Dr. Hakam Safadi managed to make light of what was once a very serious situation of bigotry and hostility.
Safadi, a founding member of the Northwest Indiana Islamic Center, recalled the early days of his Muslim community in this area. In the early 1990s, a small group of Islamic believers bought property in Crown Point to build a spiritual home for its members.
They feared that their children here would not grow up knowing their beliefs, their heritage and their language. They wanted to pass down their cultural torch to younger generations, the same torch given to them in their native countries.
"Our fear was if we didn't teach our children about Islam, it would go away," Safadi told more than 400 guests Sunday at Avalon Manor Banquet Center in Merrillville.
Similar concerns were once held by my Croatian ancestors who came to Gary a century ago to start a new life here. They loved America, but they feared that their culture and language would melt away here if they didn't instill it in their children.
In 1992, the Muslim leaders paid $36,000 for the 10-acre property on Colorado Street, surrounded mostly by cornfields.
"But one neighbor didn't want us to build our center next to their home," said Safadi, who is now on the center's board of trustees.
That neighbor complained at public meetings, and called police a few times to hassle the center's founding members, Safadi told guests.
The neighbor also built a large sand dune between the two properties, to block out view of the center, Safadi said. And music speakers were set up on the property line, facing the center, to play loud music and disrupt an outdoor activity.
Still, the Muslim leaders attempted to make peace with their new neighbor by paying a personal visit and bringing a dessert dish of baklava. It didn't matter.
"They told us to get out of their land ... and that we would be bringing weapons of mass destruction to this region," Safadi recalled to the crowd. "We replied, 'With what, homemade baklava?'"
The crowd laughed.
Several years later, one of the neighbor's family members applied for a job in a company supervised by Safadi's son, Ferass. The Valparaiso father of five hired the neighbor's family member based on merit, despite the family's earlier animosity toward the center, Safadi said.
"From that day on, our neighbor has been nice and hasn't called the police on us again," Safadi joked. "It has worked out well, thank God."
Safadi told this story for a specific reason at Sunday's milestone event, created to celebrate the center's 25-year anniversary. He had a message to share.
"We don't hate anybody," he said. "Our religion tells us to be peaceful and loving to everyone, including our neighbor that gave us a hard time."
The center now boasts 150 families, representing more than 30 countries around the world, from Afghanistan to Yemen. More than 300 people now attend prayer services at the center, which also houses a mosque, two full-time schools, a Sunday school, and a humanitarian relief organization.
"The center allows us to worship freely, unlike in some of our home countries," said Safadi, whose role at the event was to note the center's past.
However, the center's future took center stage, literally, during much of the event. Dozens of children filled the banquet hall, with several of them taking part in Islamic-themed performances or testimonials during dinnertime entertainment.
"Because of our center, I can now speak and read standard Arabic fluently," Jawad Salam Nammari told the crowd.
The 17-year-old Lake Central High School student has been a Sunday school student at the center since fourth grade. He has memorized nearly 50 chapters from the Quran, and he has already been accepted at Indiana University Northwest's pre-dental program.
"My father was born and raised in the West Bank, and my family is from Jerusalem, living in that city for centuries," he told me after his speech.
Two Muslim girls took the stage to thank the center's founders for teaching them Islam, and for feeling safe when they are at the center. Other children performed musical routines or recited Islamic messages of inclusion.
"You are amongst family and friends," said Suzanne Kawamleh, who served as emcee for the event. "You are at home here. We welcome all of you."
The event also honored several guests from outside the local Islamic community, including a police officer, two longtime supporters, three newspaper journalists, and U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville, who have helped nurture the center's mission.
"We thank all of you," said Imam Mongy Elquesny, the center's spiritual leader, who came from New York City.
When he was first recruited to be the center's imam, 17 years ago, Elquesny respectfully declined.
"How could I leave the big city to move to a small town in the middle of cornfields?" he joked to the crowd.
He soon changed his mind, and his role at the event was to note the importance of the Masjid (Arabic for mosque).
"It's a house of God, and of spiritual transcendence, where people's souls can rise above this mortal world," he told the crowd.
As I listened to his words, and to the heartfelt words of other speakers, I realized I didn't fully understand their language, culture or beliefs. I've never spoken Arabic. I've never read the Quran. I've never prayed in a mosque.
We also have obvious differences regarding religious ideology and global politics.
Nonetheless, none of this mattered on that night. Or on any night.
I felt welcomed, just as I've always felt at their center.
In turn, this is all they have sought here, dating back 25 years with their first Friday prayer, attended by nine people.
"Our purpose has not changed," said board president Dr. Abdulfatai Adisa.
"We are all one community," Elquesny said.