YMCA honours ‘pioneer, icon, legend’ Jim Thomson, 1923-2023

Date: 23 January 2024

‘What do you want me to do next?’  This was the question asked of World YMCA Refugee Secretary Jim Thomson by a local Vietnamese woman on the tumultuous day that Saigon fell in April 1975.

YMCA volunteers assisted with emergency evacuation and food in Vietnam. (Top image): Jim in Nigeria.

Jim himself had just negotiated with the Ministry of Social Affairs to ensure that YMCA was the only international agency allowed to stay in the city to provide emergency food and emergency evacuation.

As 100 people gathered on 20 January 2024 in Comrie Parish church in the Southern Highlands of Scotland to celebrate his remarkable life, it was if the YMCA itself was asking the same question of this extraordinary man who had served it for over 60 years.

What should the YMCA do next?

The answer was clear from the very first hymn: ‘In Christ there is no east or west, in Him no north or south … His service is the golden chord, close binding humankind’.

It was the same lesson for Kerry Reilly, National General Secretary of YMCA Scotland, who called Jim ‘a man who committed his life’s work to refugees around the world, wherever and whenever there was a need. Jim would tell us that our purpose is service, and assure us that we would always find a way.’

YMCA Scotland NGS Kerry Reilly said Jim will be remembered for his pioneering work.

Kerry quoted from Jim’s autobiography, recalling that at the YMCA’s World Council meeting in Buenos Aires in 1977, Jim had reported that in the four years previous he had led the YMCA in coordinating refugee work in Bangladesh, India, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Pakistan, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda, Zaire, Austria, France, England, Cyprus, Chile, Guatemala, Paraguay, Costa Rica, Lebanon, the Occupied West Bank, Jordan and Gaza.

‘He will be forever remembered for pioneering work in Africa, in Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. The YMCA’s work at the Bati Children’s Home in Northern Ethiopia began on a day in 1974 when he drove 35 children infected with measles to a village 170 miles away, where he knew they would be treated’.

His own YMCA journey began in Glasgow in the 1960s. He attended a Glasgow cinema and found himself volunteering to help the only youth organisation whose name he could remember; 24 hours later, he was leading a youth club with’ 90 fairly unruly members’.

YMCA Scotland and several of its local associations, YMCA retirees and World YMCA were all present at the memorial, led by Comrie parish priest Craig Dobney. ‘He left us with an overwhelming sense of our duty to care. It’s why he chose a Gospel reading from St John: I appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last’.

Click here for more on Jim’s legacy.

Click here to read Kerry’s remarks.