We didn’t have a YMCA where I grew up in Kentucky. When I heard the word, I usually thought of The Village People singing to a crowd of people forming letters with their arms. I bet George Williams, the London founder of the Y in 1844, never expected that his Christian Academy would become a popular disco tune and wedding dance!
Like all things that are unfamiliar, I didn’t know what to think of the organization. I’m ashamed to say that I imagined a publicly funded dirty place with equipment in disrepair and kids everywhere. There might have been a time that was right, but the YMCA’s in my area are private facilities with indoor water parks, top notch equipment, and lots of classes for the whole family.
I joined the Y with concern about the C. The Young Men’s Christian Academy. Would they require me to take an oath upon signing up? Would I be a hypocrite for joining a religious institution? What the hell is so christian about this place anyway?
Well, the history of the YMCA is very christian. The Official web site goes out of it’s way to assure the reader that the organization has always been open to all, but the story they tell paints a different picture. It’s origins in England were as a bible study for city folk. It was no less religious when it arrived in America; northern members of the YMCA formed a christian coalitioin for the purpose of distributing Bibles to soldiers during the Civil War.
Gyms and pools didn’t even make it to the YMCA until 1880, but the organization at this time was also known for missionary work around the world. It wasn’t until the Great Depression that bible classes dropped by 60%; people were more interested in excercise. By the end of World War II, the Young Men’s Christian Academy was no longer for young men and christians. Women and people of all faiths (maybe not atheism) were allowed to participate at all levels.
The thing I like about the YMCA is that they focus on character and values. They endeavor to teach caring, honesty, respect, and responsibility. Any parent, no matter their faith or non-faith, believes in those core values for their children. I really appreciate that the Y embraced a character-based mission over something like the 10 commandments.
There is only a trace of christianity noticable at the Y where my family participates. There is a huge open bible that you can’t miss at the entrance (perhaps a tradition left over from when the Gideons formed their organization at a YMCA). The kids are also asked to pledge a belief in God at sporting events. I find this most unsettling and will question whether I want my children to participate in such events.
Beyond that, Ys are safe for atheists. I didn’t have to take a pledge or sign an oath when I joined. It’s just a place with free daycare, fun activities for families, an indoor swimpark, and treadmills. The YMCA is also where they held meetings to first discuss Father’s Day. So, in honor of that, this atheist endorses the YMCA.