It was their own Clerk who said it, in a letter opening the October 16 2021 Zoom Representative Meeting, or RM:
“SAYMA must arise from its spiritual deathbed of debilitating fragmentation or give up the ghost.”
The signs were all around. One of the most significant, to me, was in a seemingly noncontentious committee report:
Nominating Committee: [Wood Bouldin, Clerk] There are over 39 open positions. Friends are encouraged to consider whether they have gifts to contribute to SAYMA by letting Nominating know they are interested in being considered for open positions.
Thirty-nine plus vacancies? SAYMA is not all that big. But the actual situation is more like the way they used to talk about a tough town I once lived in: Folks line up to stay away from there.
Another committee plea sounded almost comical, in a cruel kind of way; it was from the Yearly Meeting Planning Committee:
“A date for Yearly Meeting  has not been set, but it is traditionally the 2nd or 3rd weekend in June. A theme is usually decided by January. If Friends want to join the planning committee please send names to the Nominating Committee.”
A theme? How about, “Killing Ourselves Softly”? But Nominating had already made a more urgent plea:
[We] . . .recognize from our own experience how disheartening for most everyone
has been the long ordeal of the epidemic in combination with the divisions in our country and in our Yearly Meeting. Nonetheless, we have to ask again that you all please study the list of open positions and be sensitive to the slightest nudge from Spirit. . . . Yearly Meeting Planning [Committee] hopes to bring us together face to face next June but needs several more members to pursue its work.
These notes made poignant reading alongside the minutes of the day, which acknowledged that
The discussion at times became chaotic . . . . At one point the Clerk of URJ [the Uplifting Racial Justice Committee] and the acting Clerk began arguing and the meeting fell into disorder. One Friend expressed dismay and embarrassment that his son was exposed to the behavior within the virtual meeting. Order was restored.
Well, a kind of order; not the sort that encourages parents to bring children for a wholesome and fun church weekend. Nor was this the first ugly outbreak in recent SAYMA gatherings. The October RM included the minutes of the group’s annual session in June, because the June minutes had not been finalized, due to — well, here:
During [a similar] discussion [on June 6] the meeting did not observe due order and became disruptive. Friends spoke without recognition from the clerk, rebuttals were made to individuals, individuals recognized to speak were talked over, and a Friend called out abusively at the clerk of URJ. A Friend who identified himself as a white male noted that he considered this comment racist. The SAYMA Clerk brought the session back to order noting that several Friends were not observing right order.
And in a subsequent session on June 11,
Discussion [was] on [the] set-aside budget [and whether the Uplifting Racial Justice committee would get some of those funds]: The discussion degraded into a debate about URJ and often about the Clerk of URJ. Friends on both sides of the issue felt unheard, some felt pushed out of the way by priority voices. Several Friends said they would stand in the way of line item 82 (funding set-aside for URJ) and others said they would stand in the way if line item 82 was the only item not approved. A Friend raised the concern that Friends were coming to Yearly Meeting with pre-planned decisions based on the past instead of using discernment in the present. A sense of the meeting was not reached.
. . . Friends did not approve the set aside budget as unity was not reached on line item 82, Uplifting Racial Justice, during this session.
Why this disorder? It involved what is called the Uplifting Racial Justice Committee, and whether it would get $20,000 of SAYMA’s funds. (The 2021-2022 SAYMA budget agreed to in June contained $0 for URJ, but that decision was under steady assault by URJ’s partisans.)
The controversy has been going on since URJ was formed, in another difficult session several years ago, particularly in reaction to the behavior and rhetoric of its self-selected Clerk, Sharon Smith (now calling herself Star Smith).
Smith’s well-documented approach to Friends has been detailed in a dozen posts on this blog, listed here. After last month’s session, it was acerbically summarized in an angry, eloquent open email shortly after the October RM, by Laura Seeger of Chattanooga Meeting:
We must stop the abuse to members of SAYMA. We are allowing abuse within our midst as surely as the Catholic Church. A different kind of abuse – abuse just the same.
This has gone on long enough. We are being gaslit. We are being held hostage by Star Smith and we are allowing it to happen.
We are listening to only one voice. How is that discernment?
