On January 2, 1968, The Memphis Ministers Association, most of whom would become the eventual founders of MIFA later that same year, came together to write a letter. They appealed to the conscience of Memphians during the fight for civil rights, which was reaching its peak in Memphis.
An Appeal to Conscience, 1968 | Memphis Ministers Association
Three histories of MIFA have been written--one on its 20th anniversary, one on its 30th, and one following its 40th. The complete texts are available here:
Diversification and Unity: 1968 - 1988 | Researched and written by Selma Lewis, edited by Jeanne Tackett and Ellen Abbay
Offering a Hand Up to Our Neighbors in Need: 1968 - 1998 | Researched, written, and edited by Selma Lewis and Marjean Kremer
Conscience of Memphis for Forty Years, 1968 - 2010 | Researched and written by Gail S. Murray, based on earlier histories and published articles, board minutes, in-house publications, and interviews with current and former MIFA employees
Helping change Memphis: MIFA makes a difference for 40 years
This abbreviated history was written on MIFA's 40th anniversary.
1968-1978: Forming and stabilizing
The Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association (MIFA) was founded in 1968 to find a solution for poverty and racial division in Memphis. In an unprecedented cooperative effort by church leaders and laypersons, the seed was planted for an organization that would thrive when every external force seemed determined to defeat it.
Early in 1968, Rabbi James Wax and the Memphis Ministers Association submitted “An Appeal to Conscience” to The Commercial Appeal. The widespread reaction among Memphians was that these church leaders had no business addressing social issues.
In February of that year, the sanitation workers’ strike began, highlighting the injustices of low wages and poor working conditions. When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on a trip to Memphis to address the strike, the fury, grief and mistrust that followed widened the chasm between the races.
Following Dr. King’s death, area churches intent on healing the city’s wounds realized they would have to come together to accomplish anything. In September of 1968, MIFA was born.
In its early years, MIFA gained little support from local congregations. Advocacy work was not popular, and churches had little faith in the visionary ambitions of MIFA’s leaders. But by April 1969, the organization had raised $30,000 and hired Berkeley Poole as executive director.
The board was divided in terms of its goals for MIFA. As Poole noted, “One (group) wanted to be a bridge among churches. The other wanted a greater presence in social concerns.” The organization experimented with several programs, from police community relations and neighborhood stabilization to African-American studies.
Unfortunately, MIFA’s involvement in these projects involved little action, and the organization was stagnating. Funds were depleted, and with Berkeley Poole’s resignation in 1971, all hope for MIFA’s success nearly died.
Salvation came later, when Gid Smith and Bob Dempsey were hired as co-executive directors. They accepted their positions selflessly, with the understanding that MIFA did not have the funds to pay them, and the partnership they formed became arguably the most important turning point in MIFA’s history.
Smith and Dempsey transformed MIFA into an organization focused on direct action. A comprehensive protocol for the creation of programs was established, and each program was categorized as “delivery of service” or “systemic change.” MIFA’s long-standing relationship with volunteers began when its first VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) contract was awarded in 1974. Under the thoughtful leadership of those volunteers, programs like MIFA Meals on Wheels, the Memphis Food Bank and The Mid-South Senior newspaper were created.
When MIFA began consistently securing grants, it had everything it needed to flourish: organized administrators, a dedicated workforce, sufficient funding and a growing success rate. Its leaders were still anxious, but it moved into its second decade with confidence.
In a decade defined by trial – and occasionally error – MIFA experimented with programs, conserved resources and became the administratively responsible entity it is today. When Margaret Ryan was hired as executive director in 1981, MIFA took on its signature fiscal responsibility, a quality that has maintained the trust and support of donors for decades.
MIFA spent several years extending new services to seniors. It opened two senior centers, expanded its home-delivered meals program, provided home ownership options and counseling for the elderly and added the Senior Companion Program.
In the early 1980s, it became apparent that another group needed the organization’s attention: teens. MIFA acquired the City Slickers program – now Teen Job Services – in 1984, and today the program trains, mentors and guides 40 teens in the 38126 zip code each year.
MIFA also extended its services to people in crisis. Through Job Bank, individuals received training to make them viable employees. In 1983, MIFA’s housing program for homeless families was established. By 1988, the program had received national recognition, when U.S. News and World Report listed it as one of five such programs in the country that were actually effective.
Despite this national attention, MIFA was still a substantial force that had not met its full potential.
1988-1998: Increasing public awareness
MIFA’s third decade was defined by a growing relationship with the community under the direction of Allie Prescott, who became executive director in 1989. As an increasing number of nonprofit organizations vied for the government’s funding, MIFA bolstered its development efforts to prepare for the downturn in grant dollars. An era of innovative fundraising efforts began, marked by such projects as Starry Nights, the sale of bricks for the Pyramid’s entryway, the Circle of Hope campaign, Empty Bowls and The MIFA Thrift Store.
Each of these fundraisers reached out to a different sect of the population. Starry Nights was a drive-through display of holiday lights with affordable admission. The Circle of Hope campaign still exists as an opportunity for donors to give at least $1,000 each year. A partnership with Elvis Presley Enterprises exposed MIFA to Elvis fans internationally, and Empty Bowls introduced local artists to the organization. With opportunities for individuals and businesses at all levels of giving, the community could truly be involved in MIFA’s efforts.
MIFA also received consistent contributions from local congregations in the form of donations and volunteer manpower. In the beginning, churches were loath to stand behind MIFA, but by 1998, over 200 local congregations showed their support through monetary and in-kind contributions and countless volunteer hours.
In 1997, Margaret Craddock became executive director. She began at MIFA as a VISTA and lent her years of experience and visionary leadership to carry the organization into a period of new growth.
1998-2008: Growth and reevaluation
Upon entering MIFA’s fourth decade, its leaders reevaluated MIFA’s programs, keeping the most effective ones under MIFA’s umbrella and passing the others to agencies that could accommodate them. After refining its programming and simplifying its mission, MIFA embarked on an overhaul of its 910 Vance facility and began its $25 million Campaign for a New Century.
MIFA’s housing program experienced tremendous growth. Housing communities Idlewild Court and Presley Place, as well as the Les Passees Center for Children and Families, opened between 1998 and 2001. Today, the program provides 100 housing units and a comprehensive program for families transitioning out of homelessness.
In 2001, MIFA was chosen by President Bush as one of several faith-based organizations impacting their communities. Julie Raines and Margaret Craddock represented MIFA at the recognition luncheon in Washington, D.C. It received national attention again in 2007, when John Edwards made a campaign stop at The MIFA Store.
MIFA currently serves more than 55,000 seniors, teens, and families annually through its programs. This organization is the perennial favorite of faithful volunteers and donors, many of whom have supported MIFA for decades. When asked why they chose MIFA, current supporters responded this way:
“MIFA has breathed hope back into a community where a feeling of hopelessness and despair has often prevailed. Through MIFA, thousands of people are no longer hungry, homeless and uncared for. Hilton Hotels Corporation is proud to be associated with an organization that provides such vital services to the community and supports MIFA’s efforts to help people lead more productive lives.”
- Marilyn Hughes, Hilton Hotels Corporation
“MIFA is one of the most efficient and one of the most effective organizations that we support. It’s all about helping the people in need in our community to help themselves. It’s adjustable and adaptable. When a crisis arises, MIFA develops the necessary program to meet the need and puts it in to action. Heaven help Memphis, if we didn’t have MIFA.”
- Anne & John Stokes