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Protestant and Catholic Irish Teens Work Together in Texas

July 24, 2010

From The Dallas Morning News, ARLINGTON – For far too long, Protestants and Catholics didn’t mingle in Northern Ireland. Violence tore them apart. But this month, 16 teenagers from the Belfast area – eight of them Protestant, eight of them Catholic – are side by side and becoming friends in Dallas-Fort Worth . They’ve been bonding as they stocked a food pantry for the needy, built a Fourth of July float and jumped on rides at Six Flags Over Texas. They’re staying with North Texas teens and their families as part of the Ulster Project, a 35-year-old national effort that helps foster friendships among Irish students and transform them into peacemakers in their homeland. Program supporters say that the American teens benefit, too. In 1994, the project expanded to Arlington. When Beth McClements, 15, heads back to Northern Ireland, she’ll take some lifelong lessons with her. “Hopefully, to be a little more tolerant and more accepting of people from different backgrounds,” said McClements, who is Catholic. “Be more understanding and less judgmental.” Hanging out with Catholics and Protestants has shown McClements that while there may be differences in their faith, “we’re all the same.” Liza Hawrylak of Arlington says that the Ulster effort is making a difference. Her family has hosted two students from Northern Ireland. The Irish teens find common ground, said Hawrylak, president of Ulster Project Arlington. “You see how the kids grow and they’ve bonded together and work together,” she said. “We’re bringing peace to the future leaders of Northern Ireland.”
Beginnings in 1975
The Ulster Project was launched in 1975 when a Church of Ireland priest was asked what could be done to ease tensions in Northern Ireland. The priest, who had visited the U.S. during a pastoral exchange program, figured that students could benefit from seeing how Americans lived in a multicultural society. There are several Ulster Project chapters across America. The Arlington group holds fundraisers through the year to cover half of the Northern Ireland teens’ travel and program costs. In Northern Ireland, peace has long been elusive. About 3,700 people were killed during a 30-year period called the Troubles, which lasted until the late ’90s. In 1972, British soldiers killed 13 protesters in Northern Ireland on a day known as Bloody Sunday. Last month, the British prime minister offered an apology after an investigation determined that the killings were unjustified. A peace agreement in 1998 ended much of the violence. But tensions linger. Last spring, a bomb went off in the town of Holywood, where McClements lives. “It’s sad to think that it’s still happening,” she said. “There’s a small group from each side that would still be involved in violence, but everyone else is trying to move forward.” Life is improving in Northern Ireland, and people are more tolerant, the Ulster Project participants say. Protestants and Catholics are mingling. Schools are integrated and children of both faiths are becoming friends. “It’s definitely getting better,” McClements said. The Northern Irish teens in Texas say they’re open-minded. To them, it doesn’t matter who’s Protestant and who’s Catholic. “I don’t really care what religion somebody is,” said Thomas Elliott, 16, who is Protestant. “As long as they’re a nice person, that’s all that really matters.” Elliott said the tension between Catholics and Protestants won’t completely disappear. But he hopes that what he learns in Texas rubs off on people back home. Their American hosts are learning lessons, too. Beth Grothouse of Arlington, whose family is hosting McClements, hopes to take what she’s learned back to the halls of Lamar High School, where she’s a student. “There’s just so many people at school who you look at and say, ‘I’m not going to talk to them,’ ” the 15-year-old said. “There are so many little cliques, and people judge. I think it will open me up and be more accepting.” Click here to read the full article.