Fr. Boyle’s human approach to gang members has paid off

| September 2, 2020 | 1 Comment

HOMEBOY INDUSTRIES founder Fr. Gregory Boyle spoke last
month on Zoom after Homeboy was awarded a $2.5 million prize.

Before he became the face of the inspirational gang-intervention program Homeboy Industries, Fr. Greg Boyle was a local. He grew up in a family of eight children on Norton Avenue in Windsor Square.

He recalls that, before his 92-year-old mother died a few years ago, she was surrounded by her children. She was ready to take that next step.

“I’ve never done this before,” she said, as if she was off to her next adventure, like skydiving, reported Fr. Boyle over Zoom Aug. 19 on a Webinar hosted by Los Angeles-based think tank Berggruen Institute.

Fr. Boyle explained that, during her last days, she’d be in and out of consciousness. When she’d wake, she’d lock onto the eyes of one of her children around her bed and say, “with breathless delight, ‘You’re here, you’re here.’”

It’s a parable for Homeboy, says Fr. Boyle… “15,000 folks a year walk through our doors … and all they want to have happen is be greeted by someone who will look them in the eye and say, ‘You’re here. You’re here.’

“The homies would say they’re used to being watched. They’re not used to being seen.”

Fr. Boyle shared his three decades of experience befriending gang members in East Los Angeles on the heels of winning a $2.5 million prize from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.

“The jury’s selection speaks to the power of standing with people who have been systemically marginalized, creating space for them to heal and invest in their future, with the intention of ending the socioeconomic inequities that impact communities,” said Peter Laugharn, Hilton Foundation president and CEO, when presenting the award in July.

He credited Homeboy’s humanitarian work spawning “a global network of over 300 organizations. Homeboy Industries embodies the spirit of the Prize and the work of the Foundation — focusing on equity, resilience and dignity — in an inspiring way.”

Rock star

A Jesuit priest, Fr. Boyle seemed more akin to a rock star as, before the pandemic, he trotted the globe on speaking and book tours — he’s penned two books, including a “New York Times” bestseller.

His demeanor, however, is humble, with an almost comic delivery at times as he tells stories of gang, and ex-gang, members he knows — their traumatized childhoods of beatings and abandon and despair to their transformation to lives of grace. A montage of crosses, images of the Virgin Mary, photographs and works of art hang on the wall behind him.

Located on the outskirts of Chinatown, Fr. G, as he’s called by the homies, governs Homeboy’s $19 million yearly budget, 176-member staff and its nine enterprises — a bakery, café, and silkscreen shop among them — peacefully run by once-rival gang members.

Currently, he also serves as a committee member of California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Economic and Job Recovery Task Force as a response to COVID-19.

Human beings

Back in the 1980s, the area surrounding Fr. Boyle’s first parish, Dolores Mission Church, was better known as the gang capital of the world, and mass incarceration was the prevailing solution. When Fr. Boyle came on the scene, he had another, more radical approach: He treated gang members as human beings.

He continues on that path to this day.

Love is the answer, he said on the webinar. Community is the context, and tenderness is the connective tissue.

When asked by a listener how to cultivate “extravagant tenderness” in ourselves, he replied, “You acknowledge the truth of your unshakable goodness…

“Oh, nobly born, remember who you are,” he added, quoting Buddha.

Teachings of Jesus, prophets, Mother Theresa and snippets of poems were also sprinkled throughout his talk. (He received a master’s degree in English before finishing his advanced theology degrees.)

As he tells his own story, each step along his way was not so much a carefully thought-out plan but a matter of happenstance. Most of the homies he knew had been kicked out of schools, so he opened a school on the third floor of a convent across the street from the church.

The nuns said, “Sure,” to his request, and, to his surprise, every homie he asked wanted to attend.

With some training, education and sobriety behind them, they were ready to go to work. But nearby factories wouldn’t hire ex-felons, so Fr. Boyle formed a maintenance crew and gave them jobs.

When a movie producer, alerted to the peaceful changes under Fr. Boyle’s helm, offered to donate money, lots of it, Fr. Boyle suggested he buy a vacant bakery across the street, and Homeboy Bakery was born.

The Homeboy enterprise has grown into the largest gang intervention, rehab and re-entry program in the world.

“It’s not about saving. It’s not about rescuing. It’s not about fixing. It’s about receiving people,” he said.

Homeboy provides a sanctuary to the downtrodden — looking past the meth and heroin addictions, the tattoos, the prison time.

“I remind people who they really are, and they’ll become that truth, and no bullet can pierce it…

“I presume that the answer to every question is compassion,” he said toward the end of the webinar.

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Category: People

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  1. Laura Parsons says:

    If I may call you “Father G” even tho you are younger than me, I want to tell you how inspirational you were for me, as a Social Worker. I had the honor of setting w/you at one of your luncheon events in Santa Clara, CA. You told me so many stories about your Homies, your bicycle rides through LA, etc.. I can remember so many, but my favorite one about about all the times you take your boys/men out for banquets they always had to bring their own hot sauce….out of all my education and years of working w/children of all ages, your comment affected me on my SW and working with minors at the San Jose Children’s Center. I’m 74 years old, read loads of books, took tons of classes but your story you told me to think more about what the children wanted (or needed) then what we (or our system) expected from them.
    There are so many ways you touched my life and I just want you to know I’m still praying for you in ALL that you do!
    I am pre-dementia now and I can’t believe I remember you from 15 or 20 years ago!

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