Saturday, May 5, 2012

Steve Branker: A Review of The 12th Annual Call to Adventure

I had the distinct honor and privilege of shepherding this year’s 12th annual Call to Adventure/Rites of Passage Retreat for Fathers and Sons, Boys and Mentors. Like it is so often said after a Retreat, this one was the best ever. We had about 30 participants, a terrific mixture including several Father and Son teams, Mentors and Mentees, youth and adult brothers. A special thank you goes to Richie Biren and his friends as well as Charlie Atkinson of the Millennium Oaks Institute for their generous support to provide financial scholarships and to make this Retreat a reality.

This year’s “Adventure” certainly lived up to the billing. As we began tracking the weather pattern prior to the Retreat, we knew that there was a good possibility of rain on Friday, when the Ropes Course is usually scheduled. Sure enough, on Friday morning the sky began to darken and the wind began to pick up. Phil Folsum and the crew from Fulcrum Adventures arrived to guide us through the Ropes Course experience. It was decided that as long as there was no lightning, the Ropes Course would proceed. Everyone gathered outdoors to begin some of the team-building exercises. The light drizzle and soft wind transformed into a solid downpour with strong winds. We all made our way down to the Ropes Course set-up and began the safety training session. Then, as spirit would have it, the clouds began drumming with loud thunder and the dark sky became bright with brilliant flashes of lightning. It was time to move everyone to the safety of the indoors to ride out the storm. The extraordinary men from Fulcrum guided us on a variety of team-building enrichment experiences designed to expand and strengthen leadership skills, interpersonal relationships and self confidence.

After lunch, the sky settled down and once again we went to the Ropes Course area. If you are not familiar with a Ropes Course, check out the Men’s Center website ( for some videos from previous CTA Retreats. As the men and youth began to take part in the various aspects of the Ropes Course, once again the sky darkened, the winds and rain increased, and the temperature dropped, transforming the rain to hailstones. However, this did not deter the Participants. Instead of succumbing to the elements, they chose to continue with the experience. The group of youth and men grew even closer and more supportive of each other, thereby prevailing over the physically challenging course as well as the unpredictable weather elements. It was indeed quite an Adventure for all.

The next day, it was time to witness the Sweat Lodge (Inipi) experience. Justin “Bear” Annunziato began the ceremony with the lighting of the fire utilizing the “bow” method of using a stick, string and wood to create the initial fire. Most have not witnessed how to create a fire without a lighter or matches. It was quite intriguing. Then Bill Stover (Mahpia Naijin – Standing Cloud), a Lakota elder, shared some of his many experiences, insights and Tribal traditions. After the “stone people” were heated by the fire, it was time to enter into the Sweat Lodge. Water Pourer, Thomas Alvarez (Sungmani Tutankaska – White Wolf), led the youth and men through this experience. This was incredible as we shifted from the challenges of the wet and cold weather of the previous day into the heat of the Sweat Lodge. This Adventure served as a challenge to sit within the dark and heated confines of the “Lodge”. Like the challenges of the previous day, the youth and men pushed their own and collective limits. Their perseverance to move outside of the comfort level and into the “moment” was incredible.

The next Adventure was spent in an exercise with Phil Jennings, who amongst other things in life, holds multi-level black-belt degrees in various martial arts disciplines. The use of martial arts is quite often associated with fighting or other aggressive actions. However, this is not always the case. Phil utilizes his expertise in demonstrating how to transform various methods of martial arts into developing inner strength, self-discipline and being “centered.” The use of this knowledge and techniques can then be transferred into success with schoolwork, resisting peer pressure, further development of self confidence and making “good” choices.

The term “choice” was a central theme throughout the Retreat. It’s utilized to demonstrate that each youth and man has the option and ability to choose what Path he wants to pursue with his life. Given whatever circumstances we are faced with, we still have the “choice” of what action to take or not to take. Many of the attendees (past and present) live within the inner city of Los Angeles. Most of us reading this Newsletter have no idea what this lifestyle is really like.  Of course there are news reports and movies, etc. that provide some portrayal. Having spent a significant amount of time with the inner city youth and men over the years as part of the Call to Adventure Retreat, I have become somewhat “educated” concerning their trials and tribulations. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, it was “sex, drugs and rock and roll.” In the past 10+ years within the inner city, it has become “money, crack-cocaine and guns.” The pressures that these young men face in everyday life are astounding. Instead of primarily dealing with such things as schoolwork and girlfriends, etc., they are dealing with whether or not they will come back alive after they walk out of their homes each day. A tradition that we have at the Retreat is to set aside a time where an individual can light a floating rose candle in honor and memory of a significant person that has passed away in the past year, then place it in a water bowl. Year after year, the young men take part in this ceremony, each lighting several candles in memory of their fathers, brothers, uncles and friends who have been killed in the streets of the inner city. It has generally become a commonplace way of life (or death) for them, including one former CTA youth who was killed while picking up his father to take him home from a party. It is very heart-wrenching for me and others who witness this experience. Fortunately, there are Mentors who have attended the Call to Adventure Retreat like Cameron, Marvo, JT, Tim, Vernon, Clyde, Jelani and Boomer, who have stepped forward within their communities to help guide the young men in making different “choices.” They have personally been through similar trials and tribulations and are now working diligently to make a difference in the lives of the youths at risk. These men, and others like them, are today’s modern-day heroes.           

This reminds me of a very short story: A father and his son were walking down the beach one day. As far as they could see along the beach were thousands of starfish lying on the sand and dying. The father could see that his son was becoming very distressed seeing all the starfish like this. As they progressed further down the beach, the son stopped, bent down, picked up one of the starfish, walked to the water’s edge and gently tossed it back into the sea. The father then said to his son, “there are too many starfish on the sand to pick up, throw into the sea and make any kind of difference.” The son then looked up at his father and replied, “it will make a difference to this one!”

And this is why I, Stephen Johnson, the staff of the Wisdom Counsel and the many others who comprise the Sacred Path Men’s Community continue to provide support for the Call to Adventure/Rites of Passage Retreat for Fathers and Sons, Boys and Mentors. My/our hope and prayer is that we are able to make a difference in the lives of more than just one “starfish”.

Steve Branker

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