SAYMA Update: After the “Lynching” that Wasn’t

After last Saturday’s SAYMA Representative Meeting, Sharon Smith celebrated in a circular email:

How many people do you know, who can say they survived not just one, but two Quaker lynchings?

That’s the way I feel today, after that botched attempt yesterday. I am so proud of me . . . lol

But this was typical Sharon Smith gaslighting. Three important things happened at SAYMA’s Representative Meeting on September 26,  but none was a “lynching,” real or metaphorical: one had to do with money, a second with minding the Light, and the third was about monthly meetings. The session delivered a lot of good value for SAYMA, if its officers and activists know how to take advantage of it.

The session followed its agenda, and when the action relating to Smith came to a decision point, the outcome she didn’t want is what happened: SAYMA declined to give Smith’s URJ Committee any more funds. That was its first major achievement.

[For background on SAYMA’s travail, consult the blog posts and documents here.]

Smith had demanded $20,000 for URJ. The SAYMA Finance Committee proposed allotting $2500. The SAYMA session could only agree on giving her $0.

When Clerk  Bob McGahey asked for approval of the $2500, the chorus of “NOs” was overwhelming.

It was a decision, in proper order; not a “lynching.” And something more than money was involved here. Smith was thereby, after several long, destructive years, de-centered from SAYMA.

So sorry, not “lynched.'” Or even disowned. After all, neither Smith, nor anyone on her Committee,  could be disowned, because none of them is a member of any SAYMA meeting, or any Friends meeting at all. Indeed, Smith has said her committee recruits want nothing to do with such a racist outfit as SAYMA and Quakers. (Except to take most of its available money.)

Presumably, Smith and they will go on with their various projects. But they’ll have to find the money somewhere else. And if that quest takes their attentions away from SAYMA, the response Saturday made clear that many Friends will breathe big sighs of relief.

And if SAYMA is wise, they will follow the counsel of Catherine Peck, one of the wisest participants, who wrote recently that for her Celo meeting to get down to serious work of its own on racial justice, she hopes they will learn how to ignore Sharon Smith — bottom-up de-centering. Peck hoped SAYMA can do the same. She is not alone; clerks take note.

Cutting the funding should facilitate this, because Smith’s record is one of freeloading on guilt-ridden white liberal Friends.  Smith first came to SAYMA in 2014 because she had browbeaten some Friends in Asheville into offering her a free place to stay.

She moved into a Friend’s house, temporarily, and stayed, rent-free, for four years, until the exasperated “host” Friend finally found the gumption to evict her in 2018. While there she also tried to turn the Asheville Meetinghouse into a personal headquarters; but enough Friends stood in the way to scotch that plan.

Her public disruption reached a kind of peak in March of 2018 when she tried to take over a racial equity seminar near Asheville, being led by professionals of color. They acted quickly to regain control, and the upshot was that Smith was removed and arrested.

There is a long trail of similar parasitic sojourns in her background, ranging from Nashville to Pendle Hill and Cape Cod and more. Since the  Asheville eviction, she has moved to Eastover, South Carolina. But her pretensions seem only to have been inflated by these rebuffs; she proclaimed to the 2018 anti-racism seminar that she knew more about that field of work than anyone in the Asheville region.

She also insisted  that her age (now 66) and claims of Indian ancestry (unsubstantiated) made her the reigning elder matriarch in North Carolina and even beyond, such that anyone wanting to do programs about such issues in this undefined but large territory (including SAYMA) had to get her permission first. She also threatened the defiant with violence.

What’s behind these chronic outbursts? Could it be some combination of personal unbalance and actual experience?  There is a parallel list of numerous persons and groups which have at first welcomed Smith, then strained to tolerate her and finally for self-protection had to curb or, like the Asheville anti-racist trainers, stop her activity. Her long sad record of disorder and destructive behavior raises the question of professional intervention, which seems unlikely.

But now SAYMA has stepped up, at least in its own behalf. Besides the Black Friends who testified, Ron McDonald of Memphis was key in helping dozens of other white Friends to find the wherewithal to voice the “No!” they had  felt so long.

Now one wonders what those at representative session will make of the opening Smith’s de-centering unlocked. Perhaps now SAYMA might begin moving toward finding the “safe space” for Black Friends it once envisioned.

