Offering a Hand Up to Our Neighbors in Need: 1968 - 1998
Researched, written, and edited by Selma Lewis and Marjean Kremer
During its thirty years, The Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association (MIFA) has listened to the voices of people in pain in Memphis and has worked to ease their suffering. This it has done with a small, dedicated full- and part-time staff and large numbers of dedicated volunteers. With such an urgent focus, there has been little time or energy, especially in the early years, for the keeping of complete records. Only sketchy documentation exists of the way the organization grew; thus, there may be errors in the history presented here.
This thirtieth anniversary of MIFA's founding has prompted (as it did for the celebration of 20 years of MIFA in 1988) a look at the origins and the continually evolving programs and philosophy. In 1988 it was already too late to capture the impressions of some of the founders and early leaders who were no longer alive.
In addition to utilizing what records were available from the early years and the more complete documentation of the latter ones, this history has been written only after consultations with many individuals with knowledge of these years. We wish to thank them for the generosity with which they answered our questions and offered their impressions; such cooperation has been crucial to this work.
The painter put the final stroke on the new partition, laid his brush down, looked at the latest of many rearrangements of the same space, then announced to the MIFA staffers hard at work near him, “This is it…until the next time.” Both he and they knew from experience that further changes would not be long in coming. When you work for The Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association (MIFA), you know that nothing remains the same for very long. During its thirty years, growth and change have been the hallmarks of the organization. Today's closet might be tomorrow's office; a need recognized finds a response.
MIFA is the helping hand that changes the lives of many people in need in Memphis and the surrounding area. With its deep roots in the religious community, MIFA's mission is to develop lasting solutions that help our neighbors live with independence and dignity. From the beginning, it has relied on the strength and support of its volunteers. Remaining open to meet the unanticipated needs that arise in the ever-changing urban environment, it continues to be lean and spare, utilizing little (6.6% in 1997) for administrative costs. Two hundred seventy-five employees (115 full-time, 160 part-time) now work under the proud MIFA banner.
Numerous organizations with similar goals were founded in other cities in the 60s when the climate fostered both assessment and innovation. Unfortunately, most of these failed; MIFA has survived to become part of the fabric of Memphis. “That MIFA exists at all was what fascinated me,” Dr. Susanne Darnell, University of Memphis historian asserts. “It was ecumenical, interracial, and it arose at a time of racial hostility. It was devoted to community action when the community was not.
How and why MIFA was founded, the reasons it has flourished in what might be viewed as the unpromising soil of Memphis, its ties to the community, as well as the unusual people who contributed their efforts and their talents to its growth and development are the focus of this history.
A time of upheaval and change
In 1968 the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association was founded by a few churchmen and lay leaders who hoped that by uniting their efforts they could meet at least some of the needs of their troubled city. Although they had few resources, their commitment was reinforced by both strong religious beliefs and the tenor of the times. Many things seemed possible in the optimistic 60s, which witnessed the destruction of old traditions and their replacement by new philosophies and institutions. It was an era of transition, “a water-shed in the cultural history of the United States,” wrote historian Morris Dickstein.
The preceding decade, marked by cultural stability, also generated the intimidation and suppression of McCarthyism. The 50s with its apparent calm but hidden tensions provided the seedbed for the upheavals of the 60s when previously neglected problems could no longer be ignored. Grounded in the historic 1954 Supreme Court decision that outlawed segregation in public schools, a push began for desegregation in all areas of public life. The assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert, the controversial United States involvement in Vietnam, the sexual freedoms made possible by “The Pill,” availability of mind-altering drugs, the vibrations of new electric and electrifying rock music, and even the acceptance of blue jeans as the universal attire produced tremors in all aspects of American life. One of the institutions undergoing vast changes was the church in the South.
The awakening of 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, southern clergy remained concerned with saving souls, one by one. Even so, numerous Memphis ecumenical or inter-faith groups were formed to address social ills, with only limited success: Cross Cut Club, 1929; Memphis Interracial Commission, 1940; Association of Church and Professional Social Workers, 1945; Greater Memphis Race Relations Committee, 1950s; Memphis Council of Churches, late 1950s; Memphis Committee on Community Relations (MCCR), 1959; and University of Tennessee Inter-Faith Center and Institute of Medicine and Religion, early 1960s.
In 1968, with Rabbi James Wax as president, the recently integrated Memphis Ministers Association published in The Commercial Appeal “An Appeal to Conscience.” It urged “anyone who loves God must also love his brother,” pointing out that brotherhood was a full-time occupation requiring involvement rather than oratory, needing action not words. Public reaction to this new and therefore unusual involvement of their ministers in social issues was for the most part unfavorable. The ministers were advised to let the mayor run the city while they “tended to religion.”
A new approach
Members of the Memphis Ministers Association with churches located in the inner city realized more acutely than their suburban colleagues that there were serious largely ignored social problems in the city. In mid-1967, at the instigation of Dean William Dimmick of St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral, seven churches from the city's commercial district began to meet. Within a few months, the Downtown Churches Association was founded.
In an attempt to bring together churches of the inner city for unified action in addressing social needs, the Downtown Churches Association came into contact with the newly organized Association for Christian Training for Service, ACTS. The Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee was designated one of several urban pilot dioceses to establish an ACTS program under the direction of The Reverend William Jones, Jr. Charged with creating social change, ACTS' plan was to train clergy, seminarians and lay persons to minister to the urban needs in the South.
