If asked to identify the most influential student organization in Eastern Mennonite University’s 100-year history, the answer is easy: the Young People’s Christian Association, known popularly as YPCA or the Y.
For many years, the student body and YPCA were one and the same: if you were a student at what was then called Eastern Mennonite School in its earliest years, you were a member of the YPCA.
While that’s not the case today, the organization, now known as Y-Serve, still contributes to “the institution’s vibrancy and Christian character,” says advisor Brian Martin Burkholder, campus pastor.
For an article summarizing the history of the organization to the present, now known as Y-Serve, click here.
This coverage was the result of hours of research conducted by intern Caleb Schrock-Hurst in the summer of 2016. Editor-in-chief Lauren Jefferson trimmed and pruned. A book could be written about YPCA and Y-Serve at EMS/EMC/EMU. Caleb and Lauren are quite sure events of importance to the many students involved in the organization have been overlooked in this article. We welcome your comments, stories and photos at https://www.emustories.com/submit-a-story/
1922: The origins
Beginning in 1922, the YPCA published a handbook given to students upon their arrival to campus. In addition to rules and behavior expectations, this book explained and listed the roles of the YPCA, such as social gatherings and the various on- and 0ff-campus ministries. Several sections familiarized students with the campus and how the school functioned, such as a map, a section of business advertisements and area churches, and the academic calendar. This influential document —a combination rulebook, welcome packet, calendar and social guide — was a mainstay on campus until 1947.
Even in its infancy, the YPCA was influential, holding daily prayer circles and devotions as well as weekly Bible meetings and various off campus ministries, predominantly through tracts and volunteer work. Also under the YPCA umbrella was the Social Committee, where social gatherings that were “consistent with biblical principles and Christian living” were organized, and the Athletics Association, where students could participate in “basketball, volleyball, directed gymnastics, baseball, tennis, and pole vaulting.”
The original committees of the association were Devotions, Missions, Bible Study, City Worker Band, Rural Missions, Employment, Social, Athletics, Finance, and Membership.
1930s: A sampling of activities
The committees of the YPCA were Devotions, Missions, Bible Study, City Worker Band One (Tract Distributors), City Worker Band Two (volunteers at downtown Harrisonburg white and black churches), Rural Missions, Employment, Girl’s Social, Boy’s Social, Finance, and Membership.
The Tract Distributors in these years would, once a month, place a tract on every doorstep in Harrisonburg. It took 36 students a full day to distribute the 1,700 tracts.
The Boy’s and Girl’s [sic] Social Committee held just five events in the whole of the 1942-43 school year: the Open House (the boys were hosted in the girls’ dorm), the Get Acquainted social, the Thanksgiving social, the Christmas social, and the Special Bible Term social. The priorities of the YPCA were clearly on evangelism, not social engagements.
President Lester Shank reported: “To say that 25 programs have been arranged for by the Devotions Committee does not tell the whole story. I wish there were some way to measure the blessings that came to dozens and dozens of persons who listened to those programs, who were encouraged and blessed in their Christian experience, but we can’t measure that. We can say that 24 programs were planned by the Missions committee, that so many Gospel teams were sent out, etc., but we can never measure the results that have come from those programs in the way of missionary convictions, and re-consecrations. Those things cannot be put down in numbers.”
In the 1942-43 school year, the YPCA’s budget of $1315.25 was divided into local work and other contributions. The “local work” category shows the kind of ministry and the importance of transportation, with $446.43 devoted to transportation and the station wagon; $42.60 for the “Colored Mission Rent”; $122.16 for tracts; and $81.04 for “miscellaneous. “Itinerary evangelism” recorded the largest expenditure of $328.81. Donations to European relief and Africa were $131.53 each, while MCC CPS camps (in general), China, and Grottoes Camp #4 were given $65.76 each.
“Itinerary Evangelism tours” happened throughout the summers of the 40s, to eastern Kentucky, where students taught Bible schools and distributed tracts. This decade also saw the beginning of prison ministries in earnest, with a group going to visit and preach every Sunday. The handbook reports that 20 prisoners came to faith due to their work that year, and that many years the number exceeded 20.
