BANGOR, Maine - Until recently, the 10 teenagers from Northern Ireland visiting Maine this month had little exposure to each other’ s points of view, largely because of tensions and prejudices between Catholics and Protestants that go back centuries, and linger.
That divide has narrowed dramatically as a result of their participation in Spirit of Enniskillen Trust.
Inspired by a 1987 bombing in the town of Enniskillen, the program takes Catholics and Protestants abroad to learn tolerance. It was established by Gordon Wilson, whose daughter was among 11 Protestants killed in the explosion.
The program sends groups to witness how people from different backgrounds are learning to live together in such places as Cyprus, Israel, Germany and South Africa, as well as in such U.S. cities as Seattle. The idea is to help Catholics and Protestants work together to find peaceful ways to resolve conflict, something that has been elusive in their homeland, which is part of the United Kingdom, but a neighbor to the Republic of Ireland.
“Everyone [who participates] needs to demonstrate an ability, a willingness, to listen,” said Liam McCusker, 23, a Catholic and one of the delegation’ s two adult coordinators.
That hasn’ t always been easy.
“It’ s been a very emotional time,” David McKay, a Protestant from Ballymena, said during a community luncheon Tuesday at the Penobscot Job Corps Center on Union Street. The center is host for the group during its stay.
McKay said that anger, empathy and regret are just a few of the feelings that he and other participants have been dealing with in a series of intense workshops they’ ve participated in during their stay.
“‘ The Troubles’ aren’ t’ over. People are still dying for religion,” said Sophie Doherty of Belfast, who attended an all-girl Catholic school.
Catriona Taylor of Derry, who said she is a former gang member and drug user, said she was once held at gunpoint.
“Being in this program helped me realize that I’ m a better person than that gang,” she said
As far as groups go, it would be difficult to assemble a more divergent group of teenagers.
There are five boys and five girls, five Catholics and five Protestants. Some come from major cities, such as Belfast, while others are from small villages. Though they all happen to be 17, they come from a variety of educational and economic backgrounds.
What brought them together in Bangor this month was a shared desire to learn more about one another and the larger world.
The teenagers, who arrived July 17 and are here through Thursday, make up the 10th group to visit Maine since the summer of 1998.
Eight of the visits have been hosted by Penobscot Job Corps, located on Union Street in Bangor. Two other groups visited the Loring Job Corps Center, located on the former U.S. Air Force Base in Limestone.
The Bangor Job Corps Center’s involvement stems from its connection to former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell of Maine, who played a key role in brokering the Good Friday peace accord in 1998. That agreement was aimed at ending 30 years of “the Troubles,” the partisan conflict that has cost thousands of lives.
Getting beyond their own differences has been a challenge. Some of the stereotypes they’ ve long held about each other have been passed down from generation to generation, said Jill Henderson, a Protestant from Tobermore.
Besides that, Northern Ireland remains deeply segregated. That also applies to schools, where most young people develop their friendships.
McCusker said only 5 percent of the schools in Northern Ireland are integrated. The vast majority, he said, are either Protestant schools run by the provincial government or Catholic schools run by the church.
The Enniskillen program doesn’ t attempt to dispel differences, but rather arms young people with the tools they need to stimulate healthy debate when they return home.
“Now I can make a difference,” McKay said, adding that the youth rugby team he coaches back home could be one place to start.
Asked what lesson he would take home with him, McKay said, “If you aren’ t being yourself, no one gets to know the real you.”
Henderson agreed: “If you can’ t be yourself, who can you be? I learned not to always listen to adults’ views,” including those of her parents. “I’ m going to try to change their minds.”