Thus the stage was set for the founding of MIFA with the director of ACTS to give counsel. The Downtown Churches Association requested ACTS assistance in calling a conference to consider how a metropolitan agency might be formed to help churches with their urban ministry. “Consultation on Mission” was held February 18, 1968 at Idlewild Presbyterian Church; forty-five members of the clergy and lay leaders attended.
Although discouraged with the failure of earlier ecumenical organizations, Idlewild's minister, The Reverend Paul Tudor Jones, was optimistic that the time was 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,” he later stated. This conference decided to call a three-day meeting in May to investigate further the possibility of forming a viable, integrated inter-faith organization. A steering committee was appointed with Dean William Dimmick, Chair; The Reverends William Aldridge, Frank McRae, Brooks Ramsey, Henry Starks, William Smith, and Roy Williams and lay persons Margaret Dichtel and Dean Osmundson.
All plans were suddenly put on hold; ironically, the same week that this conference was held saw the beginning of the fateful Memphis sanitation strike.
The sanitation strike
In February, 1968, Memphis' sanitation workers went on strike, demanding better wages and better working conditions as well as the right to unionize. Although the Ministers Association attempted to mediate, the strike continued with increasing hostility and bitterness. It soon became a racial confrontation instead of the labor/management problem with which it had begun. The strike ended two months later only after the tragic assassination (April 4) of the national civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who had come to Memphis to support the sanitation workers' cause.
The stark aftermath of these events was the total polarization of Black and White. The crisis accentuated the lack of any venue to address this problem. There was an obvious lack of communication, cooperation, organization or structure through which to channel either an immediate response or a long-range plan for change.
The day after the assassination, the Ministers Association, still mostly White, and the (Black) Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance marched together from St. Mary's Cathedral to City Hall to demand that the Mayor settle the strike. Dean Dimmick led the assembled group carrying the Cathedral's processional cross. Rabbi Wax marched beside the prominent Black minister Henry Starks.
This crisis-and the active role played by the clergy-had a dual effect. This demonstration by many of those involved in the founding of MIFA increased distrust of its activities and made the new agency's beginnings both tenuous and rocky. Conversely MIFA's organizers were inspired to intensify their efforts. Annabelle Whittemore, later the first Chair of MIFA's Board of Directors, believes, “If we had tried to get MIFA started at any other time, we would have failed. 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 whole religious community to play.” The second Chair of MIFA's Board, Preston McDaniel, adds, “MIFA was not begun because of the garbage strike; its (development) accelerated because of it.”
The second “Consultation on Mission” was postponed until the fall. The steering committee was enlarged to included the Reverends Maynard Fountain, H.H. Hooper, Ray Riddle and Richard Wells; Assistant to the Mayor of Memphis Jerrold Moore; Frank Campbell, J.W. Clarke, J.T. Fisher, Dr. John K. Johnson, Ted Johnson, Frances Loring, O.C. Shuttles, Southwestern College's Dr. Carl Walters, Waddy West and Annabelle Whittemore.
MIFA founded in September, 1968
On September 15, 1968, considered the date of the founding of MIFA, thirty representatives from various denominations unanimously adopted the constitution of the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association at St. Mary's Cathedral. An interim board was named: Dean Dimmick, St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral, Chair; Margaret Dichtel, Catholic layperson; The Reverend Frank McRae, District Superintendent, United Methodist Church, Jerrold Moore, Assistant to the Mayor; Autry Parker, Methodist layperson; The Reverend Henry Starks, St. James A.M.E.; Annabelle Whittemore, Episcopal layperson.
The new leaders met with little success as they began to recruit congregations to join the new endeavor. Many claimed that while they might be willing to join as individuals they were opposed to a congregational commitment to a program over which they would have such limited control. Waddy West, one of those charged with recruitment, pointed out that “the idea of joining together was new, of having a central voice that would speak for all. Churches were frightened by this.”
By April $30,000 had been raised, mostly from the Meeman Foundation, the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. and the United Methodist Church. The Reverend Berkeley Poole was hired as Executive Director. He began working out of MIFA's first office, one tiny, rather dingy room at 43 S. Cleveland. Poole remembers two distinct factions on the Board. “One wanted MIFA to be a bridge among churches. The other wanted a greater presence in social concerns. The latter is what appealed most to me.”
Members of the first Board recall MIFA's tremendous struggle to achieve credibility. Frank McRae remembers that “we were referred to as 'The MAFIA,' an unfortunate transposition.” Bishop Fred Gates observes that “it took a while for MIFA to work out its identity and purpose.” Frank Campbell points out that the concept of MIFA, as a behind-the-scenes enabler was not viable because “there is no way to get support for an invisible entity.” Walk Jones speaks of those early days as “Hard times. MIFA was broke AND involved in activities that were not popular.”
Among those activities undertaken in 1970 was a committee on Improving Police Community Relations, An Orientation to the City for new clergy, and an Afro-American Studies Conference. When this conference inspired determination to assist in stemming the flow of White flight from established neighborhoods, MIFA became actively involved in stabilizing such a neighborhood with the Vollentine Evergreen Community Association, VECA. According to Poole, MIFA became “the catalyst, the facilitator, the midwife for VECA.” A MIFA Task Force on Juvenile Delinquency recommended ways to assist students returning from state correctional schools to the community. MIFA helped the Fund for Needy School Children match churches with public schools to provide needed services for poverty level students.
After two years of struggle, initial funding was running out. Berkeley Poole resigned as Executive Director to return to pastoral work. Board members feared that MIFA had become “stagnant,” knew that it had run out of money, and were close to pronouncing it dead.
