Diversification and Unity: 1968-1988
Researched and written by Selma Lewis, edited by Jeanne Tackett and Ellen Abbay
During its first twenty years, MIFA has listened to the voices of people in pain in the community, and has worked to develop programs to ease their suffering. This has been done with a small, dedicated staff of full-time leaders, and a larger number of part-time employees and volunteers. With such an urgent focus, there has been little time or energy, especially in the early days, for keeping complete, accurate records. Only sketchy documentation exists of the way the organization grew. Thus, there are probably errors in the story presented here. MIFA's priorities have not included much looking back, until now.
This twentieth anniversary of the founding of MIFA has prompted the desire to take a look at the origins and events of these years. For a historian, twenty years is a relatively short period of time to study. But is already too late to capture impressions of some of the founders and early leaders, who are unfortunately no longer alive. The rationale for writing this story at the twenty-year mark is to gather the ideas and thoughts of the people involved in those years before any more of them are lost to us.
In the absence of adequate records, the only way this history could have been attempted was to consult many individuals with knowledge and memories of the events that occurred. I wish to thank them for the unfailing generosity and cooperation with which they answered questions and offered impressions and thoughts. Their contributions have been crucial to this work. Special appreciation goes to Gid Smith for patient explanations and kind support always.
The painter put the final stroke on the new partition, laid his brush down, and looking at the latest of many rearrangements of the same space, announced to the assembled MIFA personnel working around him; “This is it…, until the next time.” Both he and they knew from experience that the next changes would not be too long in coming. When you work for the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association, you expect that nothing will remain the same for very long. During its twenty years of existence, change and expansion have been the hallmarks of the organization. A closet today might become an office tomorrow.
MIFA is the helping hand that rescues many needy people in Memphis and the surrounding area. An ecumenical, nonprofit agency, MIFA “responds quickly to critical and emerging unmet human needs through well-managed services with and on behalf of the caring people” is the statement of mission adopted by the Board of Directors in 1987. Confirmed at the same time were philosophical goals that reflect the intention to foster “a spirit of caring and sharing; to maintain a broad base of local support to leverage other funds and resources; to rely on the strength and support of volunteers and facilitate opportunities for them to serve; to assist the needy in a manner that enhances their well-being and preserves their dignity; and to imprint the organization with a positive, cooperative spirit, along with an innovative business-like orientation.”
Consistent with these philosophical concepts during MIFA's growth and expansion, its directors have made certain that it remains lean and spare, using few resources or funds for administration. At the same time, it remains open to heed the unanticipated needs that arise in the ever-changing urban environment with its functions.
That environment is a city which, although the largest in a mid-west bordering state, is, in feeling, climate, tradition, politics, and religion, more akin to the adjoining “deep South” State of Mississippi than it is to the rest of Tennessee.
Memphis, founded in 1819 by Andrew Jackson, James Overton, and Marcus Winchester, is a major sales and distribution center for the Mid-South, as well as its medical center. Its population of approximately 650,000 is almost equally divided between Whites and Blacks. Memphis is a church-oriented city; its over seven hundred churches and synagogues outnumber its gasoline stations.
The religious tradition of Memphis has been “shaped by frontier, rural life-style, and cultural insulation,” write Dr.'s Peter Takayama and Suzanne Darnell of Memphis State University. Their article on the development of MIFA, “The Aggressive Organization and the Reluctant Environment; The Vulnerability of an Interfaith Coordinating Agency” evaluates the religion of the area as characterized by evangelism, salvation of the individual, and the belief that the problems of society are not the concern of religion. Practiced by most Memphians, this brand of religion sanctioned the status quo and did not predispose the city to be the home for a vital metropolitan inter-faith organization
“That MIFA exists at all was what fascinated me,” says Dr. Darnell. “It was ecumenical, interracial, and it arose at a time of racial hostility. It was devoted to social action when the community was not.” Many organizations with similar goals originated in various cities during the 60's when the climate fostered innovation. Most of them have disappeared, while MIFA has survived to become part of the fabric of contemporary life, despite the odds against it and many predictions of failure. How it arose, the historical context of its origins and development, why it has persisted and flourished in the unpromising soil of Memphis, Tennessee, its connection to the community in which it works, and the unusual people who have contributed their efforts and talents to it will be the focus of the MIFA story.
A time of upheaval & change
Twenty years ago in 1968, the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association was established by a few churchmen and lay leaders who hoped that by uniting their efforts, they could meet some of the growing needs of their increasingly urban city. They had few resources, but deep dedication to their cause and high hopes. Their enthusiasm reflected not only their own religious commitment to their fellowmen, but also the tenor of the times. Many things seemed possible in the optimistic 60's which witnessed the destruction of old and time-honored traditions and simultaneous rise of new philosophies and institutions. It was an area of transition, “a watershed in the cultural history of the United States,” says historian Morris Dickenstein.
In order to understand that confusing, turbulent ten-year period, it is necessary to go back and consider the decade that preceded it. The 50's, apparently stable, rational, and happy were also a period of intimidation, when McCarthyism pervaded many areas of life, stifling dissension for fear of the label “Communist” and subsequent loss of employment. These years of apparent calm and hidden anxiety provided the seedbed for the upheavals of the 60's, when problems neglected in the preceding period could no longer be ignored or wished away.
The early 60's were indeed, a time of change, a heady period, a time of hope when things seemed to be opening up after the relative quiet and suppression of the preceding decade. Reflection was supplanted by action and confrontation. Grounded in the 1954 Supreme Court historic decision “Brown vs. the Board of Education,” which outlawed segregation in public schools, a push began for the extension of desegregation in all aspects of public life.
Change was the order of the day. Established norms were questioned, old ideas challenged, and formerly accepted modes of political behavior, artistic, and institutional life were called upon to justify their existence in the new world. The existence of an atomic bomb capable of destroying civilization caused deep fear and concern. With the future uncertain, life focused on the present. Intense experience seemed to be only thing that could be trusted by the young, who felt betrayed by the dangers of the world they had inherited. They began to demand “relevance.”
The tranquility of the 50's was further shattered by the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, his brother, Attorney-General Robert Kennedy, and the Reverent Martin Luther King, Jr., the preeminent Black civil rights leader. Questions about American society were stimulated by President Lyndon Johnson's admission, in an honest recognition of reality, that in the midst of its prosperity, America had numbers of people living in poverty, stalked by hunger. He declared his famous “War on Poverty” at the same time escalating the involvement of the United States in the civil war in Vietnam. Involvement of the United States in this undeclared war created deep concern which was intensified by the destruction of villages and by revelations of distorted death tolls.
There were dramatic changes in the social life of the nation, as well. Popular song writers wrote glowingly of the wonders of hallucinations, giving an aura of legitimacy to experimentation with potentially life-threatening drugs. The development of a new birth control device, the “Pill,” allowed new sexual freedom. Singers like Elvis Presley from Memphis and the Beatles from England introduced the new “Rock” music, based on new sources of inspiration-folk songs, Negro spirituals and African rhythms.
Many of the young were even determined to rebel against that formerly hallowed ambition in America, the accumulation of individual wealth. Blue jeans, once the garb of the working man, became the new universal attire, often purposely made to appear torn and worn in order to cement identification of the affluent with the underprivileged. The struggle for Black freedoms was paralleled by women's quest for equality of opportunity. The 60's witnessed women leaving their customary place in kitchen and home for offices, factories, and other work sites formerly reserved for men.
Americans were increasingly mobile in the 60's, shifting from cities to suburbs, from South to North, and from everywhere to California. People torn away from their past lives and family connections were having to rely upon themselves, instead. Rootlessness became a factor in the life of the country.
With striking growth in technological knowledge and capacity but without concurrent enhancement of philosophical or moral certainty, the 60's produced tremors in all aspects of life. Institutional development was no exception. One of the institutions undergoing change was the church in the South.
The awakening of the social conscience
Social religion arrived in the North in the nineteenth century in the wake of urbanization and industrialization. At the same time that their northern counterparts were preaching about social ills, the clergy in the South was primarily concerned about saving souls one by one. Even so, there was always a small kernel of concern by the southern church for social problems, especially by denominational officials and a few local clergymen.
In addition to stands taken by a few churches and religious leaders in Memphis, there were organizations formed to promote the public good, using religion as a basis. As early as February 11, 1929, Rabbi Harry Ettelson of the Temple Israel called together for lunch at the Peabody Hotel eighteen ministers, priests, and rabbis to discuss the formation of a group of liberal-minded religious leaders and educators “for the interchange of ideas in a fellowship that would reach beyond sectarian and doctrinal differences.” Named the Cross Cut Club, it sponsored an annual Goodwill Conference among Catholics, Protestants, and Jews. In 1940, Dr. W.B. Selah, pastor of St. John's United Methodist Church in Memphis said that in Methodist philosophy “the personal and social gospels are two sides of the same coin.” The Presbyterian Church U.S. has publicly opposed racial segregation since 1950. Long before it was a popular stance, Dr. Paul Tudor Jones, pastor of Idlewild Presbyterian Church, preached from the pulpit for equal treatment of all races.
The Memphis Interracial Commission was born in 1940 when the Reverend J.A. McDaniel, Chairman of the all-Black Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance invited Dr. Samuel E. Howie, president of the all-White Memphis Ministers Association, to meet with his group. The Race Relations Committees of the two groups joined together to charter the Memphis Interracial Commission. Its stated purposes were to promote harmony and justice between all races and creeds and to interpret for the public the conditions in the city of Memphis which defeat Justice for any one group.
The Association of Church and Professional Social Workers was organized in December 1945, to provide a forum for the discussion of common problems of Black and White professionals and to familiarize each with the other's “ideals and programs.” Aiming to establish a working relationship between the groups, it was ecumenical with a membership consisting largely of clergy and lay members of congregations as well as representatives of social work organizations. Although little mention of it can be found, its purposes are noteworthy as predecessors of MIFA.
In 1954 the decree of the United States Supreme Court outlawing segregation in public schools set off a storm of protest in many southern cities. In order to enforce the law of the land, federal troops traveled to cities like Little Rock, Arkansas, and New Orleans, Louisiana, where officials defied the ruling.
In Memphis there was concern over the threat of racial strife. To deal with this situation, a group of politicians and a few clergymen formed the Memphis Greater Race Relations Committee to accomplish the court-ordered desegregation without federal interference. Their philosophy was: “Maybe this year the zoo; maybe next year the libraries. But let it start. Only then can gradualism really be justified and make sense.”
By the late 50's racial tensions was beginning to surface. The Reverend Paul Carnes of the Unitarian Church moved to Buffalo, New York, to escape the friction that resulted when he invited a Black to appear at his church's services during Brotherhood Week. The Memphis Greater Race Relations Committee was unable to be effective in such an atmosphere. In the emotional climate of 1958 when a prominent banker, Arthur McCain, became president of the committee, he was threatened with dismissal by the Board of Directors of his bank. In the ensuing unpleasantness, the committee was dissolved.
In the late 50's an ecumenical development was instigated by the Memphis Ministers Association who sponsored a meeting of thirty Protestant churches at Idlewild Presbyterian Church. Here the Memphis Council of Churches was organized “to express the fellowship of the Christian congregations of this city, acknowledging Jesus Christ as divine Lord and Savior, to bring these congregations into united service for Christ and the world.” Its last meeting was held in November 10, 1960. At that meeting, a prominent business man rose and spoke at length against the council, which then decided to cease operations for a while.
