On June 25th, 50 volunteers gathered in the empty corner of a Fairplay Foods parking lot in Pilsen, for a food distribution event called Neighborly Deeds. Hosted by the Ojala Foundation, a non-profit organization founded by Latino Muslims to provide education and support for the growing community, Muslims and friends have been coming together every Friday for three years to give back to the surrounding community.
On this night, young volunteers played football as others arrived. Beginning the event, Chris Nevarez Azdar, an organizer with Ojala Foundation, led volunteers in the Maghrib, the sunset prayer. After prayer, Raúl Gonzalez, a founder of Neighborly Deeds, spoke of his gratefulness for the volunteers and for Allah, and then provided direction to the team.
The Neighborly Deeds event consists of three stages: the preparation stage, the giving stage, and the humbling stage. First, food is prepared either by volunteers or a partner organization. Then, volunteers form a caravan to distribute meals, tents, and other resources around the neighborhood. After distribution, organizers thank volunteers and remind everyone to maintain a state of gratefulness. Finally, organizers end the night with the Isha (night) prayer.
Founded in 2018, the Ojala Foundation aims to provide Islamic resources, fellowship, and support for the growing population of Latinos who have been lifelong Muslims, who have reverted to Islam, or who are planning to revert. In addition to Neighborly Deeds, Ojala hosts community cleanups Andando y Limpiando (roughly translates to walking and cleaning), Iftars, and Islamic education classes.
According to Edgar Eduardo Moreno Gonzalez, a core member, another important mission of Ojala is to build bridges between Muslim and Latino communities. “Whether it’s distribution of food, cleaning up, book clubs, or cookouts… the mission itself has always been to establish a connection.”
Christopher Abdul Kareem Pavlicek, one of Neighborly Deeds founders, has seen the event grow from four or five volunteers to 50 on busy nights. “It’s been a real blessing because in the beginning we were purely coming out of our own pockets to do everything,” says Pavlicek. “It was just a small group of us just scratching together some funds to come out and give out some food.”
According to Azdar, for almost three years Ojala has hosted Neighborly Deeds every Friday night without fail. “Rain, sleet, snow, the Polar Vortex… they were out there,” says Azdar. “During the pandemic as well, but with precaution: social distancing, with masks, hand sanitizer, and everything.” Azdar says that volunteers still wear masks to prevent spreading, as many people they serve do not have adequate healthcare access to Covid-19 tests or vaccines.
On this night, organizers noted a large increase in volunteers. Shirley Chun, a long-time volunteer at Neighborly Deeds, has seen similar growth in the Latino Muslim community. “When we started this about three years ago, there were definitely not as many [Latino-Muslims],” says Chun. But, now it’s definitely growing more… I do believe that there are going to be way more [Latino-Muslims].”