Another part of that opening is an impetus for self-examination: for instance, two members of Berea Meeting told the session that their meeting was solidly in unity behind Smith, and the total budget demand. In fact, one said SAYMA should give Smith more.

Yet a few minutes later, two other Berea Friends spoke up to say that the meeting’s projected  “unity” was by no means as unanimous as the others suggested. One Friend spoke of being marginalized there by what amounted to sectarian groupthink. That Friend had stepped back from Berea meeting and pursued racial justice work through other channels to avoid Smith and URJ. A third Friend from Berea spoke to me in the same vein afterward.

Perhaps some there need to slow down, take account of SAYMA’s action, and reexamine whether their view of racial equity work is perhaps too narrow.

This  challenge was soon reinforced. When Berea’s Shannon Roberts Smith, one of Smith’s main supporters, said that having no budget line for Smith/URJ meant SAYMA was turning away from doing anti-racist work, she was almost immediately challenged by Catherine Peck.

Peck countered that there were many groups working on related issues, and many ways to pursue the concerns. [Peck’s statement was met with a great many echoes of “This Friend speaks my mind!”] And for that matter, Sharon Smith herself has said that “Black people are not a monolith,” about this or other matters; though her frequently contemptuous dismissals of Friends of color who differ with her (“desperate and or despicable” is typical) often suggests otherwise.

As proof, some of the most potent anti-funding testimony in the session came early on, from two Black Friends from Atlanta, John Adams and Clive Gordon.

Adams pointed out that URJ’s statement of goals said it was supposed to create a “safe space” for Friends of Color in SAYMA. But under Smith’s aegis this had definitely not happened. Neither Adams nor any other Black Friends had been able to continue working with URJ under Smith’s autocratic influence.

Gordon went further, insisting that every dollar SAYMA spent to fund and enable Smith was “a stab in the back” to Black Quakers, and that her rule in URJ was “not aiding Black Quakers but alienating them.”

To have such clear witness personally borne by Black Friends ought to have given all present pause. Smith’s advocates were evidently unmoved. But they were outnumbered, and the URJ funding was decisively ended.

The session’s second major achievement had to do with an Ad Hoc Committee on Conflict Transformation formed by the incoming Finance Committee Clerk, Geeta McGahey, and dropped on the July 20 Representative session without prior notice. It involved contracting with staff of the Friends Center on Racial Justice (FCRJ) in upstate New York as consultants for what they were told would be an intensive and demanding program.

To McGahey’s shock, the representative session didn’t share her eager beaver enthusiasm (her term) for the idea, and declined to sign on or allocate funds without a chance for local meetings to examine and season the idea (which did not even come with a written proposal). Yet when the session didn’t agree, McGahey said she would go ahead on her own.

Anyone with their eyes open (even an outside blogger) could have seen this scheme was headed for trouble. And when time came for the Committee to report on September 26, sure enough. The report was read by  Shannon Roberts Smith, and its key disclosure was:

Our committee was hoping to be able to report that we had invited FCRJ to take over the leadership of this ad hoc, continuing and deepening SAYMA’s collaboration with FCRJ as we develop conflict transformation practices and processes at SAYMA, beginning with the points of conflict listed above. Instead, unfortunately, we must report that FCRJ has decided to take a step back from their work with SAYMA at this time.”

Why? The report continued

. . . because we at SAYMA are not, in practice, actually in unity about following the leadership of FCRJ in conflict transformation at SAYMA.  . . . .

This was no revelation; it was clear at the July meeting. The full report, which is on SAYMA’s website, deserves to be read and pondered in full. It reeks of self-pity and special pleading, and seethes with barely suppressed anger at SAYMA for not immediately leaping onto its bandwagon with, among other things, no discernment or seasoning, and waving a blank check.

Moreover, it needs to be noted that Shannon Roberts Smith is one of Sharon Smith’s most vocal advocates, and the idea, as presented, essentially defined “conflict” as any dissent from URJ’s demands, and “transformation” as compliance with Sharon Smith and her behavior. Shannon Smith may have thought she was being impartial or even-handed about this; but that was an illusion.  Her report  concluded that,

We [the Conflict Transformation Committee] hope that SAYMA’s relationship with FCRJ can be repaired and rejuvenated so that we may continue on this long journey of healing that we had begun and which showed such great promise. . . .