In the early 60's some inter-faith sentiment was beginning to be expressed in the medical community. In an unusual step of ecumenical cooperation in Memphis, the University Inter-Faith Center was organized as a joint ministry to the University of Tennessee Medical Units. Its sponsors were Methodists, Episcopal, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, U.S., and reform Jewish. Worship facilities were located in the heart of the medical center in a building created and shared as a joint venture. Another ecumenical venture was the Institute of Medicine and Religion, a training program to prepare religious personnel for pastoral care in a hospital setting. In this effort Methodists, Episcopalians, Catholics, Presbyterians, U.S. and Cumberland Presbyterians joined together
On January 26, 1959 the Memphis Committee on Community Relations (MCCR) was formed with the stated purpose of avoiding Black demonstrations and White violence. Convened by its first Chairman, Attorney Lucius Burch, MCCR was composed of a prestigious group of Memphians, one third of whom were Black.
It planned “to provide a meeting place for calm discussion and such responsible action as could be agreed upon to preserve the order…peace, happiness and continued progress of a great and growing city and all its people.” Its goal was to achieve voluntary progress toward equal treatment for all citizens of Memphis rather than wait for court orders which would demand equal justice. It was to work without publicity to gain its ends, convinced that quiet, behind-the-scenes work could prove that desegregation could take place without dire consequences. Once desegregation was established, the members of the committee believed there would be a precedent upon which an equitable future could be built.
Included on the Board of Directors were the Reverend Blair Hunt, Msgr. Merlin Kearney, the Reverend J.A. McDaniel, the Reverend H.C. Nabrit, Dean William Sanders, the Reverend S.A. Owen, Dr. Paul Tudor Jones, Dr. R. Paul Caudill, the Reverend Alexander Gladney, the Reverend J.E. Robinson, Carl Carson, Lewis Donelson, the Reverend James Lawson, Rabbi James Wax, Dr. Hollis Price, the Reverend James Elder, Frances Coe, Lt. George W. Lee, the Reverend J.C. Mickle, Msgr. Joseph Leppert, Edmund Orgill, Arthur McCain, A.W. Willis, Dr. Vasco Smith, Harry Wellford, Lester Rosen, Jesse Turner, and the editors of both newspapers, Frank Ahlgren of the Commercial Appeal and Ed Meeman of the Press Scimitar.
MCCR tried to influence the City Commission to appoint some Blacks to city commissions and committees, and compiled a suggested list of qualified Blacks. MCCR tried to gain more jobs for Blacks, worked for their admission to private hospitals, and expressed concern about law enforcement and police brutality.
In 1967, the Reverend James Lawson of Centenary Methodist Church tried to warn the MCCR that a serious situation was developing in Memphis, but his feeling of urgency was shared by only one of the White members, Lucius Burch, whose concern about the whole racial situation in the city had prompted his calling MCCR into existence in the first place. MCCR continued to approach the problem in its methodical, gradual way.
Because of the efforts of these various groups, Memphis gained the reputation of a southern city which was surviving without turmoil the difficult days of desegregation which were creating violence elsewhere in the South. In 1967 Memphis adopted a new form of government, replacing the old mayor-commission form with a mayor and a thirteen-member city council. Seven members of the council were elected from districts to assure Black representation.
Historically in Memphis there had been two primary ministerial associations-the all-Black Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance and the Memphis Ministers Association which, like most of White Memphis, had only a thin tradition of participation in social issues. Members could unite in support of prohibition, or for the passage of Sunday blue laws which mandated observance of the Sabbath, but rarely on issues of social importance. By 1968 the Memphis Ministers Association was desegregated. Though only 125 of the 700 Memphis ministers belonged to it, and of these, only fifteen were Black.
After years of leaving race relations to politicians and economical leaders, the Memphis Ministers Association finally decided to organize its own Race Relations committee to work with the MCCR. Rabbi Wax was President of the Ministers Association, as well as an active member of the MCCR, and he appointed the Reverend Nicholas Vieron of the Greek Orthodox Annunciation Church to be Chairman of the newly formed committee.
Rabbi Wax proposed to the committee that it issue a statement in the form of a paid advertisement in the two major newspapers. Adopted at a regular meeting of the Ministers Association on January 2, 1968, it was the first such public statement ever made by ministers as a group in Memphis. Called “An Appeal to Conscience,” it urged that “anyone who loves God must also love his brother…thus prejudice and discrimination are sinful according to the ethics of the Judeo-Christian tradition.” Further, it stated that brotherhood is a full-time occupation, requiring involvement rather than oratory, and needing actions, not words.
The advertisement appeared in the Commercial Appeal on Sunday, February 4, 1968. Public reaction to the unusual involvement of Memphis ministers in social issues was generally unfavorable. They were advised to let the mayor run the city, while they attended to “religion.”
Two months later, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis.
A new approach
Members of the Ministers Association whose churches were located in the heart of urban Memphis realized more acutely than their suburban colleagues that there were serious, unaddressed social problems in the city. Annabelle Whittemore, President of Women at St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral, remembers how hard it had been to get anything accomplished concerning the urban problems that surrounded her church. The only resource available had been the church vestry, who “generally felt money collected should be spent internally. They felt they were filling the need by providing holiday baskets.” The only hope for help, she and others working in similar circumstances felt, was to join with other churches.
At the instigation of Dean William Dimmick of St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral, a group of clergy from churches in the commercial district of the city met together. Among them were the Reverends Roy Williams, Bob Atkinson, Joseph Eckelkamp, Henry Starks, Frank McRae, and Paul Martins. Two informal meetings followed. Within a few months it became the Downtown Churches Association, with seven churches as its original members.
The purpose of the Association, which still functions, is to cooperate to solve the social needs of the area, to sponsor ecumenical worship services on special occasions, and to become a close-knit group.
In its attempt to bring together the churches of the inner city for unified action to meet social need, the Downtown Churches Association naturally came into contact with a movement organizing at about the same time, the Association for Christian Training for Service, ACTS.
The Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee had been designated as one of several Urban Pilot dioceses which resulted in the establishment of an association for Christian Training and Service, ACTS, directed by Reverend William Jones, Jr. The plan was to train clergy, seminarians, and lay persons to minister to the emerging urban society in the South. ACTS was charged with creating social change, in spite of the prevailing conservative theology of the area, and the general lack of ecumenical cooperation.
ACTS Executive Director Jones said: “The building of trust linkages between key persons in different communions has been a prime objective. Through united concern, the churches are seeking new forms of Christian witness, and new ways of common service.” The connections between ACTS, the Downtown Churches Association, and the founding of MIFA, both as to purposes and as to personnel, are easily apparent.
In the opinion of Annabelle Whittemore “the Downtown Churches Association was set up in order to get MIFA going. It was a tool to get people together and provide a place for William Jones to present his ideas. It was hoped similar clusters of churches, like this, would be set up elsewhere in the city.”
Dr. John W. Aldridge, in his paper “Reflections on the Memphis Crisis” wrote that the Downtown Ministers, after several meetings, determined that the problem was larger then their small group, which had neither the assets nor the resources to adequately deal with it; it was a concern for the entire “church” (community). After study and thought, the group concluded that if anything were to happen in the church in Memphis, it must be city-wide, and well structured.
The stage was now set for the formation of MIFA, with the director of ACTS to give professional advice and counsel to its organizers. The Downtown Churches Association, on November 19, 1967, specifically requested that ACTS help them hold a conference to consider how a metropolitan agency might be formed to help churches in their urban ministry. Frank McRae says he and other founders shared an ecumenical spirit bolstered by long friendships and familiarity. “Four or five phone calls and we could rally the community.” But we were “the first generation of people who dealt with urban ministry in an organized fashion. There was nobody to train us. We knew each other, and could act because of that friendship. But we needed Bill Jones to organize us, and provided structure.”
The Reverend Paul Tudor Jones, an active participant in the ecumenical organizations that were precursors to MIFA, was not optimistic in the beginning. He says that “when Bill Jones approached me about the chances for an inter-faith agency in Memphis, I was discouraging, because I believed congregations would not support it.” However, he remembers, the time was now ripe in Memphis: “In our strife and agony with civil rights problems, people wanted to get involved in something that would work for the good of all.”
On February 18, 1968, a “Consultation on Mission” was held at Idlewild Presbyterian Church. Seventy-two persons from twenty-two religious groups in the metropolitan area were invited; approximately forty-five attended. That this conference was ever envisioned and actually occurred in this city with its meager history of ecumenism, was a tribute to the downtown ministers and their ally, William Jones. The goal of this exploratory conference was “to broaden the basis of understanding among religious groups in greater Memphis; to encourage openness for cooperation in some on-going way and to explore alternative paths before us.” A steering committee of eight was appointed, and the decision made to hold a three-day consultation in May to further investigate the formation of an inter-faith organization. Dean Dimmick was to serve as Chairman of the Steering Committee. Other members were the reverends Frank McRae, Henry Starks, Roy Williams, William Smith, Brooks Ramsey and William Aldridge, and lay persons Dean Osmundson and Margaret Dichtel whose personal motivation was “a gut religion, to try to get a little more justice for people.” She felt an organization could be formed “to help church people work together to deal with the problems of the community.”
All plans were delayed, however, when the same week that this consultation on Mission was held, the sanitation strike began in Memphis.
The sanitation strike
On February 12, 1968, sanitation workers of the City of Memphis went on strike for better wages, better working conditions, and the right to have a union represent them. Although the Ministers Association attempted to mediate the dispute between the city and the union, the strike continued, with increasing hostility and bitterness, finally becoming a racial confrontation instead of a labor/management problem. The end occurred only after the tragic assassination on April 4, 1968, of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who had come to Memphis to support the cause of the sanitation workers in response to requests from his friends among the black ministers who were leading the workers' struggle.
The aftermath of these events was polarization of the Black and White inhabitants of the city. The crisis accentuated the lack of mutual channels in the community to address genuine concerns, and demonstrated forcefully that the church was unprepared for urban ministry. There was a decided lack of communication, cooperation, organization or structure by which to channel either an immediate response to the crisis, or a long-range plan for change.
In spite of the polarization of a large part of the city, feelings of trust had been established between the small but dedicated corps of Black and White ministers and laymen who were working toward a metropolitan coordinating agency. These feelings were developed “in pain and anguish and the turmoil of crisis,” Aldridge wrote.
The day following the assassination of Dr. King, the Ministers Association and the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance marched together from St. Mary's Cathedral, where they had been meeting, to City Hall to implore the mayor to settle the strike, and to mourn the death of their fallen comrade. This dramatized the question of the proper role of religion in society.
Many of the clergymen involved in this crisis and the march to the mayor's office were also active in the establishment of MIFA. Leading the march was Dean Dimmick, carrying the cathedral's processional cross; marching beside Reverend Henry Starks was Rabbi Wax. In the months to come MIFA, in its efforts to link religion with urban needs, was to encounter distrust and suspicion regarding the role it might assume in the community. The strike, and the participation of many of MIFA's founders in it, played a role in making the new agency's beginnings tenuous and rocky.
