[VIEWPOINT]Y.M.C.A. losing its spirit

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[VIEWPOINT]Y.M.C.A. losing its spirit

There is a movie with the title “Y.M.C.A. Baseball Team.” It is about a young scholar who had lost his goal in life due to the abolition of the state examination at the end of the Joseon Dynasty. However, he started a new life as a baseball player after he met a modern girl working as a teacher at a school affiliated with the Y.M.C.A. center. The man and the girl organized the first baseball team ever in the Joseon Dynasty, and achieved great success with the passionate support of citizens of the capital city Hanseong, today’s Seoul. Finally, their team even challenged a Japanese baseball team.
The movie, which is based on the life stories of the protagonists, surprisingly features a woman in charge of organizing and managing the team, and shows that noblemen and common people played in the same team together. The movie attempted to form a national unity that went beyond the divide between man and woman and the discrimination between social classes in a feudal society. Since then the Y.M.C.A. has continued to change with the changing times, and many leaders like Wolnam Lee Sang-jae, who led young Korean men with Christian beliefs during Japanese colonial rule, have been produced. In this respect, the Y.M.C.A. is not just a youth organization but a precious legacy of Korea’s modern history. The Y.M.C.A. Seoul building in Jongno was actually built with money donated by volunteers and citizens who participated in the spirit of the organization.
The Y.M.C.A. often reminds people of a the pop song “Y.M.C.A.,” which starts with the words, “Young man, there’s no need to feel down.” The song that is still loved and sung by many people today, almost 30 years after its release, is not a promotional song for the Y.M.C.A.; but the verse and melody, which fill easily depressed adolescents with energy, seem to express the spirit of the Y.M.C.A. The Seoul Y.M.C.A. has always served as the source of such energy as it stands in the busy streets of Jongno. It has been not only a cradle of cultural creation for many youths but also a birthplace of solid arguments during the democratization movement.
However, recent news from the Y.M.C.A. made many people feel gloomy. There is controversy over whether it is right to limit the privileges of women to become “full members.” The charter of the organization says that full membership is available to “a person who is a registered member of a Christian church and 19 years of age or older,” but the word “person” has been willfully translated to mean “man” and the rights of women have been blocked from the beginning. Therefore, women members have not been able to vote at general meetings at any time.
The problem was raised some three years ago, and public discussions have since spread widely. Women members have made efforts to improve the matter in many ways since then, and even the National Human Rights Commission recommended that the Y.M.C.A. change the policy. However, the board of directors recently announced a draft revision of the charter that actually changed the word “person” in the clause mentioned above to “man” and only allows women to become full members after going through a special examination. There are numerous Y.M.C.A.s in the world and in many Korean cities also, but the Seoul Y.M.C.A. is the only one that has made the word “person” in Y.M.C.A. mean only “man.” Women members have not only paid the same amounts in membership fees, but have also played a major role in volunteer work and membership activities, yet they are receiving flagrant discrimination.
The Y.M.C.A. was introduced to us 100 years ago and became a model for civic organizations, and continued to exert effort for the expansion of civic society during the industrialization age. It is a shame not just for the members of the Y.M.C.A. but for Korean society as a whole, that a major civic organization that cultivated the wasteland of civic society with a passion for public interest is caught in an anachronistic yoke. Shouldn’t we support and encourage the organization so that it can recover its original characteristic where men and women respected one another and cooperated to carry out virtuous deeds? Is the “man” in the Y.M.C.A., in which a woman formed a baseball team 100 years ago, a male or a human? The “Y” is a symbol of a youthful mind that is beyond gender. At a time like today when we need to recharge society with the dynamic force of youth, we are in desperate need of leadership that will stimulate a sense of challenge. The Y.M.C.A. building provided a turning point in life to the main character of the movie when he was in so much despair ― I would like to see the return of such a pure spirit.

* The writer is a professor of culture and humanity at HanYoung University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Chan-ho
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