Mr. J. Alexander, former IAS officer (1963 batch) from Mangad village in Quilon, and presently the National President of National Council of YMCAs of India, has occupied several distinguished positions but has not lost the ‘common human touch’ as revealed during a recent interview. Beginning his career as a lecturer at Fatima College, he entered the coveted administrative cadre in Karnataka in 1963 and lately served as Tourism Minister for the State of Karnataka under the former S.M. Krishna government. “Behind every dusty file, there is a human face and the challenge of the bureaucrat is to see the face hidden behind the file,” he says, characteristically revealing his approach to issues in public life. If in his early days, he had to bow before the authority of the petty panchayat official, he had also wielded enormous power under the IAS cadre but remains unaffected by such baggage. Recently, during one of his trips to the national capital, Mr. J. Alexander shared some of his thoughts with MPK Kutty on the role of the YMCA, one of the largest NGOs in the world, in terms of spread, movement and activities, in the nation’s development.
Q: How large is the network of the YMCA in the country?
A: YMCA, India, is the second largest national movement in the world, with over 500 affiliated units, next only to the United States of America. However, YMCA, India, is the largest in the Asia and Pacific Alliance of YMCAs that comprise over 22 nations. In keeping with the pluralistic nature of our society, a large number of our members are from non-Christian background. For instance, the Bangalore YMCA has over 10,000 members but only 250 of them are full members owing allegiance to the Christian faith. The rest of the members are those who share similar values.
Q: What makes membership of YMCAs attractive?
A: YMCA is a membership organisation open to everyone regardless of sex, race, religion, caste or national origin. Not so much on the lines of a club membership, by becoming a member of YMCA, one becomes a part of a worldwide movement engaged in community development, whose goal is to help individuals attain their greatest possible potential. By becoming a member, one not only makes an investment in the local social activities taken up by the YMCA, but also, one makes a sound investment in oneself. YMCA attempts to help a member reach the goals he has established by providing a wholesome atmosphere and the opportunity to meet and make new friends. Thus, by becoming a member, a person will not only be benefiting oneself but will also be supporting a noble cause. Based on the Christian faith, we extend love and compassion to needy groups such as street children, empower youth through imparting skills and education in areas such as management, encourage sports activities and promote self help schemes among the poor and engage in community activities intended to promote communal harmony.
Q: Is it right to characterise its activities as religion-related?
A: While the basic philosophy of action of YMCA is based on the Christian faith, its activities and goals are not in conflict with other faiths. We base our approach on love, compassion and justice – values that are integral in all religious beliefs and faiths. YMCA is inspired by the love and compassion shown by Lord Christ and it reflects on all its social activities that are intended for the benefit of communities irrespective of creed, caste or religion.
Q: What objectives does YMCA seek to fulfill in its activities?
A: The Association is working for peace because no development of society is possible without peace. Science has registered remarkable progress, but there is no peace in families, societies and nations of the world. Conflicts abound between races, nations and ethnic entities. The main cause is the absence of justice in all human transactions. All our programs emphasise the importance of justice. If there is justice in society, there is bound to be peace and development will follow. The value of justice should be inculcated in the hearts of the people.
When Christians pray ‘Thy kingdom come!’ this is actually a call for action as they are pleading for a society on earth wherein justice and righteousness prevail. All the Kingdom values such as truth, love and compassion are to prevail in society benefiting all its members. Also when the Lord commanded His disciples to seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, He was emphasizing the importance of promoting justice for all.
Q: Can you explain the origins of the movement?
A: The movement was started by a few Christian young men in England in June 6, 1844 in response to the felt needs of the community in those times. The ushering in of the industrial revolution had caused ruptures in the social fabric and the exodus of population from the rural to the urban areas had given rise to several unprecedented human miseries and problems. The living conditions in the new habitations were miserable and the uprooted people had difficulty coping up with the changes.
It was a few young Christian men, in a spirit of prayer, who formed the association, under the leadership of George Williams, to meet the needs with guidance from God. We are continuing in the same spirit today, seeking God’s guidance in meeting the needs of our times. YMCA is a response-based movement that started with a spirit of prayer and message of love and compassion – a movement that is continuing even today, spreading over 180 nations comprising of over 40 million members. The World Alliance of YMCA that comprise of Constituent Members and Associates like the regional YMCA alliances is situated in Geneva and though each regional unit may have its own constitution or mission statement that is formed in response to the needs of the region, yet, they are all framed, based on the ongoing foundation statement of the mission of YMCA called the ‘Paris Basis’ adopted in 1855.
Q: Christian activities are these days looked upon with suspicion as a result of the communalisation of our society and also because of the false propaganda concerning conversions. Does the YMCA face any difficulty on this count?
A: Definitely we are not engaged in conversion, The only conversion we are interested in is uplifting the poor from the poverty-line; converting people from diffidence to confidence and from indifference to involvement. We try to bring a sense of awareness of self-identity within individuals, especially the oppressed, and encourage them to raise their voice against injustice.
Q: Does its activities bring it into confrontation with vested interests?
A: When the existing power structure is challenged or when workers get organised against any system of exploitation, that causes ripples in society. In a sense this is a victory for our efforts to challenge injustice in any form. In a self- satisfied and complacent society, where injustice is accepted as karma, creating a ripple is our challenge.
Q: The theme of the Triennial YMCA Convention held in Pune in May was “Return to the Lord and build a shared humanity.” Can you explain why this theme was chosen?
A: With the onset of material progress mankind seems to be turning away from God. In Europe, the cradle of renaissance and reformation, churches are getting empty. When man gets too preoccupied with material goods and consumerism, he distances himself from God. When greed, ambition and hunger for power become the springboards of man’s activities, the results are for everyone to see. Violent conflicts, upheavals and instability - all these results from man’s alienation from God. Hence, the call to return to God. The Bible states that the “fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.” The conviction that our words, thoughts and actions are under scrutiny by an omniscient God helps keep people on the straight and narrow way. The YMCA’s goal is to turn a “grabbing” society of people into a “caring and sharing society.” This happens when people learn to get involved in each other’s well-being and a sense of brotherhood prevails in the society.
Q: When the middle class is known for its indifference towards the poor, how can one hope for this feeling of brotherhood?
A: This is a spiritual issue. We know the story of Cain, who murdered his brother Abel out of jealousy. God subsequently questions Cain as to the whereabouts of Abel. To which Cain puts a counter question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” It is this attitude that largely governs mankind and is at the root of problems. Material progress alone will not be the panacea for all the evils confronting mankind. The emotional sources binding man with man are all dried up. Religions have a role to restore man to that proper relationship with God and fellow beings. If a society is to remain peaceful, just and loving, then “fear of God” should be its foundation.