Over the past decade, I’ve witnessed and reported on the breakup of five U.S. Yearly Meetings.
This “assignment” was at best unpleasant, and often disheartening. After the fifth schism, I had hoped the ugly epidemic was over.
But now there’s a possible Number Six. A showdown for it is coming on July 20.
The previous five were all pastoral-evangelical YMs, and the matter of welcoming/affirming LGBT persons was the tripwire issue in most. But there were others too: the place and work of Jesus; interpretation and authority of the Bible; church governance (more plainly, who’s the boss), etc.
It’s early for grand interpretations, but in my view, what I refer to as the Separation Generation looks to be as extensive and consequential as that of the Hicksites-Orthodox fracture in 1827.
Deepening that sense is the fact that, after a two-year lull, it turns out the schisms may not be over.
If it comes to a split, at least this sixth one will offer some variety: LGBTs are not at issue. Nor is the Bible or Jesus. The yearly meeting in question is nonpastoral, quite liberal, and many in it once believed they had progressed far beyond the reach of squabbles over theological doctrines and dogmas.
Ha. They’ve traded one dogmatic clash for another, complete with an inquisition, and they are now obliged to face up to the fact, and its implications, or else.
The group on the brink is SAYMA, Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting & Association. Its unprogrammed meetings are spread from the Carolinas through Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, West Virginia and Kentucky.
Earlier this year, three posts about SAYMA’s plight were published here, beginning with background on why SAYMA Is Not Safe, on March 3, 2020.
It was followed by “Born for this”? Or Standing in the Way? on March 10;
with an update on New Trouble: Threats Against Three Meetings on March 11. They’re still relevant if readers want context or to refresh their recollection.
The issue for SAYMA remains, in sum, that an intruder named Sharon Smith has been harassing SAYMA and its meetings for several years. Claiming (without evidence) to be a topflight anti-racism trainer and resource, as well as the (self-anointed) matriarchal overlord of all dealings with Native American issues in the region. Among a crop of liberals, she has dogmatism down pat.
Smith insists that any questions or less than fawning responses to her pronouncements or actions are de facto proof of deep personal and systemic racism on the part of any critics — both white and of color. Angry invective, violent actions and threats of physical harm have been her tools for dealing with any opposition. (Many details of this record are in the earlier posts.)
In 2019 Smith demanded and muscled through a grant of $16000 from SAYMA’s modest budget, which was to be under her personal control as Clerk of an Uplifting Racial Justice (URJ) Committee, which included no SAYMA Friends, and with no accounting. Numerous Friends were in fact opposed to this idea; but Smith played on liberal Quaker guilt and habitual conflict avoidance to intimidate them into silence.
That was then. Predictably, Smith’s haul from last year has only whetted her appetite. On July 9 she sent an email to SAYMA’s officers and several others, which called for:
A. URJ Requests $10,000 of set-aside funds for fiscal year 2020, and another $10,000 for fiscal 2021, for a total of $20,000. NOTE: URJ has had no new funding for two years, since 2018.
B. In addition, URJ is requesting a line item in SAYMA’s annual budget of $10,000 each year, or unless URJ requests a different amount.
Yes, she wants $20,000 now, with a guarantee of $10,000 per year hereafter indefinitely. For the money, URJ ‘s vague mission statements says it will provide
. . . space for Friends of color to bring issues and concerns regarding racism within their monthly meetings and SAYMA, to find support and advocacy. The Committee will also work to raise awareness about White Supremacy aka racism within SAYMA, by compiling and disseminating educational resources.
The notion of “providing space” is worth unpacking a bit. For one thing, the only person on this “Committee” with any connection to SAYMA is Smith herself; and even she is not a member of any SAYMA Meeting, or of any other meeting, for that matter. In an earlier incarnation, there were other SAYMA Friends of Color on its initial roster, but all left, finding Smith impossible to work with. One wonders where or for whom this “space” will be “provided.”
Then, it was pointed out in the March 3 post that the pace and content of the “educational resources” she disseminated (mainly as brief emails, sometimes accompanied by rants) work out to costing SAYMA several hundred dollars a pop.
The SAYMA budget for the coming year was slated to be presented at a mid-March representative session, for final action at annual sessions in June. But both were canceled by the pandemic. Now a ZOOM representative session is to happen next Monday, July 20, for the financial presentation, with final budget action to come probably in September.
And despite the lockdown, some things have been happening in SAYMA.
