I’d been aware of the annual Friends General Conference Gathering for years, yet never attended before. My mother used to go, and enjoyed it. In fact, it was through her, that I found out about the Quaker Sweat Lodge. Remember that? It had apparently become an annual thing with some young Friends, as a rite of passage, until the Wampanoag community in Massachusetts found out about it, and demanded that it be shut down. It was I, and one other Friend, who notified the Wampanoag community about the Quaker Sweat Lodge.
I mention the sweat lodge incident, to show I already had a pretty good idea the Gathering was a mostly white liberal classist and racist space; hostile to the self determination of people of color. I had followed the Quaker Sweat Lodge issue, from the Wampanoag point of view, but also as a Friend of color and participant it the New England Yearly Meeting (NEYM) Racial, Social and Economic Justice Committee, and the Working Party on Racism.
In fact, I wrote a short editorial piece regarding the Quaker Sweat Lodge incident in the NEYM Peace and Justice Crier, published by the Racial, Social and Economic Justice Committee. My short editorial piece was not well received by other Friends, basically because I sided with the Indians. I know this because, when FGC hosted an “open” forum to discuss the controversy, there was no Native person representing the Indigenous side of things. They knew exactly who I was and still chose not to invite me. The person FGC chose to represent the Native point of view, was a white Friend from Beacon Hill Meeting in Boston, another member of the Working Party on Racism. She told me what was up.
That experience turned me off completely, to any notion I might have had about attending the FGC Gathering. I hear there are still some white Friends angry about their Quaker Sweat Lodge being shut down at the insistence of the Wampanoag community.
However, when I learned that Avis Wanda Mc Clinton would be attending the Gathering and that it would be held at Western North Carolina University, as clerk of her spiritual support committee, I made it my business to meet her there--especially since I live in Asheville and regularly attend the host meeting. I arranged my work schedule so that I would have the weekend before Gathering free, to attend the Friends of Color pre-Gathering session with Avis, because I could not afford to take the entire week off. To save money, I chose to commute from Asheville for those three days. And, since I did not plan to stay on campus, I didn’t register for the Friends of Color pre-gathering weekend, but was prepared to pay a day fee and for my meals. I looked forward to seeing Avis, meeting new Friends of color, and a few other Friends I only knew from Facebook.
The pre-Gathering began on Friday evening after dinner. I arrived just before dinner and went to find our meeting room. The first Friends I saw, were Vanessa Julye, FGC Coordinator of the Ministry on Racism, her husband Barry and her intern, Sonali Kumar. Vanessa and Barry greeted me warmly, with hugs. I explained my plans to Vanessa and asked her, who I should see to pay for my meals, etc. That's when she told me I could not stay, because the Friends of color gathering was just for Friends of color and their family members who were signed up to stay for the entire week of the Gathering. I was a bit shocked, so I asked, “Who made THAT decision?” Vanessa then told me, there were other Friends of color who had wanted to come only for the Friends of color pre-gathering weekend, and that they had been discouraged from registering. The rationale was, apparently, that the purpose of the pre-gathering weekend was for Friends of color and their families “to forge bonds with one another, create community and be prepared to support one another during the Gathering week.” By this time, I was really confused, because the entire premise seemed illogical. Why would someone want to put restrictions on Friends of color coming together? So, I said, “Well, who do I need to talk to about this policy, because it makes no sense to me?” And now Barry had become involved in the conversation, reiterating what Vanessa was saying. Vanessa said, “Maybe you didn’t hear what I said?” I answered, “I just drove an hour, from Asheville, to be here, so you'll just have to make an exception in my case. How do I pay for my meals?” She said, “Maybe so” and walked me out in the hall to find someone who could answer my question. I got my answer and went on to dinner.
I found Avis in the Dining Hall sitting alone. We ate together, and walked back to the meeting room together. We sat in silent worship as Friends of color and their relatives began to gather. Jean-Marie Barch, and her white husband Frank joined us. She was apparently one of the organizers. I first met Jean-Marie when FGC called on her to negotiate a peace settlement with the Wampanoag community on Cape Cod, over the Quaker Sweat Lodge debacle. Like Vanessa, our paths have crossed for many years. 37 Friends had registered, and the room was not yet full, but at least 20 of us were there that evening. Besides those already mentioned, there were only two other people in the room I had ever seen before: Gabbreell James, from PYM, whom I met for the first time at the January PYM called meeting on racism, and Diane Butler, from Colombia South Carolina, whom I first met the previous June at SAYMA (Southern Appalachia Yearly Meeting Association).
Jean-Marie broke the silence—not with words of welcome--but the very first words out of her mouth were, “I am disturbed that Sharon has chosen to disrupt our gathering with her presence.” I heard my name and what she said, but it took me a few seconds to register. She went on to explain the policy decision made with FGC, that only Friends of color and their families who were registered for the entire Gathering were welcome, and that I should leave. Still somewhat in shock, I said, "I was not a party to the policy decision made with FGC; I do not agree with it." I said, “I am a Friend of color, I am here, and I’m NOT leaving, so you’ll just have to put me out.” I think there was a collective gasp in the room, and that’s when Avis decided she was done. She said, “I didn’t come here for this BS.” She got up and walked out. You should know that, prior to the Gathering, Vanessa Julye and a number of PYM Friends had advised Avis that she shouldn’t have asked Sharon Smith to clerk her spiritual support committee; that other Friends, some of whom are considered weighty, would not support her ministry, because they do not approve of Sharon’s way of doing things.
There was more discussion: Jean-Marie, asked me, “Did you come here to be disruptive?” I said, “You're the source of the disruption. I was sitting in silent worship, minding my own business, until you had the audacity to suggest that I, a rare birthright Friend of color, in my own Yearly and Monthly Meeting territory, also my own Saponi ancestral homeland, don’t belong here. How DARE you!” She asked me, Why are you here?” I said, “God sent me. Deal with it.”
Then, Vanessa approached one of the white FGC organizers who happened to come into the room, and asked her to explain the policy to everyone, which she did, nervously. The sequence of events may not be completely accurate, but at some point, Vanessa and Jean-Marie put their heads together to confer with one another, I guess, trying to figure out what their options were. I heard them say “campus security” and “police” so I said, “If you plan to call the police, go right ahead, because I am not leaving. You'll have to put me out.” The room was tense.
Finally, a couple of Black men spoke up. Bill Jenkins, from Atlanta, pointed out that in his many years of experience in business management, that if a policy did not serve, it should be revisited. Next, Paul Pierce, who was sitting right next to me, said that he had many years of civil disobedience experience, and as far as he was concerned, I was welcome to sit with him. So, faced with the choice of calling campus security or the police to have a Black-Indian Friend removed from a gathering, specifically for Friends of color, “to meet and build a community of support for one another,” or let it go, Jean-Marie and Vanessa decided to let it go. But the air had already been poisoned.
END of Part One