There are some however, who believe MIFA was aided by the sanitation strike. Annabelle Whittemore realizes that, “If we had tried to get MIFA started at any other time, we would have failed, but the sanitation strike convinced the churches that we really did have problems in this city, and that no single church could solve them alone. There was a role for the religious community as a whole to play.” Preston McDaniel, second President of MIFA's Board of Directors adds that “while MIFA was not begun because of the garbage strike, it accelerated because of it.”
Following the strike and the assassination of Dr. King, a well-attended general meeting entitled “Memphis Cares” was held at the Memphis Chicks baseball stadium reinforcing the idea that Memphians needed to continue to work together. Noella Garner, a representative of Church Women United on the early MIFA board, says that “'Memphis Cares' not only emphasized Memphis's willingness to have an ecumenical movement, but it also turned people around. They went in vicious, and came out softened. There was a desire to speak as one voice of the community of God in racial relations.” The primary organizer of “'Memphis Cares” was John T. Fisher, a lay member of Dimmick's congregation and early MIFA volunteer.
Frances Loring says that, “In the aftermath of the crisis, MIFA was to be a clearing house. During the strike, there were all sorts of rumors and no place to check their accuracy. There was a decision to build a loose umbrella for the dissemination of information, and for mutual support.” An early MIFA organizer, Waddy West agrees that “no one knew what the others were doing. We needed to have one central agency, MIFA, that knew what was going on, and could exchange information.”
Father Mark Geary of St. Peter's Catholic Church and an early MIFA board member was excited about this first ecumenical venture since Vatican II, when Pope John 23rd had urged Catholics to work with other religions to solve common problems. “The assassination caused people to branch out beyond the downtown churches, because we knew we had to do something.” In describing the important role played by the Catholics in MIFA's birth, Father John Batson, MIFA board member and pastor of Holy Spirit Catholic Church recalls that Catholics had worked in ecumenical efforts before in Memphis, but the establishment of MIFA, he feels, was a key development and a significant achievement. “MIFA was a way to get religious leaders to come together to try to solve human problems.”
Msgr. Paul W. Clunan of St. Louis Catholic Church, who had also been involved almost from the beginning of the organization, said that “the spirit came through the assassination. Ministers then were really involved, and a bond was established between Black and White. For the first time, Whites understood the problems of Blacks. It was the sanitation strike that made ecumenism work here.”
The Reverend Berkeley Poole, the Methodist minister who became MIFA's first Executive Director, believes that Memphis was amenable to MIFA's formation in the wake of the strike and assassination “because Whites were frightened at the sudden shaking of the system. There was also some guilt caused by the crisis and the assertiveness of the Black community. Injustices that had long prevailed could no longer be ignored.”
Brooks Ramsey, a Southern Baptist minister with an unusually liberal orientation concurs: “Memphis is a paradox. Even though it is a center of extreme fundamentalism, there is a minority, a humanistic, humanitarian minority in the church. The organization of MIFA was a way to do something positive to counteract the withdrawal of religion from the problems of life. Ecumenism exists in theory elsewhere, but it works in reality here. The original impetus for MIFA was social consciousness on the part of the Ministers Association.”
The sanitation strike had a dual effect on MIFA. On one hand, it inspired MIFA's organizers to redouble their efforts to establish an inter-faith, cooperative agency. On the other hand, the participation of many of MIFA's founders in an active social protest tainted it in the eyes of many in the city.
According to the planned schedule, the February 18th Consultation on Mission at Idlewild was to be followed by a three-day consultation in May to explore the new ways for churches to work together toward solution of urban problems. Because of the crisis, the consultation was postponed until fall. In the meantime the Steering Committee was enlarged to include the Reverends Ray Riddle, Maynard Fountain, H.H. Hooper, and Richard Wells; Jerrold Moore, assistant to the Mayor of Memphis, Frances Loring, Annabelle Whittemore, J.W. Clarke, Dr. Carl Walters of Southwestern College, Waddy West, Frank Campbell, Dr. John K. Johnson, John T. Fisher, Ted Johnson, O.C. Shuttles.
The Steering Committee was instructed to draw up a constitution and by-laws, prepare a name for a metropolitan inter-faith agency. Attention was to be given to program areas and needed staff. Within a sixty day time limit the committee was asked to make its report. Sub-Committees were appointed and assigned tasks. The name, Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association, was adopted.
Growing crops in clay
September 15, 1968, is considered the date of the actual founding of MIFA. St. Mary's Cathedral was the site for a general meeting on that date attended by thirty invited representatives of various denominations. The constitution, presented by the Reverend Brinkley Morton of Grace St. Luke's Episcopal Church, was adopted unanimously. An interim board of seven was elected to represent the group and proceed with plans for incorporation. This included Dean William Dimmick, St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral, Chairman; Reverend Henry Starks, St. James AME; Reverend Frank McRae, District Superintendent, United Methodist Church; Annabelle Whittemore, Episcopal layperson; Jerrold Moore, Assistant to the Mayor; Margaret Dichtel, Catholic layperson; and Autry Parker, layman of the Centenary United Methodist Church. The board was composed of representatives of various groups including five denominations; three members were clergy, four were lay persons, two were black, five white, and two were women. All came from downtown or mid-city churches. The interim board, assisted by attorney Rowlett Scott, met weekly until October 9th at which time the Charter of Incorporation and By-Laws were read and adopted unanimously.
The Interim Board understood that for MIFA to succeed they would need to involve the decision makers of the various denominations as well as those who controlled the financial resources. A meeting was called for October 17, 1968, to which such leaders were invited. Here, the Board presented the background of MIFA, and asked for advice on direction and funding.
MIFA was presented to the bishops or their clerical equivalents in the various denominations on November 24, 1968, at the Rivermont Hotel. Twenty-five persons attended. Dimmick presented the origins of MIFA, stressing the lack of unity in the religious sector in facing the problems of race, poverty, and old age. The church holds influence and power, and is expected to act, he concluded, so there is a need to harness this power through coordination, communication, and joint planning.
The question of Jewish participation was raised, and was answered affirmatively. In regard to support by the Black community, the Reverend Henry Starks said Blacks would see the need for this kind of organization, and mentioned the necessity of building trust relationships. Edmund Orgill read a letter from the Chamber of Commerce stating the need for such an organization. Robert Troutmann announced the support of the Reverend Lloyd Barker, a Southern Baptist minister who was then chairing the Memphis Ministerial Association. The Interim Board asked those assembled to endorse MIFA, and to encourage their Memphis clergy and congregations to support and provide funds to launch the new organization. The budget was presented, fact sheets distributed, and a panel of three answered questions.
For the next year the Interim Board continued to meet twice monthly, identifying their target membership and struggling to recruit new congregations and members. Steps were taken to begin seeking funds. Proposals were written, including one to the Meeman Foundation.
A meeting chaired by Waddy West was held at Holy Communion Episcopal Church on April 12, 1969, with over one hundred persons attending. The program was a presentation on urban problems: the Reverend Robert Troutmann and social worker Elizabeth Poole discussed assistance to juvenile delinquents, and volunteer community leader Myra Dreifus informed the group about hungry children in the city's public schools. A committee headed by Autry Parker was appointed to work on problems of hunger in the local community.
At the April Board meeting there were also changes in the by-laws to permit judicatories to vote. This had not formerly been allowed for fear that they would dominate the new organization, but it was now recognized that their complete participation was needed. Another change in rules encouraged membership by persons who had no connection with any member entity, meaning that persons who were involved in the community in secular agencies could now become board members of MIFA. This reflected the realization that as the organization attempted to establish itself in a community often unreceptive to its goals, it needed to seek support from all areas.
Members of MIFA at that time were the Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and Methodist judicatories; three groups, the Board of Missions of the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Planning Committee, and Barth House, the Episcopal student center at Memphis State University; a number of individuals called “Friends of MIFA” and eight congregations, three Catholic, St. Mary's, St, Peter's, and St. Patrick's; one Episcopalian, St. Mary's; two Methodist, First and Centenary; African Methodist Episcopal; and Second Baptist.
Based on the experience of a similar organization in Kansas City, MIFA's founders had originally envisioned a membership composed of congregations. They were unsuccessful, however, in persuading large numbers of congregations to vote and join. There are several possible explanations for this: many congregations felt that while they might be willing to join as individuals, or through a group, they were opposed to the whole congregation's commitment to a program which the individual congregation was not able to control. Waddy West, one of those whose job it was to convince congregations to join, says that he and the other members of his committee met with little success because “governing bodies were reluctant to commit when they were unsure of what the organization stood for. The idea of joining together was new, as was having a central voice that would speak for all. Churches were frightened of this. The National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches were controversial, and this idea was linked in their minds with that.”
To attorney Rowlett Scott, who was a close friend and parishioner of Dean Dimmick's, going to Episcopal vestries to ask them to join was “a strange experience. Their response was: 'Prove to us that this isn't some Communist social action plot.' We were not asking for much money, but people did not want to join.”
This reaction surprised Waddy West, Walk Jones, and Frank Campbell as they tried to recruit congregations as MIFA members. Campbell felt that “if the religious community had any meaning, religion had to say something about social issues. Memphis is supposed to be a city of churches and synagogues. Why weren't they speaking out or acting?” He and his partner on the committee, Father Mark Geary talked to vestries and diocesan level groups without results. He admits he had not known “how tough it would be.”
Dr. Peter Takayama believes that another factor inhibiting congregational membership in MIFA in the beginning was the lingering specter of race: “To many people ecumenical meant interracial, and was immediately controversial. Black church members regarded MIFA as just another White-sponsored organization which would do little to affect social problems. The White community saw MIFA as liberal, aggressive, while the Black community saw it as being innocuous.” He quotes one Memphian's opinion: “It's hard to grow crops in clay, and hard to grow MIFA in Memphis.”
Like those of most new organizations, MIFA's beginnings were tenuous and fraught with peril. Conceived in order to give churches a vehicle for expression as one voice instead of many, and for accomplishing some things together which they were unable to do alone for the needy of the city, MIFA brought to Memphis a new conception of meeting social and urban problems.
Annabelle Whittemore cites a positive factor in Memphis's being “the last bastion for regular church attendance with repeated reminders from the pulpit of the church's obligations to help the poor.” Dean Dimmick and other religious leaders at that time asserted that lay people could accomplish more in social action than could the clergy. “These messages,” says Mrs. Whittemore, “gave us the courage and energy to persevere.”
Bishop Gates says, and most of those who have been consulted about the early days of MIFA agree, that it took a while for MIFA “to work out its identity and purpose. It grew by fits and starts.”
At the meeting of the Interim Board on April 30th, Frank Campbell reported that over $30,000 had been raised, largely from the Meeman Foundation, the Presbyterian Church, U.S., and the United Methodist Church. These funds provided the selection and hiring of an executive director. Margaret Dichtel, chairman of the selection committee, worked with Frank McRae and in May, 1968, they hired the Reverend Berkley Poole, from Jackson, Tennessee.
Poole remembers that when he came as full-time director there were “two elements on the board; one wanted MIFA to be a bridge among churches, the other wanted much more presence in social concerns. The latter is what appealed most to me.” When he arrived, he found there was no mandate for MIFA's direction. The identity of the organization was still uncertain. He feels now, in retrospect, that he was attempting an unreasonable and impossible task: to “be in the front lines, and still raise money. To be a reconciling presence in the community is always a dangerous position.”
Poole's analysis is shared by others who participated in those times. Frank Campbell recalls MIFA's “great struggle to achieve credibility in the beginning. There was suspicion of a brand-new idea. People were hesitant in dealing with what they perceived to be do-gooders.” He thinks that the conception of MIFA as a “behind-the-scenes enabler” created a situation that was not viable because “there is no way to get support for an invisible entity.”
There was a problem, as well, in the fact that the people who created MIFA, talented, well-motivated, and energetic as they were, could not carry their churches along with them. Support came, not from local churches, primarily, but from a local foundation and from the national church organizations outside of Memphis.
MIFA rented its first office in May, 1969. It was one room at 43 South Cleveland, a space Frank Campbell describes as “tiny and dingy.” Walk Jones, second Vice President of the first MIFA Board of Directors speaks of those early days as “hard times. MIFA was broke, and involved in activities that were not popular.”
Among those activities bravely undertaken in 1970 was a committee on Improving Police Community Relations, an effort prompted by an unusually large number of police killings of Black youths. Jones tried diligently to find a businessman who would chair such a meeting, to no avail. In spite of strong urging by Police Commissioner Frank Hallowman and the Chief of Police Henry Lux not to hold the meeting, MIFA proceeded as planned with Jones himself chairing the meeting, which was peaceful. In the face of open and decided opposition in the community, the committee was unable to accomplish its goals, however, disbanded.
More successful was an Afro-American Studies Conference held at Memphis State University and co-sponsored with MIFA by their history department, the University Campus Chaplain Association, the Catholic Diocese, Education Office of the Episcopal Church, an agency of the Methodist Church, Memphis and Shelby County Human Relations Commission, and private individuals. Father William Greenspun was MIFA's representative in charge of the program. Although Poole says that some Board members felt threatened by the conference, it was attended by about two hundred persons, and was judged to have made a contribution.
On January 30-31, 1971, MIFA sponsored an Orientation to the City for new clergy. It was organized by the Reverend Ed Goode, United Church of Christ minister, and staffed by ACTS Director Jones and his assistant, the Reverend Ted MacEachern. The Reverend Tom Kirk, who attended along with some members of his Catholic parish, says the conference inspired determination to do something to stop White flight from established city neighborhoods. MIFA became actively involved in stabilizing such a neighborhood in the Vollentine Evergreen Community Association, VECA. Poole says he acted as “the catalyst, the facilitator. MIFA was the midwife for VECA.”
A MIFA Task Force on Juvenile Delinquency, led by the Reverend Gid Smith, then Associate Pastor of First United Methodist Church, was designed to help stabilize students returning from state correctional schools. MIFA helped the Fund for Needy School Children's efforts to match churches with public schools in providing services for poor students.
Two newsletters were published during MIFA's initial year, one devoted to facts about poverty in Memphis and the Mid-South, and another dealing with attitudes and factors that could either ease or block Black-White relations.
The first two years of its existence gave little indication of what MIFA was to eventually become, according to Frank McRae: “We were weak and limited. We were referred to as Mafia, not as MIFA. We knew we were doing band-aid work, but that was all the power we had.” Meeman Foundation funds began to run out, indicating a financial crisis and, in June of 1971, Berkeley Poole resigned as Executive Director to return to pastoral work.
The phoenix phenomenon
The Reverend Frank McRae recalls a speech he made during that time of crisis at the University Interfaith Center on Court, the location to which MIFA had moved. He said that MIFA was out of money and stagnant, and he pronounced it dead. Following his speech he walked out, which, he reports, produced a result opposite to what he expected. The MIFA board moved to again seek the advice of William Jones of ACTS to help in deciding whether MIFA should disband or reorganize. Jones recommended that a new director be hired to begin in March, 1972.
It was MIFA's good fortune that among applicants for the job was Gid Smith, Associate Pastor for First United Methodist Church, who began at that time to realize that he wanted “more action orientation and an urban ministry.” McRae, who hired him, refers to him as “a second generation urban person, having grown up in the 60's.” Smith was hired on a part-time basis with the understanding that he had six months to achieve credibility, to convince church leaders to join the organization, and to produce “action, and short-term, clear winners.” There was no clearly defined model of the organization which Smith was now called upon to create. Smith says he felt that both he and the Board were “taking a chance.”
The chance was more on Smith's part than that of the Board of Directors, however, since his contract stated: “It is understood and agreed upon that at the time this contract is entered into MIFA does not have on hand funds or commitments to pay the compensation and benefits described above for the full term of your employment, and that it will be the mutual responsibility of you and MIFA to raise sufficient funds to meet the operating needs of MIFA during the term of your employment, including payment to you of said compensation and benefits.”
It is the opinion of all sources consulted that the most significant event that caused MIFA to live, when even its most sincere supporters were ready to pronounce it dead, was the fortuitous hiring of Gid Smith. It is his leadership, his unsentimental but uncompromising concern for the needy, and his “genius for organization,” to quote the Reverend James Holmes, all demonstrated from his initial assumption of office, that made the difference between death and life, stagnation and growth, vacillation and positive action for MIFA.
As soon as Smith began to work in March, 1972, the MIFA Board of Directors met at the Holy Communion Church in an all-day session to develop priorities and broad objectives. By June, Smith became the full-time director of MIFA. He began to meet the challenge of the six-month trial period by first finding people in the community whose involvement with the frail MIFA would lend it some credibility. He met with lay church leaders to convince them that MIFA could help meet real needs in the community and began to win their approval and support.
During the same year, the MIFA office moved from the outgrown room at the University Interfaith Center to the Catholic Diocese of Memphis, where Bishop Carroll T. Dozier donated renovated space, utilities and telephones. Robert Schaedle, a Catholic layman, was treasurer of the MIFA Board, the first ecumenical organization in which he had worked. He found that his associates on the board were “genuine and concerned, and wanted the benefit of all.” He points out that Bishop Dozier was very influential and “saw things from outside of Memphis, and felt things could be done that Memphians could not imagine.” The commitment of Bishop Dozier to MIFA was of great importance in the spurt of growth that now began.
Aware of his six month deadline, Smith began to work urgently to establish a strong organizational foundation for MIFA. He found a much-needed basis of support in the well-established clergy. The Reverend F. Ray Riddle, Executive Secretary of Memphis Presbytery, began to meet regularly with Bishop Dozier and Methodist Bishop Ellis Finger to have lunch and compare notes. It was, he says, “a top level meeting, brought together for the benefit of MIFA, and for mutual support, and we were gratified to see results beginning to come.”
Another highly regarded clergyman recruited by Smith was Dr. Lloyd Ramer, pastor of St. Luke's United Methodist Church. Ramer speaks of “rough times in the beginning, when there was a very shaky organization, especially financially. But three or four ministers believed all along it would survive.” Along with Riddle, Ramer hosted lunches, inviting other clergymen to try to influence more churches to join. Ramer felt “MIFA was the most viable organization in the city where churches could work together. It was an outstanding effort.” The only way to get politicians to listen to religious leaders, he believed, was “to work together, to speak to them with one voice. Religion had little place in the leadership structure of Memphis, which differed in this respect from other cities where I had served. In Memphis, people were upset when ministers took a stand in the sanitation strike, feeling this was not the proper place or function of religion. Here, ministers had no influence in what was going on, served on no committees making decisions for the city.” He felt that MIFA offered the best available opportunity to change that situation.
In his quest to surround himself with like-minded, concerned people, Smith hired Julia Allen, former MIFA Board member, as administrative assistant. Because of her commitment to service and long-term connections in the religious community, Allen was a vital part of the forward movement of MIFA. In addition to typing and bookkeeping, she published a newsletter, recruiting volunteers from many different churches to help in its distribution. She recalls that “in the beginning, Gid had to work at healing divisions on the board, which he was able to do with great success.” She reveals her own motivation in working so effectively for MIFA when she says: “My hope was for better race relations. I felt a better Memphis rested on working together.” Ecumenism and inter-faith actions were also important to her, and she was confident that “the vision would grow as MIFA stretched it.”
Although Jewish representatives had not initially belonged to MIFA because it was instigated by an association of churches, many of them had always supported the MIFA concept, and from the beginning their participation was solicited. Allen says the with the addition of Jewish members, “MIFA became interfaith, not interdenomination. It cleared the way for the discussion of larger issues.”
To the Reverend Tudor Jones, “The success of MIFA was due to gifted leaders like Edmund Orgill and Rabbi James Wax.” While Wax disavows any role in MIFA's origins or success, Gid Smith points out that “MIFA stands on the shoulders of men like Rabbi Wax,” and Wax himself admits: “I was always interested in trying to bring the community together.”
As the end of the six-month trial period approached, Smith had demonstrated that he had the determination, skill, and vision to make MIFA a positive force in the community. A good beginning had been made. There was credibility and congeniality on the board, some financial resources were in place, and there was a growing feeling of hopefulness. Although MIFA was to undergo many changes before it achieved mature shape and form, it seemed apparent that Smith could provide the leadership to create a viable, ecumenical, interfaith organization that could offer the religious community, as well as other concerned individuals and groups, a way to meet human needs. The decision was made to go forward.
The Smith-Dempsey partnership
Bob Dempsey recalls that it was Dr. John K. Johnson, Presbyterian minister at the University of Tennessee Interfaith Center, who “maneuvered Gid and me together.” Dempsey soon became involved in MIFA activities and on July 1, 1973, joined the MIFA staff as Co-Director.
It is characteristic of both Smith and Dempsey that each gives credit to the other for the changes that now began to occur in MIFA. Julia Allen says, “Bob Dempsey was the turning point of moving from a church organization to the vehicle through which change occurs. Bob brought strategies of dealing with community leaders and government. He plows the ground a long time ahead.” The Reverend Dr. James Hatley of Second Baptist Church, a board member in the early 70's says: “Bob was a good grantsman, and Gid was good in meeting people and organizing structures. They were a good team.” Dempsey puts it this way: “When Gid and I began to work together as a team, the talking stage was over.”
Smith and Dempsey were different in their approaches and complimented each other in ways that contributed creatively to what MIFA became. Smith describes himself as “a block builder who likes to proceed step by step,” while Dempsey, he describes as “a visionary with an all-encompassing view of the present and future.” In trying to develop ways to improve the community, Smith says: “Bob would ask, 'What is the world like?' I would ask, 'What can we accomplish?'” Both the general and the particular were thus considered but were always deeply concerned about the welfare of those in need in the community. According to Julia Allen's statement, “MIFA has always had heart, has always cared about people, has never been cold-blooded. Gid and Bob, each in his own way, contributed to that over-all point of view.”
Jeanne Tacket, later MIFA's first Associate Executive Director, attributes MIFA's development to “an ongoing dialogue that took place between Smith and Dempsey. They had sharp debates, trying to understand the world they had to deal with and what it could become in the future. The result of their working together was an organizational structure and a process that shaped MIFA.”
In the beginning, Smith and Dempsey shared the risk involved in embarking on any project, and both were willing to work any additional hours required to see it through. The Board of Directors “did not own the risk, because they came largely as representatives of their faiths,” says Smith. He remembers the first time he and Dempsey left town together to attend a housing convention. It seemed momentus to them to believe that the organization could continue to function without their physical presence on the scene, so intimately were they connected with it, and so strongly did they feel their responsibility.
