Intercultural hospitality at Queen of Apostles

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To really know a culture, you can't begin and end with a guidebook. You have to spend time with the people.

That's why six high school students and five teachers from the Stella Maris School in Madrid, Spain, spent the morning of July 21 playing beanbag toss and making lollipop flowers with senior citizens at the St. Martin de Porres Senior Center in Alexandria.

These 11 Spaniards stayed with parishioners at Queen of Apostles Church in Alexandria for three weeks as part of the Disciples Exchange, a new student and teacher program organized by Queen of Apostles Church in Alexandria that allows Spanish and American Catholics to learn from one another.

Done in cooperation with the Disciples of the Hearts of Jesus and Mary, the program gives participants "the opportunity of opening their lives to a new culture, language and relationships while growing in their faith in a Catholic and family-centered environment," according to the program's orientation materials.

The Disciples of the Hearts of Jesus and Mary is a religious order founded in the Diocese of Cuenca, Spain, with a community there and in Littleton, Colo. After learning that the Colorado community successfully hosted an exchange with the Disciples-run Stella Maris School for the past seven years, Father Leopoldo Vives, a member of the order and pastor of Queen of Apostles, set forth for his parish to do the same. He announced the initiative from the pulpit in March, with host family invitations and information meetings soon after.

Susan Gray, head of the Disciples Exchange at Queen of Apostles and a parishioner since 2006, said, "Father Vives really emphasized that this program is about hospitality. Host families are building relationships in the parish community and the universal church community."

The Spanish participants arrived in Virginia July 4 and returned to Spain July 26. During their stay, they went to daily Mass, took English classes, went on field trips to local landmarks of national interest and completed community service projects. Bonding with their host families allowed them to pursue activities not on the official schedule, from going to a wedding in Williamsburg, to hitting Kings Dominion in Doswell, to sailing on the Potomac River.

Ana Otamendi, 17, said that sightseeing in Washington, especially seeing the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and spending time with her host family has been a pleasure. With one host parent from Italy and the other from the United States, she said she's enjoyed learning more about American history and U.S. immigrant culture. Likewise, she's appreciated the chance to represent her country.

"Some Americans have this false idea of Spain. They think of running with the bulls and traditional dress, but you have to really get to know the culture to get past the stereotypes," she said.

Coloma Ledesma, 27, a teacher at Stella Maris, added that Americans should know about Spain's "healthy Mediterranean diet and beautiful history." Meanwhile, she was thrilled to take a tour of the White House and get to know her Filipino-American host family during her stay.

Sofia Fernandez, 25, a teacher at Stella Maris, said she has loved "getting to know the culture and people, and heal past prejudices," explaining she was expecting Americans to be fat and eat greasy food. She said she has learned that "Americans are nice and generous. Their capacity to share is amazing. The Spanish, as a people, are not always like that."

Staff and parishioners at Queen of Apostles are hoping to arrange for parishioners to go to Spain soon, though Gray said the timeline is uncertain.

"Queen of Apostles is an international parish, so this program fits the community and allows us to model the universal church," she said.

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© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015