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A Lesson from Our Founders by Cate Mellen

posted by Michelle Bell | September 20, 2017

Yesterday, the Carlisle Family YMCA held its Annual Meeting, which serves as both a business meeting in which our Board of Directors approves our financial report and elects new Board members and officers, and as a celebration of our staff, our donors, our volunteers and our accomplishments. This year’s meeting – our 158th since our organization was founded in 1859, was held at the Cumberland County Historical Society, and part of our program took a look back at our organization’s history as we prepare to take a gigantic step forward into our future.

The Y has a rich history in Carlisle—having been a part of our social fabric for more than a century and a half—and much can be learned from the collection of papers which we donated 20 years ago to the Cumberland County Historical Society. I spent a great deal of time in the Hamilton Library over the past few weeks poring over meeting minutes, program guides, annual reports and newspaper articles painstakingly compiled and preserved by those who came before me.

I was struck by the many parallels I found throughout the years—the issues that the Y faced in the late 19th century aren’t so very different from those we have faced so far in the 21st century—and the common thread that links them is the dedication of our volunteer leadership to build an enduring organization that can weather challenges and remain steadfast in its dedication to improving the lives of our community’s youth.

The very first Annual Report of the Young Men’s Christian Association of Carlisle, published on March 21, 1860, contains the text of the address the first Board President, Joseph Hofer, gave to those assembled at the first Annual Meeting. It contains an account of all of the growing pains the organization felt over its first difficult year, including what Hofer saw as some of its failures. Membership did not increase at the rate they had hoped over the course of the first year, though it did triple, from 20 to 60 by year’s end. Nor was the group able to start any of the missionary work they had hoped to undertake in the community, since they had been more focused on establishing and sustaining a facility in a rented space near the town square.

Hofer went on to tout the organization’s successes over their first year as well. First and foremost, the establishment of the Reading Room, with an initial collection of 400 books donated for the purpose, helped to establish a library for the community some 40 years before J. Herman Bosler’s library was opened down the street. “Who can tell,” Hofer claimed, “but that we have saved many [young men] from iniquities and crimes during the past six months? All must confess that there never was a time in the history of our town, when so many temptations were held out to young men, as now. Almost every square has its den, or groggery, or gaming house, where youth are deceived and snared.”

What struck the deepest chord with me, however, not the least of which because of the strong parallels to our own social and political climate today, was what Hofer described as the Y’s other great success in its first year:

“Brethren, I am sorry we are unable to show any brighter record of deeds done during the past year. We must certainly acknowledge that we have done but little for others. But we feel that our associating together as Christians, has not been barren of good results to ourselves. We have learned to look upon each other as Christians, although differing much on some points; we have been drawn from our sectarian exclusion, to union of feeling and interest in a common cause; and the spirit which has been exhibited since we have been mingling together, has shown conclusively, that we can engage in united force for any good purpose, without that bitterness of feeling and jealousy which by many is supposed to characterize the different branches of the Church of Christ, in their bearing towards each other. Like the different regiments of a grand army—each using its own weapons in its own manner—but all striving for the same end; should the army of the redeemed go forth to the conquest of the world. We can be separate and yet united. Let us endeavor to extend this feeling.”*

In an era of heightened political tensions, in a country on the brink of Civil War, in a town which—through both Dickinson College and the U.S. Army Barracks—had its share of inhabitants with loyalties to the South, a sense of community was vitally important, and the strains were keenly felt. But in Carlisle and many similar towns throughout the U.S. in the middle of the 19th century, suspicions could be raised not just by where somebody came from, but also by how they worshipped. Methodists, Lutherans and Presbyterians, among other Christian sects, were sometimes bitterly at odds not just with each other, but among themselves (19th century Carlisle saw competing Methodist and Lutheran churches, for instance). Thus the founding of the Young Men’s Christian Association provided a gathering space to help bridge societal divisions and create a shared sense of community among groups of people who traditionally looked at each other with distrust.

Over a century and half later, it feels as if we are in a very similar space to that in which those first members of the Young Men’s Christian Association of Carlisle found themselves in 1859. Political tensions in this country have been heightened to a fever pitch, and there are many who look at those who are not like them with an increasing sense of distrust. Race, gender, class, sexual identity, religion and immigration status are barriers that engender fear and keep neighbors from embracing each other.

The founders of the YMCA in Carlisle, though from a wide variety of backgrounds, came together in their shared efforts towards a common goal. They all wanted the same thing—to provide boys with a safe space, free of temptations and distractions, where they could learn, grow and develop into young men who would make them proud and go on to do great things. In improving the lives of these youth, and offering the same opportunities to all no matter what their background, Y founders aimed to strengthen the bonds of their community.

“We can be separate and yet united. Let us endeavor to extend this feeling.”

At heart, this is what we all still want today—black or white, man or woman, blue-collar or white-collar, gay or straight, Christian or Muslim, immigrant or native-born—we all want to make the world a better place for our children and future generations, and to provide them with a safe space in which to thrive. Now more than ever, we need to follow the examples of the Y’s founders in reaching across the divide to achieve these shared goals.

-by Cate Mellen, Development Director and Board Liaison

*From “The First Annual Report of the Young Men’s Christian Association of Carlisle, PENNA, presented March 21, 1860.” This report is part of collection of papers from the Carlisle Family YMCA archives donated to the Cumberland County Historical Society in 1999. Special thanks is due to Jason Ilari and the entire staff of the CCHS for their assistance.