Smith hired as part-time MIFA executive director
The Reverend McRae recalls leaving the meeting when Poole's resignation was accepted thinking that MIFA was indeed “dead.” But he-and others-soon found out that, much to their surprise, MIFA had not been buried! It was revived when Board Consultant William Jones of ACTS recommended its continuation and the hiring of a new executive director.
It was MIFA's good fortune that among the applicants for the job was Gid Smith, Associate Pastor of First United Methodist Church, who desired “more action orientation and an urban ministry.” Hired on a part-time basis, Smith was advised that he had six months to achieve credibility and produce “action AND short-term, clear winners.”
Smith's contract emphasized all too clearly the chance he was taking, “It is understood and agreed upon 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 your employment, including payment to you of said compensation and benefits.”
The Board of Directors met in an all-day session to develop new priorities and objectives. By June, Smith was full-time. He found his much needed basis of support in the already established clergy: The Reverend Ray Riddle, Executive Secretary of Memphis Presbytery; United Methodist Bishop Ellis Finger; Catholic Bishop Carroll Dozier; and Dr. Lloyd Ramer, pastor of St. Luke's United Methodist Church. Smith hired Julia Allen as his administrative assistant. Because of her many ties to the religious community as well as her commitment to service, she was an instant asset to MIFA's development. A newsletter was started and volunteers recruited to assist in its distribution.
By the end of the trial period, Smith had demonstrated that he had the determination, skill and vision to make MIFA a positive force in Memphis. Although MIFA continued to change and to grow in response to the times, it had become apparent that it could offer both the religious community and other concerned individuals and groups, a way to meet human needs. The decision was made to go forward.
The Smith-Dempsey partnership
Bob Dempsey soon became involved in MIFA activities. On July 1, 1973 the former Catholic priest was named Co-Director of MIFA. It is characteristic of both Smith and Dempsey that each gives credit to the other for the changes that began to occur in MIFA. According to Julia Allen, “Bob Dempsey was the turning point of moving from a church organization to the vehicle through which change occurs. He brought the strategies for dealing with community leaders and government and was a good grantsman. Smith describes himself as a block builder who likes to proceed step by step while Dempsey is a visionary with an all-encompassing view of the present and the future. In debating ways to improve the community, Bob would ask, 'What is the world like?' I would ask, 'What can we accomplish?'” Both the general AND the particular were thus considered. The result of their teamwork was the organization structure and process that became MIFA as we know it.
A comprehensive system for evaluating program possibilities was developed. Proposals progressed from feasibility study to planning, development, start-up and operation. MIFA began to categorize its programs either as delivery of service or as systemic change. The Board found itself endorsing new areas of ministry including transportation, health, housing, welfare, human rights, law and economics.
As the co-directors coordinated the shift in focus from communication to direct action, they also worked to build cooperation among congregations and board members. Increasingly, the Board came to be more diverse. Jeanne Dreifus, named to the Board as the representative of the Jewish Community Relations Council, believes that friendships forged during MIFA's early years have endured to benefit Memphis, maintaining that “MIFA has inspired other groups to work together.” Early
In addition to creating a structure for project development and a strong, diverse interfaith Board of Directors, the Executive Directors recognized the need and began to develop a sound support base of both funding and volunteers for MIFA. Their successors, Allie Prescott, who succeeded Smith in 1989, and
The VISTA impact
In July 1974 the federal government awarded MIFA the contract for VISTAs, or Volunteers in Service to America. Often referred to as the domestic peace corps, VISTAs were usually college students paid with a small stipend to go into poverty areas to help fellow Americans improve their lives. MIFA changed this pattern by recruiting volunteers who were already living in the community and were mostly well-educated, mature women with volunteer experience and a proven orientation toward action.
Julia Allen was named the first VISTA recruiter. Holocaust survivor Nina Katz, a member of the first class, recalls that Allen challenged them, “We need all your skills and resources.” Community activist Ina Fitzgerald, also a member of the first group, remembers, “We were promised low pay and long hours.” In spite of the small stipend, people volunteered to work on projects they felt would make a real difference in the lives of their fellow citizens.
Smith believes the program worked well because of the caliber of the VISTA volunteers who, he points out, were presented with a challenge and allowed to “run with it” with minimal supervision. Dempsey still sees VISTAs as “the key to MIFA's success…people who are intelligent, creative, mature, AND with initiative. They are people who wanted to do things.” Many remain actively involved with MIFA as employees or volunteers long after their federally-limited-to-five-years VISTA time expired.
Described by Smith as the stabilizing link during MIFA's various transition periods, Sybil Tucker was a member of the first VISTA class in 1974. As a VISTA, she helped to develop the East Senior Center and many other programs. She went on to supervise the VISTA program, has worked for MIFA ever since and today is MIFA Senior Program Executive in which capacity she supervises all programs except housing. As a member of the VISTA class of 1976, Virginia Dunaway developed and became the first director of the MIFA Food Bank. Once the success of this program was assured, she was named MIFA Associate Executive Director. Now retired, Dunaway was the first Executive Director of the Women's Foundation. Also an alumna of VISTA's Class of 1976,
Early VISTAs also helped develop the Mid-South Senior newspaper and the Emergency Homes for Families. The VISTA program as it was operated by MIFA was copied across the country. Corporation for National Service, formerly Action, the federal agency in charge of the program, rewarded its effectiveness by increasing the number of volunteers to as many as thirty-five and by continuing to place the VISTA contract with MIFA for an unprecedented thirteen consecutive years. MIFA continued having VISTA volunteers in the ensuing years. In 1996 it was again awarded for VISTAs; today, there are six VISTAs designated to MIFA.
