Muslim volunteers hand out 700 'Mercy Bags' to seniors, homeless

Muslim volunteers hand out 700 'Mercy Bags' to seniors, homeless.

A U-Haul truck rolled into the parking lot of Linden Park Senior Center in West Baltimore Sunday afternoon, and within minutes, a group of neon-green-shirted volunteers from the Islamic Circle of North America Relief USA was unloading bag after bag of toiletries to give to low-income residents and seniors.

The "Mercy Bags for Baltimore" service project came to Baltimore with the 41st annual Islamic Circle of North America conference, a gathering of about 25,000 Muslims seeking to dispel Islamophobia by educating the general public about their religion. It's the conference's third year in Baltimore, and organizers plan to return for the next two years.

Naeem Baig, president of the Islamic Circle of North America, said it was the second year of the service project. The inspiration, he said, came from the unrest in the city last year.

"Our convention was around the same time," he said. "We came up with the idea that thousands of Muslims are coming to Baltimore, what are we going to do for the city of Baltimore?

"People were going through difficult times. Many seniors and homeless people were in need of sanitary products."

Baig also noted that fear of Muslims has become "alarmingly commonplace" in the United States especially on the presidential campaign trail. Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States after terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists earlier this year.

Katie Crowder, 68, a seven-year resident of Linden Park, shook her head at the notion. People's beliefs and background, Crowder said, aren't of any concern to her.

"I'm not here to judge people," she said.

Crowder was among the apartment complex's residents who received the bags of fruit, water, toothbrushes, toothpaste, laundry detergent and undergarments from the volunteers. She said the service project was a better indicator of Islam than anything she hears about Muslims on television.

"They're doing what's in their heart," she said. "If everybody stopped judging one another, they'd be a lot better off. It'd be a better world, I'm telling you."

Gloria Reese, 69, has lived at Linden Park for five years. She volunteers her time helping neighbors with food shopping and other tasks.

"A lot of us are on fixed income," she said. "Taking care of the necessary bills, with medicine so high, these things come in handy. It helps a lot."

The timing was good, Crowder said. Many people who get Social Security, disability or other benefits usually find themselves scraping by the last few days of each month.

"The last week of the month, everybody starts running out of things," she said.

Saad Malik, an organizer with the Islamic Circle of North America Relief USA, addressed the group before they handed out the rest of the bags to the homeless outside St. Vincent de Paul Church in Jonestown.

"It's an honor for us to be here," said Malik, 23, of Catonsville. "We do this work for Allah. We do this to praise God."

Imam Hassan Amin, 63, of Howard Park, strolled into the park next to the church, greeted the homeless people who live there and handed out bags of goods.

"We're there to try to help them," he said. "We want to connect people to resources to make their lives better."

Amin, the chaplain of the Baltimore Police Department and an imam at the Johns Hopkins University and Johns Hopkins Hospital, said his organization, the Muslim Social Services Agency, donates about $300 per month in supplies for the needy.

David Byrd, 60, thanked Malik and Amin. He told them he would pray for them before going to sleep Sunday night.

"Keep on doing it," he said. "You're going to get blessed, not from me, but from God."

Tyrome Johnson Sr., 46, said he and a few others used to put a mattress on plywood and suspend it from the beams of a highway bridge to stay above the ground when they slept. It kept them away from the rats, and the feeling of sleeping on the street.

The only downside: "The cars going over our head, they would wake us up."

Sitting on a park bench Sunday afternoon, Johnson re-lit a half-smoked Newport cigarette. He looked in the direction of the volunteers.

"They don't have to take the time out to do this," he said. "It leaves me ecstatic. Helps me realize people care about me."

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

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