Volunteers hand out food outside Masjid al Haqq mosque in West Baltimore as part of Islamic Relief USA's "Day of Dignity" events around the country.
Volunteers hand out food outside Masjid al Haqq mosque in West Baltimore as part of Islamic Relief USA's "Day of Dignity" events around the country. (Scott Dance)

Margaret Little thanked Jesus as she rolled a cart full of Honey Nut Cheerios, bread and soup down a curb in West Baltimore. The supply of donated food will help feed her grandchildren.

She got it for free as part of the “Day of Dignity," actually a series of events around the country held by Islamic Relief USA, a California-based humanitarian group. In Baltimore, the mosque Masjid al Haqq in West Baltimore’s Upton neighborhood, hosted the Saturday event that also featured free health screenings, hot meals, haircuts, winter coats and hygiene kits.

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Little said she was no less grateful that the charity came under the name of a faith different from hers.

“There’s only one God with 1,000 names,” said the 62-year-old, wearing gold lipstick to match the cross around her neck. Of the congregants at Masjid al Haqq, she said, “they’ve been loving on people ever since I’ve known them.”

The Day of Dignity event was one of the first of more than a dozen across the country scheduled over the next six weeks. Others are planned in Washington, Dallas, Denver, Minneapolis, Detroit, Philadelphia, Seattle and Las Vegas.

Organizers said the work is needed as long as some communities remain neglected, even while the nation’s economy booms.

In a Baltimore Sun op-ed earlier this week, Islamic Relief USA President Anwar Khan pointed to Baltimore’s nearly 24% poverty rate, epidemics of obesity and asthma, and lack of fresh and healthy foods. He said the statistics show many Americans need a lot more than one day of help.

“We need more affordable remedial and continuing education services to help people learn better, especially when current economic and job megatrends call for it. And, we need to make expand access to health clinic services and nutritious food,” he wrote. “Until those structural problems are addressed, expect more Days of Dignity around the country.”

Outside Masjid al Haqq, more than two dozen residents were already lined up when the event began at 11 a.m. Volunteers handed them bags full of apples, honey, canned soup and tuna.

On the other side of Wilson Street, known here as Muslim Way, volunteers handed out trays of hot chicken and potato salad. Down the block, children played in a bounce house and an ice cream truck gave out free cones.

“Everything today is free,” Imam Hassan Amin said over a loudspeaker. “You don’t pay for anything.”

Amin, executive director of the Muslim Social Services Agency and a member of the clergy at Johns Hopkins University for two decades, said it was all part of a call to service, known as sadaqah in the Muslim faith. Especially as the 2020 election season approaches, he said he expects to hear denigration of Muslim extremists. Events like Saturday’s better reflect the Muslim “way of life,” he said.

“It’s not about destroying people,” he said. “It’s about helping people.”

Established in 1943, Masjid al Haqq is the nation’s sixth oldest Muslim community and the mosque, where its been been based since the late 1950s, is Baltimore’s oldest continually used Islamic place of worship and a city landmark.

Residents in the surrounding neighborhood received the offerings with gratitude.

“It’s very nice of them to do all this,” said Beverly Williams. “This is a blessing.”

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The 56-year-old relies on food stamps, and she said the groceries she carried away Saturday would help her make it through the month. As a man walked by with fresh greens sticking out of his bag, she added that it’s hard to find that sort of quality produce at the neighborhood grocery store.

Robert Kelly came to the event, as he does every year, offering free haircuts. He runs Dabney’s II, a barbershop on North Avenue, and said it’s his duty as a Muslim to offer help. He said it also helps show outsiders that “all Muslims are not terrorists.”

Wali Fraction, who attends another mosque near Gwynn Oak, came to support the event — and to be one of Kelly’s first customers.

Along with with all the food and other acts of service being provided Saturday, he said he hoped the event delivered something less tangible, but just as nourishing: “When you show a warm heart, everyone’s heart warms up a little bit.”

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