Frederick Douglass once said, “It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Glenn Geffcken, board member for Journeymen, a local nonprofit that provides mentorship and rites-of-passage ceremonies for boys, cites an African proverb in the same vein: “If we do not initiate the young, they will burn down the village to feel the heat.” Through initiation ceremonies and mentoring, Journeymen, which is modeled on the national organization Boys to Men, seeks to guide boys into manhood.
Jeffrey Goldwasser, president of the Journeymen board, admits that the challenges boys face today are more complicated than those he faced growing up. On top of the hormonal shifts that all adolescents must deal with, many boys are living in homes without male role models, and Goldwasser believes there is a greater opportunity for isolation with the pervasiveness of video games and the Internet.
“We could look at this from many different angles,” says Goldwasser. “But clearly in our society today, whether a boy is being raised in an intact family or one that isn’t intact anymore, there’s a great need for the boy to be guided into what it means to become a man in this modern-day world.”
Even with families that are intact, says Goldwasser, it’s not always the case that fathers are active in their sons’ lives or that their journey from boyhood to manhood is acknowledged and nurtured. “We see our purpose as to help provide that,” he says. “We’re a community of men that come together for initiation … so they’re actually journeying into manhood, and then we’re there afterwards to guide them in that process so they can grow up to be men of integrity.”
Ceremony is integral to the nonprofit’s mission. “Indigenous culture always had rites-of-passage ceremony, which has mostly been lost,” says Geffcken. During the initiation weekends — held in the spring and fall — called ROPAW (Rite Of Passage and Adventure Weekends) a group of boys and adult male mentors ventures into the woods for a weekend of bonding and ceremony. There are typically more than 30 men to support and supervise 10-15 boys. Geffcken describes the boys as coming from a wide range of different backgrounds. Some come from broken families and struggle with alcohol and drug abuse, while others come from very stable homes.
While Geffcken and Goldwasser stop short of describing the ceremony in detail, the weekend is based on sharing and trust. The boys set up camp and sleep outdoors for the full weekend, and Geffcken says that the experience is meant to be challenging.
“For some of these boys,” says Geffcken, “it’s just being able to say ‘thank you,’ to have one little piece of gratitude for something in their lives, because that’s a big thing for adolescents.”
Goldwasser recalls a moment during the last ROPAW when the men and boys were sitting around the final council fire. “We asked the boys to share something about their experience. … And one of the boys said that he gained a real appreciation and was so happy that his parents were his parents, and that’s just one little snippet of what they shared. He had that opportunity through the separation, through the ordeal, through ceremony to really look back on what he has in his life.”
The ceremony is important, but Goldwasser says that in terms of the program, it’s just the beginning. “[The initiation] is the doorway — being a boy and that entry into being a man — and we continue this process with them,” he says. The boys then have the opportunity to meet biweekly for what are called in-group sessions. “We’re revisiting things we’ve touched on in the weekend, introducing new value systems,” explains Goldwasser. “We’re not there to judge the boys. We’re not there even to discipline the boys. Or fix them. We’re there to hold space for them, to give them guidance and show them possibilities, to take a look at maybe what isn’t working in their lives, but I’m not there to say that’s wrong and this is what you’re supposed to do. Between the parents, the laws, there’s enough people out there doing that.”
What they are there to do, says Goldwasser, is to “draw out the genius inside of that boy. … We’re looking into them and seeing whatever genius is there and really working to mentor them and guide them to see their gift. … I just said it to a boy the other day who just came back after being away for four months. We had taken a break in our circle, and I just went up to him, and I was talking to him, and I said, ‘You know, you have a lot of wisdom inside of you. Every time you speak, you speak from a really deep place.’ And this is a kid who is struggling. He’s really struggling. So for me as an elder, for me to go up to him and say, ‘I see,’ that’s important.”
Journeymen is currently seeking male mentors as well as female volunteers. Those interested in volunteering or donating can visit journeymenasheville.org for more information.