180 years! A message to the Movement from World YMCA President Soheila Hayek

Topic: 180 Anniversary

Date: 03 June 2024

Beirut, June 2024

Dear friends,

Our beloved YMCA Movement is 180 years old on 6 June 2024.

I ask myself whether those 180 remarkable years represent a geometric half-revolution of 180 degrees: a complete change from where we began, and yet a circle only half-complete?

We are completely connected to our roots, and yet of necessity we have evolved – almost ‘completely’ – with time.

We have experienced and survived revolutions, wars and crises of others’ and of our own making, and there will surely be more.

And yet our own revolution is indeed only half-achieved, because in all its 180 years, a passionate, dynamic and focused YMCA has never been needed as much as it is today.

What started with 12 young men who met in a room above the Hitchcock & Rogers drapery near St Paul’s Cathedral in London on 6 June 1844, to read the Bible and enjoy fellowship, has by God’s grace grown to encompass 12 thousand communities worldwide – in 12 multiplied by 10, that’s 120, countries – in which the YMCA Movement is present and active in June 2024, serving young people and the societies in which they live.

This is a remarkable story of exponential growth, beyond anyone’s imagination.

Again, I wonder: what are the magic ingredients that have allowed this great Movement to stand the test of time?

First – dare I say it? – is Love.

The support, inclusion, empowerment, respect, and acceptance that millions of people have experienced at the YMCA cannot be explained except through the love that has been sustaining our global movements across time and space. What has made us stand up for the oppressed against the oppressor, and for the marginalized amidst the mainstream? What has made us stand up young people – their hopes, their fears, their God-given potential? What has made us stand up for peace throughout the history of our Movement? Surely, it is Love.

Second, it is People.

There are great men and women who made it happen, from our founder George Williams; from Henri Dunant who foresaw a global Movement in the early 1850s; from our President from 1926 to 1947, John Mott, who won a Nobel Prize in his last year in office; from Charles Sherman, our first African President, from 1955 to 1965 … to just about everyone I meet on my travels today: 90,000 YMCA staff and 920,000 YMCA volunteers who are passionately committed to bettering the lives of others.

We stand on the shoulders of giants – but friends, never forget that we ourselves are also giants.

Third, it is a combination of Prescience and Purpose: the ability to see and to meet needs, and the burning desire to do so.

It’s why we have gone well beyond our ‘Y’, to be of service from cradle to grave; well beyond our ‘M’, to serve precisely all; and well beyond our ‘C’, because we serve – and we are – people of Christian faith, of all faiths, and none.

In so many ways, the YMCA was ‘first’. First in seeing the need for spiritual uplift and fellowship in a rough and tough industrializing world; first in channeling and merging the energies of body, mind, and spirit; first in inventing basketball and volleyball; first in teaching English as a second language, receiving migrants, establishing gyms and swimming pools, and places of education and housing for children, for students, and for adults.

In two World Wars, it was said of our work with soldiers, prisoners, and families that ‘the Red Cross bound my wounds, but the YMCA saved my soul’.

It’s this same combination of Love, People, Purpose, and Prescience which can launch us on the next 180 years, and the next 180 degrees.

The need for YMCA has never been greater.

To be a young person today is to know greater possibility than ever, and also to know greater pressure.

We are a world at war – not just in active conflict, as we witness in Ukraine, Gaza, Sudan, Myanmar and so many other corners of the world, but at war with ourselves, our societies, and our environment. The incidence of mental health problems in young people today is a global crisis.

The challenge to create jobs and provide the skills to carry out those jobs for an ever-growing youth population – especially in swathes of the Global South – has the makings of being a global crisis.

And how can young people inherit the world, if the world is – almost literally – on fire? Let’s not forget that the climate crisis is a crisis for the young people who live with the consequences of the behaviour of their elders.

YMCA understands crisis. It gives us urgency, and agency.

It is why just a few short years ago we pulled together in the face of Covid to reimagine ourselves and our business model for the 21st Century.

We realised that we must reach out to communities, and not expect them to come to us.

We realised that young people don’t need to be told what to do: they already have all the best ideas for themselves and their communities, and only need support.

In YMCA Vision 2030 we committed to journeying together as a global Movement towards our shared vision of a ‘just, equitable, sustainable, and inclusive world’.

Friends, I have had the privilege of seeing us in action all over the world … from our largest YMCAs to our smallest, our richest to our poorest, our most established to our most vulnerable.

I know – we all know – that in the present, as in the past, we are anything but perfect. We have changed before, and we must keep changing, and keep striving to be better.

But we also know that we are unique. Our diversity, our access, reach, and trust, the good we do and the good we can do: these fill me with hope for the journey ahead.

Let us go forward as one and join in Our Lord’s own prayer – and our founding Movement scripture – ‘that all may be one’ (John 17, 21).

Our YMCA story is an extraordinary story, and a great one.

In my eyes, the YMCA is humanity’s best foot forward.

‘Alone, we may go fast, but together, we go far’. We have all that it takes to continue the journey – to the culmination of YMCA Vision 2030 in 6 years, to our YMCA bicentenary in 2044, and beyond.

‘You can do it at the YMCA’, sang Village People in 1978. You can, and we can.

‘You can always find a little sunshine at the YMCA’, sang Irving Berlin in 1918. You can, and we can. The world can.

We can: we are people of possibility.

I am so proud and privileged to be President of the worldwide YMCA Movement, 180 years young in June 2024.

Happy birthday, and God bless the YMCA!