Note: At their request, the visitors to the VOA interviewed for this story are identified by first names only.
Lansing, Mich.—“Rothy” is a broad-shouldered, middle-age man whose soft voice belies his striking stature. Years ago, he was a self-reliant roofer and jack-of-all-trades, he said. But a stroke several years ago put an end to that. He’s been struggling to get back on his feet, figuratively speaking, ever since.
Homeless and hungry, Rothy joined a handful of people in similar straits who took comfort on a cold afternoon in a warm, welcoming meeting space in downtown Lansing’s center for Volunteers of America Michigan (VOA).
Later that afternoon, a half-dozen Michigan State University students slipped in, carrying big blue Rubbermaid bins. Members of the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA), the majority were young women in long skirts, winter coats and colorful headscarves, or hijabs. The guys wore slacks and dress shirts.
Quickly and quietly, the collegians worked the room, handing out 50 sack lunches. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, string cheese, fresh fruit, cookies and bottled water disappeared within minutes.
The MSA has been performing this kindness twice a month for about eight years now. It’s an outgrowth of Project Downtown, a 2006 initiative launched to feed America’s homeless by the group’s national parent organization.
Project Downtown dovetails with tenets ofIslamic teachings. Charity is one of the religion’s five main practices.
“The reason we do this is to give back to our community,” said Amal Mohamed, a sophomore psychology major and MSA’s volunteer coordinator. “Our religion is very big on helping others. We want people to know we ought to be grateful for what we have and to understand that some people have been dealt a bad hand. Project Downtown gives us a sense of purpose and direction; it’s way to help others as a way to stay well grounded.”
Every other week following Jumu'ah, or Friday prayer, the MSA members set up an assembly line in the gymnasium of the Islamic Center of East Lansing and make an average of 50 to 60 brown-bag lunches.
“It’s a good thing to do together, being with your friends and helping to make sandwiches,” said Aquila Hussain, a junior microbiology major and the MSA’s vice president. “There’s a feeling of community and every time you finish, you’re surprised at how quick it was. It takes about 20 minutes and you’re about to feed 50 people.
She hopes the group’s good deeds demonstrate the true meaning of Islam at a time when violent splinter groups are sullying the religion’s honor and integrity. “Islam means peace and that should define everything we do,” Hussain said.
Darin Estep, the VOA center’s director of community engagement, said the MSA and other volunteers are vital to its operation. Several student groups volunteer for kitchen duty at the VOA. However, the Muslim students are the only such group distributing supplemental meals there on a regular basis.
Mohamed said, “They’re very grateful people. They let us know that they don’t get a lot of students like us, coming out, feeding them, making small talk and establishing long-lasting relationships with them. And they’re very grateful for what we do. You start to know people, their names and their stories. And they’re just like us. It’s just that their lives have been turned upside down, and that can happen to us. It keeps us humble.”
While perhaps unseen by the average resident, the Lansing and East Lansing homeless population over the course of 2012 (the latest year for which data are available) was 4,651, including 1,337 children, according to the Greater Lansing Homeless Resolution Network, which encompasses 25 social service organizations.
Meanwhile, the VOA reported that in 2013, it served 123,509 meals and provided 23,415 nights of emergency shelter to those in need.
“The meals provided by the Muslim Student Association are a welcome supplement,” Estep said. “People without resources will take calories anywhere they can get them.”
In order to help fund the work, the MSA helps to host a Diversity Dinner every spring. Half of the admission proceeds are earmarked for Project Downtown. The other half goes to the Greater Lansing Food Bank.
For those nourished by their efforts, the MSA's outreach has certainly made a difference.
“I think it’s beautiful; it’s very important,” Rothy said. “I find it very positive and I think it’s good for (the students) to see what it means to be homeless.”
From a nearby wheelchair, Larry, a homeless former Marine who saw action in Vietnam, nibbled on his sandwich. A few crumbs lodged in his long white beard. Green and white hospital-issue stockings flashed from his once-white sneakers.
Being able to get a bite to eat with other regulars who’d come in from the cold brightens his otherwise solitary life. “It’s real important,” he said. “I’m all alone. I don’t have anyone to cook for except me. So I try to get at least one or two meals when I can.”
Walking the walk
MSU’s welcoming, inclusive campus environment speaks well of its continual efforts to increase sensitivity and acceptance of all people, regardless of their ethnicities, religions and lifestyles.
Here are just a couple of examples of initiatives in which it strives increase an understanding of Muslim culture: