The idea was born from a challenge between two friends: a Muslim chaplain and a Protestant minister.
The chaplain, Imam Johari Abdel-Malik, challenged the Rev. Graylan Hagler to work with him on an interfaith charity project in Washington. Abdel-Malik said he could provide food and volunteers for an effort to feed the needy. Could Hagler provide a place for them to serve the meals?
This week, as a result of those discussions, Muslim volunteers cooked and served hot dinners to about 80 homeless women at First Congregational Church at Ninth and G streets NW. They will continue to serve the dinners until Thanksgiving.
First Congregational has had a dinner program for homeless women since 1979. But Christine Moore, the program's coordinator, said getting volunteers to work there is not easy and she is grateful for the help the Muslims are providing.
"I beg for volunteers all the time," she said. "Everywhere I go, I am handing out brochures. I go to places and talk to people about what we do, and still sometimes it is very difficult to get people to help."
Hagler, the pastor at Plymouth Congregational Church in the District, said the effort is "a clear demonstration that there is more that unites than there is that divides the Christian and Muslim faiths."
He said he steered Abdel-Malik to First Congregational because "it is accessible to many people in need and it already has a dining program, so I thought it would be a very convenient location."
Abdel-Malik, a chaplain at Howard University and an imam at the Dar al Hijra mosque in Falls Church, noted that Muslims are required to perform acts of charity during the month of Ramadan, which this year began on Nov. 6. But in the past, Muslims in the Washington area were focused more on helping the needy in their own community, he said.
That began to change after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he said.
"After September 11, we have been challenged to get involved in the larger community, because we don't want to be isolated and because we don't want to be looked upon as foreigners living here," Abdel-Malik said.
He also said he considered the experience of "opening up" to people of other faiths to be rewarding. "We want to explain our religion, at a time when people see it as an allegation of terrorism. We need our neighbors to get to know who we really are."
The timing of the volunteer effort at First Congregational "couldn't have been any better, with Ramadan coinciding with Thanksgiving," Abdel-Malik added. He noted that with the Muslim fasting month following a lunar calendar, it will be another 33 years before the two holidays coincide again.
Abdel-Malik said he spoke at an interfaith meeting a couple of months ago, calling on Muslims and Christians to join hands in addressing social problems. After the meeting, two Muslim business owners told him that they wanted to donate food for a program that would help needy people regardless of their religion. He said the donors wish to remain anonymous.
Hagler said that he and Abdel-Malik have been encouraging their congregations to keep in contact with each other, especially in difficult times. During the recent sniper crisis, for example, people from both communities joined in prayer as they discussed the shootings.
At 5 p.m. on Monday, Abdel-Malik's wife, Nia, and their four children joined about eight other Muslim volunteers at First Congregational. They barely had enough time to break their fast, recite their prayers and prepare the trays before they started serving the dinners at 6 p.m.
Wilhelmina Durant, 32, who has come to the church for the food as well as legal and other assistance, said she was glad to see the new helpers.
"They could have just donated the food; they don't have to come and serve us. But they are doing it, with a smile on their faces, and this is something positive," she said.
The Muslims who have signed up to serve the food range from students to retirees, Abdel-Malik said. His wife said she hopes the effort will continue during the rest of the year, with Muslims volunteering to work at the church one day a week, or even once a month.
Moore would like to see that as well. "People tend to forget that we exist once Christmas has passed," she said. "We are here all year long, and we could use all the help we could get."