The temperature drops faster than the setting sun on a Friday evening that feels more like Autumn than Spring. Car after car with members of the Ojala Foundation roll into the parking lot of Fairplay Foods on the Southwest Side for the weekly “Neighborly Deeds Initiative” of passing out food to the homeless.
“As-salamu alaikum,” Arabic for “Peace be upon you” is followed by “Wa-alaikum As-salaam,” ”And peace be onto you” as volunteers greet one another.
For some members of the Latino Muslim group, this will be their first time earning their hasanat, or reward for good deeds; others have been donating their time since the program began three years ago.
“We feed the homeless because it is an obligation as Muslims”, says Raul Gonzalez, director of outreach for the Ojala Foundation. “Sunnah teaches us that among the best deeds are to feed the poor.” Sunnah is the way of life prescribed as normative for Muslims on the basis of the teachings and practices of Muhammad.
The sun is no longer visible, and the sky is dressed in a pale blue with faint yellow. There is a call for the evening prayer before the group breaks their fast and enjoys iftaar – the evening meal.
The daily fast during Ramadan, considered one of the holiest Islamic months, begins immediately after the pre-dawn meal of suhoor and continues during the daylight hours, ending with iftaar.
There is a celebratory mood as volunteers share food and stories before putting their faith into action.
“JazakAllah Khayr” – “May God bless you with goodness”, says Gonzalez as he thanks the brothers and sisters in attendance numbering more than two dozen. He explains to the newcomers what they can expect to see, how they should conduct themselves, and the significance of feeding their soul by feeding the miskin – the unfortunate, impoverished.
“Allah has not forgotten them”, he says before the group breaks and heads out in a caravan through the Heart of Chicago.
The first stop is at a homeless camp under a bridge not far from where the volunteers first met.
It’s a row of rigged-up shelters mostly made from cardboard boxes, wood, sheets, and many other discarded items one finds in the street. Some of the lucky ones have tents and other small luxuries that many people take for granted. But despite living in squalid conditions, there is a sense of resourcefulness, if not determination.
Gonzalez leads the team in engaging with people, emphatically announcing that they have come bringing hot meals to those who would like them.
Each volunteer is greeted warmly with a “Thank you for coming.” Among them is Mike who says he’s been living in the streets for almost 30 years.
“I have nothing, but love for them”, he says of Ojala. “I appreciate (that) they come out to see us week after week.”
Being seen is a sentiment that Juanita also acknowledges. “I get attention and help from them that I don’t get from the government”, she says.
Along with meals, Ojala also provides the homeless with clothing, toiletries, tents, and other essential supplies. In Juanita’s case, the group is also helping her get the proper identification and applying for temporary housing.
Homelessness: Cause and Consequence
The most recent data available estimates that there were nearly 80-thousand people experiencing homelessness in Chicago throughout 2018. And of those people, Black and African Americans are disproportionately affected; 78-percent say they lived in the street or at a shelter.
In January, the Illinois General Assembly unanimously passed the Public Housing Access Bill as part of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus agenda. According to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, the bill helps to dismantle the systemic racism sustained by the current public housing system.
The Reentry and Housing Coalition reports that more than 25-percent of people experiencing homelessness say they’re being arrested for activities that are a direct result of their homelessness, like loitering, sitting, lying down, or sleeping in public.
Due to this action, reaction relationship, a formerly incarcerated person is nearly 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general public, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
More Latinos are becoming Muslims
After visiting nearly 6 different locations, the initiative ends in the same way it began – with prayers.
“JazakAllah Khayr” says Gonzalez thanking the volunteers again for their charitable acts. “May God bless you with goodness.”
The “Neighborly Deeds Initiative” of passing out food to the homeless has fed more than 15-thousand people.
Learning that there are Latino Muslims might be a surprise to some people considering the ethnic group is primarily associated with Christianity; about 76-percent in the United States, according to the Public Religion Research Institute.
But there is a sizable population of Latinos who are Muslim, and their numbers are growing. The Pew Research Center finds Muslims living in the U.S. increased from 2.5 million to 3.5 million from 2007 to 2017. Approximately a quarter-million of them are Latinos. While many Latinos are raised in Muslim households, researchers find that a little more than half are former Catholics.
“Islam provides a perfect combination of logic and faith”, says Chris Nevarez, member of Ojala and fellow with the Illinois Muslim Civic Coalition. One of the reasons people give as to why they are attracted to Islam is that Islam emphasizes a personal and direct connection with God.
Some families frown at a member leaving the faith they were born into. While Nevarez’s family and friends have been very supportive, he knows many members of Ojala who have not been as fortunate.
“The initial responses for many include a belief that they are renouncing their latinohood to become Arab or a fear that this will lead to any radicalization (fear that comes from the media’s portrayal of Islam)”, he explains. “These reactions have many times led to people being kicked out of their home or also being ostracized from their family and friends.”
Latino Muslims live in the intersection of cultures, and Ojala Foundation members see themselves as the bridge bringing people together.
“It all begins with action”, Nevarez says. “Ojala aims to give dawah (invite individuals to Islam) through our good actions.”
For the members of Ojala, who are often made to feel like foreigners in their own country, strengthening community relationships by serving the homeless, another community often villainized and misunderstood – is their responsibility.
“A lot of us come from these neighborhoods. We are giving back to the community that raised us”, says Malaina Echevarria. “It’s bittersweet to know there isn’t more we can do for them, but Alhamdulillah (all praises belong to Allah) – we are grateful to serve.”
The month of Ramadan, which runs this year from April 13 to May 12, is dedicated to worship, charity, and community as Muslims renew their Iman – their faith.
Hugo Balta is owner of Latino News Network. He also is a former president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.