“Masaryk really liked the idea”: Czech YMCA members on organisation’s past and present

Photo: archive of YMCA

A major celebration of the 175th anniversary of the YMCA gets underway in London next Sunday and among those in attendance will be a delegation from the Czech Republic. How long has the YMCA been active in this part of the world? And do members need to be Christian? Those are just a couple of the questions I put to two young members, Vladi Vidláková and Nina Hustedová, shortly before they left for the UK. But I first asked Vidláková how she had got involved with the YMCA.

Nina Hustedová,  Vladi Vidláková,  photo: Ian Willoughby
Vidláková: “It was through a friend at school. She asked me to join this activity at YMCA which is called tensing.

“So I did. I was 13 back then.

“I enjoyed it. I liked the people, the fact that I could do something and get better at it.

“That was the main reason.”

Did you say “tensing”?

Vidláková: “Tensing, yes – it’s from a Norwegian abbreviation of teenager singing.”

What led you to the YMCA, Nina?

Hustedová: “It was actually quite the same thing.

“I think a lot of young people join the YMCA through tensing, which is like a choir activity in a way, but it has a lot of workshopping.

“I was 16 and I wanted to join a choir – a choir with values, and so on.

“So I found the YMCA, which has these values, from Christianity.

“I really liked it and the people were really nice.”

What are the main activities of the YMCA?

Hustedová: “For me, at least, in the Czech Republic it’s tensing.

“A lot of young people join the YMCA through tensing, which is a choir activity.”

“It runs workshops in drama, dancing and singing. You can also learn to play instruments and so on.

“Then we have scout and a lot of activities for young children.

Vidláková: “I would maybe add summer camps, which are a really big thing for us.

“We have more than 50 every summer, all around the country.

“Hundreds and thousands of young people and children can join and be part of the YMCA.”

Nina referred to scouting. What’s the connection between scouting and the YMCA?

Vidláková: “It’s actually quite close.

“The YMCA is the oldest youth organisation in the world, so it was there at the beginning of scouting.

“When Mr. Baden-Powell was starting the scouts he was consulting with the YMCA, because it was one of the organisations that had experience of working with young boys at that time.

“So there’s a connection. And then also when it was spreading throughout the world many times it happened through the YMCA.

“Nowadays in the Czech Republic, for example, we have our own YMCA scouting movement, since we kept the Christian values in scouting.

Photo: archive of YMCA
“The other scouting organisations in the Czech Republic are generally not Christian.”

The C in YMCA obviously stands for Christian. How big a part of the YMCA is faith?

Hustedová: “I think it also depends on the country.

“In the Czech Republic you have the values of Christianity, but you don’t have to believe.

“You should respect each other, you should be nice to each other – I think that’s the point in the Czech Republic.

“But I know that, for example, in Kenya they put more meaning in faith in the YMCA.

“The most important thing is that we have values from Christianity.”

But I guess most members are Christian? They must be.

Vidláková: “They’re not.

“We have the core of the organisations and these people are obviously Christians, because they are setting the guidelines of where the organisation is going.

“But the members, the attendees of workshops or summer camps, are usually not Christian.

“They just have a chance to learn what Christianity is about.

“We’re not pushing it on anyone.

“The YMCA is the oldest youth organisation in the world, so it was there at the beginning of scouting.”

“You don’t have to believe to be part of it, but you can maybe find out that it’s about love and about sharing and about helping each other.”

When did the YMCA first come to Czechoslovakia?

Vidláková: “It was after the first world war, with lots of work by the first president, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk.

“He really liked the idea, because when he was working with the Czech soldiers that were in the Allied forces he learned about the YMCA, because they were travelling back home through the USA after Russia.

“He really liked it so he sent his daughter Alice to Geneva, where the headquarters of the world YMCA is, to see what it’s about, how we can work with it, and if it would also be possible to have the YMCA in Czechoslovakia.

“It started in 1919 and officially it was founded in 1921.”

Also you were telling me earlier Vladi that Václav Havel’s father was somehow involved with the YMCA.

Vidláková: “Yes, he was one of the secretaries of the YMCA in Prague in the start, in the 1920s.

“So he was an important person for us.”

Did President Václav Havel ever have any interaction with the YMCA?

Vidláková: “He was a great supporter, after the revolution.