In June, 1973, through the auspices of Bishop Dozier, MIFA received a grant of $10,000 from the Raskob Foundation to create an Institute of Peace and Justice. The purpose of the grant was “to focus the attention of Memphis on its religious heritage and its resources for creating a better future.” To accomplish this, under the leadership of Dr. Jeff Gros of Christian Brothers College, three scholars, Drs. Frances Loring, Gerald Vander Haar, and David Thomasma wrote “A New Vision and A New Will for Memphis,” which became a contribution by MIFA to the religious community as a whole. In an effort to fulfill MIFA's mission of educating the public about social issues and religious responses to them, it included a description of Memphis, with both its problems and its assets. It also contained a strategy for changing attitudes to move people to action.
MIFA began to categorize its programs either as delivery of service, or as systematic change. Areas of ministry were adopted by the board: religious affairs, education, transportation, health, housing, welfare, human rights, law and economics. Program development progressed from feasibility through planning, development, start-up, and operation. In each phase, provider, consumer, financial and legal ramifications were considered. This was “a business-like system,” says Dempsey, “the application of which provided a substantial basis for evaluating program possibilities.”
Peter Takayama writes that while the principal focus of programs during MIFA's initial period was communication, beginning in 1973 the emphasis shifted to direct action. The early leaders, he states, “were attempting to put out fires. Now the urgent atmosphere had passed, giving way to careful, sustained efforts to solve urban problems.”
While Smith and Dempsey were carving out a niche for MIFA in the community, they were at the same time building the spirit of cooperation among churches and board members. Olin Atkins, a board member when MIFA was in those formative stages, speaks of “the quality people who were on the board, all with good motivation.” Jeanne Dreifus, who was on the board as a representative of the Jewish Community Relations Council, an organization that includes all of the synagogues in Memphis in addition to other Jewish organizations and individuals, believes that the friendships formed during that time were important, and have endured to benefit the city ever since. She feels that “MIFA's most obvious characteristic it its creativity, a wonderful step in the right direction. Now, it is not strange for churches to work together, whereas then, it was. MIFA has inspired other groups to work together.”
The 1973 MIFA Board had new members who represented broader and more diverse religious participation. Commenting on this, Mattie Sengstacke, Black civil rights activist, community leader, and early MIFA board member says she “liked MIFA's ecumenical basis, and felt something good had to come from so many diverse groups working together.”
The sincere bi-racial nature of the MIFA board has been noted by several of its Black members. Inez Brooks, who represented Church Women United, reports that she had few chances for the kind of relationship she experienced with Whites on the MIFA board, who “reinforced the belief that we can all work together.” Addie Golden, appointed by the Reverend James Lawson to represent the United Methodist Church, had had interracial working experiences in New York City, but felt that Memphis, which was her home town, was totally segregated. She found, however, that “those men on that MIFA Board asked, 'What do we have in common?' not 'what do we have that is different?' MIFA was one of the best things that happened.”
In addition to building a strong interfaith, diverse Board of Directors, and creating a system for project development, another early vital goal of Smith and Dempsey was to build a sound support structure for MIFA.
The VISTA impact
In July, 1974, a contract was awarded to MIFA by the federal government for VISTAs or Volunteers in Service to America. Sometimes called “the arms and legs of MIFA” these volunteers provided the means of initiating new programs or of supporting existing ones.
Often referred to as the domestic Peace Corps, VISTA usually recruited college students to go into areas of poverty and deprivation to help Americans improve their lives and skills. MIFA changed this pattern by recruiting volunteers who were mostly well-educated, mature women with volunteer experience and an orientation toward action.
The choice of Julia Allen as the first VISTA recruiter was a decision that destined the project for positive results. The first class of VISTAs set the pattern. Nina Katz, a member of that initial group, recalls that Allen told them, “We need all your skills and resources.” Ina Fitzgerald remembers, “We were promised low pay and long hours.” Through the VISTA program, volunteers are so called, because although they are paid a small living stipend, that amount is not intended to be compensation for the work accomplished.
Dempsey says VISTAs are “the key to MIFA's success…people who are intelligent, mature, creative, and with initiative. They are people who wanted to do things.”
Frank McRae adds “Socialites are now servant ministers, and that changes attitudes. It has legitimized urban ministry in Memphis, and makes it easier for the rest of us to do urban ministry in the city. Gid is now in the position to bless new things. MIFA has become the standard of legitimacy.”
Smith believes the program worked well because of the caliber of the VISTA volunteers who, he says, were presented with a program and a challenge and then were allowed to “run with it” with minimal supervision. Many have remained actively involved in MIFA as employees or as volunteers long after their VISTA terms expired.
In VISTA training, Jean Watson learned the value of fiscal accountability as it relates to the credibility of an organization. As a result, she later became the Director of MIFA's Administrative Services.
As a VISTA, Sybil Tucker developed East Senior Center, then went on to become the VISTA supervisor and a MIFA Associate Executive Director. In this role, she currently oversees all the MIFA programs that serve senior citizens. VISTAs also helped to design and develop the Memphis Food Bank, the Mid-South Senior newspaper, Emergency Homes for Families; in fact, essentially every program at MIFA during the VISTA years has been touched by their skills and services.
The VISTA program as it was operated by MIFA became a model and was emulated across the country. ACTION, the federal agency supervising the program, rewarded its effectiveness by increasing the number of volunteers allotted to as many as thirty-five and by continuing to place VISTAs with MIFA for an unprecedented thirteen years.
The ice is broken
In the early days while struggling to build a sound financial base for MIFA, Smith and Dempsey wrote and submitted proposal after proposal to federal agencies, local foundations, and any other source they could find. Together they wrote grants in profusion, convinced that as soon as they “broke the ice” and received an initial grant, they could prove their ability to administer it and other grants would follow. In this area, their timing was fortuitous. The federal government at that time was allocating funds to programs that were designed to eliminate poverty. Termed the “War on Poverty”, this financial commitment coincided with MIFA's proposals to improve the lives of people in need.
The first federally funded grant to MIFA was awarded for Project MEET transportation marking the happy ending to the period of writing and submitting grant after grant with no results. The Memphis Presbytery provided the matching funds.
Operation of the program began July 1, 1974, with Paul Curry driving the Salvation Army bus to transport elderly persons to Project MEET congregate meal sites where a nutritious lunch was provided and other services offered. When Roseann Botts moved from the VISTA roster to the Transportation payroll as Coordinator of this program, the precedent was established for the selection of MIFA program managers from the VISTA ranks. Eventually six buses were loaned to the program during the week by churches and community organizations and 500 elderly were served each month. Volunteers were recruited to help participants on and off the buses.
With this project, the period of high hopes and empty coffers began to ease, although it was far from over. This was an important landmark, proving that MIFA could handle a sizable project efficiently and manage the stringent accounting regulations required by the federal government. It was also a “learning ground for the management of future grants,” say Dempsey.
From the initial commitment of taking participants to congregate meal sites, MIFA Transit has expanded to include a fleet of sixty vehicles serving four counties with transportation services for the elderly, the ill, and the handicapped.
One of Dempsey's interests at the University Interfaith Center was to arrange medical help for the poor. Nationwide, the concept of health maintenance organization was being promoted as a vehicle for bringing quality health care to more people. Businessmen and physicians in Memphis were generally opposed to this idea, but Dempsey defined the concept and recruited MIFA board member the Reverend Lloyd Ramer to head a committee to try to establish one in the city. He worked with Dempsey in submitting a grant application to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare to study the feasibility of a Health Maintenance Organization (HMO) in Memphis.
In November, 1974, MIFA was awarded a grant of $49,992 to conduct such a study. With the help of VISTAs Sybil Tucker and Barbara Wilson, Bob Dempsey set out to determine the feasibility of a private, county-wide, prepaid comprehensive health system. That study concluded that the development of a local HMO should go forward, and additional funding was awarded by HEW.
One of the program development tasks was to recruit a board for the HMO that would represent labor, industry, consumer groups, and the medical community. Businessman Elder Shearon, the first chairman of the HMO board, took the lead in finding these people. Barbara Wilson remembers that this was not an easy task but, Shearon “paved the way by finding people who were willing to listen.”
After several years of development, the HMO of Tennessee, Inc. was incorporated and spun off from MIFA as a separate entity. This was a significant accomplishment of MIFA, representing as it did a permanent change in a system that effects the lives of many by providing options in the way health care is delivered. The HMO is now owned by Pru-Care, and continues to provide pre-paid health care to this community.
In February, 1975, MIFA moved its offices to 149 Monroe. The organization had outgrown its space at the Catholic Diocese, so board Chairman, the Reverend Harold Barrett, asked Lewis McKee (later Board Chairman of the Memphis Food Bank) to find a suitable new location, which they obtained rent-free from Boyle Investment Company in a building which housed the Chamber of Commerce at the corner of Monroe and 2nd Street.
That year, Jeanne Tacket began her association with MIFA, coming, as have many of its other leaders, as a VISTA volunteer. With a master's degree in public administration, she worked closely with Smith and Dempsey, learning the methods of planning and organization they had developed. Smith says that Tacket “got MIFA into business in a caring, thorough, nurturing way”, and all who have profited from her presence would agree without reservation. Tacket reflects: “There is something special about working with MIFA. I think it is because staff, both paid and volunteer, are nurtured, not stifled, and each comes to feel that his work makes a difference in the lives of people.”
In October, 1975, MIFA's charter was amended to include this addendum to the purpose: “It shall serve as an agency to deliver services in area of social services, health, education, housing, transportation, and any other areas appropriate to the purpose of MIFA.” This was a change in emphasis from the original purpose, which stressed research, dissemination of information, and education, with service mentioned briefly last.
Some people were concerned that the shift to delivery of services might dilute the resolve to effect changes in the system. Father John Batson discusses the fact that “the extensive involvement of MIFA in the delivery of human services has sometimes been questioned,” but he feels that this involvement does not preclude being an agent for change. He argues, in fact that “you can be an advocate for human needs that are not being met if you are already providing a service that gives you instant credibility.” James Holmes agrees with this: “In a subtle way, the system has been changed by MIFA, as the delivery of services to the poor has been modified.”
In 1975, MIFA received a grant from the Delta Area Agency for a Tax Rebate for the Elderly project. The law permitted rebates to elderly homeowners with limited incomes, but the homebound had no way to participate. VISTAs Virginia Hiett, Virginia Klettner, Bridget Church, Rita Seigle, Beverly Sims and Diane Wellford set out to reach these isolated seniors and document their eligibility. Armed with early models of portable copiers in big black suitcases, they would go into a home, set the machine on the bed, and watch birth certificates, etc. disappear into the black box, hoping that readable, though smudgy copies would come out on the other side. After the major sign-up had taken place, the program was continued by the State office for outgoing enrollment.
The City Department of Community Development awarded a two-year grant in 1975 to rehabilitate the homes of low-income homeowners who had been granted hardship waivers. Health and safety violations in ninety homes were corrected under this program.
MIFA served as the coordinating agency in the Vietnamese Resettlement Project begun in November, 1975. A committee was formed to coordinate local efforts to secure sponsors, jobs, housing and other assistance for the refugees. VISTAs Tharon Kirk, Betty Smith, Sybil Tucker, and Joanne Brown worked with the committee, agencies, churches and individuals to provide maximum services for the refugees with a minimum of duplication. After the initial influx of refugees had been served, Catholic Charities and other agencies assumed the responsibility for ongoing resettlement efforts.
