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Thursday, Aug. 12, 2010 02:22 pm

Taking the Christian out of the YMCA

The YMCA picks up a new name but sells an old idea

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Looking south from Monroe at Springfield’s second YMCA building, which housed the organization from 1907 to 1962. The First Presbyterian Church annex currently occupies the site. At left, across Seventh Street, is the old Lincoln Library building, which
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE SANGAMON VALLEY COLLECTION

The American public tends to be ignorant of any history that hasn’t been the subject of a TV series, and so it was no surprise when market detectives hired by the national YMCA found members of that public to be “confused” about what it is, exactly, that a Young Men’s Christian Association is. That is easy to understand. The Y does not act like a church or any other faith-based social service agency, and I can attest since the days when I used to cavort there that their doors are open to heathens, and the only sin they warned me against was athlete’s foot.

The Y’s national officers eased that confusion in July by eliminating its cause. They simply changed the organization’s public name to “the Y,” as part of a re-branding campaign meant to . . . . Well, what the change is meant to do was never quite made clear, but we can guess. The problem faced by the Y’s national mucky-mucks is simple. The Y that once worked to capture souls now hopes to capture market share; once it competed with commercial vice, now it competes against commercial health clubs such as Fit Club and Gold’s. Being identified as Christian narrows your potential market. So, presumably, does being identified as a men’s organization – not good for an organization that must sell itself to young mothers and body-conscious older women.  

Edwin L. Chapin described the Springfield Y in 1912 as “one of the leading factors in religious work in this city.” Few would describe the Y that way today, including the YMCA itself. Here is how the website of the Springfield YMCA describes its mission.  

We are a “power lunch” for the men and women who work downtown and utilize our exercise facilities over their noon hour break. We are an “education center,” inspiring young minds to learn and explore their environment. We are a “sports complex,” offering classes and programs from tiny tots to senior citizens and every age in-between. We are “me time” for busy moms who pop in for a 30-minute workout while their youngsters play in our nursery. We are a “safe place” for young people to gather for life-enriching activities that may not otherwise exist for them.

This is Christianity as lifestyle, Christianity with a small “c,” good works confused with the good life. How different it seems from the founding purposes of the organization, which Chapin described as to promote evangelical religion, to cultivate Christian sympathy and to improve the spiritual, intellectual and social conditions of young men.

However, it was not these admirable ends that distinguished the Y from other Christian organizations but its means — the gospel of the healthy mind in the healthy body. It was borrowed chapter and verse from the Turnverein, the German gymnastic movement that had put a gym in every neighborhood back in the old country. “The great swimming pool in the basement,” wrote Chapin about the old Y on Seventh Street, was “a mighty attraction to the boys who else would spend their time loafing in the street.” This ethos underlay the playground movement that took hold at about the same time, and propelled the conversion of scenic urban parks into urban ball fields and swimming holes.

However new its name, the Y continues to peddle the turn-of-the-20th-century progressive-era belief that sport is character-building. The idea, stated only a little over-simply, is to out-swim, out-run and out-sweat the Devil, whose evil is not matched by his stamina. (All that secondhand smoke in Hell apparently wrecks a guy’s stamina.) There is no evidence of this of course, but then some things just have to be taken on faith.  

The sport-as-character-building ethos of the Turnverein were part of a socialist cultural agenda, but the Y made it into a tool of capitalism. The organization put into practice Christian principles as then understood by civic-minded men of business. The churches prescribed good works to the sinner; the Y offered them a good workout – less gain, but less pain too, and you could get right with God during your lunch hour. Even better, sports (as distinct from games) taught self discipline and teamwork. These are, or were, the essential business virtues, which made sports very important to men who believed that virtue was rewarded by worldly success, and that their own worldly success was therefore proof of virtue.

If none of this sounds very much like real Christianity, it’s because it isn’t. H.L. Mencken made a sport (the only kind that he might have endorsed) of mocking the Y’s muscular sort of Christianity, which he perceived as little more than a secular substitute for the Christianity that people left behind them on the farm along with the cloth caps and steel-toed boots. Being a successful businessman in the city meant being an ecumenist, a joiner, inoffensive and tolerant, and the Christian of the true hellfire and damnation sort seldom is either.  

Contact James Krohe Jr. at peptobiz@mindspring.com.

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