When Mercy Home opened its doors to young men 125 years ago, my predecessors understood that a roof, a bed, and three square meals a day were not enough to foster the successful transition from youth into adulthood. They also wrote about the very real challenges—and dangers—that so many young people were facing at the time in Chicago's streets. What is remarkable about these writings is not how much has changed over these past 125 years, but how much remains the same.
I think many of us make the mistake of thinking that somehow, today's kids are “different.” They're not like kids of, (insert your generation here). But in fact, we are all created by our loving God and in His image. Being the same, the desires that impel us, the anxieties that burden us and the fears that can cause us to act in seemingly irrational ways are common to all peoples and all ages.
This is good news, in a way. It means that when we are searching for solutions to supposedly contemporary problems—like youth violence—the source of the problem might not always be as mystifying or elusive as we may presume.
My coworkers continue to bring together the best research and insights into human behavior in the service of the young people in our care. One of them, a clinical therapist and a youth diagnostician here at the Home named Mike Martinez, addresses the potential sources of youth violence among young males with a group of our own young men.
For a little over a year, Martinez has been co-facilitating the Young Men's Group-known informally as "rights of passage," with a fellow clinician, Anthony Di Vittorio. It is a therapy group designed to help our boys learn to be men of integrity. Many of our young men come to us from backgrounds where positive male role models were in short supply. But in Mike's group, these boys are learning to live by five core principles: integrity, positive anger expression, accountability, self-determination, and respect for womanhood.
Participation in the group is voluntarily, and members meet once a week for a year. After the year is over, the young men can re-enroll if they choose. They learn the five core principles through role playing, storytelling, discussions about TV shows and movies, and through space for open feedback to work through the group's material.
Martinez said Mercy Home's young men enjoy the group because the material is engaging and entertaining, but also because it provides an open space where they can work through issues together without worrying about the repercussions. Whatever is said in the group stays in the group but also helps its members understand what they are thinking. "We hold people accountable, but we're not judgmental," Martinez said.
Rites of Passage is now in its second year at Mercy Home, and several young men have already re-enrolled. Martinez said he has been excited to see how the boys have latched on to the material and put it to use outside the group, so they can be the kind of men they may never have had in their lives.
"It helps them with their own compass in life," he said. That's critical. The 'rites of passage' refers to what psychologists and anthropologists have found to be innate needs of boys as they approach manhood—the need for belonging, and for rituals that confer manhood. In organized societies, these rites are structured and organized. The path to manhood is made clear by those who went before, but, for young men who come largely from broken homes, with few formalized structures to help them model manhood as they journey towards it, it can be too easy to gravitate toward things that seem to fulfill that role – gangs, drugs, irresponsible and even violent behavior, a mode of resolving conflict through aggression. Mike's group helps fill this void and gives young men that roadmap they so desperately, innately-need.
It’s a lesson for all of us and one whose truth is timeless. We can be the shepherds for our young men, guiding them into manhood and away from violence. And we can support programs that offer kids like these pathways to responsible adulthood.