Memphis Magazine: MIFA Celebrates 50 Years of Service

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Memphis Magazine: MIFA Celebrates 50 Years of Service

At the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association, consistent service for a changing Memphis.

by 

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Teams of volunteers from ServiceMaster pack bags of shelf-stable meals for distribution to MIFA's Meals on Wheels clients. Photograph courtesy MIFA. 

It’s a Monday morning in August, and Judy Royal parks next to a spacious building on Vance that had once been a supermarket, where she quickly loads the coolers in the back seat of her car with hot meals, complete with drinks and dessert. That day, she will visit 17 homebound senior citizens in north Memphis, many times bringing them their only meal of the day, and their only chance to see a friendly face.

Meanwhile, in an office of that same building on Vance, Stephanie Williams is on the phone with a young woman from Texas, who moved to Memphis hoping to live with relatives here until she could strike out on her own. But that situation didn’t work out, and now the woman, with two kids, has no place to stay. Williams calls a nearby motel to arrange emergency housing and arranges for the woman to meet her the next morning for a follow-up. Between them, and maybe by working with mediators who will help with her family problems, the young woman won’t join the ranks of the homeless in Memphis.

The building on Vance, hard to miss with the giant letters MIFA marching across the roof, serves as headquarters for the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association, a group that has touched almost everybody in this community. Royal is one of more than a hundred volunteers involved with Meals on Wheels, perhaps MIFA’s best-known and longest-running program, and has been bringing those meals to seniors for more than three decades. Williams is a paid 12-year employee, director of MIFA’s emergency housing program. What began with a group of ministers eager to confront the racial problems of Memphis has evolved into a social services agency that pays special attention to seniors and families in need.

This month, MIFA celebrates its 50th birthday, and its president, Sally Jones Heinz, feels her staff and volunteers are needed now more than ever. “In a city once again divided by fear, hate, suspicion, and misunderstanding, MIFA offers a remedy that is both profound and practical,” she says. “We can know our neighbors. We offer opportunities for people to get to know somebody who is not like them, and maybe we can build bridges and provide community aid and understanding.”

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When Sally Jones Heinz was named president and CEO of MIFA in 2011, she said, “I felt I had come home.” Photograph by Karen Pulfer Focht.

Readers of The Commercial Appeal and the Memphis Press-Scimitar noticed an unusual announcement in the February 4, 1968, editions of those newspapers. Headlined, “An Appeal to Conscience,” a group calling itself the Memphis Ministers Association asked, “Have we not all one Father? Did not one God create us?”

Noting that Scripture commands, “You must love your neighbor as yourself,” the group invited readers to observe Race Relations Sunday the following week. Even though they felt racial issues here had somewhat improved, they worried this was “largely the result of legislation, judicial decision, and executive orders.” Obeying the law was not enough, claimed the ministers, who asked “the people of our community to look into their hearts and purge their souls of prejudice and intolerance” and live by the simple rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Local historians Selma Lewis and Gail S. Murray have contributed several histories of MIFA, and though each says this simple proclamation can be considered the beginning of the organization as we know it today, each also admits the “Appeal to Conscience” was met with disregard, if not outright disdain. Lewis wrote that the response was “generally unfavorable. They were advised to let the mayor run the city, while they attended to religion.”

After all, over the years, various churches had tried to organize similar ventures: the oddly named Cross Cut Club in the 1920s, the Association of Church and Professional Social Workers in the 1940s, the Greater Memphis Race Relations Committee in the early 1950s, and the Memphis Committee on Community Relations in the late 1950s. At the time, the prevailing attitude was that the church was acting outside its bounds. After all, when it was established in 1967, the Memphis Ministers Association, though spearheaded by such key figures as Rabbi James Wax of Temple Israel and the Reverend Nicholas Vieron of the Greek Annunciation Church, had only 125 members (out of some 700 houses of worship in Memphis); only 15 of those were African American.

Even so, the group had persuaded seven congregations to form the Downtown Churches Association. Those ministers, working with an activist group called the Association for Christian Training in Service, had concluded that Memphis needed a well-structured organization to deal with this city’s problems with race, poverty, and other issues. In fact, wrote Lewis, “the Downtown Churches Association specifically requested that the ACTS help them consider how a metropolitan agency might be formed to help them in their urban ministry.”