In seeking to concentrate resources on emerging needs and critical services, MIFA constantly evaluates and modifies its relationship to programs. The Refugee Resettlement and Tax Rebate programs are examples of MIFA initiating and operating programs until the need has been largely met, then turning them over to other agencies to continue.
As part of MIFA's on-going program evaluation, some were phased out if found to be impractical or ineffective. Others were terminated at the end of the contract period. Some programs, such as the Memphis Literacy Council, were administered by MIFA with the understanding that they would eventually become independent. In this case MIFA provided support for the board and VISTAs to help administer the project. The council is now firmly established in the community and Nina Katz, one the original VISTA workers, still serves as public relations director. Another example of an agency that was initiated by MIFA and developed as a separate entity, is the Housing Opportunities Corporation. This organization continues to function in the community as a means of assuring equality and lack of discrimination in local housing.
Other programs have begun as separate projects and later became a part of MIFA. An example of this is the Churches and Social Services Fund (CSSF), established in 1972 by some of the same concerned people who were involved in MIFA. The fund was designed to help ministers respond most effectively with their limited emergency resources for helping people in need.
The story that is told, which may be apocryphal, is that a Mrs. Evans, who developed a compelling, heart-wrenching story of need, approached many different ministers with her tale of woe, and was usually rewarded with money by each of them to solve the same problem. In a minister's meeting, several of them began to compare experiences, and realized for the first time that they were being duped by a skillful beggar. A more sensible way to dispense their resources would be to have clients screened by someone trained to recognize real need. Not only would this eliminate duplication and make the funds stretch further, but it would also allow the client more dignity. CSSF was organized to provide such a service on behalf of many caring congregations.
VISTAs Virginia Burnett was assigned by MIFA in 1975 to assist the CSSF Board in enlisting church aid and in setting up food pantries and clothes closets. CSSF eventually became a MIFA program and the name was changed to Churches and Synagogues Serving Families. The acronym, CSSF was retained however, and in 1988 was changed to CASES, Churches And Synagogues Emergency Services.
CASES provided a central place, MIFA, where churches and synagogues can refer people with emergency needs. These persons are screened by a social worker and may then receive rent or utility assistance, and food or clothing. This system has been broadened and refined over the years. CASES funds may pay for medicines and unusual emergency needs and provide essential matching funds for other grants that are designated for mortgage, rent, or utility assistance.
CASES has also nurtured and supported the Christmas Store. The first Christmas Store was organized in 1975 by Vicki Bolton, a case worker for the Tennessee Department of Human Services, who was frustrated with the awkwardness of a system where well-meaning donors took presents to the home of needy children. At the Christmas Store, parents, screened by the Department of Human Services, select two new toys for each of their children and then present the gifts themselves. “We feel,” said Bolton, “that every child should have something new and special at Christmas, and that the gift should come from the parent or Santa, not from a stranger coming to the home.” Thus, the Christmas joy for needy children has been wrapped in dignity.
In 1987, the Christmas Store provided new toys to over 15,000 children. As in many MIFA programs, success is heavily dependent on volunteer workers and individual contributions.
The last half of the 70s
For several years, the Memphis social services community had recognized the need to provide home delivered meals to shut-ins. With potential clients scattered throughout the area, the problems of cost and logistics seemed insurmountable.
When the Delta Area Agency on Aging issued a request for proposals, MIFA responded with a Home Delivered Meals program. The challenge was to design a cost effective system that could deliver a nutritionally balanced hot noon meal to low income elderly in Shelby, Tipton, Lauderdale and Fayette counties. The MIFA proposal was built on the availability of VISTAs and the conviction that a large corps of volunteers could be recruited to deliver the meals.
MIFA was awarded the grant in 1976. Under a subcontract with Lutheran Social Services, the same meal prepared for Project MEET Congregate sites was packaged in individual servings and delivered to Emmanuel Presbyterian Church where volunteers picked up meals for their routes.
The program now uses some 300 volunteer deliverers a week and has been so successful that MIFA is often identified in the community with Home Delivered Meals and the volunteers are often MIFA's most vocal advocates.
For many elderly recipients the volunteer's visit is the only outside contact in an otherwise isolated, lonely existence. The volunteer may also be a link to other community services, reporting and referring changes in the client's condition. Or the volunteer may be able to help on the spot. VISTA volunteer Russell Doss found his elderly, homebound client unable to walk. When he asked to see her feet, he discovered that her toenails had grown so long that they were preventing locomotion. Getting these toenails cut allowed her to get around again.
In 1981 when Lutheran Social Services determined that they would no longer operate Project MEET, the congregate meal program, MIFA was awarded the contract and Virginia Hiett was named Director of MIFA Meals which incorporated the two programs. Now Sharon Kraebber, Director of MIFA Meals, oversees the production and distribution of 3,000 meals a day, 1300 to home delivered meal clients and 1700 to seniors at 43 congregate meal sites.
MIFA embarked upon an educational project in September, 1976, when it received a grant from the Tennessee Committee for the Humanities for “Public Policy and Memphis Neighborhoods.” The purpose of this grant was to involve residents in discovering the history of their neighborhood and the impact of public policy on it. This program produced histories of eight neighborhoods, researched and written by historians Peggy Jamison and Betty Tilley, assisted by a group of dedicated VISTAs. Oral history interviews with many residents of the neighborhoods created an awareness of heritage and citizen responsibility. A series of forty radio programs based on this material was produced under the guidance of the Reverend Chuck Swann, who had assisted MIFA with media projects since the early 70's, and was broadcast over stations WLYX and WEVL. The histories provide a basis for neighborhood pride and cohesion, and remain a valuable resource for the city.
A subsequent grant from the Tennessee Committee for Humanities, “Our Changing City: Cause and Effect,” demonstrated how citizens can influence the course of local events by studying and acting on issues. Among issues studied were the Hollywood Dump, the future of Shelby Farms, and neighborhood zoning. Historian Emily Ruch and Anthropologist Bridget Ciarmitaro researched these issues and helped neighborhood groups address these problems.
Consistent with the emphasis on neighborhoods was the Mott Foundation grant for a Community Education project begun October 1, 1978, and directed by Vida Andersen. Its purpose was to open neighborhood schools to provide educational activities for all ages. There was consultation with the Better Schools Committee representatives Frances Coe and Ina Fitzgerald who were also concerned with community education. At a time when busing was removing children from their own neighborhoods, the MIFA project demonstrated how schools could retain their neighborhood identities by serving others who lived there.
Out of the background experience of these neighborhood projects, the MIFA Center for Neighborhoods arose, originally directed by Vida Andersen, now by Janis Foster. This center located in the historic George Collins Love House, is a joint effort of MIFA and the City of Memphis to support neighborhood organizations and community improvement. The Center sponsors workshops relating to the specific needs of neighborhoods, fosters communication between neighborhood leaders, and encourages economic revitalization.
The Center also sponsors City Camp, a week-long urban adventure for young people, and Neighborfest, and all day celebration of the rich diversity among the city's neighborhoods.
In December, 1986, the Center embarked upon a program to encourage the private or public sector to adopt a neighborhood. So far eight such adoptions have occurred including a match between LeMoyne Owen College and the Memphis Housing Authority's LeMoyne Gardens housing project. The Center works with both parties to make the adoption effective.
Local Black history was the object of 1970s research by VISTAs Marjean Kremer and Selma Lewis. In an effort to understand causes of poverty, and finding a dearth of written materials, they conducted over two hundred oral interviews of elderly Blacks. Tapes of these interviews are available at the Memphis Public Library. A biographical novel, The Angel of Beale Street, was written by Kremer and Lewis and published by St. Luke's Press in 1986 as a result of this research.
Programs for senior citizens have been significant to MIFA's history. During the 70's, national attention was focused on this population with the passage of the Older Americans Act. Responding to their special needs, MIFA has initiated, participated in, and operated many programs to enhance the lives of the elderly. Nutrition, transportation, and tax rebate services have already been mentioned.
Two Senior Citizens Centers were established by MIFA. East Senior Center was founded in 1978 and directed by Sybil Tucker. It was located at East High School and at Berclair School until those schools needed the space; finally it found its present home at Highland and Tutwiler. Metro Senior Center was developed by First United Methodist Church in its location at Poplar and Second. Both centers provide companionship, recreation, hot noon meals, and valuable instruction to about 170 clients each day.
With the rapid growth of new kinds of senior housing, elderly people were faced with confusing alternatives. MIFA saw a role in helping seniors sort out new ideas like high rise, congregate and life care, and to assist them in making the best choice of living arrangements. The Delta Area Agency on Aging awarded MIFA a grant for Project HOPE (Housing Opportunities for the Elderly) and Lauren Hagen was named coordinator. Seniors were provided information and counseling, taken to look at various housing options, and given assistance with necessary paper work.
In 1978 MIFA brought together managers of senior housing facilities to form Home (Housing Owners and Managers for the Elderly) to address common problems and to find ways of improving services in congregate living facilities.
The Tennessee Housing Development Agency had a Homeownership Program to provide loans to finance homes for low income buyers at low interest rates. In 1978 THDA contracted with MIFA to be a counseling agent for this program and Margaret Ryan was hired as the Counselor. From this part-time assignment, Ryan rapidly assumed greater responsibilities at MIFA as her talents and potential were recognized.
The MIFA offices moved in the summer of 1978 from Monroe to another downtown location, First Presbyterian Church at 166 A Poplar. MIFA was delighted to retain a downtown identity, and the association with the church was compatible. The staff fondly remembers the excellent meals provided downstairs at the Civic Center Culinary Community Club.
Another significant event took place at the end of the 70's when Bob Dempsey resigned as Associate Director in order to embark on the practice of law, for which he had been studying at night. His imprint on the organization remains indelible. His departure from the daily operation of MIFA left Smith alone at the head of the growing and maturing organization. But by this time there was a degree of stability, a sense of direction, and confidence in MIFAs developed policies and procedures.
In a choice typical of Gid Smith's sensitivity and wisdom in surrounding himself with capable and caring associates, he appointed Jeanne Tacket MIFA's first Associate Executive Director. It was an appointment that boded well for the coming events.
The maturing years
By the 1980s MIFA had assumed a form and shape which, while always open to change, guided its decisions as to policies and programs. In a world of many needs and few resources, MIFA found that the pooling of resources and cooperation with other agencies and groups could create innovative solutions to problems. Thus, during its maturing years it continued to initiate some programs, and assimilate others, spin some off either to other agencies or to an independent existence, and phase some out if no longer needed or effective. In some cases it has sponsored coalitions of agencies to accomplish a jointly-held goal.
Of great importance in MIFA's maturation has been the growth in influence of its Board of Directors. Since its beginning, the commitment of highly qualified people of all races and creeds has strengthened MIFA's stability. In an attempt to further broaden its base, MIFA continues to add lay people with skills in business and financial affairs. The policy continues, as it has always been, to recruit people who share MIFA's commitment to the principle of meeting human needs, and a willingness to change programs as new needs emerge and old ones subside.
It is probably apparent by now that describing MIFA's programs in a little like trying to catch quicksilver in one's hands. Gid Smith says, “As needs change, so do our programs.” There is an ever-changing, elastic quality in the programs themselves. There is constancy in the fact they always fill an unmet need in the community, and there is consistency in the way they are overseen by the MIFA staff. But any listing of current programs would omit many that have been begun, brought to a level of functioning well, and which are now no longer part of the MIFA list. They are, nevertheless, part of the history of MIFA.
