals of street vulgarity, was tolerated, and by a few, commended.

The chief prosecutor, as has become almost a given in SAYMA’s bleakly cheerless proceedings, was a person, Sharon Smith. who claims to be a Quaker, but has no membership in any meeting; she simply asserts she is a “Friend At Large,” blasts any questions as more proof of  Quaker racism, and is obediently so listed in SAYMA directories. She also claims to be of both Black and Indian ancestry, again without any evidence. Indeed, she styles herself as the chief Indian elder of the American Southeast, with suzerainty over all Indians of the region.

Quiet inquiries among North Carolina Indian groups last year yielded no knowledge of her or her grandiloquent claims. But any spoken request for documentation for any of this, especially for the claims of authority, are dismissed, usually with much loud profanity, as only more confirmation of White Quaker Racism.  McGahey practically fell all over himself in haste to accept such charges:

Let it suffice to say that white people often cause unintended harm, due to their inability to see that they are acting from a position of power within a system that privileges them. As one of you said during the initial part of these sessions, we are like fish swimming in a sea that we cannot see. And when we are surprised, hurt and defensive when shown this, we are demonstrating what has been duly named “white fragility.”

So, suffice to say, the duty of white SAYMA Friends was to continue to swallow it all, resisting not the lash lest the dreaded curse of Fragilité blanche be added to their already limitless bill of indictment.

As you might have guessed, I was less than persuaded by this spectacle of self-abasement. It seems a near-total set up for abetting personal and institutional abuse and exploitation. If there is any connection between it and Quaker good order, I can’t find it.

Sharon Smith came to the sessions in pursuit of several ambitious  goals. One was to commandeer the function of the Nominating Committee, and clear its list of any persons she deemed less than properly deferential to her.

She had announced this plan long before the session, in widely-circulated emails. The minor point that such premeditated vendetta purges are completely contrary to and violative of genuine Quaker process was of no consequence. And she succeeded: several such names were indeed struck at her behest.

She did not do so well with some of her other plans. Her assault on the plenary speaker, Harold Weaver of New England Yearly Meeting, did not stop him from speaking. The workshop she vilified staggered, and regrouped, but managed to happen.

Her major demand was for $10,000 from the SAYMA budget. She had obtained more than that two years ago, and upped the ante last year, insisting this annual amount (or more) be made a permanent stipend with no strings, the equivalent of a tenured university chair, with SAYMA’s bank account as its endowment. But in 2020, that demand, amidst the Coronavirus collapse, was refused.

This time, despite all the chaos, reliable reports advise that SAYMA’s budget for 2021-2022 was A) Approved; and B) Smith’s $10,000 was not in it.

But she’ll likely be back, as soon as this fall, determined to overturn the decision, or tap into SAYMA reserves instead.

That should be an interesting confrontation. SAYMA’s reported current budget figures were less than robust. This topline sample reveals most important numbers:

For the year 2019 (now The Good Old Days), SAYMA took in (rounded figures) $104,000; in 2020, under pandemic siege, it brought in just under half of that, $51,000.

For 2021, at two thirds of the way through its fiscal year, it has brought in not quite $28,000, which is a bit over one quarter of the projected total of $92,000. To reach balance, SAYMA may need to draw on its reserves.

There are many more budget lines, but in sum, SAYMA’s funds are very tight, and prospects are uncertain, even as the pandemic seems to be passing. (Is this an unusual plight? Hardly.) Nevertheless, Smith demanded $10,000 of it, with no strings, for her “anti-racism work.” She did not get it. (Yet.)

Also, in the roiling turmoil that accompanied her participation, another of her plans sank and drowned. It fell overboard from the new edition of SAYMA’s Faith & Practice (F&P).  In the works for some years, the completed draft was brought forward by the Ad Hoc F&P Revision Committee. The revisions were approved — all but one. The exception was among a lengthy list of draft Queries, numbered as E18:

AdHoc Committee draft: How do we acknowledge and honor the Indigenous People whose land we occupy? How do we connect with and learn from Indigenous People whom we have impacted? How do we promote the healing of those impacted?