But SAYMA had not “begun” it. Instead, a heedless few had jumped the gun, stumbled over their shoelaces and did a faceplant at the July representative session, and after. It was a disappointment to see self-described conflict professionals going along with this less than half-baked scheme.

Evidently Angela Hopkins belatedly realized this, and pulled the plug. Hopkins spoke of it in the session, noting that a “basic level of honesty” was found lacking in SAYMA’s initiative.

Shannon Roberts Smith went on,

It is clear, however, that this [“repair”] will not occur in the near future without apologies being made, and a clear mandate that it is the will of SAYMA to fully commit to this work. . . .”

A tearful Geeta McGahey, then apologized, admitting she had completely outrun her guide.

As for “repair” and “rejuvenation,” that may have become moot. With Smith/URJ now off the  budget and de-centered from its agenda, as SAYMA recovers its own sense of discernment and callings, it may well choose to go in a very different direction. Or directions.

In fact, such different directions surfaced at the session, and were in my estimation the third major opening of the day.

Clerk Bob McGahey glimpsed it toward the end when he noted that amid all the frenzy about URJ, he had counted eight SAYMA meetings which were already doing racial justice work on their own. (Imagine!) In this he echoed an earlier call from Catherine Peck, who urged SAYMA to shift its focus and funding from URJ to support of local SAYMA meetings and their growing efforts.

This idea makes timely sense. In pandemic conditions, when large gatherings are difficult or dangerous, smaller scale work is still within reach. Besides, if racism is as pervasive and systemic as we are told (and I do not doubt it), then its effects are also close by, as are opportunities for work to overcome it. And its very pervasiveness is an advantage for smaller groups like Quakers:  justice work can be done on every scale, on budgets big and small, with room for every temperament.

Peck suggested that hearing about and lifting up local work could well be a productive focus for the next time SAYMA is able to gather. She promised a more detailed proposal for that, and I hope it comes to light soon.

Wait a minute: haven’t I heard this before?? “Different strokes for different folks!”

What a concept.

The surfacing (or recovery) of that awareness was SAYMA’s third big achievement of the  day. If the group can take hold of it, after their long painful detour, they could be headed back for the right track. Or tracks.

It was a long, arduous day for SAYMA. But they dealt constructively with money, with minding the light, and rediscovering local meetings. If they stick with these openings, it will have been well worth while.

Even without Smith’s fantasy “lynching.”

6 thoughts on “SAYMA Update: After the “Lynching” that Wasn’t”

  1. Thank you so much for this enlightening treatment of what happened at rep meeting. I have grieved for the past several years that SAYMA was being taken in by a person who seemed to me to be skilled at taking advantage of the systemic guilt of an organization made up of people with the best intentions. I’m relieved that a stand was finally taken to put a stop to these machinations. Now we can move forward.

  2. Chuck Fager

    Beyond pleased. So glad SAYMA opened to Light of Truth and then to right ordering of ‘the quaker way’ of handling business affairs…instead of being cowed by an obvious (to me, based on your reporting) con artist … What I found very strange is that this woman is not even a Quaker.

    Kate Kent

    Thanks for keeping us informed.

    1. Like Kate Kent said, that Friend spoke my mind!. This was one more instance of faith community science project: testing various hypotheses to see what works best. A trustworthy discernment process. A way to actualize continuing revelation. No need to grieve ‘negative’ results as different hypotheses revealed their inadequacies. Be grateful for the learning that takes place in each of those disappointing efforts, and try something different. I have no doubt that Spirit was a guiding force throughout the struggling period, and grace and truth was revealed. All is well, just as Julian of Norwich continues to encourage us.
      Thanks, Chuck, for this full account. Mickey E.

  3. Thanks for the update, Chuck. I’ve already informed the Friends in my local worship group to be aware that if this person brings her hate filled tactics into our midst, there is a history to be examined. Thank you for providing it. Your posts will serve as good background information in case she looks for further Quakers around the country, and around the world, to manipulate. I’m very happy to hear SAYMA has found the space for growth and recovery. Sharon Smith would no doubt call me a smug bitch (again) for saying this but I truly hope she finds her way out of these self-destructive behaviors and learns more productive, effective, and less violent ways to help guide us all out of the misery of racism.

  4. Hallelujah! Delighted that way and eyes opened. Will continue to hold SAYMA in the Light as they move forward. Good to hear local Meetings are exploring this work in their communities.

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