Young people in Northern Ireland are drawn into sectarian conflict at a tender age. And that has church leaders worried—and taking action.

In 1975, Kerry Waterstone, a Church of Ireland minister, developed an exchange program, the Ulster Project (UP), which places Catholic and Protestant teenagers into American homes each June and July, the most violence-prone months in Northern Ireland.

Beginning with a handful of teens going to homes in Manchester, Connecticut, the Ulster Project, which has the motto "Peace Through Understanding," has grown steadily and today places hundreds of youth into families each summer in 25 U.S. cities. More than 4,500 Northern Irish children have participated in the past 20 years.

"We're trying to light candles in the darkness, and the kids are the candles," says Phyllis Kidd, an American UP leader.

The project is designed to involve equally boys and girls, Roman Catholics and Protestants, and churches in Northern Ireland and America. Children usually are placed with families from similar religious backgrounds, but all are frequently exposed to each other's religious traditions and practices.

In Glen Ellyn, Illinois, a suburb west of Chicago, about 20 Northern Irish teens have visited each year since 1983. One of their most cherished activities has been staging a variety show for the community.

During a recent rehearsal, nine teenagers took to the stage at First Presbyterian Church, singing a number from the film Sister Act. There was no hint of animosity or hostility. It was difficult to tell Catholics from Protestants.

"The teens are very sensitive to what other teens in the group are feeling," says Julie Nolan, a U.S. organizer for UP. "They've been excellent with each other."

ON PARADE: In Northern ...

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