The Need for Community in Rites of Passage
Who of us in our digitalized and remote lives has not wondered about our disappearing sense of connectedness — face to face, person to person and within a tribe? The more we find ourselves hitting “send,” “reply,” and “post,” the less connected we often feel and become. The staff, guides, and trainees at Rites of Passage have been witness to a growing longing for real community, for something more than virtual connection. The desire for tribe has been on our radar for some time now, and it has changed how we work in the field and at home.
We hold the container of community in significant and unique ways. We’ve learned that a rite of passage begins and ends in community. A vision quest may look like time spent alone in a wild place—and it is that—but it’s also arriving from home/family/workplace/neighborhood, going into nature alone to seek both healing and recognition of your unique soul-gifts, and then returning to community with those gifts.
From our founding over 40 years ago, we’ve given a lot of attention to the first two parts of the journey—what we call Severance (leaving one’s old life behind) and Threshold (solo time), but it’s only in the past few years that we’ve really focused on the community re-entry that’s so important for a successful return.
One source of learning was our visit to the Mohawk community of Akwesasne in 2009. Three teenage boys went out on vision quest during our visit, and we had the opportunity to sit in ceremony with them the morning they returned, where prayers were spoken that they might find their place of service in the community. Then a gathering was held for them outside the Longhouse, where perhaps 100 community members showed up. Several people spoke about their accomplishment. Our host, a Bear Clan medicine woman, then turned to me and asked me to say a few words. I tried to decline…until a bear-like medicine man looked at me and said: “When a Bear Clan mother asks you to do something, you should just do it!” Despite feeling unequal to the task, I found my place within this community—speaking in support of these young men in their journey toward adulthood. What an event for three young vision questers–and for me!
After the community recognition of their accomplishment, it was time for a feast–moose stew and deer sausage from the Mohawk’s sacred land. Before eating, there was one final task given to the young initiates: to take their places at the end of the meal line, demonstrating that they were now men who could defer meeting their own needs in service to others.
This experience of witnessing a deeply rooted and connected community, in addition to my living in intentional community for many years, changed how I thought about rites of passage. For one thing, I realized that, in contrast to the young Mohawk men, many of our participants did not have a welcoming community to return to after the program ended. In response, we began sponsoring no-cost yearly gatherings for quest graduates in cooperation with our friends at the Condor Clan, building a community of initiated adults we called “ORB,” or “Order of the Red Bandanna” named for the red bandanna that each graduate receives at the end of the program. But these gatherings aren’t just another Rites of Passage offering; they are co-held by the growing ORB community, which continues to unfold. In the Bay Area, there are now quarterly ORB gatherings sponsored and planned by members of this community.
We also made a number of changes to our program in the field, designed to emphasize the power of the community that forms for each vision quest group. As a result, over the course of the program, the group itself often becomes a significant source of healing and support for participants. Many people have commented on how special it is to be witnessed in such a safe and empowering way by a community of peers. As we learned from visiting the Mohawk community, being recognized in this way is a key component of traditional rites of passage. We’re providing a taste of that on each Rite of Passage program—but of course, vision questers still face the challenges of returning to a world where these ceremonies are not recognized and valued. You may wonder, wouldn’t you feel a loss when the group ends? Yes, there can be sadness…but also joy, as you carry the whole blessed experience home in your heart, ready to share your gifts with friends, family, and home. Maybe even ready to help heal the world.