SCARBOROUGH — Sharing a meal to promote good will and understanding is a practice as old as humanity itself and one that is threaded through ethnic and religious traditions around the globe.

Jesus Christ perfected what is known as the table ministry, regularly inviting people of all stripes to share food and hear his words, right up to the reckoning of the Last Supper with his closest followers.

So the parishioners of St. Maximilian Kolbe Roman Catholic Church were treading in well-worn footsteps on Sunday when they hosted a Building Bridges dinner to promote fellowship between natives and newcomers in Greater Portland.

“The breaking of bread is a naturally symbolic event,” Monsignor Michael Henchal said as dinner was about to be served. “What we’re doing here is an extension of that.”

About 250 Christians, Muslims and others got to know one another a little better Sunday evening over mounds of aromatic rice, roasted chicken, stuffed vegetables and golden pastry filled with spicy beef. Participants of all ages included refugees and other immigrants from Iraq, Lebanon, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Middle Eastern music played and some people danced.

The parish organized the dinner following President Trump’s recent crackdown on refugees and undocumented immigrants, but it was in the works for more than a year. Henchal, who also is pastor of St. John and Holy Cross Parish in South Portland and St. Bartholomew Parish in Cape Elizabeth, got the idea when he heard a radio news report that said many Americans feared Muslim immigrants, but few Americans had actually met one.

“I figured if we’re going to be neighbors, we need to get to know each other,” Henchal said. “Food is one of the most powerful ways to break down barriers and come to understand that for all of our differences, we have much more in common.”

Elizabeth Campbell, a parishioner who headed the dinner effort, said the gathering was an opportunity for many church members to offer a more welcoming experience than their ancestors received when they came from Ireland, Italy and other countries decades ago.

“It’s all about love and peace and our brothers and sisters,” Campbell said. “There’s always change. It’s a good thing. A mosaic or a melting pot. Whatever it is, it’s what makes us American.”

The dinner was planned with help from Zoe Sahloul, executive director of the New England Arab American Organization in Westbrook, and her husband, Walid Moumneh, a business analyst who works in information technology at Idexx in Westbrook. The couple came from Lebanon to Maine 20 years ago and are raising three children in Falmouth.

“The main reason we’re here is because we’ve noticed there is a gap between cultures that is furthering the misunderstanding that immigrants aren’t contributors to our communities,” Moumneh said. “We want to narrow and bridge that gap.”

Moumneh noted that the tradition of fasting among Muslims helps believers grow closer to God, appreciate what they have and feel compassion for others who suffer without. Sharing a meal allows people to open up, reach out and communicate.

“We need more of this,” said Sahloul, his wife. “Whenever we have the chance, we need to come together. If everyone would open up their minds, I think they can see the goodness in all people.”

Bishop Robert Deeley of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland praised the dinner as a way to show support for and solidarity with the Muslim community at a time of uncertainty in the United States.

“Hopefully, individuals and families in our local communities will be inspired by the dinner to extend kindness to people who may have different beliefs,” Deeley said in a written statement. “The way of God is not division, but peace.”

Mike Audet, 78, a former WGAN-AM news anchorman, attended the dinner with his wife, Frances. Audet found his French-speaking skills came in handy sharing a table with Nende Makyambe, 37, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“I can’t imagine what it’s like to come from a war-torn country to a place where everything is different,” Audet said.

Makyambe, who is Christian, attended the dinner with three of his four children. His wife was at home in Portland with their youngest. Makyambe and his family came to Portland eight months ago from Tanzania, where they lived for the last 20 years, waiting to come to the United States. There, he worked as a mason. Here, he works in the packaging department at Shipyard Brewing Co. in Portland.

Makyambe said he was surprised and pleased to see Christians and Muslims socializing and getting along.

“In my whole life, I have never seen this, where people of different faiths sit down and share a meal,” Makyambe said through Audet. “I love this. It makes me very happy.”

 

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