Thousands of YMCA members visit Prague for European gathering

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Over seven thousand young Christian men and women from forty countries are visiting Prague this week. A YMCA Europe gathering has turned the city's Letna plain into a little YMCA village, where visitors can enjoy concerts, theatre performances, seminars and much more until, August 9. The last such gathering in Europe was held some fifty years ago with only three hundred visitors and since the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Christian association's headquarters in Europe have toyed with the idea of holding another similar event. When the YMCA headquarters were moved to Prague in 1997, the idea of having the gathering here took hold. Now, after years of organisation and planning, the Prague meeting has finally come about. Jana Vohralikova is the head of the YMCA's European organisation committee:

"The history of the YMCA in this country started at the beginning of the last century. The YMCA came here with President Masaryk who was introduced to this organisation in the United States. In fact, the YMCA opened the door for him to President Wilson and he was so grateful that he invited American secretaries to Czechoslovakia and they started YMCA work in the country."

At the time, what was its main goal, its main role?

"At the very beginning, there were many soldiers from the First World War who came back and had no families or were very much affected by the war. So, the first YMCA buildings served as open places for all those who had no place to go to. They also started to care about young people because it was the YMCA's mission. The organisation started to develop quite a lot but then the Nazis and the Communists came and the YMCA was the first organisation that was closed."

So how did the YMCA regain its position? What are its activities here today?

"At the beginning, the YMCA in the Czech Republic was very connected with the churches. It was very easy because all the underground church activities were almost the same. But we slowly began to change our programmes according to the needs of society and now we concentrate most on teenagers and families with more than two children. There are not that many such families but it's worth working with them. We also work with children on the streets. We try to create open clubs for them just to find a place for them to come to."

And I guess people who are not Christians are welcome as well...

"Definitely."

So what about the festival? What can visitors enjoy here?

"The programme is very colourful. It starts at 11:30 every day on the main stage in the village. Every day there's a programme called Singspiration - a mixture of singing, dancing, and also spiritual thinking. It lasts over an hour and people enjoy it very much, it's very creative. Then the workshops begin. We have one hundred parallel workshops a day. Then we have a break before the evening programme starts on the main stage and slowly moves to all the venues here. There are expositions where each country presents its activities and knowledge. There is a cinema, a karaoke tent, and there are two more stages here. From Monday afternoon, we will also have a stage on the Old Town Square. Sometimes it's difficult because visitors to Prague and people who live nearby are affected by the noise. But it's also a mixture of various cultures from various countries."