When Malika MacDonald watched from afar the devastation caused by unrest in Baltimore's long-struggling neighborhoods, the Boston-based worker with Muslim charity ICNA Relief USA felt compelled to help. Staff and volunteers with the group, which helps disaster victims, came to the city earlier this month and distributed food and hygiene goods to elderly residents living on riot-torn blocks.
On Saturday, MacDonald returned to the city, this time for the annual convention of the Islamic Circle of North America, (ICNA) as an attendee and speaker, but also to continue the charity's work in the city. The annual convention's theme this year — to dispel growing misperceptions about Islam and the Prophet Muhammad — dovetailed with her own work with one of the nation's largest domestic charities, MacDonald said.
"I don't feel comfortable in my life when I know others are suffering," MacDonald said, as she bustled around a convention center room stacked with more food and supplies that were to be distributed Sunday to Baltimore's homeless.
Volunteers from the 20,000-attendee convention handed out about 400 "blessing bags" with dental kits, juice, oranges, water, cereal bars, soup, and food donated by Whole Foods around Madison Street and the Fallsway.
MacDonald told a story of a homeless family the group met while handing out the bags. A 4-year-old girl opened hers and let out a squeal of excitement.
She'd never had her own toothbrush.
"It was eye-opening to some of the severe poverty that exists here," MacDonald said.
The relief group, a division of ICNA, worked on the initiative in conjunction with the Muslim Social Services Agency of Baltimore, or MSSA, a social services organization that focuses on urban areas.
"We do this because we are Muslim," said Karim Amin, MSSA's president. "I'm hoping doing these services will dispel myths."
Dispelling myths about Islam became a central theme of Queens, N.Y.,-based ICNA's conference this weekend at the Baltimore Convention Center, said Naeem Baig, president of ICNA. The convention runs through Monday.
Convention planners had intended to focus on the connection between faith and service this year, Baig said. But the group shifted its focus after the January terrorist assault on the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical weekly that lampooned radical Muslims and the Prophet Muhammad, in which 12 people were killed. The attack stoked a heated debate about freedom of expression.
"We were being asked why Muslims feel angry when someone makes fun of the prophet," Baig said.
The group hoped to use its convention and a new educational campaign called #WhoisMuhammad to educate people about the prophet and the faith.
"The stereotypical image of the prophet is not what we are taught or preach," and perceptions persist about Muslims persecuting women and lacking tolerance, Baig said. "The Islam we know or practice is totally different from that image. Our Islam is a commitment to God and … treating all human beings as equals.
"When you look at the life of the prophet, his faith and commitment to God and service and to society, we must convey that."
That message is at the crux of a campaign kicked off in January, in which local ICNA chapters have raised funds to erect billboards around the country. So far, commitments have been reached to put up 50 billboards, designed to encourage dialogue and increase understanding about Islam and its prophet, with messages such as "Muhammad always taught love, not hate; peace, not violence." Thirteen billboards are up so far, including three in Baltimore.
MacDonald said she felt particularly drawn to provide aid earlier this month in Baltimore, as she drew parallels between negative attention to the city and to her own faith.
"We have a religious obligation and need to go out," and help the needy in the U.S. "It is our faith that compels us to do this, particularly at this time. It shows what true Islam is."
The ICNA convention, open to the public and people of all faiths, aims to offer experts' views on economics, finance, social work, child psychology, law and education and includes workshops and sessions on family issues.
For Humaira Uddin, 18, who traveled to the convention with her family from Ashburn, Va., such gatherings offer a chance to meet new people, hear great speakers and participate in something of a spiritual revival, she said.
"It's a great learning experience," she said Saturday as attendees waited for the first sessions to begin.
Baig said though some attendees wondered about the safety of the city after the riots last month, the group never considered canceling or moving the event.
"As American Muslims, we are part of society and have to address these issues," he said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Colin Campbell contributed to this report.