It was an invitation I had been looking forward to receiving for 20 years and it finally arrived in early November 2018.
The invitation was for the opening of the Jerusalem International YMCA’s (JIY) new sports center, a stunning addition to the JIY’s historic building that would renew and extend the YMCA’s critically important mission in the Holy Land.
The project had been envisioned and initiated by YMCA leaders more than 30 years ago. It had been my privilege to work alongside the JIY staff and volunteers during my tenure as the JIY’s Director General throughout the 1990s.
Although the JIY’s new sports center was to be the largest of its kind in the Middle East, the size of the new addition wasn’t extraordinary when put into the context of the YMCA’s history in Jerusalem.Founded in 1878 by local Christians, the JIY operated in very modest quarters of Jerusalem’s Old City until the start of the First World War when Turkish authorities shut down the YMCA thinking that anything of British origin was a threat to their security.
At the conclusion of the war and at the request of the JIY leadership, Dr. Archibald Clinton Harte, a U.S. YMCA Fraternal Secretary, was sent to Jerusalem to assist in reestablishing the JIY. It was his inspired vision for the YMCA’s presence in the Holy Land, along with a major philanthropic commitment from American businessman James N. Jarvie, that resulted in the construction and opening of the spectacular JIY building in April 1933.
Often referred to as a ‘Sermon in Stone’, the JIY changed the dynamics of how people of all faiths related to each other in one of the most contentious parts of the world, fulfilling Archibald Harte’s vision that the Jerusalem YMCA would bring peace to the land and glory to God. Dr. Harte’s hopes were recognized in 1993 when the Austrian Parliament nominated the JIY for the Nobel Peace Prize – a prize awarded that year to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Israeli Foreign Minister Simon Peres and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.
In 1988, YMCA leadership in Jerusalem and Chicago determined that for the JIY to continue on as one of the most dominant forces for peace in the Middle East, the 60-year old facilities would need to be updated. A plan to transition the JIY’s soccer field, now outdated and redundant, into a spectacular outdoor plaza, state of the art YMCA sports and fitness facilities and additional parking capacity, all financed by the addition of housing units around the perimeter of what had been the YMCA’s soccer field, was developed and initiated.
The JIY’s project was one of the most complicated and contentious development projects in the history of Jerusalem, involving lengthy municipal approvals, detailed archeological surveys, numerous legal challenges, extensive excavation work and years of construction. Thanks to the amazing leadership of the JIY’s staff and volunteers and a second fortuitous philanthropic commitment, this time from Canadian Sylvan Adams, the project was finally completed in 2018.
Like the opening ceremony of the JIY buildings in 1933, the opening ceremony of the JIY’s new sports center in 2018 was attended by YMCA leaders from around the world. Like in 1933, the 2018 dedication positioned the JIY to remain a force for peace in the Middle East for decades to come. I was thrilled to be in attendance.
In reflecting back over the YMCA’s long and impactful presence in Jerusalem, I’m grateful that YMCA leaders had the courage to think big, to find ways to address the region’s most complex and contentious issues, and to dedicate themselves to pushing their biggest dreams across the finish line – a good reminder, perhaps, to all of us committed to missions and ministries, wherever they may be.
(Even if it takes 30 years!)
Take a closer look at the JIY’s new Sports Center