Smith objected loudly; the draft Query was not to her taste. And it was dropped. The Ad Hoc Committee’s Clerk then asked if she wanted to submit a revision. She did, an hour later. The AdHoc F&P Committee added it to the agenda of the closing business meeting. The Smith revision of the draft Query read:

How do we acknowledge Indigenous peoples whose ancestors were brutally murdered or enslaved for us to live on their stolen ancestral lands? How do we atone for the sins of our ancestors to their surviving descendants, those most impacted by our ongoing and relentless racial violence, genocide, land theft, and slavery?

But again, Smith was busy disrupting some other matters; thus, when the session finally adjourned, and with it the yearly meeting session, this item had not been reached and the replacement Query was not acted on.

With the close of the session, and acceptance of the rest of the revised Faith & Practice, the AdHoc F&P Committee was laid down (i.e., disbanded); and F&P specifies that the next revision will come in ten years. Meantime, there is no E18 Query at all in the new edition.

Does this make any difference? We shall see.

And not least, one of Smith’s other major goals was to have a purported entity she allegedly created a couple of years ago, which she calls the Paul Cuffee Worship Group, be taken directly “under the care” of SAYMA.

As noted in the previous post, “Smith said the new Cuffee attenders were ‘POC who wish to worship in the manner of Friends without having to deal with Quaker racism (i. e., SAYMA)‘ — no “dealings,” that is, except that Smith as their “clerk” remains determined to grab a big chunk of SAYMA’s “white racist” money.

Our last post also indicated there are good reasons to doubt that this “worship group” really exists, except as a cover for her raid on SAYMA’s treasury, and is a rerun of another fictional Cuffee group she claimed to have started in Massachusetts in 2006.

SAYMA’s Faith & Practice makes no provision for attaching such an informal entity to the Yearly Meeting; new worship groups are welcomed, but standard procedure is for them to affiliate with (and be “under the care of”) a nearby Monthly Meeting. Such arrangements are free of other red tape: they need not involve the yearly meeting at all.

But Smith will have none of that. But why not? Would a monthly meeting be too close? Ask too many questions? (like does it really exist?) Smith claims the group was begun because an unidentified number of POCs want to worship as Friends but SAYMA’s Meetings are too white and too racist to be borne.

Yet SAYMA is no more than the sum and nucleus of those local Meetings– so how is being attached to it going to provide any relief from this suffocating legacy of Manifest Destiny? (Well, one might note that “under the care of” the yearly meeting, which has no real physical location, no executive staff, no applicable procedure, and only gathers once annually, likely far away — such “care” would amount essentially to no “care” [aka “supervision”] at all.)

In any case, neither question, of SAYMA affiliation or whether Cuffee really exists, beyond its namesake whose remains lie in a quiet Cape Cod cemetery, was resolved. So expect more opportunities for SAYMA Friends to “accept” profanity-laced melodrama about this item too when its next Representative Meeting comes, expected in the fall.

Very few SAYMA Friends who have reported about this 2021 session came away expressing much optimism; rather quite the opposite. The annual Epistle, heavily tilted in Smith’s direction, summarized it this way:

We owe many thanks to the collaboration of an energetic community of Friends who pooled their diverse talents with great creativity, organizational and technical skill. Due to their efforts, all things technological ran smoothly, for the most part.

However, that is where the cooperative, harmonious and generous spirit ended. Our yearly meeting has spent five years laboring through deeply conflicting attitudes, understandings and behaviors concerning what white supremacy and colonialism are, how they show up in our meetings and what to do about it. We were deeply divided on these issues before this gathering, and we are deeply divided still.

The themes of love, compassion and Justice were consistently absent from our business sessions.  . . .

