The other day I was sitting in a restaurant and a friend asked me “why is the YMCA referred to as a movement?” Frankly, I had been calling the Y a “movement” for so long that I just assumed everyone considered it as such…. I guess I was mistaken.
My friend’s question caught me off guard. I am that guy that feels I should have a “ready answer” when it is assumed that I have a certain level of expertise on a subject. When I get caught off guard or secretly lack a certain level of expertise, it is unwise for me to give a “ready” answer…because it is typically inadequate. Now I don’t want to imply that I cannot or will not respond to a spontaneous question on a topic that I have no knowledge on…it’s just that I shouldn’t.
For example, when I find myself on someone’s farm staring at a large piece of machinery and I am asked: “what does that thing do?” I should not answer. Unfortunately, my inability to “not answer” causes me to say something along the lines of “it does a lot of farm things” and that is as I said, sadly inadequate. In all fairness, I feel the question should never have been asked in the first place. Anyone standing in a cow pasture not wearing overalls or chewing on a stem of grass staring at a farm implement like it was a spaceship should never be asked a farm type question.
However, when a question is about the organization that I have been involved in for 35 years, I’m usually eager to share my thoughts. So, I tipped my chin at an approximate 30-degree angle and extended my right arm supinated my hand at the wrist (I have found that this gesture adds credibility when I fear my answer quality will be low) and gave my best shot on the “movement” question. I highlighted what I called the “flexible and fluid” nature of this 180-year-old organization which has continued to adapt to the ever-changing needs of its varied constituency. While that explanation rolled off my tongue and did not cramp my extended arm, I realized the term “movement” covers much more than the YMCA’s history of adaptability. My answer was inadequate, to say the least. Luckily, my friend and I were interrupted by a waiter who wanted to tell us about his recent back surgery before he presented us with the check. Looking back at my answer, I wish I would have said something about how the YMCA movement represents a group of people working together to advance their social or artistic ideas…it sounds better and I wouldn’t have felt the need to extend my arm.
George Williams, the founder of the YMCA, believed that alternative activities such as Bible study, held in a group setting, would promote strong character and work ethic in “young men.” To put this into context, during the industrial revolution, thousands of young men left their rural farms and went to work in the factories of London, England. These young men quickly found themselves working long hours for factory owners (like George Williams) and then they were set free at night to experience city life without the supervision of mom and dad. George Williams and his business peers were concerned that the “allure and vices of London’s nightlife” challenged both the spiritual wellbeing and professional capacity of these easily influenced young men.
Whether George and his friend’s goal were to evangelize or increase the productivity of their factories, the bottom line was they believed an “alternative activity” needed to be introduced, promoted, and sustained. Thus, the YMCA in London, England began. While Bible study might have been the perfect alternative activity for that day and time, it really wasn’t about the specific “activity.” I believe the magic of an alternative activity lies in the involvement of passionate, caring individuals who guide the process, initiate involvement and celebrate accomplishments of both the group and the individuals involved. Today we call these people mentors, coaches, volunteers, or YMCA staff. Over the years the YMCA had to adapt to its activities to meet the trends of time and desires of those involved. The beauty of the Y lies in the community-based leadership structure that allows it to quickly assess and respond to local needs. This inherited trait introduced and promoted by George and his friends we now call “YMCA programs.”
Today, the YMCA focuses their program emphasis on three core areas: healthy living, youth development, and social responsibility. Many of our sustainable programs have stood the test of time and are still providing excellent alternatives to social needs. i.e. after school care, drowning prevention (swim lessons), fitness, teen programs (camping, etc.) preschool, etc.
I believe George and his friends would be proud of today’s YMCA. Yes, the movement has adapted, yet its purpose is similar… now please don’t ask me anything else.