SAYMA Déjà vu: Another Saturday Showdown Looms

Forty-eight hours from now, the long travail of Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting &  Association (SAYMA) could be over.

By rights, it should be over.

It certainly deserves to be over.

But will it?

All it would take is one word.

That word is “No.”

Catching up: SAYMA’s Representative Meeting will convene Saturday morning, September 26, via ZOOM. Its main agenda will be to act on a budget for 2020-2021. And the main point of discussion will be a line in the proposed budget allocating $2500 to the self-styled Uplifting Racial Justice Committee, which is clerked by Sharon Smith, a non-member who lives in South Carolina. The budget had its first reading at the previous Rep. session on July 20.

Smith’s behavior and rhetoric has long been controversial and disruptive in SAYMA, and other groups, Quaker and non-Quaker. [For background, see the previous posts which are linked here, at the end of the list.] For instance, in 2018, the staff of a racial equity group meeting in Asheville NC, who  were people of color, had to call police and have Smith arrested and removed to stop her disturbance of their anti-racism seminar.

In SAYMA, Smith has insisted that SAYMA allocate $20,000 from its pandemic-pressed budget to her and URJ, and commit to pre-allocating $10,000 per year to her & URJ for the indefinite future. [Smith’s latest repetition of these demands is included in this compilation of Selected Correspondence, Item #7.]

Opposition to Smith’s behavior and drain on SAYMA’s budget (she claimed $16,000 for URJ for 2019-2020, which was spent without accountability) was in fact widespread. But both SAYMA officers and many individual Friends were repeatedly bullied into silence and submission by her loud declarations that any challenges to her were proof of white Quaker racism.

More than money is involved here. In 2020, an unprecedented wave of anti-racist protest, sparked by police murders of so many Black people such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor,  has manifested across the country. New opportunities for constructive work, local, regional, national, are taking form all around. Yet  despite good intentions, SAYMA has been sidelined, in “stasis,” as one wise  Friend put it, paralyzed for several years, due to the misfire of URJ and toleration of its errant Clerk.

However, by this summer, the opposition finally found its voice. Ron McDonald, a longtime member of Memphis Meeting, a fixture at SAYMA sessions, and former Clerk of its Ministry & Nurture Committee, sent out an email on August 7 which spoke with unprecedented clarity and courage. It said, in part:

. . . SAYMA is mired in an internal battle that has robbed us of leadership integrity. We are fighting a battle with Sharon Smith’s hostility towards Quaker community. Many individuals and some Meetings are seriously considering quitting SAYMA because of this conflict.

We have to stop this.

We must stop fighting Sharon Smith. However, Sharon has made it abundantly clear through hostile name-calling and verbal violence that she will not tolerate disagreement with her. It appears that the only way to get along with Sharon is to tiptoe around her, never disagreeing or challenging her behaviors.

As clerk of Uplifting Racial Justice (URJ), Sharon Smith’s hostility and negativity has moved herself into the center of this ongoing conflict. Until now we have not had a clear way to stop it.

As our yearly meeting floundered, Sharon Smith, as URJ Clerk has

— caused a mass exodus from her committee,
— resisted budgetary accountability,
— claimed authority based upon ethnicity and age,
— threatened public humiliation of anyone who does not honor her demands,
— disrupted Yearly Meeting educational programs.

Quaker communities are understandably slow to move against any person in our own community no matter their history, including Sharon, who has a list of other Quaker groups she has been asked to stay away from.

It is time for us to defund URJ.

This recommendation is meant to lift up what I think is best for our Quaker community to begin healing, but if it only comes from me, it will not help us that much.

I share this with you to ask you to unite with me in standing

— against the recommended budget as long as it includes any funding to URJ;
— against circumventing defunding URJ by making designated donations to URJ or Sharon through the SAYMA Treasury;
— against tolerating Sharon Smith’s hostile behavior.

[The full text of McDonald’s August 7 email is here, Item #2]

McDonald said he was ready to say this at the September Rep. meeting, but wanted to know if there would be any backup for him there.

There was, at least in advance: he reported on September 19 that

Thirty-one (31) Friends and four monthly meetings have come forward with parallel concerns and the willingness to be vocal in their opinion. There is a clear groundswell of opposition to Sharon Smith’s leadership.

Smith has seen what’s coming, and on September 9 she responded characteristically that

. . .[S]ome SAYMA Friends in positions of authority, feel they need to weaponize Quaker process against URJ, it’s members and it’s clerk. Somewhere in their racist reptilian brains, they probably think they are defending SAYMA. [Full text here, Item #6] 

Racist reptilian brains?

Smith still has a small number of vocal supporters, so the upsurge that McDonald’s email has crystallized would likely not yield “unity” in terms of Quaker process. But it shows unmistakably that there is nothing like unity to continue to support Smith and her widely unwelcome “ministry.” By any fair Quaker process, that would put an end to SAYMA funding.

At least, it should. Whether it does will depend on whether the 31 Friends who say they agree with McDonald show up. And speak up.

It will also depend on the skill and resolve of SAYMA’s new Clerk, Robert McGahey. The sad truth is that SAYMA has not been well-served by previous Clerks during the reign of error Smith has inflicted on the body. Until McDonald came forward, she has blustered, derailed, threatened and bullied to get her way with little meaningful resistance from yearly meeting officers.

Will McGahey’s tenure be different? Anything other than a clear end to SAYMA funding of Smith & URJ, direct or indirect, would extend this record of failure. In ZOOM meetings, the “host” has efficient tools to control or remove disrupters.

The stakes are serious. McDonald was not exaggerating when he wrote that “Many individuals and some Meetings are seriously considering quitting SAYMA because of this conflict.

Forty-eight hours. Will SAYMA be free of this thorn in its side, and ready to explore constructive alternatives?

Links to previous blog posts on SAYMA’s troubles are here, at the end of the list of documents.

5 thoughts on “SAYMA Déjà vu: Another Saturday Showdown Looms”

  1. Thanks Chuck for the continuing updates on this sad saga. I attended as a visiting Friend the 2019 SAYMA annual sessions when the URJ committee was a weighty concern and could discern that we had not heard the last of it, maybe we will now.

  2. It’s just sad that Friends have allowed someone to take advantage of the kindness and deep social concerns shared by Friends. There are organizations that do this kind of work very well and are accountable. SAYMA could achieve more by donating to them.

  3. I recall another situation when a member requested financial support for an undertaking the Meeting did not agree with. They decided that they who chose to could offer moral support, but the project received no financial support

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