The Essential Spirit

For the past five years, mythologist and storyteller Michael Meade and his Seattle-based Mosaic Multicultural Foundation have been holding gatherings that often serve as rites of passage for gang members and other alienated youths.

Set in remote locations, where nature itself helps spur the kinds of changes that reveal the essential spirit of a person, the weeklong conferences involve up to 84 youth and adults and use a wide array of arts and traditional knowledge from diverse cultures. Through storytelling, drumming and singing, through conflict that is ritualized and contained, youth are engaged at the deepest levels of their beings.

With Meade and other selected teachers serving as elders, the events begin with four stages that parallel traditional rites of passage: (1) separation from the ordinary world; (2) encounters with mentors and elders and subsequent inclusion into groups or clans; (3) meetings with somewhat older men who’ve passed through similar life experiences; and (4) ongoing work and practice with the mentors and the mastering of various arts and skills.

"We’ve learned that youth have to choose their mentors. And any time that’s not happening, forget about anything working," says Meade, the author of Men and the Water of Life: Initiation and the Tempering of Men (Harper San Francisco, 1994), a book that explores the role of initiation through analysis of folk tales from around the world. "The relationship is between the genius in the youth and the similar genius in the mentor."

Because the gatherings occur far from the mean streets, endangered youth find themselves in a sanctuary where they can let down their guard. The only rules are no weapons, no physical violence, and no drugs or alcohol.

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 1998
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