“We have this nice letter in the office, expressing his support for the YMCA.

YMCA building in Prague,  photo: Šjů,  CC BY-SA 3.0
“But he wasn’t really involved.”

When did the organisation acquire its building? I guess for most people in Prague if you say YMCA they think of the YMCA building opposite the side of Palladium.

Hustedová: “They built the building in, I think, 1928, thanks to USA YMCA – they helped a lot financially.”

Vidláková: “Yes, there were many secretaries coming from the USA to help with the starting of the organisation.

“There was lots of money from different donors and from the YMCA in the USA.

“They built the building so that we also could enjoy sports and have some accommodation for young people coming to the city, so they would have a place to stay.

“Since then it’s been the YMCA.”

Is there still accommodation at the YMCA building in Prague?

Vidláková: “No, there is not.”

Hustedová: “But actually we have another building, or a summer camp actually.

“It’s called Soběšín. I don’t know when…”

Vidláková: “1921 – very early.”

Hustedová: “The USA YMCA also helped that a lot with the financial side.

“I think this is also a huge, important thing to YMCA – that we have a huge summer camp.”

Vidláková: “It’s one of the oldest camping sites in the Czech Republic and it’s been working non-stop since 1921.

“Václav Havel’s father was one of the secretaries of the YMCA in Prague in the start, in the 1920s.”

“The buildings are still similar, and in the same places.”

So it’s old school?

Vidláková: “It’s very old school, but it’s lovely. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve been.”

Hustedová: “It’s very near a river, it’s in a valley.”

What happened with the YMCA under communism? I presume it wasn’t tolerated?

Hustedová: “No.”

Vidláková: “It definitely wasn’t. It started even in 1939, with the Nazis coming.

“Anything with democratic principles would just be abolished.”

Hustedová: “I think under communism it was in 1951 that they took the building from us and said, No YMCA activities at all.

“Then the YMCA tried to continue again in 1968 but that didn’t work, so they started up again, after the Velvet Revolution.”

I guess that’s also like the scouts? It’s a very similar story.

Vidláková: “Yes, very similar.

“Also many people were involved in the resistance during the second world war and also in the communist era.

“We started again in 1990 and since then we’re strong and running.”

You are going to London very soon for this big YMCA meeting marking the 175th anniversary of its foundation. What will actually be happening in London?

Hustedová: “There will be many workshops. There will be speeches, there will be concerts.

“You can just sit and chill or you can be really active – you can do some sports.

Photo: archive of YMCA
“You can do anything that it’s possible to do in the YMCA.”

Vidláková: “I would maybe add that it’s a wonderful opportunity to meet people from all around the world, because they will be there.

“We’re working in 120 countries and there are more 65 million of us all around the world.

“So many thousands of people are coming to London and it’s beautiful to see people with the same values, with the same activities.”

As young women, do you mind the fact that M in YMCA means Men’s? Surely the organisation could change its name?

Hustedová: “There is actually also the YWCA, but it’s more in the area of feminism and so on.

“For me, I don’t actually mind that there is an M.

“It’s just a historical thing. I don’t think it’s only for men now.

“It’s definitely not – it’s for everybody.”

Vidláková: “Today we explain it more like Men as mankind, not really like male.

“It’s really open to anyone.”

Is there an age limit? Do you have to leave when you reach 30 or something?

Vidláková: “No. The fact is, we started when we were younger girls. And then you become a leader or a volunteer, or you can help with the activities for young people.

“We also have senior clubs in the YMCA.

“Even though it’s the Young Men’s Christian Association, I think it’s how young you feel in your heart.

“And if you want to help empower young people – that’s what the YMCA is about.”

“Many members were involved in the resistance during the second world war and also in the communist era.”

There’s one question I’ve been dying to ask you – how do members feel about the song YMCA by the Village People?

Vidláková: “We love it [laughs]. Everybody feels different about it.

“But it’s the thing that everybody knows.”

Hustedová: “When you hear it, you start to dance every time.

“It’s nice that everybody starts to dance.

“It’s just a shame really that they don’t know about the real YMCA. They just think it’s the song.

“A lot of my friends make fun of me about it, but I still love it and I still dance to it [laughs].”

Vidláková: “Me too, I guess [laughs].”