This excerpt pretty much confirms Clerk McGahey’s initial forecast, notwithstanding its near-instant repudiation. (But that show-trial-like spectacle itself grimly corroborated it as well.) SAYMA’s annual sessions have become predictable rounds of chronically abusive behavior, enabled by some of the weakest clerking in memory.

These feed the delusions of a few that the resulting sadomasochistic sessions in any way resemble “Quaker process” or constructive  “anti-racism.” While those delusions persist, it’s hard to see how the prospects for the yearly meeting will get any better.

SAYMA’s Destiny looks dismal, and it’s getting ever more Manifest.

32 thoughts on “SAYMA 2021: The Post-Mortem”

  1. SAYMA Quakers seem to almost all be masochists with weak spines. Sharon Smith is not even a member? And yet they put up with her mental abuse year after year? If this were physical abuse it would not be accepted. But mental abuse, which is just as damaging, is tolerated.

  2. John Woolman sought Spirit in all people, setting an example for all of us who choose to live by and in Spirit, to the best of our ability.

    In his encounter with indigenous peoples he looked at them through the lens of Spirit, not of the culture from which he came. He found much to admire.

    How much of what some Friends call “mental abuse” (or other like terms) if looked at through the lens of Spirit might be be seen quite differently? Such was the case for a number of us during SAYMA’s business meetings (all 5 of them) this year.

    1. Dear Hank,

      Was anything revealed “the lens of the Spirit” that might help us understand this any better? What was the practical effect of looking at it the situation this “lens”? In what ways did it support good order?

      Without knowing what you would say happened in concrete terms, your comment seems cryptic.

      Thank you,
      John

      1. Hi John,

        Good Order was declared of more importance than being in Spirit in London Meeting around 1664 or so. I have a pdf of the original publication it was collected in if you want to read it.

        Our ranks, at least in SAYMA, are filled with people who have grown up with “good order” as the prerequisite for relationship.

        Do I think Friend Smith could be more effective using other methods of interaction? Yes.

        Do I think Friend Smith is led by Spirit in noticing the classism/racism (big intersection there) embedded in Quakerism, programmed and unprogrammed? Yes.

        How did I get to the second “yes”? I asked (Spirit) to be shown if/where she was led by Spirit. The answer was immediate.

        Hank

        1. Dear Hank,
          Out of curiosity, what was the immediate answer of the Spirit in your mind? How did you receive it? Did you share it with others? Not being provocative here but would like to understand if your sense of the Spirit was entirely subjective or were you directed to Scripture or another source for corroboration.
          Peace,
          Chris Wynn

          1. Hi Chris,

            “She’s right about what she asserts and her rhetorical style is more like an old-time union organizer, who also would turn off the gentrified middle class, as they did when they were active.”

            That’s not a knock on the gentrified middle class, just a reality of our meetings.

            There are a number of us at Berea Friends Meeting who have been led to support Friend Smith. The Meeting has minuted support for the work of the committee Friend Smith leads.

            As for Scripture — unless we enter into the spirit in which it was written, etc., so that would be either a) going back to the same well or b) heresy. That said, one person’s heresy is often another person’s doctrine: theology is slippery that way.

            Hank

    2. Dear Hank,
      I feel sure that John Woolman’s patience would have been sorely tried by Sharon Smith. To an outsider ( Quaker in Britain) it seems clear that Sharon Smith is a mentally deranged person, totally consumed with hatred for white people, who will go to any lengths to push her hatred. She long ago found that of all peoples, Quakers were the most tolerant and the structure of our Meetings for Worship permit her full entry. I wonder if she has ever joined or tried to join any of our Meetings for Worship which are programmed and have a paid Pastor. ( we only have unprogrammed Meetings in Britain).