Continuing to address basic needs with workable solutions, MIFA expanded its hunger programs in the 1980's. A new source of food was becoming available from wholesalers as a change in the tax structure permitted them to receive tax credit for donations of food to food banks to distribute to agencies feeding the hungry. VISTA volunteer Virginia Dunaway was charged with establishing what would be known as the Memphis Food Bank. Once the challenge was presented, Dunaway began immediately to design the systems that would lead to efficient food distribution; volunteers Elizabeth Boyle, Mary Galbreath, and Missie Pidgeon helped to solicit donations and gather community support. After seven years of growth, it now distributes over 3 million pounds of donated food annually through over two hundred community agencies. Community support for this program is tremendous with over one hundred tons of food donated annually in local food drives; the balance comes from the food industry and the Second Harvest national foodbanking network.
In 1986, the Thomas W. Briggs Foundation recognized Dunaway's outstanding work with the presentation of their annual service award and a $10,000 gift to the Memphis Food Bank. She later became an Associate Executive Director of MIFA overseeing half of its program services.
Coordinated through the CASES (Churches And Synagogues Emergency Services) program of MIFA, twenty-four food pantries and two food collection and packaging sites are located in churches throughout the city. Their purpose it to provide a 3-day emergency supply of food to a family in crisis. Major food drives in the community, held by, among others, Beth Shalom Synagogue, Germantown Cares, and the Presbyterian Pennies for Hunger program helped meet the increasing demand in recent years.
Betsey Reeder, who directs the Food Pantries and Clothes Closets, cites an incident that demonstrates the value of such emergency services: “A young woman came in on a cold winter Friday, actually trembling with fear and hunger. Her husband and two children were outside in an old, beat-up car. She did not know where to turn, or what to do to feed her family. You could visibly witness the shedding of fear as she realized that, with a food basket, they would be able to eat over the weekend. We are here to make sure that that traumatic experience is a little less terrifying, and to help people to get other available assistance.”
Generally accompanying the need for food is the need for clothing. The MIFA Clothes Closet, located in the First United Methodist Church at Poplar and Second, is kept open five days a week by a staff person and volunteers. The closet is stocked with good usable clothes donated by the community, as well as some new clothes given by merchants. The store-like set-up allows clients to come and select two outfits per family member to suit their tastes and meet their needs. Formerly social workers had selected clothes for their needy clients, but in this system, the client “shops” in dignity.
In the 1980s MIFA continues to operate programs designed to enrich the lives of the elderly. The Mid-South Senior, a newspaper funded by the Memphis Delta Area Agency, was begun in November, 1980, by first editor Nancy Wakeman. Now 27,500 copies monthly provide pertinent information, resources, and entertainment targeted toward seniors' special needs. Under current Director Martha Graber, volunteers deliver the free newspapers to over 400 locations throughout the city.
Caregivers help congregations to identify the needs of their elderly homebound members to recruit, train, and assist volunteers in meeting those needs. Skills are developed in direct care services, visitation, shopping, meal preparation, personal and household cares. Funded originally by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, its first director was Rose Wallace.
Share-A-Home is a project that offers a measure of independence to elderly homeowners by matching them with a housemate to provide companionship, security, services, and to share expenses, if appropriate. The program headed by Mimi Carriere and currently makes about 50 such matches a year.
Senior Companions are themselves low-income persons, who are trained by MIFA to care for frail, homebound elderly. This home care enables patients to leave the hospital more quickly or to remain at home instead of in an institution. The Senior Companions receive a small stipend, lunch, transportation, and the joy of helping someone in need.
Coordinated Care is a case management program begun on October 1, 1985. It coordinates the delivery of services to the elderly in Shelby, Fayette, Lauderdale, and Tipton counties. A client's needs are assessed and case management plan is developed by a trained social worker. Volunteer case managers are recruited and trained by MIFA to work with the client in implementing this plan.
Programs relating to emerging needs in the community continued to receive attention during the 1980s. A crisis in the supply of oil caused the price of utilities to rise beyond the ability of many of the poor to pay. In a cooperative venture with the Memphis Light, Gas, and Water Division called Plus 1, donated dollars are collected from utility customers who authorize a dollar or more to be added to their monthly bills. The funds gained are administered by MIFA to provide one-time assistance to families in crisis. This program represents a new way to assist the needy, and its success reveals this community's sensitivity to people in need.
MIFA was selected in the 1980s to administer the Memphis Emergency Assistance Program, funded by the City of Memphis to provide emergency rent, mortgage, and utility assistance. These funds can be used in conjunction with CASES monies which do not have the same restrictive guidelines, thus extending the opportunity to help.
MIFA added to its transportation programs in the 1980s. For seniors, it offers transportation for medical reasons. It operates a rural transportation service in Tipton, Lauderdale, Fayette, and non-urban Shelby Counties. In addition, it transports handicapped children as well as children in foster care. Director Jacqueline Williamson manages a fleet of 60 vehicles and the computerized recordkeeping system.
Included in MIFA programs are some directed toward helping people help themselves. City Slickers was begun in 1982 to provide community service summer jobs to disadvantaged young people. At that time the city had to eliminate many jobs in the areas of maintenance and beautification. The City Slickers began to perform these services while receiving training for jobs they could hold in the future. In 1985 an after-school employment program was begun for City Slickers who received good evaluations in the summer program. Currently about 80 young people can work as City Slickers each summer and the variety of jobs has been expanded, allowing for experience in clerical, computer, social service, and weatherization skills. The program is designed to teach these young people the value of a job. Through City Slickers they earn paychecks, pride, and performance records for a brighter future.
MIFA's Job Bank was established in conjunction with the Memphis Ministers Association to find employment for people screened and recommended by congregations. Job listings are also provided by congregations and their contacts. A recent grant from the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church's Board for Social Ministry Services provides funds to teach job skills to repetitive job seekers. Counseling is provided by peer groups within the churches, giving the client a “buddy” for support as well as a series of training workshops.
A job training schedule is planned to recruit additional companion aides, and to offer a support group for those who are already employed. Peggy Ivy, who has directed all of MIFA's job related services, says, “Our Companion Aides are very caring people, who are truly interested in helping people regain their health. It will be wonderful for them to have this extra support, and it dignifies what they do.”
November, 1983, marked the beginning of Emergency Homes for Families, an innovative program which has brought national praise to MIFA. In an article entitled “Finally, Hope for the Homeless-Five Approaches that Work”, US News and World Report of February 1988 cited this program as one of five in the nation that actually helps the people and the problem. Emergency Homes for Families is innovative in concept and in execution; it was the first program in the area to keep families together in time of crisis and it represents a partnership between HUD, the City of Memphis, MIFA, and area agencies. Originally ten homes were leased from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development for one dollar a year. Later a Presbyterian Church made available a manse, a disbanding agency deeded a large home, and MIFA acquired a four-plex apartment building. The City pays the operating expenses.
In these sixteen properties, families in crisis are given a temporary home for about two months, while staff and sponsors help them work toward a life of independence. Unmarked homes in neighborhoods scattered throughout the city provide dignity as well as shelter during this difficult time. Families must have a sponsoring congregation or social service agency and are accepted on the basis of some expectation of change. Director Marianne Johnson says, “We try not to let a catastrophic event result in chronic homelessness. We hold their hands out of the water until they began to be able to tread.”
This program is a good example of the way MIFA functions. Unused resources are creatively combined with the forces of the religious community or other agencies to meet human needs.
Accountability has been an essential ingredient of MIFA's growth and maturation. Educated early by the need to manage federal grants successfully, MIFA was well grounded in good methods of management. Key to the next step, “step of the art technology,” is Margaret Ryan. She began her career as a volunteer with Home Delivered Meals in 1977. In addition to her involvement in housing counseling, she supervised the VISTA program, worked in Project Hope for the frail elderly, and in the Senior Employment program which evolved into MIFA's Job Bank. In these varied experiences she learned, she says, “how to get a program up and going.”
Ryan's next MIFA task was to work with administration and resources development. She became the second Associate Executive Director in 1981 with responsibilities in those areas. Her role has been to professionalize MIFA's financial affairs, making sure that resources are used most efficiently to help the needy, with the least possible administrative overhead. This accountability stands up to an annual audit to which there has never been an audit exception.
Ryan and her staff recognize that what they do is essential to the functioning of MIFA even though it is behind the scenes and relatively unknown. She says, “Although we who deal with administration do not have direct contact with people in need, nor get the immediate feedback of helping personally, we know that because we are able to keep books and records properly, and can follow mandates of donors and funding sources, which are sometimes complicated, we provide credibility so MIFA can function for the welfare of the community.” She feels that MIFA has arrived at a good balance between structure in administrative procedures and freedom in program areas. Gid Smith puts it another way: “If we err, it is on the side of strictness on the business side, and kindness on the program side. We have a strongly centralized business side, a highly personal service side, and we maintain high accountability.”
MIFA's executive personnel all agree that, to quote Margaret Ryan, “MIFA works because of group effort and commitment.” Throughout the organization one hears the personnel use the phrase “a MIFA person,” and they all understand what that means. A MIFA person cares deeply about his or her program and the people served by it, and is willing to do whatever is required to make it function properly. A MIFA person can work independently, is content to sit at an old desk in makeshift space, saving valuable resources for the program itself. A MIFA person feels nourished by the like-minded group of people around him, and considers himself a member of an extended family, willing to work for the good of the whole.
Virginia Klettner, who began as a VISTA volunteer and has filled many positions at MIFA, currently directing the volunteer program, reveals her feelings about being a “MIFA person” when she says, “As employees, we get much more than we give. We come to see that everyone needs help, at one time or another, and to see how many ways there are to help.” Associate Executive Director Sybil Tucker adds, “The persons who work at MIFA feel that their work has purpose and meaning. Their attitude about their work is contagious. It is wonderful to have co-workers who are talented, interested, intelligent persons intent upon accomplishing goals. I like to feel that the work we are doing is making a difference in the lives of many individuals here in our area. I presently work with our programs for the elderly. For many, the services are helping these persons live a fuller life. Others are able to live in their homes longer. We are truly helping and that makes me glad that I am a part of MIFA.”
A MIFA person can be of any age, of any sex, and of any race. Here, people considered too old to be hired by most organizations or businesses can use their talents and energies to continue making a contribution to the world. It is a place where even children can accomplish volunteer jobs. MIFA was built upon the use of volunteers and they continue to be a vital part of almost every program it administers. Gid Smith says that “many people come to MIFA as volunteers, and remain to make their mark.” The first full-time director of volunteers, Missie Pidgeon, came originally as a volunteer/founder of the Memphis Food Bank. She says, “Without its volunteers, MIFA's doors couldn't open.” Volunteers are essential to MIFA, not only to operate programs for the needy, but also to be its eyes and ears in the community. Volunteers have an extraordinary value in not being staff, because they have the right, even the duty, to be critics. They, better than anyone, can assess the needs of the community, and bring them back to MIFA to be evaluated. And they can let MIFA know if it fails to be what it was intended to be, the religious community's ministers to the needy.”
