On a chilly November morning in 2016, a line of people snaked along the 3000 block of Sullivant Avenue, located in Columbus, Ohio’s southwestern Hilltop neighborhood. With the cue of rustling of plastic grocery bags, it moved quickly forward toward a series of folding tables, where a group of Muslim youths prepared to distribute food.
MYProjectUSA – a grassroots, predominantly Muslim organization serving the needy around Columbus, Ohio – hosts a food pantry in this location every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Teens and young adults serve fresh produce, dried goods, and other foodstuffs, much of it donated by the Mid-Ohio Food Bank, to the needy, from both nearby and other parts of the city. In the winter, donated coats are sometimes available, too.
The purpose of these efforts is multifold. On the one hand, the pantry serves as a gesture of compassion toward fellow humans in need, an important principle in Islam, explained Zerqa Abid, the founder of MYProjectUSA. By supplying food, organizers hope to assist vulnerable parents, strengthen families, and prevent child exploitation and crime.
“Islam tells us to serve everybody,” she said. “We have to take care of our neighbor.”
But for some participants, there is an additional motivation: connecting with non-Muslims and countering the rising tide of Islamophobia. Abid said that the Muslim community is comfortable holding outreach events at mosques, but that demonstrating their values to the public is the best way for Muslims to counter bigotry and fear.
“My message to the Muslim community is that they have to come out of their comfort zone,” she said. “We have to have our community in the mainstream.”
Dorothy Hassan, who helps organize the food pantry, echoed these sentiments.
“The most important thing to me today was actually getting to be face-to-face, hand-to-hand, hug-to-hug with some of those people . . . who won’t have another opportunity to see someone who looks and dresses like me, and make that connection,” she said.
The sounds of the pantry are indicative of these efforts. Often, the images and sounds of Islam that come readily to mind are those associated with prayer, with formal practices that take place inside of mosques. But here, the overlap of local neighborhood noise with the activity and chatter of participants suggest a new emergence of Islam into the American public soundscape.