Last week the City of Winnipeg (Manitoba) voted to fund in the amount of $2.5 million a Youth for Christ Community Centre. This public funding opens the door to a possible stimulus funding of $3 million from the federal government.
In response, Centre for Inquiry Canada spokesperson Michael Payton issued the following open letter to the Director of Youth for Christ John Courtney. We encourage our supporters to send versions of this letter to the politicians involved in passing this funding and any media that picked up the story.
I am writing in response to your story which appeared in the CBC News column entitled “Youth Centre Director eager to meet critics”. You can think of me as one of your critics.
John, I am an atheist and a secularist. This means that I neither believe in God, nor do I believe that religion fills a significant or important role for society. So when I heard that your group would be given almost 7 million dollars to build a youth centre in downtown Winnipeg, I felt completely betrayed.
I urge you to be fair and try not to chalk up my feelings to my humdrum atheist grumpiness. And yes I am a little grumpy. When my groups attempt to put up bus ads that say “there is probably no god,” city councilors call our signs offensive and morally damaging. In the end we have to go to court to get our signs put where they belong. Your group, on the other hand, seems to be getting millions of dollars from this very same government to actively convert people to evangelical Christianity.
But that really isn’t the point of all this. I think, and I’m sure you would agree, enough venom has been spewed on either side of this issue. What I am now most concerned with is the ability of Youth for Christ as an organization to properly aid this community. Apart from any philosophical differences between you and I, we can both agree that the main concern here should be to give these people the best help possible.
On that issue I have doubts about your organization’s ability to handle the kinds of problems we see in Winnipeg. I do not believe that your record has been very forthcoming on this front and I believe you have deliberately misrepresented your organization in order to further a religious cause.
For instance, in an interview with the Winnipeg Free Press you stated that your workers “occasionally” talk about Jesus. This implies that your first priority is social work and if it so happens that this issue of religion should come up then you might take some time talk about it.
But this is not the impression I get from researching your group, Mr. Courtney. For instance, a few quick internet searches revealed that your organization does in fact reach back to the 1940’s, when it was founded by Billy Graham. I also found out that you have been training your “workers” primarily as missionaries. A schedule of events for your Annual General Assembly of workers, where you take your workers for a weeklong training session every year, devotes almost half it’s time to events marked “prayer time” and “bible time.” (https://www.yfci.org/ga/schedule.html).
Even the basic description of your 2-year training program for these workers consists in the following: completing Biblical studies course, training in prayer, going to the General Assembly mentioned above (where they apparently learn about the bible and prayer) and ministry skills training.
Damningly absent from this treasure-trove of useful skills is any sign, at all, that your workers would have the slightest clue how to help an at-risk teen (other than to tell them about the bible or help them pray).
The closest I was able to come to a rigorous educational program for youth was the Violence Intervention Project. From what little information I could find the program appeared to be exactly what we need in Winnipeg. Parenting courses, community based therapy, school support and Children’s Social Skills Program. None of your project aims focused on Jesus or the Bible and instead spoke about enabling children to stay safe from crime, empowering parents and changing a culture of violence. Again, these are exactly what we need.
However, I couldn’t help but notice three things about this project. Firstly, it was not your project, it was a collaboration between Youth for Christ and a half dozen other organizations. Secondly, the preamble to your online document for this project notes that at the time of writing (2007) there had been “relatively few” projects of this kind pioneered by YFC; your team had to go to great lengths to study other projects in order to know how to best serve this community. Thirdly, the Violence Intervention Project was performed in a very small community, in England, three years ago. I was unable to find any information weighing the respective successes and shortcomings of this program or any indication that the program has been replicated in other parts of the world. All of this leads me to believe that for all of the successes of the VIP project, it surely represents the exception rather than the rule.