Bangor spiritual communities stand ready to embrace immigrants

 • October 16, 2017

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By Judy Harrison

For The Weekly

So many people showed up at Bangor High School on Oct. 9 to night to learn about the recently-funded Maine Multicultural Center that organizers ran out of plates and food. The crowd of more than 350 people enthusiastically supported the city’s plan to attract immigrant families to the area.

The event was the first of several planned this fall to share the center’s vision with the community and to raise money to fund it.

But due to cutbacks in the number of people being allowed into the country, it could be several years before there are immigrants to welcome to the Queen City. The Trump administration cut the number of immigrants allowed in the U.S. from 110,000 last year to 50,000 this year, according to Judy Katzel, spokeswoman for Catholic Charities of Maine. That means only an estimated 350 people will resettle in Maine this year compared to the 623 who moved to Maine last year, she said last month. The Portland-based charity has held the federal contract in Maine to be the primary provider of refugee resettlement services since 1975 but, until recently, focused its efforts on Portland and Lewiston.

Another reason cited for funding the center is that the population of Bangor is slowly becoming more diverse, according to U.S. Census data. Of the 31,373 people living in the city in 2009, 29,245 were white. In 2015, the most recent year for which data is available, the population was 32,695 with 30,216 identifying as white. That is an increase of 351 non-whites over six years.

The theme of the dinner, planned and organized through the faith communities serving Greater Bangor was “Many Faiths, Many Cultures, One Community.” The event was sponsored by the Maine Multicultural Center, housed at Bangor campus of the University of Maine at Augusta. Earlier this year, the Bangor City Council allocated $25,000 for the center. The center will receive a $50,000 grant from the city if it raises $85,000 by June 30.

About $1,500 was raised at Oct. 9’s dinner, according to Ed French, director of the center. So far, $15,000 has been raised toward the matching grant, he said.

The dinner was organized to share the center’s vision with members of faith community in Greater Bangor. Catholic, Protestant, Mormon and earth-based congregations were represented along with Jews, Muslims and non-believers.

Joe Baldacci, Bangor City Council chairman, who helped coordinate the dinner, said Wednesday he believes the “welcoming spirit” expressed at the event will continue.

“We want to welcome everybody to Bangor, whether they’re a millionaire or a migrant or a refugee or a transplant,” he said Wednesday.

Involving faith communities before rather than after immigrants arrive is a good idea, according to Chris Myers Asch, executive director of the Capital Area New Mainers Project. The group formed last year in response to the needs of Iraqi refugees settling in the Augusta area over the past five years.

“One of our goals is to help develop relationships between new Mainers and locals,” he said last month. “We also want to educate the broader community about the needs our new neighbors.”

Myers Asch helps coordinate teams of five or six volunteers who help immigrants settle into their new homes. That includes helping them find a place to live, getting furniture and clothes donated, helping them learn English, giving them rides to appointments and assisting them in finding jobs.

The multifaith group in Bangor has not yet decided how it can best serve an immigrant community but a man who a year ago moved to Maine from Jamaica said his church helped his family get on its feet.

“We came here with nothing on short notice,” Karl Gibson of Bangor, whose wife works as a nurse at Eastern Maine Medical Center, said last month. “The church stepped in and helped us get our home furnished and with other things. Now we are on our feet.”

Gibson’s family attends Crosspoint Church, on Broadway.

The Rev. Jason Cross, Crosspoint’s music director, said that whatever the congregation gave the Gibson family, it has gotten back much more.

“Karl is an amazing bass player,” Cross said. “He’s brought a new perspective to our music ministry.”

Expanding ethnic and racial diversity is an opportunity for cultural exchange, City Councilor Sean Faircloth emphasized Oct. 9 at the dinner.

“I didn’t initiate the Maine Multicultural Center so that Bangor can help immigrantsbut so that immigrants can help us,” Faircloth said to the group Oct. 9. “They are essential to our economy given the anticipated population loss over the coming decades.”

The Maine Multicultural Center will sponsor “Breaking Bread with Your Neighbors” from 4:30 to 7 p.m. Nov. 15 at the Bangor Public Library.


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