There are no longer any of the original FOC [Friends of Color] on the URJ committee. And those that would speak we have IGNORED. Shainia, Adrian. We have heard from FOC that Star does not speak for them or to them. We have IGNORED them. Clive, John. There are voices we no longer hear from. Folami, Lisa. We have been told by Avis that we are being abused & IGNORED her. None of the FOC within SAYMA meetings will be on URJ with Star. We IGNORE them.
Throwing books, microphones, chairs, yelling “shut up” & “fuck you” to the clerk, interupting [sic] people & then accusing them of intrupting [sic] you, attacking people’s character, telling people to disregard other people – this is not normal or acceptable. And for those in SAYMA that would normalize this behavior – I hope your Monthly Meetings are taking care. We know that people who have been abused normalize abusive behavior. We know that Quakers are not exceptional – we are victims & perpetrators of abuse at the same rates as everyone else. I pray that you get the help you need.
I have heard from 2 different people that AFSC & FGC will not send a FOC to SAYMA because of Star. This should say something to us.
We have tried. We have failed. There is no shame in that. So have Asheville, Nashville, Sandwich – why should we continue to allow ourselves to be subject to this abuse? Sandwich had to get a restraining order. We are not helping Star. We are enabling her. The care she needs is beyond our ability to provide.
It has been asked what we in SAYMA have done to reach out to Star. Nashville did provide hospitality – Star would gaslight you otherwise. One in Asheville provided in excess of $16,000.00 worth of housing. Another assisted with an affordable automobile. SAYMA has provided Annual Session & Retreat scholarships – to which the registrar was submitted to abuse from Star & to my knowledge SAYMA [was] never thanked for. And there was the initial start up funds of $16,000.00 for URJ. And there was approving Star as clerk of URJ. None of this has been enough or acknowledged.
No this is not a minute. This is one individual member of SAYMA speaking truth to power – saying NO to abuse. . . .
Way forward – release the URJ committee and Star from SAYMA. Star has made it clear that URJ needs SAYMA only for money. Star also stated that the only reason the Paul Cuffee Worship group wants to be a part of SAYMA is for funds. Wanting money is not a sufficient reason to be part of SAYMA. . . .
There is a small but vocal group of white Friends that back Smith and her agenda. Here is part of their open letter in response to recent turmoil:
From the Ad Hoc Racial Justice Working Group at SAYMA [aka white people in support of the ministry of the Uplifting Racial Justice committee (URJ)]
Dear Friends . . .
We, the members of the Ad Hoc Racial Justice Working Group at SAYMA (RJWG), feel called to deeply reflect and respond to the ever-evolving issues we are experiencing at SAYMA. . . .
In regards to URJ, it is important that Friends of Color within SAYMA have places to worship and do business without white participation or control. SAYMA has demonstrated repeatedly that white Friends in SAYMA are not yet ready to interact with BIPOC Friends in a way that is free of injury or controlling behaviors. URJ was set up to provide such spaces within SAYMA. This need requires change, and we suggest that as white Friends learn more about systemic and institutional racism, resistance to those changes will decrease. . . . The membership of URJ and appointment of Clerk of URJ is the business of Friends of Color at SAYMA.
Our working group recognizes that there are issues among the BIPOC Friends of SAYMA, and we remind white Friends of the need to leave it to BIPOC to do the work to move through these issues. We believe that is possible with the support of FCRJ, and we support them in this work.
Some very serious wounding has occurred: between white Friends and BIPOC Friends, between BIPOC Friends, and between white Friends. We feel that at this point the heightened feelings throughout SAYMA require expression to a qualified third party . . . .
It pains us to report that our working group brings personal testimony that Friends in positions of responsibility at SAYMA are not acting and speaking with integrity. Our purpose here is not to individually call out members of our organization. However, we must particularly call on the Clerk of SAYMA to immediately cease contributing to and endorsing the false narrative that the body of SAYMA has made any decisions about the status of the Clerk of URJ and the URJ committee. Indeed, the Clerk of SAYMA is well aware that some Friends were prepared to stand in the way of decisions to remove the Clerk of URJ and the laying down of URJ if these questions came to the body.
We urge the Clerk of SAYMA to engage in this and all matters faithfully and with full transparency so that discernment is by the spiritual body of SAYMA and not manipulated using secular political tactics to control the narrative. . . .
