By JOHN FORTMEYER, CNNW publisher
PORTLAND — In his 34 years with the Young Men’s Christian Association, the past 15 as local president and CEO, Bob Hall couldn’t get away from his personal focus on the third word in the name. He badly wanted it to still have real meaning.
That’s why under Hall’s direction the YMCA of Columbia-Willamette has been not only a leader in local efforts, but also an example to the nation, in invigorating the “C” in YMCA by restoring the agency’s Christian roots. It is also a big reason why Hall, who is retiring from the “Y,” received special honors at an annual event last month.
The regional YMCA’s annual Christian Mission Celebration & Impact Dinner took place Nov. 9 at Sunset Presbyterian Church in Portland. In addition to the special recognition for Hall, the gathering featured as speaker Larry Whittlesey, a longtime Portland-Van-couver-area pastor who is former national director for the YMCA’s U.S. Mission Network. Today, through his own firm, Christian Leadership Resources, Whittlesey continues to work with interested YMCAs on enhancing their Christian expression. Whittlesey also is a member of the pastoral staff at Vancouver Church, a Church of God congregation in Vancouver, Wash.
Mike Barrett, former longtime TV play-by-play announcer for the Portland Trail Blazers, served as master of ceremonies for the dinner and commended the YMCA as “one of the greatest ministry opportunities in the world.”
“To learn about the YMCA’s chaplaincy, and the needs they have, is the main reason I am here tonight,” said Barrett. “You’re building a legacy that will last for eternity.”
During his time of recognition, Hall described his three and a half decades with the YMCA as “a definite call” from God. But he said when he first came to the agency he was dismayed that its historic spiritual roots were ignored.
“What grieved me the most was that there really wasn’t any emphasis on the person of Jesus Christ,” he said.
But as president and CEO, Hall has guided efforts to see that change. The YMCA brought local pastor Bob Reichen in as chaplain and vice president of mission advancement, and Christian principles — specifically serving not only body and mind but also spirit — were infused in every aspect of the regional operation.
“The Y’s mission is to engage the whole person,” Reichen explained in brief comments at the dinner.
Whittlesey noted that what has been accomplished locally is in sharp contrast to a number of areas in the United States. “In many areas of the country, the Young Men’s Christ-ian Association is anything but Christian,” he said.
Whittlesey outlined what he sees as two reasons to emphasize the “C” in the YMCA.
One is that the Christian message is the historic heart of the association. Whittlesey told how the global organization was founded in the mid-19th century in Great Britain by George Williams, and that it was clearly founded as a Christian outreach. In 1855, YMCA delegates from Europe and North American met in Paris, France, at a first-time conference where they affirmed the spiritual underpinnings of the organization.
Today, Christian principles are still considered a foundation of the YMCA in every continent but North America, Whittlesey said.
The other reason to keep the Christ-centered focus, he said, are the many, many non-physical needs of the estimated 25 million people nationally who walk every day through the doors of a YMCA.
“Every person is coming in with their own ‘bag of life,’ ’’ Whittlesey said. In that ‘bag,” he explained, are a long list of personal burdens — including grief, low self-esteem, divorce, financial stress, parenting issues, addictions, natural disasters, job stress, loneliness, crises of faith and more.
“The YMCA is perfectly suited and uniquely placed to confront many of these issues,” Whittlesey said. “These are things the YMCA can address, if we have the heart to do so.”
He pointed out that the YMCA is not a church. “But many people will walk through the door of a YMCA who will never walk through the door of a church,” he said.
While the YMCA itself cannot minister to every need, it is well positioned to partner with local Christian organizations in every community to provide spiritual support, Whittlesey said.
For these reasons, it is critical for the YMCA of Columbia-Willamette to continue its efforts at emphasizing a focus on Christ.
“We want to ensure that this Y remembers to keep the “C’ in the YMCA,” he said.
Replacing Hall as incoming president and CEO is Tyler Wright, who comes to the Portland area from California.
Wright was scheduled to appear at last month’s dinner, but his flight was fogged in at the San Francisco airport, preventing his arrival in time.
For more information on the YMCA of Columbia-Willamette, go to www.ymcacw.org