Memphis faith leaders unite to address poverty, education and criminal justice

Just over a year ago, a group of Memphis faith leaders came together with the intent of creating systematic change around issues of social justice in Memphis.

Faith-based and community organizations from both sides of the aisle have brought those Memphis issues to the forefront and hold public officials accountable to their constituents.

The Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope (MICAH), whose membership consists of two dozen organizations, focuses on issues such as poverty, education reform and criminal justice reform. MICAH’s mottos is to "do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.”

Their worship takes many forms with leaders coming from a diversity of faiths, including Baptists, Jews, Methodists, Presbyterians and Unitarians.  Members include Hope Church, Neshoba Unitarian Universalist, St. Andrew A.M.E. and Olivet Fellowship.

One of MICAH’s founding members, Dr. Stacy Spencer, senior pastor at New Direction Christian Church, said his interest was piqued when he heard about a Nashville organization called Nashville Organized for Action and Hope (NOAH), which is a multi-racial and interdenominational faith-led coalition comprised of congregations, community organizations and labor unions that works to give voice to traditionally marginalized people.

“They had been successful in Nashville building a coalition of people who came together to hold elected officials there accountable around issues of affordable housing, and to vet politicians who are running for office so that, once elected, they’re held accountable to the platform on which they ran,” he said.

Spencer said it was time for Memphis to create a similar model that could amplify the voices of concerned citizens to advocate for their marginalized neighbors.  

“If you have a coalition of people and you have numbers, numbers bring power,” he said. “We wanted to create a power base in Memphis to make sure that justice is upheld and that our elected officials are accountable.”

NOAH was established with the help of the Gamaliel Foundation, which trains community and faith leaders to build political power and create organizations that unite people of diverse faiths and races.

The Chicago-based foundation consists of 44 affiliates and seven offices in 17 states, and says a survey shows its national staff is majority women, while people of color make up about 40 percent of organizers, lead organizers and directors across its network.

MICAH tailors the community organizing methodology of the Gamaliel Foundation to Memphis’ unique needs.

“They’ve pioneered how community organizing starts and the training that comes with it; that’s what was missing for a long time,” Spencer said. “We had people who had interest, but there wasn’t any structural organization around it.”

Gamaliel Foundation founder Greg Galluzo served as a mentor to young Barack Obama during his days as a community organizer in Chicago. President Obama’s first foray into community organizing was with the Developing Communities Project, part of the Gamaliel network, and he later become a trainer for Gamaliel Foundation community organizers.

Galluzo, who visited Memphis two weeks ago, said he’s impressed with how quickly MICAH is taking shape.  

“They’ve constructed an organization out of nothing,” he said. “I think the leaders are quite gifted. There are a lot of things the people in Memphis see as problematic and there’s a lot of passion to try to fix it.”
Rabbi Katie Bauman of Temple Israel, Chair of Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope (MICAH), whose membership consists of two dozen faith-based and community organizations working toward systematic change around issues of social justice. Galluzo also said he’s impressed with the diversity MICAH has attracted, with people of so many faiths working in unison to be a collective voice for the city’s most marginalized citizens.

MICAH Chair, Rabbi Katie Bauman of Temple Israel, said the coalition has spent the past year building a strong network of faith and justice-focused partners and hundreds of committed individuals

She said Temple Israel is “profoundly honored to be among the organizations in Memphis who are leading the way toward a more just and compassionate city, in keeping with our long history of civic engagement and social action. We see this as a continuation of the holy work called for by the Hebrew Prophets and the founders of Reform Judaism.”

She said she hopes for practical changes that will improve the daily lives of all Memphians, especially the 27 percent who are living in poverty, of which more than 40 percent are children.

“There’s no faith teaching that gives any of us the justification to ignore these realities,” she said.

“And it’s also my hope that through the way that MICAH does its work, through the broad coalition of organizations, through the grassroots organizing, through the focus on relationship building, our city will also feel more connected. 

We need mechanisms to know one another better, to see beyond the lines of religion, race, ethnicity, and neighborhood, and working together toward a shared vision is one such powerful mechanism.”

MICAH plans to hold an “issues convention” in the first quarter of 2018. Member organization will conduct one-on-one interviews with a total of 3,000 individual constituents, then each organization will vote on those issues most relevant based on that feedback.

In addition to faith-based organizations, MICAH membership includes nonprofits such as Facing History and Ourselves, National Civil Rights Museum, and Just City, an organization that advocates for a fairer and more humane criminal justice system.

“But we know that in order to achieve that goal, our community must demand it,” said Just City executive director Josh Spickler.

“By organizing our faith community to speak with one voice, we believe MICAH offers a very real chance for the people of Memphis to finally realize the power they possess to reform broken, unfair systems like this and make our city more just.”

MICAH’s monthly meetings are held the second Tuesday of each month. Topics have included education, immigration, Confederate monuments and juvenile justice.

The most recent meeting, held in November at BRIDGES, featured speaker Dr. Elena Delavega, who researches at the University of Memphis poverty and the intersection of oppression, marginalization and exclusion.

MICAH’s next meeting, open to the public, is scheduled for Tuesday, December 12 at 7 p.m. at Lindenwood Christian Church. The featured speaker will be Wendi Thomas, editor of MLK 50: Justice Through Journalism, which is a yearlong reporting project exploring economic justice in Memphis.

She’ll focus on the initiative to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King in the 50th year since his death, as well as on Dr. King's legacy and the intersection of economic inequality and public policy in Memphis.

Rabbi Bauman said she believes there’s nothing more courageous than facing our own past failings.

“It hurts, but it is holy work,” she said. “I hope and pray that, as a city, we can summon that courage, face the truth of our past complacency, and use the pain we'll feel as a call to action.”

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Read more articles by Aisling Maki.

Aisling Maki is a writer and editor with awards from The Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists and Public Relations Society of America. Her work has appeared in publications in more than 20 countries and she has written locally for more than a dozen publications, including The Commercial Appeal, Memphis Flyer and Memphis Parent Magazine. She previously worked as a digital producer and weekend reporter for Action News 5, Memphis correspondent for the Agence France-Presse (AFP) and staff reporter for Memphis Daily News.