For one, Smith has ramped up her claims to control over Quaker events on Native issues. She pronounced herself particularly offended by Colorado Friend Paula Palmer who conducts workshops on “Toward Right Relationship With Native People.”
Asheville Meeting had invited Palmer to conduct such a workshop there on May 9. But Smith insisted:
This is by no means OK, my Friends. Because, as a Saponi matriarch, it is unfortunately my responsibility to organize a contingent of NC Natives to shut this workshop down. . . .
This is a warning. . . .
Of course, the pandemic beat her to it, and forced the workshop’s postponement. But that was not enough. In a March 30 email, Smith doubled down on her threat to Palmer:
You are so far out of your depth here, Paula. Which is why you are completely unqualified to teach anyone how to be in right relationship with Native people . . . .
Don’t you ever come to the southeast. I have already told you what will happen if you do and I find out about it.
Small wonder that, reflecting on the July 20 session, one SAYMA Friend wrote: “Sharon’s demands feel like blackmail – if you don’t fund SAYMA URJ – that proves you are racist. . . .”
The idea that SAYMA is supposed to be paying Smith $20,000 to, among other “educational resources,” send physical threats to other Friends for agreeing to visit a SAYMA meeting is, as the current argot puts it “deeply concerning.”
Resistance to Smith’s behavior and demands has been building. SAYMA’s Treasurer Carol Lamm of Berea, Kentucky, reported in March that opposition to the Smith/URJ funding was hurting SAYMA’s income:
. . . assessment income is running behind and stands at only 30% of budget . . . . The upshot is that as of February 29, SAYMA has a deficit of $7,195 . . . which is 120% of the $6,000 deficit planned for the whole year.
Assessments are SAYMA’s financial lifeblood. A shortfall of this magnitude is not normal and calls for a closer look. Some MMs are simply behind last year’s schedule and will catch up. Two MMs are withholding payments pending resolution of their concerns about URJ spending. If they withhold payments for the remainder of the year and other lines hold steady, the deficit will for the year will be $10,500.
She added a graph to make it visible:
This graph has not been updated on the SAYMA site as of this writing. But at that point the “undesignated equity” funds were expected to be less than $20,000 by summer. And since then –the updated Treasurer’s report shows that a deficit persists, as the broader recession deepens.
The $20,000 Smith wants more than equals SAYMA’s liquid balance. If the deficit increases as the depression deepens, it would take more.
It’s no wonder that some eminent SAYMA Friends, who have long been uneasy, are at length finding their voice in open opposition. H. Larry Ingle, a longtime SAYMA member and one of the leading Quaker historians of our day, wrote plainly about this last week from Chattanooga:
Sharon has circulated her URJ’s “Financial Request” that differs little from what she has been asking for now for nearly a year, a permanent claim of $10,000 dollars a year on SAYMA’s budget with none of the accountability that we have traditionally required of other committees. Acceding to that amounts to a run on our treasury that would break our budget.
And her committee’s demand—why not be blunt, and truthful, and call it that?—comes from a group of people who may or may not be Friends and are certainly not members of a “worship group” that has ever had any status in SAYMA. We have a valuable history of financial probity going back decades, and we are now being asked to throw that tradition to the winds.Hence for those participating in the July 20th meeting, it is crucial that each Friend is aware of the challenge facing SAYMA and should be prepared to see that this demand from URJ is firmly and finally repudiated. Otherwise meetings and individual Friends will see their confidence in the yearly meeting swept away, never to be captured.
I’ve known Larry Ingle for more than forty years. He measures his words carefully, especially for print. When he says that continued funding of Smith would mean that “meetings and individual Friends will see their confidence in the yearly meeting swept away, never to be captured,” he means what he says.
And when Larry warns that continuing would also throw away SAYMA’s “valuable history of financial probity,” he means that as well. As a Quaker historian who has published standard works on the founding and shaping of Quaker faith and culture, he is deeply familiar with the reputation Friends maintained for a very long time for financial and business integrity. I would be stunned to see him and Becky leave SAYMA behind over this, after so many decades, but it would not really not be a surprise.
The matter of financial probity deserves closer attention. Last summer questions were raised about whether the unaccountable grant to Smith/URJ would violate IRS rules for nonprofits. A tax attorney was consulted; a report of this conversation is on the SAYMA website.
The attorney’s answer to the specific legal question was no, the grant was not illegal.
But he said something else, which is more important, and worth quoting:
Beyond the specific IRS risk matters on which we sought his advice, [the attorney] offered general advice on good practice, including the following. . . .