The 1943-44 handbook delineated membership qualifications: “students from any evangelical body are solicited to become members. Only members of the Mennonite Church however may hold office in the association.”
It was also during this time that the Missions Commission began sending groups and volunteers to congregations on a regular basis. The first few trips, taken by “gospel teams” who sang a cappella hymns, went to Knoxville, Tennessee, several towns in West Virginia, and across southern Pennsylvania including stops in Johnstown and Lancaster.
President Paul Peachy reported: “A total of 44,417 pieces of literature have been distributed and 1742 opportunities for Christian service have been given. Absolute accuracy for the figures given is not claimed. The contacts with souls cannot and should not be counted. To God belong the knowledge of and praise for what has been accomplished. We are the channels whereby His blessings of salvation reach a dying world. Shall souls thirst eternally because somewhere along the line we allowed the channel to spring a leak?”
The 1950-51 report totaled 690 service opportunities and 129 conversions.
Six commissions guided work:
- Religious Life Commission, which planned Sunday evening church services and Friday morning devotions;
- Student Fellowship Commission;
- Rural Evangelism Commission, which held meetings in Timberville and Elkton twice each Sunday and in smaller ‘cottages’ such as Edom and Gospel Hill at various points;
- City Evangelism Commission, which sent workers to “colored schools and churches”;
- Institutional Work Commission, which visited the “convalescent home, almshouse, children’s home, and prison”;
- Extension Commission, which housed the few committees not covered by the commission organization system, notably the Jewish Witness committee which sent teams to western Pennsylvania and Ohio and Eastern Pennsylvania.
President Paul Swarr reported, “In retrospect then we find that the number of recorded service opportunities has dropped somewhat from 6658 in 1949, to 6498 in 1950, to 5690 in 1951. However, the number of conversions reported has risen from 75 two years ago, and 109 last year, to 129 this present year.”
From the 1956 Shenandoah Yearbook:
“It is the stated purpose of the YPCA to promote growth in Christian character among students and to give an effective witness in the community surrounding the college and even to “regions beyond” as there is opportunity.” Student groups led Sunday evening religious programs, taught children in Sunday schools for several area churches, volunteered to sing in “the convalescent home” and on street corners as evangelism, led all-school devotions, and distributed religious tracts.
The six-member Executive Committee led the organization and coordinated programs with the Faculty Advisory Committee, with 111 students in a leadership role.
The YPCA owned and maintained two cars to provide transportation for its volunteers.
The organization continued to be healthy and very impactful on and off campus, reports the 1960 Weather Vane. The fund drive during February brought in $4,746 [$38,650 in today’s dollars], with pledges coming from 330 students, faculty and staff. The planned budget breakdown was “42% for city evangelism, 25% for rural evangelism, 10% for the foreign student fund, and 6% for institutional evangelism. The remaining 17% will go for literature evangelism, itinerary evangelism, and miscellaneous expenses.”
Budget difficulties in 1962-63 lead to President Melvin Keim’s recommendation that one of the three YPCA cars should be sold to make up the budget deficit and lower cost for the following years. Fewer teams would be sent to the surrounding towns on a regular basis, but the Rural Evangelism Committee did continue visiting nearby locations. Though budget numbers fell, interest in the organization was quite high. Keim states that “the overabundance of students was too much in evidence.”
Students from the outreach committee met twice with Christian students from the University of Virginia, Madison College and William and Mary and also had a three-day conference with YPCA members from Goshen and Hesston.
In 1967, the Y continued to lead worship services and plan chapels. Notable events from the year included prayer vigils for Vietnam, and the beginning of a prison outreach program called the Y Spice House Community Center. Four students were hired to assist prison chaplains during the summer. The Y led evangelical mission trips to New York City, Richmond, Newport News, and Winston-Salem N.C. The budget of $4,925 [$35,200 in today’s dollars] was partially provided by the Virginia Mission Board.
That same year, a notable new program was a chapter of the Y “relating to the participating in the Washington D.C. Voluntary Service Unit, a precursor to Washington Study-Service Year (WSSY), now Washington Community Scholars’ Center.