The search for a sound financial base
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 that they could find. They were convinced that as soon as they “broke the ice” and received an initial grant, they would prove their ability to administer it and other grants would follow.
Their timing was fortuitous; the federal government's “War on Poverty” was awarding grants to programs designed to eliminate poverty. MIFA's proposals mirrored its commitment to improving the lives of people in need. Smith believed, “MIFA was a black box. People need services; the federal government had money. Put both in a black box. MIFA made it work!”
The first federal grant awarded to MIFA was for transportation for Project MEET (Memphians Encounter Eating Together). The Memphis Presbytery provided matching funds. Borrowed church buses formed the fleet to bring seniors to congregate meal sites. Transportation Coordinator Roseann Botts remembers many early morning calls announcing that a church had special need for its bus that day. With hungry seniors expecting to be picked up, Roseann somehow found a substitute vehicle, thus pioneering the “MIFA Make-Do Method” which continues today. “Finding a way” becomes the motto when no resources are available and there is a program to operate. Once, when a bus was stolen while the seniors were eating, she found a replacement so quickly that they never noticed the change!
Finally, funds became available for the purchase of passenger vans and the MIFA Transit Program soon expanded to 60 vehicles serving the elderly, the critically ill, foster children and the handicapped in four counties. Today MIFA operates 39 vehicles in the city, three in Shelby County. Transportation in Fayette, Tipton and Lauderdale Counties was spun off in 1996 to the Delta Human Resources Agency. Express Pay Per Ride was added to the program in 1996 for those persons who did not fit into the original grant guidelines but were willing to pay a small fee for the service.
In 1997 the MIFA Transit fleet of 40 vehicles traveled 954,000 miles providing nearly 120,000 trips and enabling a diverse clientele to become and remain independent. Funding is equally diverse with money provided by Title III of the Older Americans Act, the Tennessee Department of Transportation, the Tennessee Department of Children's Services, the City of Memphis Housing and Community Development, Shelby County, the Delta Area on Aging, and the Durham Foundation.
The second federal grant was awarded to MIFA in 1974 and provided the funds for a feasibility study for an HMO (Health Maintenance Organization). Dempsey's experience in trying to obtain health care for the underserved had convinced him that a new system was needed to provide affordable care. A follow-up grant resulted in the establishment of the first HMO in Shelby County. The HMO of Tennessee Inc., spun off from MIFA and now owned by Pru-Care, continues to offer pre-paid health care to this community.
Mastery of the stringent federal regulations governing such grants provided the MIFA staffers with the skills necessary to manage future grants as well as the fiscal affairs of the growing organization. The initial period-of high hopes but empty pockets-began to ease although, Dempsey recalls, it was far from over. “The arrangement was 'a house of cards.' There were times when losing one grant would have finished MIFA.”
In 1975 MIFA's charter was amended to add: “It shall serve as an agency to deliver services in areas of social services, health, education, housing, transportation, and any other areas appropriate to the purposes of MIFA.” Father John Batson endorsed this emphasis on service delivery as the way to effect change. “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.”
Thus, over the past three decades, MIFA's programs have changed to meet critical and emerging needs. Programs have been initiated and operated by MIFA until the need is stabilized and the operation mature, then, as mentioned above with MIFA Transit in out-lying counties or the HMO, turned over to other agencies or nurtured, then spun off as independent entities (Food Bank, Memphis Literacy Council, the Housing Opportunities Corporation, Child Sexual Abuse Council-now Child Advocacy Center, etc.).
Tax rebates for the Elderly required a concentrated sign-up effort to reach the homebound elderly. VISTAs Bridget Church, Virginia Hiett, Virginia Klettner, Rita Seigle, Beverly Sims and Diane Wellford were directed to reach the isolated seniors and document their eligibility. Armed with only early models of portable copiers in large, black suitcases, they would enter a home, set the machine on a bed, and watch as birth certificates, etc. disappeared into the black box, hoping that readable, albeit smudgy, copies would appear. After this initial sign-up drive was completed, the State office for ongoing enrollment has continued the program.
In 1976 MIFA was awarded a Tennessee Committee for the Humanities (now Tennessee Humanities Council) grant to document neighborhood histories and the impact of public policy on their growth and development. Eight such histories were researched and written by Peggy Jemison and Betty Tilley, assisted by a group of dedicated VISTAs. A Mott Foundation Grant for a community education project continued this neighborhood emphasis. The purpose of the grant was to assist neighborhood schools retain their identity by offering educational activities for all ages. Out of the experience gained from these projects came the MIFA Center for Neighborhoods with former project director Vida Andersen at the helm. Located in the historic George Collins Love House, the center, now administered by the City of Memphis, coordinates neighborhood associations and fosters community improvement.
MIFA also coordinated the Vietnamese Resettlement Project which began in 1975. VISTAs Joanne Brown, Tharon Kirk, Betty Smith and Sybil Tucker assisted with this all-out effort. Once the initial influx has been served, Catholic Charities became the lead agency.
