[Note: This post includes strong language.]
Few Quakers I’ve run into are as certain of the divinely-mandated quality of their vocation as Sharon Smith, aka “The Intruder.”
Last July 4, after she was confirmed as Clerk of the SAYMA Uplifting Racial Justice Committee, capping a three-year struggle, she put this with stark certainty in a blog post:
“What are the chances, a birthright Native and Black Friend of color with years of experience at Quaker process, clerking committees, etc., who is also called to ministry to challenge racism among Friends, would be among SAYMA Friends in the southern Appalachian Blue Ridge area, which just happens to be my stolen ancestral land, at this very time. I am also the closest thing SAYMA has to an authority on Critical Race Theory, the exact combination URJ sorely needs if it is to lead SAYMA toward its stated goal of becoming a welcoming multicultural anti-racist faith community. I was literally born for this.”
Similar statements recur frequently in the blog, called “Mixed Blessing.”
“Born for this.” The declaration carries layers of irony. Because despite this voiced certainty, the four years of her available blog entries, supplemented by other documents, exhibit and underline a deep, unsettling paradox:
On the one hand, Smith is preternaturally sure of her calling.
Yet why does this minister despise the subjects of her ministry so deeply, stridently and divisively?
In fact, there are two kinds of Quakers who have been special targets of Smith’s relentless challenges, so laced with ire and loathing in word and action. They are:
White Quakers. And–
Quakers of Color.
I’ll leave aside here the travails of white Quakers who bear scars from dealing with Smith. Yes, she has a handful of “white friends,” the sort of “allies” she often scorns when claimed by other whites. But their numbers are small, and in any case, the rest of us white Quakers, in the light of her version of “Critical Race Theory,” are – well, let her say it:
“News Flash: There are no innocent white settlers in Amerikkka. No matter how or when your people arrived here. ALL white people benefit from white supremacy. Period. The concept that it could possibly be otherwise, in your particular case, only exists in your defensive imagination. Get over it.” and in a July 2019 email to SAYMA activists, she quoted an article that, she wrote,
“Reminds me of you Quakers. ‘If you’re white and live in America, the smarter you are, the less likely you are to say you agree with racist stereotypes or principles. But you’re not more likely than your dumber counterparts to actually want to do anything about racial inequality.’” And she linked to an article: “‘Smart People Are As Racist As Less-Smart People–But Smart Enough To Hide It.’”
Not only are we whites thoroughly racist, we deserve every bit of comeuppance and suffering imaginable, and then some. But here we’ll simply stew in these, our own imputed prejudiced juices. That’s because what struck me while reviewing Smith’s blog posts was the large number of Friends of Color (FOCs) she detests equally, or even more.
What is the evidence for this? Good question. Principally, it is her own words. In particular, a blog post, called “Open Letter to SAYMA Friends of Color,” posted Jun 8, 2019. (Unless otherwise noted, the quotes that follow are from this “Open Letter.”)
It’s lengthy, but going through it carefully I was able list fourteen FOCs whom Smith denounced as adversaries and obstacles to her work of “challenging” racism.
These fourteen Friends were from New England, New York, Philadelphia, Friends General Conference, and later SAYMA. They included influential committee members, yearly meeting clerks and former clerks, staff and former staff; altogether a substantial and weighty company, whose organizational reach stretched from eastern Massachusetts to South Carolina.
And all of them, in Smith’s studied conclusion, were against her, betraying her numerous times, in many places. For instance:
“The so called weighty Friends of color in New England Yearly Meeting were silent,” about what she declared to be a “political lynching” aimed at her there in 2005-6.
“AND, they were so easy with the idea of everyone’s focus being on me as the problem,” she added, “instead of the rampant racism in New England YM. Unfortunately, I’ve seen the same pattern of behavior among Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and SAYMA Friends of color. I have a hard time understanding it.”
And from the New England Yearly Meeting experience, there emerged a pattern, Smith asserts:
“Since that time . . . all other Friends of color, especially those who attended [a 2006 FOC] retreat [on Cape Cod], have acted like they don’t know me. Including the current secretary of New York YM, who managed the financial arrangements for the retreat on Cape Cod, and the former clerk of NYYM. Whenever I reached out to any Friends of color for support of any kind, they simply ignored me.”
I’m leaving out most of the names on this list, because they don’t deserve to be dragged through the mire again here. Interested readers can find their identifications in the blog post. Yet there’s one exception, for reasons which I hope will soon become clear. As Smith insisted:
“But there is absolutely no excuse for Vanessa Julye. It wasn’t like she did not know who I was, or had never heard of me. I met her several times at Quaker anti-racism events, such as the Burlington Conference in New Jersey, and we attended several Beyond Diversity 101 courses together during that time. She knew exactly who I was AND that I was a target of Quaker racism. Yet she, as the Black FGC coordinator of the Ministry on Racism, always held herself aloof and took a hands-off approach.”
