31 October 2018

Just do it, for God’s sake! Reflecting on the Christian mission of the YMCA 

In September, I spent three days with colleagues from around a dozen other YMCAs at the UK Unify conference, a platform for YMCAs to share and reflect on the Christian mission of what is now the largest and oldest youth charity in the world.

I was expecting the conference to be mostly chaplains and managers, but people from all kinds of role were also there, including youth leaders, housing and support workers, an accountant and a caretaker!

The Christian mission of the YMCA was first formalized in the Paris Basis (1855), the founding document of growing international movement. Unify is a modern movement within the YMCA around the world to reflect on this mission and what it means for each YMCA, more than 170 years after the movement began.

Unify began with a conversation between Steve Clay, CEO of YMCA Black Country Group in the Midlands and Joachim Schmutz, Deputy Executive Director of YMCA Munich in Germany at the YMCA World Council 2010 in Hong Kong. It developed into a European gathering in 2012 in Northampton, UK. Since then the European network has met in different countries every two years, and UK Unify has met every year. This year’s UK gathering was my first experience of Unify, which will help me in my role as chaplain with YMCA Liverpool, and I prepare to work with the community at YMCA St Helens too.

A common theme for many of those present was how we put the ‘C’ back in YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association). While the YMCA is no longer just for young men, or Christians, some felt it was not clear that YMCA was, and is, a Christian organisation at heart. Colleagues recognized that the pressure to meet the expectations of service commissioners and funders often leads to the temptation to focus on the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of what we do, and to overlook the ‘why’.

The Paris Basis, written at the first World Conference of YMCAs in 1855, expresses that Jesus is the centre of the movement, a world-wide fellowship of Christians of all traditions, with an open membership policy for all people. It also included a call for unity, expressed in Jesus’ prayer recorded in the Gospel of John, Chapter 17 verse 21: ‘That all may be one’ which was incorporated in the first official YMCA logo, created in 1881. 

From 1891, a new red triangle logo emerged (pictured right) reflecting the aim to support people holistically in Spirit, Mind and Body, recognizing that all three are essential for the health and well-being of every individual, as reflected in the words recorded in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 10 verse 27:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul (spirit) and with all your strength (body) and with all your mind.

This is a quote from the Jewish law, as recorded in the Book of Deuteronomy Chapter 6 verse 5, but the word ‘mind’ has been added to reflect a deeper insight into human nature  to include our reason and understanding (‘mind’) as well as our emotions (‘heart’).

The sixth World Council of YMCAs in Kampala, Uganda in 1973, expressed the intention of the Paris Basis for a new generation, stating five principles:

  1. To work for equal opportunity and justice for all.
  2. To work for and maintain an environment in which relationships among people are characterized by love and understanding.
  3. To work for and maintain conditions, within the YMCA and in society, its organizations and its institutions, which allows for honesty, depth and creativity.
  4. To develop and maintain leadership and programme patterns which exemplify the varieties and depth of Christian experience.
  5. To work for the development of the whole person.

These reflect the goal of unity in diversity across the YMCA movement and the communities it serves. It doesn’t confuse the call to unity with uniformity, as it seeks to ‘exemplify the varieties and depth of Christian experience’ rather than expect everyone to conform to one way of being the YMCA, or expressing its Christian mission.

One of the leadership team of this year’s Unify UK event asked: ‘How can we be authentically Christian and radically inclusive?’ I found this question challenging, as for me to be authentically Christian is to be radically inclusive – there is no conflict or contradiction between the two. Some conference participants felt we needed to do more to be explicitly Christian in our encounters with those we support. Our keynote speaker, Dr Ash Barker, who is experienced in community development in deprived urban communities in Australia, New Zealand, Thailand and now Birmingham, UK, advised that while it is good to offer opportunities to take part in Christian worship and Bible study, for example, those we are helping must be free to opt in or out without conditions, otherwise we risk engaging in spiritual abuse, as vulnerable people may feel they must say or do what we expect before they can receive the support we offer.

One of the stories Dr Barker reflected on was of Zaccheus the tax collector (told in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 19), in which the crowd judges Jesus for being ‘the guest of a notorious sinner’ – Jesus spent more time with those his society considered ‘unworthy’ or ‘unclean’ than with those who held onto power and religious authority, whom he most often challenged for their blindness to the compassion of others.

Following  the above quote from the Jewish law in Luke’s Gospel, an expert in law asks Jesus ‘Who is my neighbour?’ Jesus replies with the story of the Good Samaritan, an outsider who shows compassion for a person who has been robbed and attacked, while two religious leaders pass by and do nothing to help. When Jesus asks his questioner ‘Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’ the expert in the law replies, ‘The one who had mercy on him’. So great was the stigma of being a Samaritan (a person from the foreign land of Samaria) that the expert couldn’t name him and recognise that such a person could be capable of being, or doing, good. Jesus told his questioner, ‘Go and do likewise.’

Reflecting on all this, I believe the Christian mission of the YMCA is not about being religious leaders and teachers but about being true neighbours by showing compassion and including  the Samaritans of our day – people without power and privilege whom few people expect to be good: young people, rough sleepers, addicts, sex workers, people seeking  refuge or asylum, survivors of abuse and violence, who may surprise us with selfless generosity, giving from the little they have for another person in need.

Our modern Samaritans are also those, like the YMCA staff and volunteers, who care for the ones left by the wayside. Many of us, myself included, have faced our demons and tended our wounds, which gives us compassion to help others find hope for a better future. We recognise life is fragile – any of us could be person at the roadside, ‘but for the Grace of God’, as they say in the 12 Step fellowship approach to recovery from addiction.

Having the space to reflect with others on how we live out this mission in practice was a privilege. The YMCA movement is filled with people of goodwill doing tough work supporting those our society considers to be the least, the last, the lowest and the lost. This for me is the heart of the YMCA’s Christian mission – not to bring them in and mould them in our image, but to include and empower them in ways which help them know the image of God in which they are created, so we can all be changed for the better in that encounter.

As often happens when I’m away on a conference or retreat with space to reflect, while at the Unify event I woke earlier than usual. As I considered all we were sharing during those days and looked forward to developing the chaplaincy support for residents and staff in Liverpool and St Helens, I found myself mulling over ‘what I have done and in what I have failed to do’, as it says in the words of the ancient Christian prayer of confession.

In the midst of my worry about how I was going to put all this into practice, I heard:

‘For God’s sake, just do it!’

The tone wasn’t a telling off – the impatience was mine, God has all the time in the Universe! It felt more like a playful encouragement to remember the reason why I am chaplain for the YMCA, and to trust that the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ will follow, with God’s help.

During some quiet time at the conference I read YMCA England’s Book Of Inspiration, which includes stories and quotes members of the wider YMCA community have found helpful. As I considered the challenge of being the only chaplain for the whole of the YMCA in Liverpool and St Helens, I took comfort from these words from the YMCA’s founder, Sir George Williams:

‘You are more, you can be more, you are not alone.’

Being together with others at the Unify conference helped me to experience this by connecting with colleagues from across YMCA England to reflect on our shared mission.

If these words bring comfort to me, how much more might they speak to those our society has dismissed as the least, the last, the lowest and the lost. I believe the YMCA’s mission is to enable each and every member of our community to know and trust this message for themselves.

So, instead of worrying about the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of expressing the ‘C’ in YMCA, I’m putting my trust in the why – ‘For God’s sake, just do it!’

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