We call on the entire SAYMA community to sit with the following query . . . . Are we ready to do the internal work and self-education that it will take to become anti-racist? Did we mean what we said when URJ was established?
Our committee is united in the view that SAYMA cannot go ahead with any decisions while we continue to act as a secular gathering of secular representatives rather than as a spiritual community. We are not acting like a spiritual community. . . .
They can say that again. Particularly telling is their sanctimonious denunciation of using secular political tactics, and in the next breath admitting they were ready to intrigue as an organized Leninist-style cadre to thwart SAYMA’s reaching an authentic consensus;. Hypocrisy, anyone? Give us a break.
But none can beat Smith’s own rejoinder, which clarified matters for all with eyes to see:
Star Smith: Here’s what I really feel about SAYMA’s anti-racist process . . .
I’m so sick of liberal/progressive folks–mostly white, but not entirely–tone policing, insisting they can only hear about these all day, all night atrocities happening here, in this wyte supremacist settler colonial country, unless the message is delivered in a kind and loving voice. F*ck all y’all!
Pacifists, especially Quakers, have got to be the most disingenuous and passive-aggressive people on Earth.
With allies like y’all, who TF needs enemies.
F*ck peace; I want JUSTICE!
PS: I do not want to witness any white nonsense about my totally culturally appropriate LANGUGE.
To go deep into my cultural vernacular, I got no fucks to give ya. I really don’t want to fuck with white people at all, except in small controlled doses, but as the clerk of SAYMA Uplifting Racial Justice, it is my responsibility, to be here. It is also my ancestral responsibility to hold as many of you colonizer fofos accountable as possible, on behalf of my descendants, whose survival has been threaten by white people just like you, for the last 500+ years. . . .
In my judgment Laura Seeger’s letter reflects the sentiments of many more SAYMA Friends. But their numbers are shrinking fast. There has been a steady, if quiet exodus from SAYMA as the round of ugly, abusive episodes at their group meetings has alienated ever more Friends over several years. And there are signs that the question of meetings withdrawing to save their own communities, and find work for racial justice that unites rather than divides, is now openly in the air. Consider this deftly-phrased front-page editorial comment from the Memphis Friends News of November:
Our yearly meeting is working hard to be faithful to Quaker process, to listen with an open heart, to speak with all the gentleness it is possible to muster, and still a good outcome remains elusive. There comes a time when we row our boats around a bend and find ourselves navigating very rough water. . . .
If reaching a breaking point at the yearly meeting level could open the way to progress, it may have to be initiated by monthly meetings. Several Memphis Friends have been taking a hiatus from SAYMA; could our meeting support SAYMA best by doing the same? Would that help us row our boat gently down the Quakerly stream?
“Hiatus”; it sounds so much less abrasive than split or schism. But that’s where SAYMA is headed, mired in an “existential crisis,” to quote its Clerk’s letter again.
I don’t like the prospect of SAYMA’s dissolution: my monthly Meeting lived through the crash and burn of its yearly meeting, a 320 year-old body, in 2017. (That story is told in Murder at Quaker Lake.)
It’s ironic, but very predictable, that the next yearly meeting to self-destruct would be liberal, and over issues of race, where all involved think they are on the same side.
But what goes around comes around: Few liberal Friends know their history, but in the 1840s and 1850s, their “liberal” forebears, who all believed slavery was a great evil and should end — differed bitterly over how, when, and by whom it should be ended — and what would then happen to the emancipated. Yearly meetings split; local meetings were laid down; many Friends disowned, and some Quakers even had other Friends beaten and arrested, fighting each other while the clouds of a great and terrible war gathered over all their futile feuds.
This story line seems eerily familiar now.
Also eerie is how attached “anti-racist” zealots are to the word “dismantle.” They want to “dismantle” racism; “dismantle” injustice; “dismantle” oppressive structures, etc.
But look across the Quaker landscape of the southeastern U.S., and all you see that’s being “dismantled” in this foolish melodrama is a once-vibrant Quaker community; and the only things likely to be “uplifted,” by it are SAYMA’s ghostly fragments, floating away like dying embers on acrid fumes of spreading racism.