The YMCA at 175: from a small drapery store to a global Christian youth movement

(Photo: YMCA)

The Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu was clearly delighted to be invited as a key note speaker at the YMCA's 175th anniversary celebration held at the ExCel Centre in London this week.

Speaking as President of YMCA England and Wales, Archbishop Sentamu said: "YMCA 175 is an event that embodies all the YMCA stands for. It's a chance for young people to connect with their peers, to explore and discuss their ideas for change in their communities and to celebrate the joy of a global youth movement that really is a force for good. I'm thrilled to be a speaker at the event and to be a part of it." 

YMCA certainly has an amazing story to tell. It all started on June 6, 1844 when a young George Williams met with 11 other colleagues in a upstairs room of a drapery store situated a few yards from St Paul's Cathedral. This resulted in the formation of a society that could become a refuge of Bible study and prayer for young men seeking escape from the hazards of life on the streets of London.

It was a compassionate response to unhealthy social conditions that existed in the big cities like London at that time, but few, if any, could have predicted its remarkable growth. For despite these humble beginnings the YMCA has developed to the point where it is now acknowledged as the oldest and largest youth movement in the world, reaching some 65 million people in 120 countries.

The anniversary celebrations have sought to focus particularly on the United Nation's 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through the lens of the YMCA's key pillars of work around health, the environment, economic empowerment and civic engagement.

The UN SDGs constitute a call for action by all countries – poor, rich and middle-income – to promote prosperity while protecting the planet. They recognize that ending poverty must go hand-in-hand with strategies that build economic growth and address a range of social needs including education, health, social protection, and job opportunities, while tackling climate change and environmental protection.

YMCA founder George Williams(Photo: YMCA)

Youth and the role of faith were clearly at the heart of the celebration with the "Y" (Young) and the "C" (Christian) shaping both the content of and the contributors to a wide ranging programme. This sought to put young people's voices to the fore and to stress a positive narrative of how faith can and should play a vital role in the challenges facing young people today.

It included lectures, interactive workshops, innovative collaborative sessions and open seminars in addition to themed expert-led panels and an exciting range of keynote speakers, including Christian activist and bestselling author Shane Claiborne and award-winning digital entrepreneur Christine Souffrant Ntim.

Claiborne worked with Mother Teresa in Calcutta and is founder of The Simple Way in Philadelphia. He challenged delegates to embrace a 21st century lifestyle that models the hard hitting words of Jesus.

Christine Souffrant Ntim, the founder of the highly successful and increasingly influential Haiti Tech Summit, drew on her personal experience to encourage the young people listening to believe that they have the potential to unleash positive change anywhere in the world.

Quoting the Dali Lama, she said, "If you think you're too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito in the room." 

The Archbishop of York preaching at the YMCA 175th anniversary celebrations in London(Photo: YMCA)

Nirina Rakotomalala, Secretary General of YMCA Africa, set the tone for the week at the first morning's Daily Devotion. Meditating on the lessons we can learn from the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19, she reminded her listeners of the transformative power of Jesus and encouraged them to do all they could to ensure that the YMCA is a "power space" where young people can be envisioned and empowered to make this world a better place for all.

Denise Hatton, CEO YMCA England and Wales, was clearly delighted to be hosting the anniversary celebrations in the city where the movement was born.

"We are thrilled to have this event in the city where YMCA was founded 175 years ago," she said.

"YMCA 175 offers a unique opportunity for young leaders from across the globe to come together and shape a better future.

"Whether it is ensuring that we have a sustainable planet, that work provides value and purpose, or that everyone has the chance to lead healthy lives, young people must be the driving force behind creating solutions to these big issues.

"Through YMCA 175 young people will debate, collaborate and set an agenda for the future that finally delivers for all generations." 

And her hopes may well be realized. As one delegate reflected, "This is a celebration of 175 years of youth and community founded by someone who had a passionate faith, who saw the world as it was but had a passion to see it as it should be.

"He realised that spiritual transformation was one thing but the transformation of body. mind and spirit was even more important.

"This event has brought together young leaders from 120 countries across the world who are the same age as that young man was in 1844. So let's see how they can bring about global change, how they can collaborate together, challenging communities and offering alternative ways of living and hope for the future."