Muslim charity feeds St. Stephen’s shelter residents during Ramadan


During the month of Ramadan, Saint Stephen’s Shelter served catered meals every weekday evening after sundown. The program, which benefited the 44 men staying at the homeless shelter, was sponsored by the Zakat Foundation of America, an Islamic charity based in Chicago.

The Ramadan meal project started with a chance conversation between Kevin McKiernan, the brother of St. Stephens outreach worker Ethna McKiernan, and his friend, Halil Demir, the executive director of Zakat.

Kevin McKiernan, a journalist, met Halil Demir in 1991, when the two men were in Iran during the Persian Gulf War. Demir was working in the Kurdish refugee camps at the time. He has since moved to Chicago, where Kevin McKiernan also lives.

In August, the two friends were talking about the work of the Zakat Foundation. The Zakat Foundation has charitable programs worldwide, including one that distributes food parcels to homeless people. In Chicago, for example, Zakat distributes hot sandwiches to homeless shelters for individuals who cannot travel to soup kitchens during the cold winter months.

McKiernan explained that his sister Ethna worked as an advocate at Saint Stephen’s Shelter, and persuaded Demir to include the Minneapolis location in Zakat’s effort to feed the homeless.

“It was an extraordinary and unprecedented donation,” Ethna McKiernan says of Zakat’s donation of 41 meals per day for a month. The donation is even more unusual, since Zakat is located 400 miles away.

The Zakat Foundation derives its name from the third of five pillars of Islam. Zakat means to give a percentage of one’s wealth to those in need. The Quran mentions zakat eighty-two times, and some Islamic prayers emphasize its importance. According to Islamic teaching, wealth grows through the blessings of giving zakat, and the prayers of those who receive it. Zakat is also supposed to purify the giver’s sins.

Zakat is particularly important during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. During Ramadan, Muslims abstain from food, drink and other sensual pleasures from sun-up to sundown. Fasting is accompanied by asking Allah for forgiveness and doing good deeds. Demir explains that, while the Islamic faith always requires charity, people are particularly generous during Ramadan, when “for each dollar you invest, you receive seventy-fold reward.”

The meals served at the shelter were picked up by St. Stephen’s staff from the Holy Land deli in Northeast Minneapolis and served after sundown. The meals consisted of hummus, olives, pita, and halal meat. Dan Ittner, who runs the shelter at St. Stephens, said the quality of the food was a real treat for the men staying at the shelter. Usually, since the meals are donation-based, “it’s kind of hit or miss.”

St. Stephen’s shelter, which is located in the basement of St. Stephen’s Church on 22nd St and Clinton Avenue in South Minneapolis, began as a program run by the church itself. Eventually, because of funding and government regulations, the shelter became its own entity, and is now a non-denominational, nonprofit organization. St. Stephen’s parishioners still serve as overnight volunteers, and the shelter is still housed within the church.

For the final celebration of the program, Zakat brought several guest speakers, including Sheikh Sa’ad Musse Roble, an imam who is also president of the World Peace Organization; Hussein Samatar, from the African Development Center; and Wafiq Fannoun, from the University of Minnesota. The guests spoke about Ramadan and their organizations.

Halil Demir says that he hopes the relationship between The Zakat Foundation and St. Stephen’s Shelter continues in the future. He wanted to attend the final celebration last week, but because of his busy schedule, he was unable to attend. He plans to visit the shelter this winter, and hopes that the two organizations will continue their relationship.

Sheila Regan is a theater artist based in Minneapolis. When not performing or writing, she serves as educational coordinator for Teatro del Pueblo.