CASES for emergencies
Other programs have begun as separate projects and later become part of MIFA. CSSF (Churches and Social Services Fund), a coordinated system for providing food, clothing and emergency assistance to people in crisis, originally depended on loaned personnel from the Tennessee Department of Human Services (DHS) and MIFA. When such staffing was no longer available, CSSF changed its name to Churches and Synagogues Serving Families (still CSSF) to become a MIFA program for congregations, groups and individuals to pool their resources to fund the emergency needs, such as pharmacy or burial expenses, of those in crisis. Careful screening by MIFA in coordination with other service agencies prevents duplication while assisting those with urgent needs with dignity.
CSSF has nurtured and provided the support for the Christmas Store. First organized in 1975 by Vicki Bolton, a case-worker with DHS, the store was created to provide parents the dignity of “shopping” for new toys for their children. In 1997 8,000 children were served with the store now helping the families to “buy” the toys for the first year and helping the families to plan ahead for handling the situation themselves. As with many MIFA programs, volunteers and individual contributions make such success possible.
In 1988, the same CSSF was changed to CASES, Churches and Synagogues Emergency Services. Its role was expanded to include all of MIFA's emergency services. Under the able direction of Caprice Snyder, Family Support is challenged to deal with more than 1,000 requests for emergency services each month. With resources becoming even more limited, MIFA's focus is on helping those who are working to help themselves.
Family Support now includes the Memphis Emergency Assistance Program, the safety net provided by City of Memphis funds. In 1997 it assisted 2,381 families with rent, mortgage and/or utility payment. FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) funds enabled MIFA to assist 143 additional families last year. Plus 1, begun in the early 1980's oil crisis which pushed utility prices beyond the ability of the poor to pay, remains a joint program of MIFA and the Memphis Light Gas and Water Division. Some 18,000 Memphians directly support this program with contributions of $1 or more added each month to their utility bill. Plus 1 advertising coupons, included with the monthly bills, add to both awareness and funds.
Other Family Support programs include the successful Coats for Kids which last year supplied 1300 children with clean, gently-worn coats and the Philip K. Raiford Memorial Shoe Fund which provides shoe vouchers to children in need. Family Favors, designed to connect people in crisis (illness, job loss, household or minor automobile repairs, etc) with volunteers who can help them evolved into the current Handyman program.
Another CASES service was the MIFA Clothes Closet. Originally located at First United Methodist Church in a store-like setting, CASES enabled needy clients to select two complete outfits for each family member from usable clothes donated by the community and area merchants. Inspired by an idea from clients, and since 1994 conveniently located at MIFA, the MIFA Thrift Store features clothes, furniture and other household items at truly bargain prices. “People feel really good about being able to pay for what they need,” Senior Program Executive Sybil Tucker points out. “It gives them dignity.” The Career Closet, a collaborative of MIFA and Idlewild Presbyterian Church, opened in December 1997. It provides poverty-level women who are training to enter the workforce with two free professional outfits.
Feeding the hungry moves MIFA
MIFA was awarded a Delta Area Agency on Aging grant to deliver meals to homebound seniors scattered throughout the community and in three adjoining counties in 1976. When the program actually began, no one knew where the number of volunteers the program required could be found. But Home Delivered Meals Coordinator Virginia Hiett and her VISTAs triumphed. In 1981 MIFA was also awarded the contract for the congregate meals program. Continuing expansion of the meals program coincided with the loss, in 1984, of Cook Convention Center for their preparations. 910 Vance Avenue, once Robilio's Cafeteria and Grocery, met MIFA's growing needs with its kitchen facilities, warehouse space and room for program administration. With a loan from the Community Foundation, MIFA acquired the Vance property and left, somewhat reluctantly, the warm but now cramped quarters it had occupied for a decade at First Presbyterian Church, for a new home.
Today the Meals Program, under the direction of Dianne Polly and Maureen Taylor, prepares and distributes 3000 hot meals each day. Approximately 100 volunteers deliver MIFA Meals to 1200 homebound seniors each weekday. MIFA still provides meals to active seniors at congregate sites throughout the four-county region. Special Delivered Meals provide hot meals at noon for a small fee. That program has no eligibility requirements.
MIFA continued to expand its hunger programs in the 1980s. An exciting new source of food had become available from wholesalers with the change in tax laws which allowed credits for food donations to agencies feeding the hungry. VISTA Virginia Dunaway was challenged with what would be known as the Memphis Food Bank. Other volunteers, Elizabeth Boyle, Mary Galbreath and Missie Pidgeon, helped by soliciting donations and community support. Seven years after its founding it distributed over 3 million pounds of donated food annually through 200 community agencies. The Memphis Food Bank became a part of the Second Harvest national food-banking network in 1989. Dunaway received the 1986 Thomas W. Briggs Foundation annual service award.
MIFA's 37 Food Pantries and five collection sites continue to provide three-day emergency supplies of food to families in crisis. In 1997 the pantries provided 614,376 meals! More than 400 volunteers made this possible by shopping, sorting, packing and delivering food.
Working with and for older Americans
MIFA from its beginning has worked to meet the special needs of older Americans, the fastest growing segment of our population and often the most neglected. MIFA's two senior centers, both opened in 1978, one now on Macon and the other downtown, provide companionship, recreation, hot noon meals and educational opportunities to more than 150 seniors each day.
Project HOPE (Housing Opportunities for the Elderly) offered information, counseling and procedural assistance for the confusing housing options for seniors. In 1978 MIFA brought together managers of senior housing facilities to form HOME (Housing Owners and managers for the Elderly) to find ways of improving services. MIFA has also provided counseling in a HUD-funded home ownership program for the elderly. Share-A-Home offered a measure of independence to elderly homeowners by matching them with a younger housemate. The Mid South Senior, a free monthly large-print newspaper with a circulation close to 30,000, operates independently now as Best Times.
