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VOL. 133 | NO. 94 | Thursday, May 10, 2018

From Enduring to Thriving

MIFA’s Founders Day Celebration looks back and ahead

By Don Wade

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By fall 1967, Memphis had a diverse group of people of faith working on a plan to better the community. Diversity, back then, mainly meant black and white, and Christians and Jews. The notion of them working together was considered bold.

Sally Jones Heinz, executive director of Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association, said people who have served on MIFA’s board say the experience has made them better leaders.  (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

The idea was to establish a hub of interfaith alliances, a place where the heart and resources of the faith community could be put to best use. 

“Especially the Downtown churches in Memphis were seeing the hunger, poverty and racism right outside their doors,” said Sally Jones Heinz, who is executive director of the 50-year-old Metropolitan Inter-faith Association (MIFA). “And they were asking what they, as religious congregations, could do to impact those issues.”

On April 4, 1968, the discussion became more urgent. At the Lorraine Motel, an assassin’s bullet struck Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His death sparked rioting in more than 100 cities around the country.

By Sept. 15 that year, MIFA was formed. The founders were a mix of clergy and laypeople. It took time, however, to get wider buy-in, says Linda Marks, MIFA’s community outreach officer. 

As Marks wrote in a 2017 piece for the Huffington Post, “Many whites were unwilling to align with African-Americans or even acknowledge they had a responsibility to be involved in social action. And many African-Americans could not trust efforts by white churchgoers would be effective.”

Now, MIFA’s 50-year anniversary is essentially a yearlong celebration that MIFA was “created and survived,” Heinz said. On Tuesday, May 22, MIFA will hold a Founders Day event from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. at Church of the Holy Communion’s Cheney Hall at 4645 Walnut Grove Road.

Rev. Ollie V. Rencher, a former associate rector at Holy Communion and now rector at an episcopal church in Charlotte, North Carolina, will deliver the keynote address: “MIFA at 50: Celebrating God’s Tapestry.” 

While in Memphis, Rencher served on MIFA’s board of directors from 2008 to 2012. He is an alumnus of the General Theological Seminary of New York City. His ministry includes social justice and outreach, racial reconciliation initiatives and community revitalization.

Marks says Rencher will note the progress that has been made over the last 50 years, but also the reality that much is left to be done: “I know he’s going to throw out some challenges.”

When MIFA was first formed, service programs were not part of the mission. In fact, MIFA almost disappeared in 1971 because of limited funding and tepid support. In 1974, MIFA was awarded a contract with VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America). Out of that came invaluable service programs, including Meals on Wheels. Other programs, such as Mid-South Food Bank, now have a long, independent history of their own.

Today, MIFA continues the conversation started 50 years ago and has a practical role to play each day. Said Heinz: “MIFA is a place where dialogue can happen and people can come together to serve.”

And it is ever more diverse. Previous Founder Days have featured a panel with Christian clergy, a rabbi and a representative from the Muslim community. 

“We have board members that will say, `I’m different because of what I was able to do with MIFA,’” Heinz said.

At the Founders Day celebration, several people will be honored for their extraordinary lifetime giving to MIFA and will be inducted into the Benefactors Circle of the Norfleet Center of Philanthropy.  Those honorees are Glenna Boales Flautt and Erin and Ray Schultz.

The following will receive awards for distinguished service to MIFA:

Kitty Cannon and Jim Waller – The James Marchant Wood Jr. MIFA Meals on Wheels Award for volunteer longevity and enriching the lives of senior clients beyond delivering meals.

Martha L. Forest – The E.J. Goldsmith Volunteer of the Year Award for her work on special events and in MIFA’s Long-Term Care Ombudsman program, which reflects the dedicated, caring and enthusiastic spirit of service of the late Elias J. Goldsmith Jr.

The Muslim Community of Memphis – The Faith in Action Award for consistently generous, compassionate and welcoming relationships that MIFA has been privileged to build for many years with the Muslim community.

Edward Dobbs – The Annabelle Whittemore Award for serving as chair of MIFA’s recent endowment campaign, the MIFA Independence Fund, and for his distinguished tenure on MIFA’s board of directors.

Mark Finestone – The Annabelle Whittemore Award for serving as an outstanding member MIFA’s board of directors and executive committee.

FedEx – The Pathfinder Award for faithful support as a partner organization, who has been a donor since 1985, participated as event sponsors, supported MIFA with hundreds of volunteer hours, and whose company leaders have served on MIFA’s board of directors.

Tickets to the event, which includes a brief reception with refreshments and music by Earl Randle, are $35 each. Tables for eight are available for $250. For reservations, visit www.mifa.org/foundersday or call 901-529-4569.

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