All plans were put on hold, however, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated just months later. The Memphis Ministers Association had stepped in and attempted to mediate the sanitation workers’ strike, to no avail, and the aftermath of King’s death saw a city polarized. Even so, a bond had been established between the ministers — white and black. The Reverend Berkeley Poole, a Methodist minister from Jackson, Tennessee, observed that “injustices that had long prevailed could no longer be ignored.”

Thirty members of the clergy attended a special meeting on September 15, 1968, at St. Mary’s Cathedral to draw up a charter for a “metropolitan inter-faith association,” a need that was supported by the Chamber of Commerce. A racially diverse board of directors approved the charter and name, so the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association was born that day, though it really had no specific goal. In fact, wrote Murray, “the directors found resistance and even some hostility from some congregational governing boards [so] they moved to enlist individual members instead.” As a result, she continued, “MIFA brought to Memphis a new model for meeting social and urban problems. Churches and individuals found themselves being asked to participate in a different kind of ministry, one based on Christian service through an interdenominational organization that utilized secular funding sources and social service models.”

Reverend Poole was named MIFA’s first director, taking no salary and working out of a one-room office donated by the Catholic Diocese. The new group, however, finding itself with no clear identity, formed various committees designed to improve police and community relations, establish an Afro-American studies conference, create an “orientation to the city” for new clergy, and form a “Task Force on Juvenile Delinquency.” In those early days, the Reverend Frank McRae of St. John’s United Methodist Church admitted, “we were weak and limited. We knew we were doing Band-Aid work, but that was all the power we had.”

Poole resigned after two years, and most members thought MIFA was finished. But they weren’t counting on the energy and vision of Gid Smith, associate pastor of First United Methodist Church, who took over as director. He was given quite a task, wrote Murray: “invigorate the infant organization within six months or they would deem the experiment a failure.” Smith hired Julia Allen with Idlewild Presbyterian Church as his assistant, and soon added a co-director, Robert Dempsey, a former Catholic priest.

These three, and other hard-working staff members, soon got MIFA on solid ground. They began working with a federal program called VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), and Dempsey would later say that this was “the key to MIFA’s success — working with people who are intelligent, mature, creative, and with initiative … who want to do things.”

That element of MIFA has endured. “There is a legacy of volunteerism,” says Jim Seacat, director of marketing and communications. “The whole volunteer dynamic that was here at the beginning is still present today.”

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For decades, MIFA volunteers have been taking the time to visit with senior clients, many of whom live alone. Vintage photo courtesy of MIFA. 

By 1975, MIFA had expanded to larger offices at 149 Monroe, later moving into space at First Presbyterian Church downtown. The group landed federal funds for Project MEET (Memphis Encounters Eating Together), which formed the basis for the long-running Meals on Wheels program. They established programs throughout the city to help people in need, regardless of race, sex, faith, or age. Among them: opening senior centers in local high schools and churches, beginning the Literacy Council, administering Coats for Kids, starting the Center for Neighborhoods, opening a refugee resettlement program, organizing Latino Memphis, starting the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, and publishing the Mid-South Senior newspaper.

That’s not all. With VISTA’s help, MIFA started the Memphis Food Bank and the Child Advocacy Center. The group purchased properties around the city — Estival Place, Ramesses Place, Cossitt Place, among others — and developed them into emergency housing. They set up a clothing center at Idlewild Presbyterian Church called “Dress for Success” so people going for job interviews would have proper outfits, and helped youngsters find summer jobs with its City Slickers program. The list goes on and on.

In 1984, MIFA moved to a permanent home, the former Robilio Restaurant and Grocery at 910 Vance Avenue, with the help of a $110,000 purchase loan from the Plough Community Foundation. By this time, a Commercial Appeal editorial observed that MIFA’s “reputation is rock solid. … Wherever people are hurting, MIFA is there.” Smith retired in 1989, replaced by Allie Prescott, who helped shepherd a long series of popular programs and fund-raising events, such as “Starry Nights,” the illuminated display at Shelby Farms.

When Prescott resigned in 1997 to manage the Memphis Redbirds, Margaret Craddock, who had begun her career at MIFA as a VISTA volunteer, took over as director. She spearheaded the construction of the ultra-modern MIFA headquarters building, designed by the Memphis firm of Williamson & Pounders Architects, and honored with several national design awards. The structure houses offices and other facilities, along with a massive kitchen used daily to prepare food for Meals on Wheels.