In the 1980s, it became evident that MIFA needed to raise more funds locally. Originally, Bena Cates, Janie McCrary, Virginia Klettner and Jean Campbell worked with Smith and Ryan to raise funds from the private sector. Soon a full-time development director was needed and Missie Pidgeon was hired for the job. Gid Smith says, “She put MIFA on the map with come constituencies we never could have reached otherwise. Everybody knew and loved her. She comes out of a strong religious motivation, and, bridging the Presbyterian and Catholic communities, she is a one-person ecumenical movement. Missie is a fine example of people from a strong religious tradition giving to MIFA out of their commitment.”
Speaking of her experiences at MIFA, Pidgeon says: “The Volunteer and Resource Development arms of MIFA function with the same human philosophy…people who have a need to serve and give must reach out to people who need their help. MIFA is the bridge connecting the two. We all need each other. That is what volunteering and fund raising are all about.”
Religious roots and branches
Most of MIFA's programs are funded by donations from individuals or corporations, churches or synagogues, foundations or governments, or combinations of several of these sources. While churches and synagogues do not provide the largest percentage of MIFA's funds, religion remains at the heart of the organization. As a vehicle for the Judaeo-Christian injunction to care for the needy, MIFA relies on the support of the religious community not only for money but also for many volunteers who implement the programs.
MIFA maintains a close connection with the religious institutions through the skillful liaison of Jean Campbell, Director of Church/Synagogue Relations, who ensures that churches are informed of the needs of the community, and of ways they can use their resources to meet those needs. A recent survey of MIFA donors reveals that thirty-eight percent of large donors heard about MIFA at their church or synagogue. Church support has grown to include financial contributions from 305 congregations, and endorsement and volunteer commitment from many others.
Included in the list of congregations who support MIFA are several for whom this in an initial venture outside their own denominational concerns. Jean Campbell believes that, “MIFA affords wonderful opportunity for congregations to give service, to live their religious convictions. As I go about the community, I am struck by how similar we are all in our religious beings, in spite of different forms and beliefs. MIFA provides a silent witness to the world as it lives out the biblical injunctions of both the old and the new testaments.”
Both Campbell and Gid Smith are convinced that people genuinely want to help those who are in need, and that MIFA provides them with an opportunity to do so in a way they trust. They cite, as an example, the Christmas Day delivery of Home Delivered Meals, which is always oversubscribed by volunteers.
MIFA moves to 910 Vance
In 1984, expansion of the meals program coincided with the loss of the use of the Cook Convention Center facilities for their preparation. The Freeburg firm was asked to find a location for a kitchen. What they found was a building with kitchen facilities, warehouse space for the Food Bank and room for program administration. This building at 910 Vance, the former home of Robilio's Restaurant and Grocery, met MIFA's needs and the board decided to acquire it.
That year MIFA moved to its first permanent home, which was purchased by virtue of a first-time-ever loan granted by the Memphis Plough Community Foundation. The original note was for $110,000, more money than MIFA could arrange to borrow for the short term. John Fockler, Executive Director of the Memphis Plough Community Foundation, mentions some factors that lead to the fund's decision to extend such a loan: MIFA needed the money to be able to move, and had a short-term cash bind. The Foundation was unable to grant that large a sum, and Fockler says MIFA did not actually need such a grant.
What was needed was a loan, so they made what he calls a Program Related Investment to use money that would normally be invested in charitable programs to enable MIFA to do its work. “Our board has always felt strongly in favor of what MIFA is doing,” he adds. The original plan was that MIFA would make no payments of interest for the first three years, when other debts would have to be paid. What the fund actually did was to forgive the interest, which amounted to $9,900 on each of three successive years, when it became due. After the end of the first three years, MIFA began to repay the loan, which is now being paid out. This is the only Program Related Investment the Plough Foundation has ever made.
MIFA responds to emerging needs
Virginia Dunaway, an Associate Executive Director, asked to provide a brief synopsis of what MIFA does, answered, “Much of MIFA is responding to people in crisis, or trying to prevent a crisis from occurring. There are so many unmet needs for which MIFA receives the first call.”
Examples abound of this description of MIFA's responding to emerging needs by initiating programs to gratify them. Among these is Memphis Coalition for the Homeless, begun in 1985 when homelessness surfaced as a major problem affecting every metropolitan center. To address the situation in Memphis, MIFA administers a coalition of people and agencies involved with the homeless, originally coordinated by Marjean Kremer and Selma Lewis, and now by Barbara Wicks. The Coalition remains under the auspices of MIFA, although another response to emerging need, the Child Sexual Abuse Council, begun and nurtured to maturity by MIFA, has now become a separate organization.
Consistent with the policy of addressing unmet needs, MIFA's newest projects are a response to the severe shortage of affordable housing in the community. The idea for combining unused boxcars into single family homes, or City Cottages, was brought to MIFA's attention by Bena Cates, and her husband, George, a real estate developer on the MIFA Development Board. City Cottages were named by Ward Archer and adopted as a project of the Home Builders Association of Memphis which donated material, labor, and expertise tracking actual costs to determine feasibility. Title to a two-acre site was acquired through Shelby County's homestead program. For the initial model house, two refrigerated boxcars were purchased by MIFA from the Fruit Growers Express for $700 apiece. Joined creatively by architect Steve Berger and lightened by large windows, the well-insulated cars formed a two-bedroom house of about 1,000 square feet. The house was sold for less than $30,000, a feasible cost for lower income families and low utility bills were assured by the cars' superior insulation.
The second of these innovative housing programs is the development of Independent Apartments, twenty-four units designed especially for the physically handicapped. The structure at 865 Linden, adjoining MIFA, is the first of its kind in Tennessee, and the only one funded by HUD in this region. The project, proposed over five years ago by Erwin Wright, the Director of Easter Seals of West Tennessee, and Fred Dinwiddle, Director of the Center for Independent Living, grew out of their realization of the desperate need for such housing. MIFA became involved in the spring of 1987, after the group was unable to find a building site. The City of Memphis and its Division of Housing and Community Development made some former urban renewal land available at a bargain price. HUD's Housing Development Division in Nashville arranged direct loan financing for the project targeted for physically handicapped, low income persons.
Both of these MIFA sponsored housing projects, while recognizing that they cannot solve the total housing problem, serve as demonstrations of the ways needs can be solved by combinations of groups and individuals pooling their particular talents and efforts to make a difference in the lives of the disadvantaged.
As MIFA matured, the need grew for more and varied resource development. In 1983 MIFA created a Development Board to aid in fund-raising. Wallace Bruce, currently its head, says that “MIFA stretches each and every dollar to the fullest.” He feels that the key to MIFA's success in this complicated set of procedures is “female executive talent. MIFA has tapped the female executive and managerial talent in a way no other organization has done to produce an operation that is effective and efficient. We don't have a lot of money, so there are no frills.”
He credits Gid Smith with ability as an “organizing marvel. He is good at evaluating capabilities, and has a knack for choosing people who drive themselves harder than anyone else could drive them. He has the ability to recognize excellence, and to elicit it in others.”
The raising of local private funds has been a paramount of importance. Many grants require matching funds which must be provided locally by churches, individuals, and organizations. Gid Smith says that they were “heavily leveraged with federal dollars in their early days,” a situation that has now changed, making MIFA presently largely locally owned and supported. MIFA's commitment in regard to money, says Bob Dempsey, is “to keep expenses down, and income up. We scrounged, put everything to use, used old desks and equipment, never wasted anything, and never bought anything new if we could avoid it.” Everyone who has ever worked at MIFA in any capacity, staff or volunteer, would corroborate this statement.
Jeanne Tacket retired as Associate Executive Director in 1986 but she remains at MIFA part-time, lending her knowledge, experience, and invaluable presence.
The lodestar of MIFA is its statement of mission: “MIFA, an ecumenical nonprofit agency, responds quickly to critical and emerging unmet human needs through well-managed services with and on behalf of caring people.” It is intended that this statement will guide the future as it has the past and the present. Its methods of reaching that goal will, however, continually shift to accommodate changes in needs and the availability of resources. MIFA has already pushed out the limits of social action in Memphis, and as long as it attracts dedicated, imaginative people who care about their less fortunate fellowmen, it will continue to serve by challenging old, often ineffective concepts and methods.
One indication of possible direction for the future is MIFA's first out-based agency, the Reelfoot Center near Ripley, Tennessee. In partnership with the United Methodist Church, MIFA accepted the management of this multi-service agency serving Lake, Dryer, and Obion Counties.
As a part of the ongoing evolution of programs, the Memphis Food Bank will move to a larger warehouse and be under the direction of its own Board of Directors. Release of the large warehouse space at 910 Vance offers new opportunities for growth. The new MIFA Resource Center program will allow MIFA to collect usable non-food items, such as office and home furnishings, from corporations and individuals and to reuse them efficiently in human service programs.
Throughout most of the years of its existence MIFA's Board of Directors has been chaired by clergymen of various faiths. Annabelle Whittemore, its first chairperson, however, was a laywoman, as is its present one, Nancy Fulmer, now serving her second term. Her Chairmanship comes at a time when the organization is faced with increasing demands for services while fewer government funds are available. Of this challenge, she writes, “MIFA is unique, a vehicle for people of faith in Memphis to band together and really do something for people in need. Most rewarding is the way that our volunteers, staff and clients join hands in a supportive circle. Many clients become donors or come back as volunteers when they are on their feet again. This seems to be 'community' at its best. I wish we could package that spirit. It might save the world!” It is this kind of attitude that sets the tone for MIFA and projects it into the future with hope.
In spite of the level of maturity MIFA has attained, and the growth it has experienced, its strength continues to lie in its compassion for the underprivileged and its determinations to resist becoming cast in concrete. The ability to move in proportion to size is well-known. Elephants are not as swift as tigers. It is all the more worthy of note, then, that in spite of its enhanced size and the addition of new programs and staff, MIFA remains open to new ideas and ways of serving the community. The category of emerging needs, while not the largest in the spectrum of MIFA activities, is in some ways the most noteworthy. It offers hope that, in a changing world, with new and unforeseen needs arising frequently, there is MIFA to listen to those needs, to struggle with mustering the ways and means to address them, and on behalf of many, to provide some relief. The community needs such a place of last resort, a place that can attend to situations that do not fall under the auspices of any other agency, public or private. The MIFA staff understands the dangers inherent in success, if success is measured by growth, and is working hard to avoid falling into the trap of becoming rigid, self-protective and bureaucratic.
During its twenty years of existence MIFA has matured, not only in the eyes of the community, but also in its ability to withstand whatever comes its way. While it now has a broad range of support, it will always be at risk, Smith believes, and will always depend upon community commitment and goodwill. MIFA is unique among similar organizations that were established in the 60's because it has endured to arrive at this stage. Community support has made this growth possible. Memphians have joined hands and created an agency to care for their neighbors in need. All can share pride in MIFA's effectiveness. The time, talents, and treasures so generously given to MIFA show Memphians to have, as well as occupy, the “Heart of the Mid-South.” It is sincerely hoped that this unusual example of people of goodwill working together to relieve the suffering of their fellowmen can continue to grace the lives and hearts of both its donors and its beneficiaries.
Although this history of MIFA will conclude at its twentieth year, it is only the beginning of the MIFA story. This version is published as a tribute to those who made MIFA possible and as an invitation to those who want to be a part of its continued growth.
MIFA faces the future as an on-going, open-ended, unfinished organization whose final form cannot be predicted. While change is not always easy to cope with, MIFA's flexibility is also its glory. The chances are good that the painter will have to put many new coats of paint on MIFA offices as they are rearranged to adapt to new realities and changing times.