In 1970, YPCA was still one of very few student organizations, on par with the Student Government Association, Weather Vane, and WEMC for size (this measure based on a survey of Shenandoah pages).
The 1972 yearbook records a resurgence of student interest. President Phil Mininger partially attributed this to the fact that the group was becoming less stringent and more people were interested in using the group’s framework. “A guy doesn’t have to have short hair and a girl long dresses for a church to appreciate their witness.”
In 1973, YPCA raised $1,900 [$9,200 today] for a new bus and more than 100 students continued to participate in Y-churches and do Sunday visitation programs.
In the late ’70s, more than a third of the student body participated in a Y activity. The program of “Saturday Adoptions” (students volunteer to spend every other Saturday with a child from the community) and “Grandparent Adoptions” (visiting often lonely elderly community members) began around this time.
Main ministries in 1983 were the Saturday Adoption Program, Y-Church, Western State mental hospital outreach, Wilson Rehabilitation, Gospel Outreach Teams, Work Teams, and Jail Ministries.
From the 1987 yearbook: “The idealism and the vision that instigated the YPCA still exist today … the emphasis on service seems to be more apparent than the previous focus on evangelism, although few would question that evangelism is an important part of the group’s activities.”
Mission teams that year were sent to Philadelphia, Knoxville and Raleigh. Work/service teams were sent to Boston, Georgia and Mississippi. Programs such as Y-churches, Saturday Adoption, and Grandparent Adoption continued. Weekly trips were made to the Woodrow Wilson Rehabilitation Center, a community of “people working to adjust to a variety of handicaps,” and to Western State Mental Hospital, where students volunteered and continued the tradition of Mennonites working with the mentally ill.
Six work teams go out in 1994-95 school year, one in the fall and five in the spring. “If work and gospel teams are any indication, student interest in YPCA is far from dwindling,” reported the yearbook (reading between the lines suggests that low student interest may have been a concern at some point). Their fall fundraiser, which raised $1,500 by asking students to vote on whether President Joe Lapp should wear his hair short or long (the answer was short), was a huge and spontaneous success. The commissions of tutor-translating were added, along with “Encounter Fellowship,” a Tuesday evening worship and Bible study experience.
By 1997, “YPCA was instrumental in organizing and sending out a variety of work teams over spring break this year. They also sponsored a number of prayer vigils throughout the year.” Work teams were sent to New Orleans and Georgia.
YPCA continues to be a vibrant and influential service organization. In 2005, their student-initiated fund-raising effort raised $3,392.63 toward relief efforts of victims of the Gulf Coast hurricane.
Students reported life-changing experiences: for example, Sharon E. Kniss was co-president of the Young People’s Christian Association (YPCA) her freshman and sophomore years and coordinated the Y-church program, which she cites as “one of the highlights of my time at EMU.”
In 2006, 46 students took part in spring break service trips with Sharing With Appalachian People (SWAP) in Harlan, Ky.; Jubilee Partners in Comer, Ga.; Long Branch, Miss., under the auspices of the Valley Response Group; and Philadelphia and Camden, N.J.
2010s and present day
In spring 2016, YPCA’s name was changed to Y-Serve. Read more here.
In 2016, the Y led four spring break trips. Two service trips continued the Y’s legacy of serving the less fortunate, doing construction work for those in need in West Virginia through MCC’s Swap and Michigan through Mennonite Disaster Service. Two learning tours were also led, one to the Alterna Community in Georgia, which focused on immigration issues, and a civil rights trip across the south.
Three service learning trips take place in 2017 to Laurelville Mennonite Center in Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania; Sharing With Appalachian People in Elkhorn, West Virginia; Mennonite Disaster Service in Lafayette, Louisiana. A civil rights learning tour also travels to southern states.
Before you ask ‘What, where’s my year?’, a reminder of the statement in the preface: this coverage was the result of hours of research conducted by intern Caleb Schrock-Hurst in the summer of 2016. Editor-in-chief Lauren Jefferson trimmed and pruned in an effort to avoid an encyclopedic-size article. Because of the wealth of information that was summarized, Caleb and Lauren are quite sure events of importance have been overlooked in this overview. Your comments are welcome to https://www.emustories.com/submit-a-story/