● To avoid conflict of interest concerns, if money is to be paid to someone personally, or if the person’s spouse or children would benefit, it is better that they are not involved in the decision.
There have been calls for SAYMA to prepare such a conflict of interest policy; but Smith has loudly resisted, calling it a mask for “white supremacy.” Thus the idea has been stopped dead: the Finance Committee’s Annual report for the July 20 meeting notes only that “Draft Conflict of Interest Policy – circulate and no unity so not brought for approval”.
Here SAYMA is making a big mistake. They focused on the wrong question to the attorney –whether the Smith funding would end SAYMA’s nonprofit status or put someone in jail– and left his more important counsel as an insignificant afterthought at the end.
It is not. Smith’s bullying of SAYMA in the past years of business has clearly had her monetary self-interest at its center, and whether SAYMA has a formal policy or not, the conflict of interest here is obvious, glaring, and repugnant.
Sure, such behavior may not put Smith behind bars. But instead, it would paint SAYMA as ripe for being suckered, and put its “reputation for probity”, as Larry Ingle put it, straight into the trash.
A body that doesn’t have and enforce such elementary safeguards has lost its integrity, and standing as a responsible steward. It is not a reliable place for donors to invest their funds now, or leave their legacies to benefit future generations in pursuit of common values.
Such integrity and safeguards were (and still are) basic concerns of most Quaker bodies (and other credible ventures, profit or non-profit). Calling them racist is straight-out gaslighting and grifter’s smokescreen baloney.
Larry Ingle is not alone; nor is the concern limited to whites. The March 10 blog post discussed in some detail the long list of Friends of Color that Smith abhors and heaps scorn upon. She charged, in part, that
Now [Philadelphia Friends] 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. . . .”
“Desperate and despicable” persons of color, is that what they are? And their allegiance has been bought (like slaves?) with white Quaker money? Well, some of them were once her allies. One who knew Smith well and who asked to be unnamed wrote to me about this. She is a mature Friend of Color who was formerly sympathetic & learned better. She wrote:
The only insight I have at the moment is to encourage SAYMA to ignore Sharon and her demands. Just don’t give in to her – don’t do what she’s asking – and especially don’t give her any more money.
If any of her ideas strike them as feasible, they can always implement them on their own without involving her.
I think SAYMA should simply say that they feel paralyzed in the face of her hate and vitriol and that they are going to lay down the committee, pull back to reflect and pray on it, and wait for the way to open.
Give money to their local NAACP or BLM group if they feel they have to do something.
Alas, others lack such resolve. The 2021 proposed budget, includes $2500 for Smith/URJ. This would be a big comedown from the demanded $20,000, but it is clearly someone’s idea of “compromise.” One imagines their thought was, maybe Smith will take it and go away.
Good luck with that.
The upshot is that SAYMA is not simply deeply divided about its connection with Smith and URJ. It has been essentially paralyzed and compromised by it for going on three years.
The adverse reputational impact of this entanglement is obvious. And its opportunity cost becomes even higher this year, after the uprisings following the deaths of George Floyd, and in particular, Breonna Taylor, in Louisville Kentucky, and Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, among others, killed by cops right in SAYMA’s “territory. ”
A remarkable feature of these protests, and the burgeoning police reform efforts, has been their inclusive, multiracial character. New opportunities for constructive work by concerned whites are springing up all around. Yet SAYMA is sidelined, mired in what is not only a dead-end, but now clearly shown to be an obsolete waste of time as well as money; along with the prospect of watching, as Larry Ingle wrote, “their confidence in the yearly meeting swept away . . . .”
If the counsel of Larry Ingle and others, is not heeded, prospects for SAYMA look grim. Attendance was down at the past two annual sessions, as Smith’s histrionics and bullying sapped morale and crowded out most constructive work. As the initial post in this blog series said, SAYMA Is Not Safe. If that continues, the attrition could easily descend into group departures.
I don’t want the toll of yearly meeting breakups in the “Separation Generation” to move from five to six. But it could happen.
A second post in this series is here.
An earlier related series of posts is below:
Post 1: A Sad Yearly Meeting Report: SAYMA Is Not Safe – Posted 3/3/2020
Post 2: SAYMA: “Born for this”? Or Standing in the Way? – Posted 3/10/2020
Part 3: “SAYMA’s Not Safe, III: New Trouble: Threats Against Three Meetings”