The YMCA has always played a role in my life. As an infant their Mommy and Me classes introduced me to a lifelong love of swimming. In my early years their day camps and sports programs nurtured me while not in school. Their YMCA of the Rockies family camp in Colorado hosted most of our family vacations up to my teens. When I was going off to work at a summer camp I went to the Y for their Lifeguard certification; it was the best! And when I got my first call and needed to find a healthy lifestyle, it was the Y that afforded me that opportunity. In fact, part of my incentive for this call was the proximity of the Y to the church.
But saying all of that, I took for granted the fact that the Y for me was just that, for me. While I know intellectually that the Y is actually a huge social service agency in places providing everything from education to counseling, urban housing and, yes, athletics and so much more, I never really thought about the impact until my recent trip to Israel.
While on this trip I witnessed how work of the YMCA really changes communities and, might I say, gives hope for World Peace. Now, you might think I am crazy with that last statement. A few weeks ago I might have thought that I was crazy, too. But then again, a few weeks ago the Y was all about what I would get out of it.
For many years the YMCA tower in Jerusalem stood as the tallest building in that city. Now matched by other buildings, originally it stood as a beacon beckoning people from far and near. It’s boarding rooms host students, pilgrims, visitors, and many others from around the world. Like the YMCA here on the Alameda, it is a place that welcomes all and is intentional about that welcome. That welcome is what changed forever how I will look at the YMCA.
As most people know, there is an unsettled peace in the middle east, and a constant war between the mostly Muslim Arab-speaking Community and the Jewish Hebrew-speaking community. For the Arab-speaking community there is a great deal of mistrust, and for both there is a lot of fear of the other. This fear is more than anything most Americans could even imagine. But that fear did not stop that YMCA from following through with its values and role in creating respectful communities.
One of the programs in the Jerusalem YMCA is a Preschool. This is not uncommon for a YMCA, neither is the intentional inclusive nature, but its location and intentional witness is a powerful message. This school boasts of having an equal mix of Arab and Hebrew-speaking students as well as Arab and Hebrew-speaking teachers with equal billing in the classroom. What that YMCA saw is that when children, especially that age, get together they become friends. Once the children’s friendships are formed, their parents begin to learn about each other and trust is developed.
It sounds like an impossible thing, but while many good things have come out of that school, one of the more exceptional things happened a few years back. A group of Parents from that YMCA program, sad to see their kids graduate and be sent to segregated school (Jewish and Arab) and separated from their friends, they made a pact to make a difference and thus, expand that mission of Peace. Through hard work and help from around the world, including some presbyteries and churches from the PCUSA, that group of parents started what we would identify as a charter school. This school, now on multiple campuses, is known as the Hand in Hand School. It is a comprehensive school (elementary through High School) which provides children with a solid education with a twist: each classroom has one Arab-speaking and one Hebrew-speaking teacher with equal status and the equal mix of Arab and Jewish students.
What amazed me about walking through this school was just how normal it was. Looking into the High School age classes they looked just as bored as I felt at that age and watching the Elementary kids on the playground; it could be anywhere else in the world. It stunned me how blissfully unremarkable the school was, with the exception of the extra teachers and languages, it was like so many other schools.
I thought this was really wonderful because within their normalcy they can develop the relationships and grow together along with their families. It reminds me of what a teacher once said to me: when your enemy becomes a real person with whom you share real experiences it is hard to hate or demonize them. In a community where each side is afraid of annihilation by the other, peace can only begin when each side can recognize their mutual humanity in which they share fears, joys, hopes, and most of all, a future. By learning together, growing together, and sharing friendships they are already seeing the impacts in the first groups of young adults who have graduated. Possibly making a real difference to peace in the long run.
This program was so moving for me, and in many ways I could go on and on about my excitement for it; the time there also made me grow in a little bit of pride as they made the connection to the Y saying in the back of my mind saying I am a member of that organization but at the same time saying “Wow, I never really thought about what they do beyond what it has meant to me?” While on an intellectual or philosophical level I understand the impact of programs like the Y offers, this really brought home a reality. It made me rethink impact of things I am involved with everyday and how often as hard as I try to recognize that more happens than what I see, I often fall short of that.
The Hand in Hand School is not really connected to the Y anymore, but their impact is very present, within the first minute of any speech we heard about it, the Y was mentioned at least twice. The foundations and philosophy of the Y are in the DNA of the Hand in Hand School and their impact, though small now, with only a couple years of graduates, is lifted up as an international model changing hearts and minds from war to peace. However, in the short term, its biggest impact has been in leading to better understanding and hope within its community.
Reflecting on the YMCA’s in the communities I have lived, especially the Y that resides just up the street from the church, I realize the very real impact they have on the community. While, I am so thankful for all of what I received from the YMCA in the past and it will always represent a home base for me, I will never be able to look at it from my own self-centered view. I know that its impact is much bigger than me, and maybe more importantly I also realize that through my connection and support, I am part of that impact, too.
Whether the Y or a church it is so easy to make the institution about yourself, or just look at the current programs or impact and forget that we are all part of something much bigger and no matter what we might get from our involvement, its impact is always so much bigger. When organizations welcome without strings, teach without bias, build relationships without expectation, they are a witness of community where peace, hope, and love can be found. And can you think of a better way of creating world peace than that?
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen