The tall wooden cabinet outside the University Islamic Center of Detroit in Midtown is open to all and crammed with necessities. Similar to Little Free Libraries and Little Free Pantries, the concept is simple: Take what you need, leave what you can.
It’s called a blessing box and it officially debuted less than a month ago, on March 12, as an effort by the Muslim Student Association at Wayne State University to address need in their community.
However, the effort is part of a wider interfaith movement that is sweeping the country.
“The types of things that go in the box are nonperishable food items and hygiene items, so some of the things we’ve put up in the past were: toothpaste, toothbrushes, shampoo, floss, clean socks, a hat, maybe mittens, but also food times. Mostly canned food and things that won’t spoil, like pasta, rice or cereal,” said Lila Al-Shwaf, who first brought the idea up to her peers.
The Midtown blessing box was prompted when Al-Shwaf, 22, stumbled upon aFacebook video of mom Maggie Ballard and her son, Paxton, setting up a blessing box in Wichita, Kansas. Al-Shwaf said she was so touched by their work she wanted to set something up in her own community.
Al-Shwaf, who was a senior studying supply chain management at the time, shared the video with the Muslim Student Association in January 2017 and the team jumped on the idea.
Looking into the logistics, Al-Shwaf said their organization connected with the Crystal Rock Cathedral, an Assemblies of God church in Ardmore, Oklahoma. The cathedral had set up a blessing box of its own.
Al-Shwaf said the cathedral gave them advice, tips, tricks and things to think about as they set up a box outside the University Islamic Center of Detroit, also known as Cass Mosque.
Now, Al-Shwaf said, passersby can use the box as a stop for nonperishable food items, hygiene products and sometimes even clothing items.
Although there is a food pantry on the university’s campus, called “The W,” Al-Shwaf said their blessing box fills a gap, because it’s available 24/7 and you don’t have to be a student, or even have an ID, to pick up items.
“Because of the placement of the box near campus and right next to a mosque, people might think, oh you have to be part of this mosque or you have to be a student on campus to be able to use it, but the point of our box is we wanted anybody in the community who is in need to be able to access it and anybody also who wanted to give to be able to reach it and provide something,” Al-Shwaf said.