Established in Memphis in 1985, the Senior Companion Program is a part of a national program funded through the federal service agency, Corporation for National Service. In 1998, 101 low-income, active seniors were paired with frail elderly low-income persons in Memphis and the Delta District. “Companions” earn a tax-free stipend of $2.55 per hour for 20 hours per week to provide homebound seniors with the care needed to assist them in remaining independent and in their own homes.
A second CNS program, RSVP, the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, provided more than 700 volunteers to other non-profit agencies. Volunteers aged 55 and older donated 140,000 hours in 1997 while enjoying the opportunity to share the skills and talents they have developed.
Lunch and Learn combines a lunchtime experience with stimulating classes in a relaxed atmosphere. Another program, Caregivers, provides training, resources, referrals and encouragement to local caregivers with a well-attended annual workshop.
Grandma, Please! links trained volunteer “grandparents” by phone with latchkey children from 2-5:45 weekdays, providing many seniors with the opportunity to volunteer even if homebound or disabled. The children find comfort from these trained, caring seniors.
MIFA's newest outreach program for the elderly is the Long-Term Care Ombudsman. In 1997, 46 certified Volunteer Ombudsmen Representatives provided nursing home residents with an effective voice for protecting their rights, improving their care and resolving their concerns, according to program coordinator Sandy Smegelsky. She points out that when she first started the program in 1996, “I was a one person program responsible for more than 100 facilities in four counties.” A recent Durham Foundation grant funds a nurse investigator, a much-needed addition to this growing program.
Helping people help themselves
Helping people help themselves remains a MIFA priority. City Slickers, started by The Reverends Douglas Bailey and Henry Starks in 1982, became a MIFA program in 1984, offering disadvantaged youths the opportunity to earn their first paychecks. Funded by the city and the county, this program is now called Teen Job Services with the dedicated former VISTA Peggy Ivy still working in it. One hundred fifty 14 to 19 year olds are offered the opportunity to work while receiving on-the-job-training. 98% of those participating graduate from high school, and half of them go on to college. A new program offers young people the opportunity to volunteer at hospitals, the Red Cross and other non-profit agencies. “Volunteering is a privilege formerly open only to people with means,” Sybil Tucker points out.
MIFA's Job Bank was established with the Memphis Ministers Association to find employment for people pre-screened by congregations. A grant from the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church provided the funds to teach job skills to those formerly thought to be unemployable. A branch office of Manpower, an employment agency for temporary workers, opened at MIFA in August, 1997. More than 350 have been placed in jobs thus far; some have found permanent employment. The MIFA/Manpower Partnership is representative of MIFA's mission to give people a “hand-up, not a hand-out.”
MIFA opens new doors for families in crisis
November 1983 marked the beginnings of Emergency Homes for Families, an innovative program started under the direction of VISTA DeeDee Roop, which brought national recognition to MIFA. In a February 1988 US News and World Report article on programs for the homeless, it was cited as one of five programs in the nation that actually worked. Innovative in concept and execution, the first area program to keep families together in times of crisis represented a unique partnership consisting of HUD, the City of Memphis, MIFA and other cooperating agencies. Conrad Lehfeldt, Director of Housing since 1991, points out, “It was originally assumed that families were homeless because of a one-time crisis. What we now realize is that homelessness is largely caused by their lack of the skills for independent living.” Earlier Marianne Williams had said, “We try not to let a catastrophic event result in chronic homelessness. We hold their heads out of water until they can begin to tread.”
MIFA's 65-unit Estival Communities houses families for up to 2 years but they must also work and attend life-skill classes. Twenty of the units are located in Estival Place, which opened in 1991. Another group of units at 925 Vance Avenue is now home to eight families. Four case managers now assist the families who pay no rent but make deposits in a savings account which is theirs upon “graduation.” The Estival Child Development Center provides quality day and after-school care for the residents' children. On-site medical screenings, individualized parent instruction, a weekly teen group and Saturday field trips are all part of the comprehensive program which has achieved measurable success. 85% of all families move directly to permanent housing and 70% maintain their housing for at least two years.
The 20-unit Idlewild Court, opened in September 1998, is a joint project of MIFA and major funder Idlewild Presbyterian Church with additional funds provided by the Plough and Assissi Foundations, THDA, individuals, and the City of Memphis. The land was, for the most part, donated by Marianne and former Memphian Ken Bouldin, the result of a dream that Mrs. Bouldin had. Formerly a worker for a homeless program in Washington, D.C., she dreamed that this property would be used to help the homeless! A plaque on an outside wall is inscribed “Marianne's Dream.” Members of the church have also donated a demonstration kitchen. The dream lives on!
Willa Lowry noticed homeless people without caps on the coldest winter days; she conceived the idea of knitting caps for them in 1991. Beginning with a small group of knitters, the program has grown until there are now thousands of “Love Caps” knitted and distributed annually, largely through the Coats for Kids program.
Accountability on the business side / kindness on the program side
Fiscal accountability continues to be an essential ingredient of MIFA's success. Margaret Ryan, named MIFA's second Associate Executive Director in 1981, is credited with professionalizing MIFA's financial affairs. The annual audit has never had an exception and the administrative overhead has remained low. Ryan's belief in structure in administrative procedures and freedom in program areas remains. “If we err, it is on the side of strictness on business side and kindness on the program side,” Gid Smith maintained. Ryan is now Director of Operations at Youth Villages.