      1. John Woolman might have packed his satchel and moved on or gone home to his long-suffering wife.

        1. I think this extract from an article by John Lampen in this week’s edition of THE FRIEND is relevant.
          “It is true that William Penn had enslaved people in his household. We rightly wish he had freed them. But this omission does not invalidate his astonishing constitution for Pennsylvania, his part-abolition of the death penalty, his respect for the natural environment, or his peaceful and honorable dealings with the first-nation’s peoples./ And we can still honor the way that Anthony Benzet, John Woolman, Benjamin Lay and others convinced their Yearly Meeting to denounce slavery in one generation, without ignoring how many Friends were involved in the slave trade.
          To take a more modern instance, our present concern or LGBTQ rights is not less sincere because a majority of Friends once thought homosexuality an illness or a sin. It is because these beliefs were common that we can be proud of publishing ‘Towards a Quaker View of Sex’ in 1963, and moving towards our present position.
          Amid all our failures of vision and practice, we are a people who have kept developing – at our best when self-critical and guided by principle. It is right that we stop demanding acclaim for some simplified pictures of historical moments. But we can still feel good about the way we keep moving forward. “

      2. Dear Eric,

        Woolman consistently reached inside others for their truth. I have no reason to think he would have done differently with Friend Smith.

        Benjamin Lay, one of my Quaker heroes, was considered deranged. And he was right. The British Quakers who went into the gaols were considered deranged, also. They were right.

        As a psychologist in practice for 25 years (my first career; I am 23 years into my second career), well before I knew of Quakers, I found that understanding people as they were, rather than as society sees them, was the key to meeting them where they were and then being able to help them. As Friends we are to seek the Light in every person. The overlap with what I did as a psychologist is near total.

        As for your hypothesizing as to why Friend Smith might have gravitated to unprogrammed Quaker Meetings, an alternative perspective for why she chose unProgrammed Quakers is our reputation for Integrity — that if we heard the truth, however unpleasant and no matter how presented, we would embrace that truth and be led to action from there. And of course, both of us could be wrong in our hypothesizing. Note that if my hypothesis were to prove out, our reputation for integrity would be in tatters.

        Yes, I’m somewhat familiar with British Quakers from the course on the the history of Liberal Quakers in Britain given online by Mark Russ from Woodbrooke. That’s where I was put onto the reference from the early 1660’s from the message to London Quakers insisting the propriety must take precedence over leadings of Spirit.

        thanks,

        Hank

        1. Thanks Hank for your reply. My worry is that your Meeting seems (at least to me it seems) to be completely dominated by this issue. Maybe I am wrong. Also, when you say ” that if we heard the truth, however unpleasant and no matter how presented, we would embrace that truth and be led to action from there”. But what is the truth in this context?

          1. The experience of truthiness always involves triangulation of perspectives in science (lines of inquiry, etc.) and in our spiritual lives.

  3. It is said to treat others as you would wish to be treated. I wonder if presented with that, Sharon Smith will reconsider. Probably not.
    I’m just so entralled how you keep keeping up with these situations. You’re a better man than me…..

  4. Chuck, you earlier wrote the excellent book on this, albeit regarding a different YM.

    You might find interesting parallels in the self-immolation of Canada’s Green Party. It elected a leader who is both Jewish and black. As leader she (and her closest advisors) has labelled members who don’t automatically accept that Israel can do no wrong anti-semitic, and all who question her leadership as doing so because they are racists.

    https://www.theglobeandmail.com/politics/article-annamie-paul-rejects-bid-to-oust-her-as-racist-and-sexist

    I rather wonder whether being unconcerned with the treatment of Palestinians might equally be labelled anti-semitic, and whether framing every issue in terms of race is itself rather racist. I’m reminded of my fathers oft repeated instruction: Do as I say, not as I do.

    I think 1984 is long overdue for being brought up to date. It needs to be renamed 2084.

    1. If the answer is “Yes,” Steve, can one plead for mercy claiming that such was my Destiny? (Or is that option reserved exclusively for Manifest Calvinists?)

