Taylor Williamson's world was thrown into tearful confusion two days before Christmas last year. His father, the Rev. Kenneth Williamson, died in Minneapolis. Gripped by grief and fear, the younger Williamson, a senior at Jefferson High School in Bloomington, fretted that he would be unable to cope.

But he found support through his family and with a cadre of newfound brothers in the Rites of Passage program. On a recent Saturday evening, Williamson and 19 other young men, all with their own stories of struggle and striving, marched triumphantly into the ballroom of the downtown Minneapolis Marriott to the sound of African drumming. All had completed the six-month coming-of-age program.

"It was a shock to lose my dad, but doing this and going on to college is the best way to honor him," said Williamson, misty-eyed. "He would have been proud of me tonight."

The young men, smartly dressed in tuxedoes, were participants in a 90-minute ceremony in which they symbolically parted ways with childish things. When the rites were over, they walked out of the Marriott ballroom robed in the garb of African kings and released into manhood by teary-eyed parents and mentors.

"I just knew that I had to bring a box of tissues tonight," said Yolande Bruce, the well-known singer/actor whose son, Miles Davison, was one of the initiates. "It's been a blessing to watch Miles and his friends arrive at this point."

Diverse interests

The initiates, academic achievers who also stand out in the arts, sports and service, came from across the Twin Cities area. The roster included Kasey Boyd, hockey captain at Blake School and who has lettered in track and field; Blake scholar-athlete Phillip Jean-Baptiste, a saxophone player and varsity basketball player who volunteers at the Minneapolis Crisis Nursery, and John Baker-Anderson, an honors student, football team captain and homecoming king at Breck School.

"What I love about this [program] is that it gives us all a chance to connect across different schools," said Boyd, who plans to study astronomy and physics at Dartmouth College, where he was accepted early.

Davison, an international baccalaureate diploma candidate at St. Paul's Highland Park High School, has been accepted to Texas Christian University, his first choice. He said that Rites of Passage has also offered sobering advice.

He recalled a visit to a correctional facility that was part of the six-month regimen.

"I had seen jails on TV, but it was nothing like being there," Davison said. "Even just entering the lobby area, you know that's not a place you ever want to be. Ever."

The program's roster included musician and composer Jason Steele of Hopkins High School; Nicholas Harris, a creative writer who plays on the Eden Prairie High School football team; Profit Idowu, a scholar-athlete who is on the football team and runs track for Woodbury High School; aspiring attorney Nathaniel Lasley, a golfer and KBEM-FM radio announcer who is on the honor roll at Minneapolis North Community High School, and aspiring archaeologist Jeremy Turner, also of Woodbury High School.

"When you look at these young men who are at the threshold of adulthood, it's humbling and inspiring," said event co-chair Shelley Carthen Watson. "We want to support them so they can make their contributions to our society."

Filling a need

Carthen Watson is president of the local chapter of Jack and Jill, a national organization of mothers of black children who are concerned about culture, education and the arts. The local chapter, founded in 1952, first sponsored the annual rites program in 1999 when two Jack and Jill members and their spouses responded to a need.

"There is a lot of attention focused on kids in trouble, but we wanted to honor the guys who were doing right," said Rites of Passage co-founder Linda Baker Keene, CEO of the Girl Scouts of Minnesota and Wisconsin River Valleys. She and her husband, retired entrepreneur Robert Keene, teamed up with Stephanie Crosby, director of human resources in the Robbinsdale Area Schools, and her husband, Henry Crosby, who serves as executive director of the North Community YMCA Youth and Teen Enrichment Center.

As in the first year, this year's initiates were paired with mentors with whom they discussed career interests, including prominent lawyers, judges and educators. The young people learned about men's health, finance, time management and business etiquette.

Since its inception, the rites program has had nearly 200 graduates from public, private and charter schools. Almost all have gone on to higher education and to professional careers.

"The initiates form lifelong bonds with each other and with their mentors," said Henry Crosby, who co-chaired the program for 10 years and has been a mentor, as well. "And they hold each other to a standard of peer excellence."

At the Marriott, the solemn ceremony blended rituals from different religious and cultural traditions. Candles were lit to symbolize the seven guiding principles of Kwanzaa, the black holiday that celebrates such values as unity (umoja), self-determination (kujichagulia) and faith (imani).

The young men and their mentors also participated in a libation ceremony, drinking from cups containing honey, salt and vinegar.

"We want them to know our wish for them is to have sweet lives," said the Rev. Dwight Seawood, who presided over the event and is also pastor of Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church. He paused.

"These initiates are getting attention for the right reasons -- because of their success," he said. "We celebrate and lift up their achievements so far, and their promise."

Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390