In the early 1980s it became apparent that MIFA needed to raise more funds locally. Former VISTA Missie Pidgeon was named the first full-time Director of Development. “Her strong religious motivation, bridging the Presbyterian and Catholic communities, made her a one-person ecumenical movement. She put us on the map with some constituencies we would never have reached otherwise,” Smith pointed out. Pidgeon felt that the volunteer and development arms of MIFA function with the same basic philosophy-people who have a need to serve and give must reach out to people who need their help. “MIFA,” she adds, “is the bridge connecting the two. We all need each other. That is what volunteering and fund raising are all about.”
Ellen Abbay, MIFA's first full-time public relations director, succeeded Pidgeon when she retired. Shortly thereafter promoted to Associate Executive Director, Abbay points out that her promotion coincided with marked changes in the political and funding landscape. Government funding was drying up; the number of non-profit agencies, all competing for the public dollar, was increasing rapidly. Creative ideas were the key, Abbay learned. “All the ideas had to be true to MIFA's mission, but ahead of their time.”
Starry Nights is the exciting drive-through fantasy of 2,000,000 lights that has been seen by more than 630,000 visitors since its debut in 1994. The annual holiday exhibit opens the day before Thanksgiving and celebrates Memphis' multi-cultural strengths. It requires 15,000 volunteer hours and hands-on support from its many corporate sponsors. True to MIFA's mission, admission to Starry Nights remains low. “MIFA, even when wearing its fund-raising garb, reaches as many people as possible,” Abbay points out.
Another consciousness raising-and profitable-project was the innovative sale of bricks for the entry walk at the Pyramid, Memphis' downtown sports arena in 1990. Then Development Director Pat Daum's unique project, sponsored by Seessels, Walgreens, and the WMC stations, raised more than $350,000 by selling 15,000 bricks at $50.00 each. The theme “Go Down in History” even reached the Elvis Presley Week fans who come to Memphis from all over the world to honor his memory. Four hundred bricks were sold to fans of the deceased Memphis crooner; they are laid together in two specially marked Elvis sections.
The Circle of Hope, begun in 1992, is an opportunity for individuals to donate to MIFA annually; the minimum required for membership is $1,000.00. In 1997, chaired by Mimi Graves, Snow Morgan and Ann Stokes, it raised $500,000.
Empty Bowls, begun in 1997, helps support the 30 local food pantries with bowls created by local artists at a well-attended annual fundraiser. Local artist Linda Wilson brought the concept to MIFA. Members of the Memphis Association of Craft Artists, the Mid South Woodturners Guild and the Midtown Artists Market donate their work.
The newest fundraising project should also bring international recognition-and money-to MIFA! Beginning in July 1998 with a first year limited edition, MIFA will sell Elvis Presley candles. A unique arrangement with Elvis Presley Enterprises will allow all proceeds from the attractively boxed candles to go to MIFA coffers. The Presley estate thus recognizes that MIFA would have been one of Elvis' favorite charities, according to Craddock. “We deal with people who live at the end of Lonely Street.”
Religious roots and branches
While churches and synagogues do not provide the largest percentage of MIFA's funds, religion remains at its heart. As a vehicle for the Judeo-Christian mandate to care for the neediest, MIFA relies on the Memphis religious community not only for money but also for the many volunteers who make the programs possible. More than two-hundred congregations provide money, in-kind contributions and volunteers. Jean Campbell, the first Director of Church/Synagogue Relations (now Development Director of the Church Health Center) found that “MIFA affords a wonderful opportunity for congregations to give service, to live their religious convictions.” The equally talented and hard-working Sarah Holmes succeeded Campbell.
Now called Urban Ministries, it is the responsibility of Conrad Lehfeldt. Urban Ministries has become a resource for the over 1,500 congregations and religious organizations in the Memphis area. Workshops and special programs are available to assist them in their outreach efforts.
MIFA responds to emerging needs
Former Associate Executive Director Virginia Dunaway points out, “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.”
The Memphis Coalition for the Homeless was organized by MIFA in 1985. Originally coordinated by former VISTAs Selma Lewis and Marjean Kremer, it provided a forum for those agencies dealing with the problem. It now functions as an arm of City government. The Child Sexual Abuse Council was nurtured to maturity by MIFA and then spun off as The Child Advocacy Center.
The critical need for affordable housing prompted MIFA to adopt some creative solutions. An idea for combining abandoned railroad boxcars into single family homes was brought to MIFA by former MIFA employee Bena Cates and her real estate developer husband George. The project was adopted by the Homebuilders Association of Memphis and completed as affordable, attractive and energy efficient housing called City Cottages.
Twenty-four units designed specifically for the physically handicapped, Independent Apartments represent another innovation in housing. Land conveniently close to MIFA and the medical center was acquired at a bargain price through the City's Division of Housing and Community Development. The first project of its kind in Tennessee and the only one sponsored by HUD in the region, low-income, independent individuals now occupy the apartments.
The Latino-Memphis Conexion is a collaboration of more than 40 organizations and individuals interested in building connections between Memphis' growing Hispanic population and the larger Memphis community. Services include a bilingual resource directory, health access services, English language instruction, legal assistance and a cultural festival.
Memphis Parent, a free monthly newsmagazine, reaches 37,000 households in the Memphis area. While providing local information, ideas and analysis, it helps to strengthen family life and promote positive, productive lifestyles in all walks of life.
