If I believed I was a prophet, I’d say that after three years of agony, a breakthrough in SAYMA’s logjam/paralysis is in sight.
It will soon be a month since the summer representative meeting of Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting & Association, or SAYMA. Held by Zoom on July 20, its major business item was the first reading of SAYMA’s delayed budget for the 2020-2021 fiscal year. Our account of it is here.
On that budget, the key item was a proposed $2500 for the Uplifting Racial Justice Committee (URJ), headed by Sharon Smith. The Committee had taken $16000 from SAYMA last year. It had demanded $20,000 from this new budget, and a pledge of $10,000 more annually in perpetuity.
There was plenty of murmured unease and even opposition to this demand, and in fact to the activity of URJ and the consistently antagonistic and disruptive behavior of Smith. At least two SAYMA meetings had already sent in minutes opposing any future funding for it, and many individuals had quietly expressed similar sentiments.
Meanwhile, Smith had a claque of supporters who continually repeated her claim that any and all questioning and opposition to her “anti-racist ministry” was “white supremacy/Quaker racism” and nothing else.
Any experienced Quaker Clerk in such a situation would see that there was no unity on this budget item in the body, which means the body doesn’t approve it. It seems clear that SAYMA’s officers do see that, but most have been so fearful of open conflict and/or intimidated by Smith’s cries of “racism” and violent tantrums that they have ducked and dodged every occasion to make an actual stand.
At the July session, they were relieved to point out that the new budget was, by custom, only to have its first reading there, with no actual decisions til the following representative session, sometime in the autumn, possibly September.
Instead, much time was spent on an unannounced, unwritten idea to convene a special committee on conflict “transformation.” It was in fact already named, and would be given an indefinitely large budget to spend on workshops and seminars which were supposed to “transform” away the differences.
The session balked at this out-of-the-blue, top-down notion, which came with no notice, no proposal, no seasoning by local meetings, and no budget (in a time of pandemic depression). Yet the new Finance Committee Clerk, Geeta McGahey, who surfaced it, acted as if it had been approved, and said she would be pushing ahead with the effort anyway. Such blatant disregard for the stated sense of the body and right order was not a good omen for the many hoping that SAYMA’s feckless and weak clerking was to be rectified.
Nevertheless, that’s all old news, for catchup. In the past week, there has been a striking development, which if the cookie crumbles just so, could be a game-changer.
Why do I say that? It’s not that I have a crystal ball. I can’t even tell you whether it will rain tomorrow.
Instead, my sense has long been that the widespread discontent with what one very discerning Friend called SAYMA’s state of “stasis” (aka paralysis) over the URJ fiasco did not lack substance, or wisdom — rather, it lacked a voice: a voice with clarity and courage. A leader.
And last week, it found one.
The speaker was a familiar figure: the Clerk of SAYMA’s Ministry & Nurture Committee, Ron McDonald, of Memphis Meeting.
McDonald is from Memphis, and is a semi-retired pastoral counselor. He’s been active in SAYMA for more than 30 years, and has repeatedly done some of the heavy lifting there, coordinating the Young Friends activities at annual sessions, and leading singing at their skit nights.
McDonald had also reached out to Smith more than once, trying to establish some understanding of her and URJ and the concerns raised. These contacts ended badly, last winter, when Smith pithily summed up her response with, “Fuck you!”
The failed effort earned McDonald a spot on Smith’s enemies list, posted here last month, as one of “those known to be upholding white supremacy, causing the most harm to Friends of color, particularly URJ members, through their leadership roles in SAYMA.”
That’s interesting. After thirty five years of loyalty and hands-on work, questioning URJ makes McDonald a “public enemy” of SAYMA.
After pondering the abortive “dialogue,” URJ’s demands for $20,000, and the July representative session, McDonald reached a personal breaking point. After three years he was sick of the Smith situation. He teetered on the edge of quitting SAYMA, or even Quakerism entirely. He drafted a letter of resignation, starting with his post as Clerk of SAYMA’s Ministry and Nurture Committee.
But he also consulted Friends. As a result, he did send the note resigning from the committee Clerkship.
And then he drafted a second letter. But not another resignation.
In it he announced that he was going to take a stand, at the next representative session, calling for an end to SAYMA funding for URJ and Smith. He sent it privately to several other Friends, asking if they would commit to support him, refined it based on their feedback, and —
— And, well, let’s have McDonald speak for himself (unedited):
I am writing to about a dozen active SAYMA Friends to share with you a very serious and difficult stand.
I want to stand up in the Sept. SAYMA Reps meeting and say this:
With our whole world groaning for change, we Quakers should be part of the leadership for nonviolent solutions.
Yet 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.
I would like to talk with you on the phone and hear what you think. I have no intention to speak at the Reps meeting without knowing that I am not alone in taking this position.
Realistically, I know that I (we?) only have the right to stand against funding URJ, which means that we could stop the Reps Meeting from approving the budget as it is written. I think that the best we can do is to effectively stand in opposition to URJ and Sharon’s leadership. With enough of us in negative unity (asserting “No!”), though, something positive might happen.
If you are willing to talk with me, please call me (555-5555) or send me your phone number and I’ll call you.
Sincerely your Friend,
Here’s my thumbnail outside review: this is the best piece of writing on this subject I have yet seen. None of my blog posts can hold a candle. It’s crisp, clear, forthright, plain, definite, and resolute.
That’s not just my opinion. More important, many of those he sent it to forwarded it on to others, There are many Friends who wanted to see SAYMA productively active in racial equity work, but have been stuck in the “stasis,” with the rest. By this weekend, McDonald said, more than two dozen Friends had committed to having his back.
I’m not surprised. His letter is not belligerent, but it breathes firm courage. It is an act of forthright leadership, which is what SAYMA has been lacking.
Anyone really familiar with the tough parts of Quaker history (or most other history, for that matter), should know that when the chips are down, courage and clear-eyed steadfastness are keys to breaking out of logjams and “stasis.” And for SAYMA, after three years of abuse and attrition, the chips are down.
Again, I’m not really a prophet. So I don’t know the answer to the next questions McDonald’s leadership raises, namely: will all those who are signing on really show up, and speak up? And if they do, will the Clerking of the session be competent and reliable?
The letter supporters haven’t yet endured the backlash; it surely will be here shortly. There are a number of samples in the comments on my earlier blog posts. What these lack in coherence they attempt to make up for in vehemence and vitriol. McDonald’s letter is thankfully free of such.
The drill for the responding Friends is simple, I said to McDonald: They really only have to say, clearly, two short sentences:
“This Friend speaks my mind.” And
“I am unable to stand aside.”
McDonald calmly demurred.
“Really,” he said, “it can all be boiled down to just one word.”
It’s the word that has so long been missing in SAYMA:
Come to think of it, he’s got a point. And I didn’t need a crystal ball to see it.