As we look forward to the opening of our brand new Sidwell Studios, we also want to take a moment to praise God for the incredible heritage we’ve been blessed with over the years. We’ve recently had the privilege of welcoming Bob Whitchurch (YMCA Exeter Chairman 1986-1996) back as a volunteer and it’s been amazing to hear his story…
In 1985 Bob Whitchurch and a group of church leaders in Exeter stepped out in faith and followed God’s call to bring YMCA Exeter back to life. Without his testimony, YMCA Exeter would not be what it is today.
Almost forty years ago I stood with a group of church leaders in the heart of Exeter, looking at a dilapidated, mouldy old youth hostel. We had one question on our minds: “Is God calling us to begin a new chapter in this place?”
And maybe one other question: “How on earth would we do it?”
It’s crazy to think back to those days. We were just church leaders in Exeter, brought together through a Billy Graham crusade and yet believing that God was calling us to be his church across Exeter and build on his vision for the city – together.
Stepping out in faith, we began to put God’s plan into action as the existing YMCA Committee handed on the management of the old hostel and youth club to us.
For us the need soon became obvious. Young people needed safe, affordable housing, combined with guidance and support. So that was the plan – try to raise the funds to build a brand new hostel that would provide supported accommodation to local, young people.
And to make it all happen, Bob Shelley was our man. He was full of initiative and enterprise and it wasn’t long before he was making a bid to the housing corporation for £1 million.
We held our breath and waited. It took us completely by surprise to hear we’d won the bid. That was an amazing day back in March 1988. And from there the development work began – knocking down the old building. It took one and a half years for the new hostel, as you see it today, to be completed.
YMCA Exeter had been reborn and it was amazing to find other YMCA’s coming to learn from our example a few years later.
I handed over the reins in 1996 and spent the following 23 years overseas, teaching English to university students in France, while planting a church in the city of Troyes. We later moved to Brussels in Belgium before finally making the decision to retire back to Exeter in 2021.
And how incredible to arrive back in the city and find that YMCA Exeter has grown massively and is supporting hundreds of children and young people every year.
The vision could have fizzled out. It could have crashed. But to see it being a beacon of light in Exeter, trusted and respected is a great thing.
For me, YMCA Exeter, will always be the best thing I’ve ever done. And it’s wonderful to be back involved, volunteering in the Lighthouse cafe every week. I serve brunch to residents and work alongside the young people who are trainees in the cafe – helping them to understand their gifts and develop hands-on skills.
There’s no denying God’s hand on this place. We believed God was calling YMCA Exeter to be a beacon of light in the city and today the Lighthouse cafe is just one clear reminder that God’s plans never fail.
–Bob Whitchurch, YMCA Exeter Chairman (1986-1996) & current YMCA Exeter Volunteer