Other major changes were on the horizon. As the new century began, the board took a close look at its various endeavors to decide if they were indeed helping MIFA meet what it called its “Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal” — namely, were they viable components that helped make “the organization that inspires significant change in each client’s life.” The answer, in many cases, was NO.

Most of the residential units were sold; maintenance costs were simply too high, as MIFA found itself in the property-management business without wanting to be there. The popular MIFA Thrift Store, which had originally opened as the Clothing Closet in 1994, was closed. Latino Memphis, Mid-South Senior (renamed the Best Times) the Literacy Council, and the Memphis Food Bank were spun off to other organizations, which had more time and resources to run them. (A newspaper designed for families, Memphis Parent, was sold to Contemporary Media, publisher of Memphis magazine.)

In 2010, Craddock announced her retirement, after nearly three decades at MIFA. The Commercial Appeal saluted her as a “servant leader” and observed she was “the primary architect of this social service agency.”

After a national search, the board selected Sally Jones Heinz, the group’s former director of development, as the new president and CEO. She certainly had strong Memphis connections; her father, Jameson Jones, was a dean at Rhodes College and later president of Memphis College of Art, and her uncle, the Reverend Paul Tudor Jones, was the minister of Idlewild Presbyterian Church. “When I came to MIFA,” she recalls, “I felt I had come home — my faith, my background, my work experience — everything fit together to prepare me for this place.”

After all those early years of uncertainty, MIFA today is sharply focused on assisting two groups: seniors and families. On the senior side, the organization offers three major programs. The best-known is Meals on Wheels, which in fiscal year 2017 delivered more than 554,000 meals to more than 3,700 seniors who otherwise would not have a decent meal that day.

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On Veterans Day, MIFA honored veterans who were Meals on Wheels clients. 

“The wonderful thing about the meals delivery is the volunteer forms a relationship with the person they are delivering to because they see them regularly,” says Jones. “People’s lives really are changed.” Some of those connections can be unexpected. Judy Royal was introduced to a new person on her route, a 94-year-old woman, and after chatting with her discovered the senior had been a classmate of her mother at Central High School.

The Senior Companion Program matches low-income seniors with their peers, “helping clients with activities of daily living and providing family caregivers much-needed respite.” And the Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program is for anyone who has a loved one in a nursing home and seeks help with their care and quality of life.

The group has also narrowed its focus over the years on the needs within Shelby County. Meals on Wheels is a good example. “We used to cover four counties,” says Jones, “but we looked at the cost analysis and thought, “We’re cooking a meal at MIFA and taking it to Ripley. That made no sense, so we worked with groups in the rural areas to do that.”

On the family side, MIFA stresses Emergency Services: helping families in desperate need of housing, medical assistance, utility payments — whatever they need in the short-term. They work with motels in the area to provide short-term housing when the need arises, and help the family “get back on their feet” after situations, such as domestic issues, leave them searching for a new place to live.

“Emergency Services is designed to be a light touch,” says Jones. “If the family only needs a Band-Aid, we give them a Band-Aid; we don’t give them a full-body cast.” Many families who call or even visit MIFA, sometimes bringing along their luggage, require only temporary assistance, and that’s one reason MIFA sold its apartments.

“MIFA’s program did very well, but families in transitional housing still felt unrooted because they knew they wouldn’t stay there very long,” says Jones. “Now we work with families to help them find a place where they want to live. We may help with their deposit and utilities, just to get them on their feet.”

The Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association will mark its 50th birthday with events, programs, and even a new website. During the first week of September, a series of CommUNITY Days will partner more than 60 congregations for a variety of community-service projects. “It’s a way to pair different faiths and different congregations,” says Seacat.

On Legacy Day, September 14th, MIFA will unveil a historical marker at its Vance Avenue headquarters. The following month, on October 11th, a Golden Gala at the Hilton Memphis will salute MIFA’s past, present, and future. At this time, the new, fully interactive website will be unveiled, which will serve as the hub for all of MIFA’s programs, and help people take part in them.

“MIFA began as a way to bring people and congregations together to impact the social issues in our city,” says Jones. “Those needs have evolved over time, but our desire to be the vehicle for change is constant, and in the next 50 years we hope to continue to respond to our community’s most pressing needs.”

Posted by Ellen Whitten at 11:07 AM