Julye was (and still is) with Friends General Conference. And, Smith says,
“Contrary to what you may have been led to believe, I do not attack her for no reason. We have a long history, going back to The Quaker racial hysteria in Sandwich Monthly Meeting/NEYM (2006). For someone whose FGC recognized ministry is supposedly to support Friends of color and bring Friends of color together, she has done none of that for me, or any other Friend of color I know.”
The ”evidence” in support of these charges is mainly a catalog of times when Julye did not go along with Smith’s intrusions into various events, at FGC and in other settings. One which especially rankled was Julye’s non-response to Smith’s plea for a reference for an unsuccessful application to be a racial justice staffer for a Quaker organization.
Another was a dispute in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting which pitted a newcomer FOC, Avis Wanda McClinton, now on the list, but then a Smith ally, against McClinton’s monthly meeting. Smith wrote that,
“when I arrived on the scene to support Avis Wanda McClinton, in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, as she suffered from racism at Upper Dublin Friends Meeting/Abington Quarter, we faced massive resistance from Philadelphia YM Friends of color, including Vanessa Julye.
[McClinton’s] Meeting publicly declared themselves an “All white Meeting” [NOTE: This statement is false.] and again, NO Friends of Color stood up to support Avis Wanda, either.
We saw Friends of color stand up in public and say, shit like, “These are good kind people, why are you calling them names?” and “I don’t see the racism Avis is talking about.”
Vanessa was right in the middle of it, as the designated PYM representative of FGC AND the Philadelphia YM Undoing Racism Group–their expert on Friends of color and racism. She knew all too well that what was happening was indeed racist, and still she said absolutely nothing, at every opportunity to stand with and for Avis.”
Smith for a time became Clerk of an informal support committee for McClinton, as the dispute dragged contentiously on until late in 2017.
[The specifics of the conflict are not germane to this post; more details, from McClinton’s perspective, which the meeting vigorously disputed, are in this Friends Journal article from 2014.]
But the lessons Smith argued from the issue were apropos and twofold:
“Remember, Philadelphia YM acquired its wealth through cheating Indigenous people out of their lands and trading in Black and Indian slaves. Now they use that wealth to buy the allegiance of a few desperate and/or despicable Friends of color and to suppress dissenters. I am a witness. I saw so much unFriendly behavior from Friends of color and white protectionism in PYM, I could write a book on that alone.”
“Desperate and despicable.” That is the catchall description for all those Friends of Color on Smith’s long list – desperate, despicable, and cravenly cadging paychecks from the spoils of stolen white wealth. But the saga was not finished with this chapter.
In 2016, SAYMA invited Vanessa Julye to give the keynote at its annual sessions. By that time, Smith was living in Asheville, and had been very controversially active there. She was galvanized by the news:
“Suffice it to say, Vanessa Julye is no Friend to me, Avis Wanda, or any other Friend of color. So, when I heard that the SAYMA Planning Committee had chosen “Unraveling Racism” as its theme for . . . 2016, and invited Vanessa Julye to be Keynote Speaker, I was adamantly opposed. And, when I shared my concerns about Vanessa with the Planning Committee they refused to take my concerns seriously. They also refused to consider any of my suggested alternatives.”
But if she could not quash the invitation, Smith resolved to disrupt it. Which she did, with loud angry questions at Julye’s keynote presentation, which turned the SAYMA visit into a platform for Smith’s airing of her years of carried grudges.
“So please, she wrote later, “do not believe for one minute that I am the person you were most likely told I am. I am not in the habit of cussing’ folks out in public or calling people House Negroes easily. Believe me, Vanessa had it coming.”
Besides this intrusion, Smith was also locked in a long struggle with Asheville Meeting over whether it would be made into a base for her “ministry.” She wanted to live in a guest room in the meetinghouse, have her ministry formally endorsed and financially supported by the meeting. In the midst of much internal turmoil, the Meeting repeatedly rejected these requests. Smith was only able to hear white racism even in the plainest statements of principled disagreement:
“[M]y clearness committee . . . asked to meet with M&N [Asheville’s Ministry and Nurture Committee]. It didn’t go well. They basically said, the Meeting does not approve of Sharon or her racial justice ministry, and does not want to be associated with it. My support committee was upset, but, being all White Quakers, they were also unwilling to challenge the Meeting’s racism–because they didn’t want to be contentious? Whatever their reasons, it goes to White people being unwilling to hold other White people accountable.”
Thereafter, Smith pursued her quest in SAYMA. Building on her success in disrupting Vanessa Julye’s appearance, she managed to push through creation of an Ad Hoc Uplifting Racial Justice (URJ) Committee in the June 2016 session.
A key characteristic of the new group would be that all its members would be FOCs
This segregated character troubled some white Friends: hadn’t they been called to witness against segregation not many years ago? Hadn’t some there taken risks, even been arrested in the cause? Didn’t they know of others who gave their lives to end segregation?
But that was then; in 2016, cries of racism, white supremacy and safe spaces elbowed aside these doubts. Smith was added to the initial URJ committee along with several other FOCs.
