After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968, economic, social, and racial divisions threatened to tear Memphis apart. A diverse group of community and faith leaders came together and MIFA was created to confront the issues of poverty, hunger, and social division through service.
2020 brought another crisis to Memphis. In a series of blogs, some of our current-day faith leaders have taken time to express their visions and hopes on healing and coming out of the pandemic better and stronger as a community.
It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. This well-familiar quote is the opening paragraph of Charles Dickens' well-known novel, A Tale of Two Cities. In reading the history of MIFA one might conclude that MIFA was founded during the worst of times. This would be an accurate description if during that period one only looks at the Memphis 1968 Sanitation Strike. A broader view supports Dickens’ assessment.
It was the best of times; black churches that had always been the stalwarts of the black community became partners with neighboring white churches.
It was the best of times; The Downtown Churches Association was founded, and, in many cases, congregants of black churches had a first-time worship experience at a Presbyterian, Catholic, and Episcopal churches. Likewise, white congregants had a first-time worship experience at African Methodist Episcopal, Christian Methodist Episcopal, and Missionary Baptist churches.
It was the best of times, black church congregants were introduced to new organizational structures and words like Bishop, and deacon had new meaning. Unusual words like Dean and Rabbi became a part of the evangelistic committee. White churches were introduced to kitchen aid, that had no reference to an appliance or employee.
It was the best of times. The demeaning black character, Hambone, was no longer on the first page of the local newspaper.
It was the best of times; black churches began designating benevolent offerings for a newly founded organization named MIFA.
It was the best of times; every Sunday, an informal interdenominational black church gathered at Robilio’s restaurant. This was the place where feeding the soul continued after the 11:00 am worship service. This was the place where preachers swapped their three points and a poem, first ladies paraded high-fashion, and ushers demonstrated it was possible to eat a full meal and not drop a single crumb.
It was the best of times, Robilio’s was the place where one would dine on semi-authentic soul food but avoid the wait time to be served by a waiter or waitress. This was the place where white-collar, blue-collar, and no-collar workers continued the tradition of family dining after church.
This was the place where the “real” news about problems in the community would be discussed.
Yet it was the worst of times. Robilio’s Restaurant was purchased by MIFA. Who could imagine that MIFA’s need for larger space would have unintended consequences in the black community? While the necessary act of moving to a larger space to provide enhanced community service was applauded its impact on the black community was not immediately noticeable.
Over time, the effect of the move has been observed. Churches that at one time had an informal fellowship have become silos. Interdenominational alliances have relatively become extinct. Sunday gatherings are socially segregated. After Church dinner is now geographically dispersed and is smaller intimate gatherings of friends and families.
It was the worst of times; justice has been outsourced. There is no blame or one-size-fits-all solution. And yet, these are the best of times. These are the best times to lay aside our differences and affirm the commonalities of our faith. These are the best times to reignite faith-based partnerships. These are the best times to reevaluate our relationships and seek to rebuild trust where it has become tenuous. These are the best times to seek and promote justice for all.
Rev. Dr. Almella Y. Starks-Umoja
Itinerant Elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AMEC)
The Rev. Dr. Almella Y. Starks-Umoja is an itinerant elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AMEC). Dr. Starks grew up in a family of passionate civil rights and social justice advocates and has continued this commitment to Social Justice. She is a native of Memphis, TN. She is a graduate of Morris Brown College, Atlanta GA, and is an active member of the local alumni association. She received a Master of Arts degree from the University of Memphis and a Master of Divinity degree from Memphis Theological Seminary. In 2001, she received a Doctor of Ministry degree from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, IL.
Dr. Starks-Umoja has 20 years of pastoral experience in the Memphis and surrounding area. In addition to pastoral, appointments, she has served as the President of the AMEC Ministerial Alliance of Memphis and Surrounding Area, Member of the Board of Examiners of the AMEC, and Director of Ministries of St. James AMEC. She has been employed as the church musician for the African Methodist Episcopal Zion, United Methodist, and AMEC churches.