    1. Hank you wrote ” The Meeting has minuted support for the work of the committee Friend Smith leads.” Can you give some examples of this work? It might help some of us to understand why you accept this constant and unQuakerly abuse

      1. Hi Eric,

        Please define what is unQuakerly and constitutes abuse about one person saying to another “You don’t know what you are talking about and are being racist in what you are saying.” That’s not a direct quote, and it’s the kind of statement being referenced. Oh, and it’s said loudly and angrily.

        I agree that kind of talk does not fit within the culture of the gentrified middle class. And I observe that members of our meetings without exception (for the Meetings I have been in) fit within the parameters of the gentrified middle class in their manner of discourse.

        thanks,

        Hank

        1. Well Hank , for a while I read a lot of Sharon Smith’s messages but I didn’t record any. I will have to go back and rejoin to see in what kind of tenderness she now speaks, unless any other readers of this exchange between you and me, can quote examples of the abuse which I seem to remember often brought some people to tears. By the way, you have not quoted any examples of positive work that Sharon and her group do or have done. We tend to only hear the negatives.

          1. Sharon has financially supported the work of the Paul Cuffee Abolitionist Center in Charleston, SC. She has started the Paul Cuffee Worship Group. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Cuffe

            She has helped promote anti-racism study groups in SAYMA Meetings.

            She got us, just by being who she is, to have this discussion.

            Tenderness is a double-edged instrument, depending on its provenance. As the result of spiritual connection it is a fruit of the Spirit. As a result of gentrified mannerisms it is a defense against change. Beware false fruits.

    1. Hi Arlene,

      When I joined Quakers in 1999 in Ft. Myers Meeting we only had tea, no coffee. By the time I moved in 2006 (to Berea, KY) we had a large coffee maker going. It turns out half the meeting only pretended not to prefer coffee. 🙂 You can write coffee anytime and it’s fine with me.

      The Paul Cuffee Worship Group is in Charleston, SC, and is open only to friends of color. I think there are 9 attenders, from what Sharon mentioned at SAYMA Yearly Meeting.

        1. Hi Arlene,

          I am not a friend of color.

          Hank

          PS: You might want to ask yourself, “if we were discussing a Friend who spoke in a gentrified middle-class manner, would I have asked this questions?”

          1. Hank , I have known a few Quakers of color who do talk that way, some American, some English. All I asked is if you went. I didn’t know if you were if color or not.

          2. HI Arlene,

            My question was poorly phrased, and got ahead of our conversation by a step, at least. My bad.

            Have you seen this Quakerspeak video? https://quakerspeak.com/video/how-does-culture-influence-quaker-worship/

            In the description of the video notice this wording: “… by the culture she perceived in …”.

            Perceived? Why not “encountered”? That’s the kind of “sowing doubt discrediting” that those who challenge the system receive quite regularly in every part of life. Those of color receive it more than most. Unprogrammed Meetings in fact have one program rule, in some Meetings written and in others simply enforced: “No matter how led by Spirit, thou shalt not respond to a message in any way while it is being given, and thou shalt remain silent for a period of time after the message is given.” She didn’t perceive it: it’s real and she encountered it. But even Quakerspeak couldn’t find the courage to call it what it is.

            We are bound by the culture in which we grow up and take to be “normal”. One of the attractions of Quakerism, to me, is that if we make Spirit first in our lives, we at least open ourselves to being led beyond the constrictions of our developmental culture — unless of course we make worldly rules constraining the working of Spirit.

            Hank

  5. Chuck – you diagnose the problem as “weak” leadership and clerking ability to keep good order. But I am wondering if that is the fruit, not the root of the issue. The root of the issue, I propose, maybe a particular vision of what being “open” and “non-hierarchical” actually mean and look like in practice. It seems to me to poorly understand, and then poorly apply, such concepts would naturally leave a body like SAYMA insecure to this kind of thing.

    Does this seem fair to you?

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