SAYMA: The Deathwatch Begins

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 [2022] 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:

Dear Friends,

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.





19 thoughts on “SAYMA: The Deathwatch Begins”

  1. As a UK Quaker I find all this almost beyond belief. On the one hand I read that FOC will not join this group led by Star Smith, and another group, called the AD Hoc group saying only FOC should be in the group led by Star Smith. Surely both groups cannot be correct?

  2. In his excellent book, “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America,” John McWhorter convincingly argues that the so-called “Anti-Racism” ideology has come to take the place of traditional religion for many of its adherents. I strongly recommend this book to all Quakers, because I fear that quite a few Quakers who consider themselves to be “progressive” have imbibed this Kool-Aid and abandoned the belief in the equality of all human beings before God and before each other, as well as the center of Divine Love toward everyone, and been caught up in an ideology based in resentment, a doctrine of race-based original sin, and distortions of history. I believe that most of these Friends are sincere, but I also believe that they are sincerely misguided.

    1. The person they are dealing with has issues. She bullies Quakers who are not use to dealing with someone like her. Your suggestion is unhelpful.

    2. Those who remember McWhorter from his Lexicon Valley podcast might remember his confession: “I’m technically a Quaker”:

      (A friend sent me that link in 2018. I haven’t read McWhorter’s new book.)

        1. In the podcast, it sounded like a way of associating with the good parts while also keeping his distance. “I’m technically a Quaker [but I’m not a fanatical zealot who claims to be a Quaker without qualification]”

        2. I am not sure why John characterized himself as a “technical Quaker.” He attended Friends Select School through 10th grade, but then he enrolled in Simon’s Rock College. I do not know whether John’s parents are/were Quakers. Today he self-identifies as an atheist, and when he characterizes the Woke movement as (literally–not metaphorically) a new religion, he does not mean this as a compliment.

        3. McWhorter graduated Friends Select High School, therefore likely considers himself part of the Quaker-influenced diaspora.

  3. The fact that this is still an ongoing issue means the Clerk of SAYMA and other leadership cannot or will not nIp this in the bud. The work of racial justice is beyond the financial capabilities of one YM. There are numerous national groups that Smith can work with, but I guarantee you they would fire someone so temperamental who uses foul language then claims that is her cultural right. Lay the committee down and let Smith go on her merry way as well as any of her supporters. If Friends who are POC wish to begin a worship group or some other means of fellowship, let them do so. The bullying and the blackmail needs to stop. Smith demands a salary that is unheard of an any YM. It cannot be paid. End of story.

  4. Chuck, As Editor of the first 1999 issue of Quaker Theology you might still remember these profound words within it:

    And there I found the key: Quaker practice is nothing more or less than the actualization of love.

    Love, available to all, is our Light on the way and our sole basis for unity: that is the central lesson of the Quaker experience. And silent worship is the womb of our corporate life. As we open ourselves in worship to loving as Jesus loved, we become one spirit and accomplish things great and small without striving or contention. Ultimately, belief in supernatural beings is unnecessary. Our strength, our vision, and our unity derive solely from the love in our hearts.

    When Quakers become “only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal”, they loose their strength, their vision, their unity, and their reason and justification for existing.

    How does one comfort or cry for that which is already dead.

    1 Corinthians 13

  5. This isn’t about racism…this is about one very sick person who is causing this disruption. It sounds there are plenty of Friends who want to do the work, but one person is standing in the way..Ms Smith. She seems a disrupted and out of order friend (is she actually a Friend??).
    Unfortunately there are white people who are so eager to be validated as a woke Friend…

  6. from The members of the Ad Hoc Racial Justice Working Group at SAYMA (RJWG) quoted above: “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. ”

    It is striking to me how often Woke “anti-racists” favor neo- segregationism. This is truly sad and an enormous step backward when coming within the Religious Society of Friends. In my understanding of Quakerism, we are to be ONE body, called together in love, without regard to what should be irrelevant details such as race, gender, age, sexual orientation, etc. Please see Galatians 3:28.

  7. Nails are not made of rubber for a reason but if they were, a hammer would be a useless and potentially dangerous tool.

  8. Part of expressing brotherly and sisterly love is having good boundaries and not allowing others to violate your boundaries and speaking up when others boundaries are being violated. By “boundaries”, I refer to the concept of knowing where my sense of person stops and another’s begins. There is an excellent book called Boundaries by Henry Cloud and — Townsend that addresses the issue and how to keep boundaries intact from those who obviously have none. Perhaps SAYMA should study this as a group and address the problem in a Quakerly manner.

  9. To quote Smith:
    “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.”

    Smith would likely call me a smug bitch (or worse) by what I’m about to say as she has to me in the past. I’ve never been accused of being passive-aggressive. Just too blunt. So allow me to confirm that assessment. Sharon, Star, Matriarch or however your wish to be addressed these days, it’s enough. Enough. No one is forcing you to stay as part of SAYMA or any other Quaker organization. If you feel perpetually abused in any organization, faith community or otherwise, despite what you may consider an honest effort to show others how they are abusive, it’s time to move on. If you don’t see progress toward relief after all these years, then leave. Kind and harmless people who would otherwise care deeply about your concerns have been needlessly hurt by your actions.

    The Religious Society of Friends is not an authoritarian government that oppresses and endangers you. Sadly, it reveals a profound insecurity on your part that you seem to feel you must continue to be insultingly aggressive in your quest to make us into your image of what you think Quakers should be. We are a diverse community, not a group that adheres to a single person’s (seemingly unattainable) ideal of what we *should* be.

    You have hurt my African American Quaker family, whose ancestors rose from slavery to become activists for racial justice at the risk of their lives and livelihoods. We realize and acknowledge the anger you feel. We examine our lives and actions and seek to confront our shortcomings. But if you truly believe Quakers are not yielding to your demands, acknowledge that we’re hopeless in your eyes and move on.

    Here comes what I would suspect you’d call the really smug bitch part. Quaker meetings are communities that seek Divine guidance to steer us through conflict as well as work to prevent it. We seek a better world through tolerance, self-assessment and a quest for unity based upon the love that is revealed to us in not only in worship, but through each other. We are a religious society. We are not a debating society, nor are we perfect representatives of social justice. We are seekers. We labor to grow in faith and action. But we do not countenance abuse in any form. If you truly believe Quakers are not yielding to your demands, I say again, acknowledge that we’re hopeless in your eyes and move on. I hope you find a home among those who will offer a sense of purpose as well as peace in your own life.

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