Watching the worsening refugee crisis, I could no longer sit idly as 11 million Syrians – half of the country’s population – fled their homes. Of these, 4 million have sought protection in nearby lands, many of which have grown increasingly closed to accepting them.

Images of families trekking down endless roads, carrying their belongings and children, filled me with despair. What if they were our kids? But on a little budget with a big family, how could we help?

The answer was as close as my kitchen. Why not organize a Refugee Relief Dinner at our church, a small, somewhat elderly congregation. Granted, I’d never organized a church dinner or cooked – let alone tasted – Syrian food. But I could follow a recipe, and the Internet offered plenty. The big question: Would people come?

A recent poll by LifeWay Research found that Protestants are twice as likely to fear refugees as to help them. When I pitched my idea at church, one member asked whether the money would solely help Christians. If not, he said, people might not participate. Running through my head were Jesus’ words to love your enemies, “But if you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that?” Matthew 5:46 (NLT).

“But we’re a church,” I said. “This is what we do, help people. All people.”

So that’s what we decided to do.

To better understand the refugee experience, we invited a former Liberian refugee, author Marcus Doe, to share his own story about losing his family and fleeing his homeland at age 11. Then we posted invitations all over town. Individual church members sponsored our speaker and donated ingredients for the meal. Local businesses and a farm did, too.

I had no idea how many to expect but cooked enough for 100. And, hey, if we ran out of food, maybe we’d all better understand the refugee experience. A week before our dinner, however, I’d received only one phone call, a gruff male voice asking, “Are you ready for a protest?”

“A what?” I answered.

“A protest,” he said.

Only then did I realize he meant in opposition to the dinner.

Not knowing what else to say, I invited him, too.

Five days before our meal, I dove in, kneading more than 80 rounds of Syrian flatbread; pureeing 11 pounds of humus; chopping 20 pounds of cucumber and tomatoes for Syrian salad; sautéing 10 pounds of garlicky green beans; simmering 240 Syrian meatballs seasoned with mounds of fresh-chopped parsley and pungent Baharat – a traditional blend of spices that I was more accustomed to sprinkling over pies than mixing in ground hamburger; and baking sticky-sweet yogurt and semolina cakes.

As I diced and mixed and baked and boiled, I noticed that in India and East Africa, the same ingredients used to make Syrian flatbread – water, salt, and oil – are called Chapatti. In South and Central America, it’s a tortilla. The same with Syrian salad – a blend of cucumbers, tomatoes, lemon juice and olive oil – which I’d first tasted in Israel, where it is called Israeli salad.

Maybe we’re not so different, I realized. After all, we too come from the same ingredients – human beings created in the image of God – no matter what labels or languages divide us. Maybe this is why, at its core, the Bible’s message toward others is to love, to have compassion, to treat them the way you yourself want to be treated.

The night of the dinner, two Sunday school teachers and my mother-in-law helped set up. My 13-year-old daughter filled canning jars with flowers, and the spicy scent of cardamom, coriander, cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper, and cloves filled the fellowship hall as people straggled in. One woman paid for a table of 10 – despite only one person accepting her invitation. Nearly every seat was taken.

We never did face a protest that night, but together we raised $580 to help those whose lives have been scarred by fear and hate. We heard a powerful message about how God’s love and forgiveness can overcome even the deepest divisions. And, as the sun set over the neighboring fields and folks lingered in the parking lot, I knew that it was true.

Meadow Rue Merrill writes and reflects on God’s presence in her everyday life from a little house in the big woods of midcoast Maine. Her memoir, “Redeeming Ruth,” releases in May 2017. Find her at www.meadowrue.com