Helping Hands

Three local religious organizations prove that giving needs to be a year-round responsibility

The holidays are a season of giving, but for many religious organizations, giving is a year-round responsibility. A Tucson church, synagogue and mosque clearly illuminate that reality.

The First United Methodist Church, located near the UA campus, assists several charitable programs, including the Community Food Bank.

The church also aids the Methodist community center in Agua Prieta, Mexico, across the border from Douglas, Ariz.

"Four years ago," explains Olga Tafolla, a First United Methodist parishioner, "I asked the pastor (in Agua Prieta) what their children would like at Christmastime. I thought he'd say candy, cookies or toys, but after a long pause, he said they needed shoes.

"So many children either go barefoot or have holes in the bottom of their shoes," Tafolla observes of the poor children of Agua Prieta who frequent the community center.

To address that sorry situation, the children's feet are traced on paper, and the drawings are mailed to Tucson. First United Methodist church members then buy shoes and socks for the child they select.

In the first year of the program, 200 Mexican children participated, but that number declined to 95 in 2009 and 76 this year.

Following a recent Sunday service, the shoes were dropped off in the First United Methodist Church's bustling social room. Displayed on a table, they ranged from baby shoes to a size 10 1/2 for a 17-year-old.

"I know how important new shoes are," remarked David Carrico, one of those supplying shoes. "Those children need a lot of help, because some of their families can't even afford to buy food."

The shoes were delivered to Agua Prieta last week, and Tafolla says everything went well.

"The kids gave us a nice reception," she reports, "and gave us a large thank-you note they drew and colored themselves. It shows their hand and footprints."

Among the numerous charitable projects in which Temple Emanu-El participates, one is limited, while the other is open to anyone who walks through the doors of the synagogue on Country Club Road.

The rabbi's food pantry gives out 200 food bags yearly to people who just show up, says Jill Rich, chair of Temple Emanu-El's Social Action Committee.

On the other hand, the synagogue's participation in a portion of Operation Deep Freeze, which houses homeless individuals and families on chilly evenings from November to February, is somewhat restricted: Those staying at Temple Emanu-El must have agreed to a case-management process, in an effort to try to improve their lives.

Since the inception of Operation Deep Freeze almost three decades ago, the synagogue has housed people every year.

"We'll be open 30 nights this winter," comments Rabbi Samuel Cohon, "with enough people to provide a hot meal along with cots and bedding (for up to 30 people)."

Breakfast and a sack lunch are also given to those staying at the synagogue, and movies are shown before bedtime.

"It's a home-like environment," Rich says of the program. "The number of homeless people is going up, including entire families. The statistics this year are higher than ever before."

Cohon adds: "We treat people with respect, and it's an incredibly powerful experience for a lot of people. ... We're helping someone build a life as a contributing member of society. This is a moral commandment which has been a central part of our life and history in Tucson for 101 years."

For Muslims, charitable giving, or zakaah, is one of the pillars of their faith.

"It's like an alms tax," explains Sa'eed Purcell, of the Islamic Center of Tucson, also near the UA. "It's similar to tithing (in some respects)."

In Tucson, most of the alms are given during the fasting month of Ramadan, the timing of which changes annually. That means at least some of the Islamic Center's numerous charitable efforts are concentrated around a slightly shifting calendar.

"We help people out with rent and utility payments as well as food purchases," Purcell says, "and pretty much anyone can apply, particularly from (Tucson's Muslim) community membership of 10,000 to 15,000 people."

In addition to assisting local residents through this program, the center has participated in a clean-socks campaign for immigrants in the desert, and has collected donations for refugees in Uzbekistan.

The center also assists travelers. Recently, it helped a family from Morocco who was visiting the United States—and was struck by a devastating tragedy.

The family's 2-year old daughter was diagnosed with a terminal disease while here and, after being hospitalized, passed away. The Islamic Center aided the family by covering both medical expenses and the cost of transporting the tiny body back to her homeland for burial.

On a more uplifting note, last May, the center implemented a free medical clinic to which everyone in town was invited.

"It went fantastic," Purcell recalls, "and we pretty much had people here continuously. We plan to repeat it, hopefully monthly."

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