The Young Men’s Christian Association is a movement dedicated to meet human needs. It was founded in the context of the British Industrial Revolution, which forced thousands to abandon the countryside for better prospects in the city. Britain was plagued with many social ills and human suffering caused by a sudden rise in immigration in London. It was the worst affected city, and there was no agency to take care of people in need.
Amongst many migrants George Williams came to London in 1841 looking for employment and worked as an assistant in the drapery establishment of Ms. Hitchcock and Rogers. Later he married Hitchcock’s daughter, Helen, and took over proprietorship of the firm after Hitchcock died. During the days of his struggle he formed a group of 12 young men from different Protestant denominations – three each from the Methodists, Independent, Presbyterian and the Church of England – to take care of the spiritual and human needs of young men who came from rural Britain to find a living in the oppressive conditions of urban society. It was in George William’s room that twelve young men met on 6 June, 1844, to form a society for improving the spiritual conditions of young men engaged in drapery and other trades. Two weeks later the society was given the name “The Young Men’s Christians Association”.
The ‘red triangle’, the most popular and universal symbol of the YMCA, was invented by Luther Halsey Gulick (1865-1918) in 1891 at Springfield College of Physical Education to provide the rationale and philosophical orientation needed to place physical education in its proper perspective in the YMCA programmes as a whole, which otherwise had so far emphasised only the spiritual and the mental well-being of young people. Gulick believed that the equilateral triangle was an appropriate symbol to portraying the work of the YMCA, because it indicated the threefold nature of man – mind, body, and spirit. In selecting the triangle, Gulick had thought of an emblem that would “stick right out” and would not be confused with the Red Cross, but at the same time serve as a symbol that would look well on sweaters, letterheads and as a sign on buildings.
“The triangle stands, not for body or mind or spirit, but of the man as a whole. It does not aim to express these distinct divisions, but to indicate that the individual, while he may have different aspects, is a unit. Thus with the individual man, he in not a body and a mind and a spirit, but a wonderful result of their union, something entirely different from any single aspect of himself.”
The triangle stands for the symmetrical man, each part developed with reference to the whole, and not merely with reference to itself.
The first South African YMCA was established in Cape Town in 1865. Pietermaritzburg and Durban YMCAs followed soon after, in 1875. Various other local associations were later formed before the establishment of the South African National Council of YMCA’s in the 1940s. Today, the YMCA exist in 21 communities around South Africa, and offer a variety of programs that seeks to empower young people for life, leadership and service.
The UCT Student YMCA was founded in 1947. As a local association of the South African YMCA, our unique contribution to the diverse programs on offer by the SA YMCA is that we serve university communities specifically. Hence, our unique designation as the Student YMCA. It is our desire to make a positive contribution to our national- and continental movement, by pursuing faithfulness in our unique calling.
As part of the global YMCA family we, therefore, affirm the Paris Basis (1855) as the ongoing foundation statement of the mission of the YMCA, and share a desire to prepare young people for the challenge they will face in the 21st century as expressed in the Challenge 21 (1998). We form part of the African Alliance of YMCA’s (www.africaymca.org) and beyond that World Alliance of YMCA’s with its global reach.
The continuing basis of the work and witness of the YMCA is expressed in the Paris Basis, created in 1855 when YMCA leaders of individual YMCAs from Europe and North America met to discuss joining together in a federation. The Paris Basis statement has fostered unity and enhanced co-operation amongst individual YMCA societies around the world since 1855.
The Paris Basis is still a guiding principle of the organization today and reads as follows:
“The Young Men’s Christian Associations 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.”
“Affirming the Paris Basis adopted in 1855 as the ongoing foundation statement of the mission of the YMCA, at the threshold of the third millennium we declare that the YMCA is a world-wide Christian, ecumenical, voluntary movement for women and men with special emphasis on and the genuine involvement of young people and that it seeks to share the Christian ideal of building a human community of justice with love, peace and reconciliation for the fullness of life for all creation.”
Each member YMCA is therefore called to focus on certain challenges, which are prioritized according to its own context. These challenges, which are an evolution of the Kampala Principles, are :