MIFA's lodestar has always been its mission statement which, like the organization itself, is capable of changing to meet new challenges: “MIFA, Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association, a community catalyst, unites resources to address needs and develop lasting solutions, which empower people to live with independence and dignity.” The methods of reaching these goals will continually shift to accommodate changing needs-and the availability of resources.
Descriptions of MIFA usually include statements that refer to MIFA people. To Gid Smith “the story of MIFA is the women who came through MIFA and developed there. MIFA gave people the opportunity to grow. MIFA alums lead the community.” Allie Prescott adds “MIFA was always able to attract people of high caliber like a magnet. It has had an incredible level of personnel-unparalleled-with amazing talent.” Among MIFA's people he includes “the people you serve, as well as those you work with. It is a special place, with a spirit that is uplifting.” Ellen Abbay believes that the “The spirit of MIFA has never changed. The people are the spirit. It is the pulse of the city. You have daily inspiration when you're there.”
Caprice Snyder says that “MIFA continues to be progressive, trying to genuinely meet the needs of the community, to basically help people who 'fall between the cracks.'” Snow Morgan, former board chairperson, believes, “We all look to MIFA for our vision of what the world should be. It is such a great vehicle to give a sense of worth, value and dignity to the individual. And, MIFA is a freer of barriers than anything I've been involved in. All people are respected here. MIFA brings out the best in people.”
In spite of the growth MIFA has experienced during its three decades, its strength continues to be found in its compassion for the underprivileged and in its determination to resist being “cast in concrete.” Elephants are not as swift as tigers. It is all the more worthy of note, then, that in spite of its size, MIFA remains open to new ideas and new ways of serving the community. Memphis needs such a place, often a place of last resort that can respond to situations that do not fall under the auspices of any other agency.
Each Executive Director of MIFA has brought with him (or her) particular strengths, gifts and skills. Berkeley Poole's two years as Executive Director enabled the community to see the need for such an inter-faith organization while providing its supporters from numerous faiths the opportunity to know and to trust each other.
Gid Smith's seventeen years at MIFA's helm (1972-1989) were marked by his extraordinary ability to take hold of a fragile organization and build it, block by block. His tenure coincided with the time when grants from the federal government were available for agencies offering services to the underpriveledged; he was able to take advantage of opportunities as they arose. Smith gave MIFA the reputation for absolute integrity that it retains today. Robert Dempsey, Co-Executive Director with Smith from 1973 until his resignation to practice law at the decade's end, brought workable strategies for dealing with both government and community leaders. They were an exciting team able together to create a firm niche for MIFA in Memphis. With Dempsey gone, in a choice typical of Smith's sensitivity and ability to surround himself with capable and caring associates, he appointed former VISTA Jeanne Tacket MIFA's first Associate Executive Director. She instilled sound program planning and management practices throughout the organization.
In his eight years as Executive Director (1989-1997), Allie Prescott proved to be a great energizer whose enthusiasm convinced everyone around him that no obstacle was too great to overcome. He continued the Smith policy of empowering each employee to work independently-and well. The slogan, “A hand-up, not a hand-out” reflects the change in focus which occurred during his administration. His receptivity to new ideas and new programs eased the wheels of transition. Prescott resigned to become the first general manager of the Redbirds baseball team.
Margaret Craddock became Executive Director in July 1997. A visionary leader, she is able to look forward while relying on the past. Her vast experience within MIFA has committed her to MIFA's mission to “empower people to live with independence and dignity.” A coalition builder, she has enlarged MIFA's concerns to include the quality of life in the Peabody-Vance neighborhoods supporting a collaborative that links MIFA with neighboring non-profit agencies.
Among changes hoped is for the opening of an Emergency Services satellite office in South Memphis in the fall of 1998. There is a plan for the food pantries to have computers available to simplify procedures; another thrift shop is anticipated. There is on-going work in the MIFA neighborhood of Peabody-Vance to improve the area by adopting crime prevention measures. An Opportunity Bank to provide low interest loans, already begun in Emergency Services, will expand its scope. Through a new effort with the Department of Human Services, Amy Barton will train volunteers to guide and support families who are working their way off the welfare system. MIFA also plans to address another serious problem- the shortage of affordable rental housing. The Craddock years promise to be exciting and fulfilling.
Throughout its existence clergymen of various faiths have often chaired MIFA's Board of directors. Lay persons, however, have taken significant roles. Phil Shannon first became acquainted with MIFA while working with Churches and Social Services in the 70s. His expertise with financial management has been extremely valuable both as he served on the Board and as its Chair. Dr. Charles Dinkins led in working toward a more diverse and harmonious City. David Williams' contributions in the legal area have long lasting implications.
At a crucial juncture, when the organization was faced with growing demands for services while less government funds were available, Nancy Fulmer was the chairperson. Of this challenge, Fulmer said: “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.”
Newly-installed board Chair, Allen Israel, reflects in a similar vein: “The thing that has most impressed me about MIFA, the staff, and all the people on all the boards, is the feeling and warmth for those who are served. We at MIFA believe in giving and serving with loving-kindness. This loving-kindness manifests itself in the way we go about our mission. By never losing sight of our constituents, we are able to serve them with sincerity and dignity.”
Although this history of MIFA will conclude at this thirtieth year, it is only the beginning of the MIFA story. It is written as a tribute to those who made MIFA possible, and as an invitation to those who wish to be a part of its continuing growth.
MIFA faces the future as a dynamic, open-ended organization whose final form cannot be predicted. While change is not always easy to manage, 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.
“MIFA is the place where people of faith come to live out their faith.” - Rabbi Harry Danziger