But the early days of the URJ group did not go well. By summer’s end, the committee was all but dormant: the members feuded with Smith and most left. SAYMA was unable to find Friends of Color to work with her.
The committee stumbled through 2017 and 2018. As SAYMA’s 2019 annual session approached, the Nominating Committee proposed Smith to be the new Clerk of a reconstituted URJ. There was widespread doubt about this, but also much timidity: any questions were met with the cries of “Racism,” “White Supremacy” and ”safe spaces” which terrified some and silenced others. Smith was added to the rebooted committee.
The committee was not only re-formed, but SAYMA also agreed to allocate as much as $18000 of the yearly meeting’s modest budget to it, without meaningful accountability for what would be done with the funds. It seems clear that, despite all the sneers at others who benefited from what she derided as stolen wealth from slavery and native removal, Smith had long wanted just such a sinecure, and now felt that it was now within her grasp.
At this point the story overlaps with some points in our initial blog post. It was during the 2019 session when Smith announced she was going to “shut down” an approved workshop she did not like, and indeed disrupted it thoroughly.
There was however fallout from this foray which becomes significant here: two women Friends, we reported, protested Smith’s intrusion, though in vain. One was a white woman, Robyn Josephs; but after she had spoken, as Smith recalled
“Robyn was still talking, and yes, crying. She said, “I don’t want someone who does not believe in loving their enemies and forgiveness to be clerk of SAYMA-URJ, but I will accept what the body decides.”
As Robyn’s performance shifted from a few pitiful White woman tears to body wracking sobs, Avis Wanda [McClinton] stood up. She walked over, stood next to Robyn and announced, “That Friend speaks my mind.” Avis then said to Smith, “I am probably jeopardizing our friendship by saying this, but I do not think you are ready to be the clerk of SAYMA-URJ” because of your “bad behavior” and “anger management” issues. “Your behavior yesterday was unconscionable. People feel like they are going to be targets.”
And with that unexpected declaration, McClinton moved from the small circle of Smith’s allies to the long list we’ve been examining here, of traitorous Friends of Color, one of the few on the list who not only differed with Smith but spoke openly of it.
Smith’s public response was more patronizing. Rather then “desperate and despicable,” in a December 7, 2019 email she said that Avis,
“is cognitively disabled and not sophisticated enough to understand that what y’all did to me was absolutely about your white supremacy and colonial domination. That you [white Friends] reached out to her seeking absolution for your white fuckery proves the depths of your evil.”
Despite these dramatic moments, Smith’s nomination as Clerk of the re-formed URJ Committee was slipped through in the closing session of SAYMA 2019, and she has since been working to consolidate her success.
But two problems persist: First, she has still been unable to attract any FOCs from SAYMA to the Committee. Her reputation seems to preclude this. As Shaun Davis, a commenter on the first post put it,
“I am a Friend and African American woman living in Atlanta. I joined the URJ committee in 2017 after Sharon recruited me to join. I left in 2018 because I did not like the way people were being treated in the group or the way business was being conducted. I wrote an email to another African American committee member about my concerns, and it so happens that Friend had already decided to leave the committee. I don’t think my letter went much further.”
Smith’s response to similar reports was predictable:
“Interesting side note concerning URJ membership: Ever since SAYMA-URJ was approved as a Yearly Meeting committee which only Friends of color can serve, it has been extremely difficult to find Friends of color willing to do the work of URJ. The prevailing narrative seems to be, “No one wants to work with Sharon ‘Star’ Smith.” When I explained that the reason SAYMA Friends of color are so unwilling to serve as URJ members, is due to the racism they would most certainly experience–exhibit A being the way I have been treated—they [Friends in the representative session] were genuinely shocked.”
The second issue for URJ-Smith, as reported earlier, is that it is now time for SAYMA to consider its next budget, and growing opposition has been voiced to any further funding for the URJ Committee. This reflects the voicing of longstanding and strengthening doubts about the wisdom of Smith’s presence and role. SAYMA’s Representative session is slated to take this up this coming Saturday (March 15) — assuming, that is, its members are not all locked down in quarantine by that time.
Smith is lobbying for continued funding, and warning of “a racist conspiracy” (Email, January 10, 2020)
If the representative meeting actually happens, Smith’s conviction about being divinely directed may collide with SAYMA’s more modest dependence on the Spirit working through the group. We shall see.
Meanwhile, this pandemic-shadowed spring may offer more time to ponder the conundrum posed earlier: “Despicable” means so bad as to deserve to be despised. So which kind of Quakers, given the record explored here, does Smith despise more? Whites? Or Friends of Color?
To this I’d add another: how does it benefit SAYMA, the Society of Friends at large, or racial justice for SAYMA to be paying for this?
Smith, by the way, is not pondering. She has already announced her next target in the campaign to establish her authority to judge and even stop any activity within SAYMA’s Quaker realm which displeases her. And a conference coming up only weeks away is now in her sights.
Details on that here tomorrow.
The initial blog post is here.