Grasping hands and laughing, Catholic and Protestant teenagers from Northern Ireland set aside religious differences Thursday as they learned to do-si-do and promenade together in an Arlington church gymnasium.
Back in Belfast, many of the boys and girls come from segregated neighborhoods and schools. But spending a month with their Arlington host families through the Ulster Project allows the visiting teenagers to interact on neutral ground and learn about leadership, conflict resolution and cultural and religious diversity.
Wearing a flowing butterfly print dress, 16-year-old Anna Foster cheerfully tapped her feet and swung around with her partner during a square dancing lesson at St. Barnabas United Methodist Church. Foster, a Catholic from Belfast, said she found it uncomfortable talking with some of the Protestant girls when she first arrived in Arlington until she discovered they liked the same sports and music.
“We just realized we’re pretty similar. We have the same interests,” Foster said. “I didn’t think I would form relationships as well as I did.”
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The northern Irish teens participate in daily activities, which include community service projects, attending services at various churches and visiting popular North Texas tourist attractions, to bond with each other and their Arlington host families, Ulster Project President Toby Gilman said.
“They learn from Day One here that we don’t care what someone’s religion is,” Gilman said.
That’s a different experience than back home, where Zeke Wilson, a 15-year-old Protestant from Belfast, said walking through a Catholic neighborhood might result in someone yelling or hurling a religious slur.
“It would be nice if everyone could get along,” said Wilson, who said he hopes for peace between the rival factions one day.
Before Thursday’s square dancing lesson, the visiting teens and their host families were treated to a traditional Thanksgiving feast with turkey and all the trimmings.
“It’s a uniquely American holiday,” said Gilman, who gave the blessing and explained the traditions to the teens.
Many teens who participated previously in the annual international peace project have gone on to become close friends and have even been bridesmaids or groomsmen in each others weddings, Gilman said.
James Gray’s Arlington family has hosted northern Irish teens twice. This summer, the Gray’s son James traveled to Belfast to visit the family of a teenage boy who visited through the Ulster Project last year.
“It was a great experience not just for them but for our kids, too,” Gray said. “My kids enjoyed getting to see and share the life experiences of someone who grew up in a different country and culture.”