Geneva, 19 August 2020.
This week marks the 165th anniversary of the moment when, on 22nd August 1855, representatives from the nine Young Men’s Christians Associations of the time signed the “Paris Basis”, the document which remains the guiding light of the global YMCA Movement to this day.
Meeting from 20th to 24th August in St Germain-des-Prés, Paris, France, the 99 representatives – from Belgium, Canada, England, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Scotland, Switzerland and the USA – also established the committee which would become the current World Alliance of YMCAs. The average age of the delegates in Paris was 22.
Eleven years earlier, in 1844, the first YMCA had been established in London, UK, by George Williams. Already by 1855, the YMCA Movement had become a worldwide confederation, and in 2020 it numbers national associations in 120 countries, employing 100,000 staff, and reaching some 65 million young people every year.
The Paris Basis remains core to the global YMCA
The Paris Basis consisted of just two sentences:
‘The YMCAs seek to unite those young men who, regarding Jesus Christ as their God and saviour, according to the holy scriptures, desire to be his disciples in their faith and in their life, and to associate their efforts for the extension of his kingdom amongst young men’.
‘Any differences of opinion on other subjects, however important in themselves, shall not interfere with the harmonious relations of the constituent members and associates of the World Alliance.’
The second sentence was added to reflect the fact that differences of opinion – for instance on the issue of slavery in the US at the time – should not detract from the unity and purpose of the Movement.
The global YMCA Movement is still founded on Christian principles, but it supports young women as well as young men, and people of any faith and no faith.
From local to global
The idea of creating a truly global movement with an international headquarters was the idea of Henry Dunant, the Secretary of YMCA Geneva. Dunant played a crucial role in liaising with the delegates, and would go on to fund the International Committee of the Red Cross and win the first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901.
From 1855, the World Alliance of YMCAs was based in London. The Alliance moved to Geneva, Switzerland, in 1878 and Charles Fermaud (Switzerland, aged 22) was elected its first Secretary General that year.
In 1955, on the 100th anniversary of the Paris Basis, more than 8000 representatives from all over the world met in Paris for the Centennial Conference. The same year, the Alliance elected its first black President, Charles D. Sherman (Liberia, aged 36).
Reinforcement of the Paris Basis
World YMCA Secretary-General Carlos Sanvee (Togo) comments:
“165 years later, our international movement continues to support tens of millions of young people across the world. We empower them; we support their actions; we amplify their voices. After all these years, our organization hasn’t changed its principles, but it has evolved them to meet changing realities. Our objective to unite our young women and men and to support them in embracing their missions remains the same.
“Our 21st Century focus on good health, good education, good employment, good environment and good community engagement ring true to all that we understand of the Paris Basis. They combine a focus on what young people need themselves – physical mental and spiritual wellbeing, and jobs – with a focus on what young people can bring to their own societies, above all in preserving our planet, and in actively bringing about a fair, just, equal society.”
World YMCA President Patricia Pelton (Canada), adds:
“The World YMCA is more relevant and necessary today than ever. And yet, it cannot rest on its laurels. The only constant is change, and now in 2020 the Coronavirus has made us ask ourselves serious questions about a business model which is based on human contact.
“And so we mark this anniversary with intensive planning on three Rs: strengthening our Resilience; accelerating our Recovery; and – perhaps most exciting of all – being ready to Reimagine how to bring to fruition our core beliefs and goals, in new and exciting ways.”