Several weeks ago, Father Gregory Boyle, S.J., buried his 183rd young person.
In 1988, he buried his first, an identical twin named Raphael. At Raphael’s funeral, his twin brother, Roberto, looked into the coffin, a living reflection of the body contained within. That picture of a young man staring into the coffin that held his brother, his mirror image, has stayed with Fr. Boyle: “That was my first introduction to the great loss and unspeakable grief of it.”
The “it” Boyle refers to is gang violence in streets of Los Angeles. Fr. Boyle is a Jesuit priest, former pastor of the Dolores Mission Church in Los Angeles, and the founder of Homeboy Industries, a gang intervention program. He is the author of the book Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion.
Homeboy Industries seeks to improve and transform the lives of gang members by employing them at one of the Homeboy businesses, which include a bakery, café, a silkscreen and embroidery shop, and others. Homeboy Industries also provides support services including therapy, GED classes, and tattoo removal, Boyle said.
In the July 10th Interfaith Lecture at the Chautauqua Institution, the second of the series’ week three theme “Krista Tippett and Friends Who Inspire, Commit, Act,” Ms. Tippett sat down with Fr. Boyle in the Hall of Philosophy to discuss his life, work, inspirations, and relationships.
Boyle grew up in Los Angeles and was educated by Jesuits. In his time spent with the priests, he found them to be joyful and prophetic.
“The combination of the prophetic and the hilarious — I loved that,” Fr. Boyle said. “So I thought, ‘Boy, I want — I’ll have what they’re having.’”
Being a Jesuit priest is about being a companion of Jesus, he said. St. Ignatius said that Jesus is standing in the lowly place:
"Standing in the lowly place with the easily despised, and the readily left out, and with the demonized — so that the demonizing will stop — and with the disposable — so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away. That gives me life, that’s where I want to be. I think that’s where Jesus insists on standing."
After his ordination, Fr. Boyle spent some time working with the poor in Bolivia. When he returned to Los Angeles, he asked to be sent to the poorest place he could be sent. He was placed in the Dolores Mission Church in Los Angeles. At the time, the area had eight different warring gangs and the highest gang activity levels in the world, Fr. Boyle said.
The work Homeboy Industries does can be categorized as service work, but it is important to understand the mutuality of the relationship between the former gang members or “homies,” who participate in the program, and Fr. Boyle. One of Fr. Boyle’s messages is the necessity of “delighting in people.” Delighting in people means moving past defined identities such as “service provider” and “service recipient” and reaching a kinship, Fr. Boyle said.
“I think that’s where the place of delight is, that I’ve learned everything of value in the last 25 years from precisely the people who you think are on the receiving end of my gifts and talent, and wisdom and advice, but quite the opposite — it’s mutual.”
In the Acts of the Apostles, it is written, “awe came upon everyone.” The expression teaches that the measure of our human compassion is not based on the amount of work we do for those in the margins, but on our willingness to form a kinship with the marginalized, our willingness to move away from judgment toward awe, Fr. Boyle said.
He said he is perpetually in awe of the homies he knows and works with. In his conversation with Ms. Tippett, Fr. Boyle told the story of José, a former gang member and heroin addict who now works for Homeboy Industries. Recently, at a social worker’s training event, José told the audience that when he was six years old, his mother asked him, ‘Why don’t you just kill yourself?’ When he was 9 years old, she drove him into Baja California, Mexico, and left him at an orphanage. He stayed at the orphanage until his grandmother picked him up 90 days later.
When José’s mother was not actively trying to abandon him, she beat him relentlessly.
Throughout his years in school, José said he was forced to wear three layers of shirts to mask the wet blood that would seep from open wounds on his back. As he grew older, he continued to wear three shirts every day because he was ashamed of his scars. At the end of his story, José told the audience that today his wounds are friends. He said, “How can I help the wounded if I don’t welcome my own wounds?” Fr. Boyle said.
"And awe came upon everyone. Because we’re so inclined to, kind of, judge this kid who, you know, went to prison, tattooed and is a gang member, homeless, heroin addict — the list goes on. But he was never seeking anything when he ended up in those places. He was always fleeing the story I just told."
The role of people on earth is to try to imitate the kind of God they believe in, Fr. Boyle said. If a person’s understanding of God is as a source of love and compassion, then that is what the person should reflect on earth. In human interactions, people should work to show others how special and deserving of love they are, Fr. Boyle said.
“You want people to recognize that they’re the truth of who they are — that they’re exactly what God had in mind when God made them,” Fr. Boyle said.
Alice Miller, a child psychologist, said that we are called to be “enlightened witnesses” who return people to themselves, Fr. Boyle said. In doing so, they will return us to ourselves.
To illustrate that concept, Fr. Boyle told the story of an 18-year-old he works with named Luis. Luis is exasperating and sometimes whiny, Fr. Boyle said. Recently, after talking with Fr. Boyle, Luis asked the priest for a blessing:
“I said, ‘You know, Luis, I’m proud to know you, and my life is richer because you came into it, and when you were born, the world became a better place, and I’m proud to call you my son. Even though’ — and I don’t know why I decided to add this part — ‘at times, you can really be a huge pain in the ass.’”
In response, Luis looked up at him and said, “The feeling’s mutual.”
“Maybe I returned him to himself, but there is no doubt that he’s returned me to myself,” Fr. Boyle said.
Ms. Tippett noted that in Fr. Boyle’s books he often references the greatness and vastness of God. She said the words he uses often seem to contrast the dismal statistics associated with the work he does and the neighborhood in which he works. In response, Fr. Boyle said people should always be attentive because the vastness of God is always happening everywhere.
In his first few years at the Dolores Mission Church, Fr. Boyle said he would often walk through the projects at night. One evening, he stumbled on a 16-year-old boy named Mario sitting alone on the porch stoop. When Fr. Boyle approached Mario, the boy said it was funny that the priest had appeared at that moment, because he had just been praying and asking God to show him a sign. That encounter touched Fr. Boyle deeply and helped establish his understanding of God’s vastness:
“It came by way of knowing that the day won’t ever come that I am as holy as the people I am called to serve, that the day won’t ever come that I have more courage, or am more noble or am closer to God than the 16-year-old gang member sitting alone on his porch. And that’s important, because I think that’s sort of where the vastness of God resides.”
Homeboy Industries has a 75-percent retention rate, which means 75 percent of the people they work with do not return to prison. Since the late 1980s when Fr. Boyle first began working in the Dolores Mission Church, his approach to fighting gang violence has evolved. A variety of successes and failures has offered new insights into what are the most effective practices:
“Anything worth doing is worth failing at, I think — that will be on my tombstone. We had seven businesses, but not all of them worked. You know, Homeboy Plumbing was really not a huge success. Apparently people didn’t want gang members in their homes — I didn’t see that coming."
In the early days of his work in Los Angeles, Fr. Boyle would actively work to draft peace agreements and ceasefires among warring gangs. Today, he does not work with gangs as complete units, only with their disparate members who seek help from Homeboy Industries. Peace-making agreements require conflict. In gang warfare, it is important to understand that there is gang violence but not actual conflict. The violence has no foundation, Fr. Boyle said.
“It’s about a lethal absence of hope. It’s about kids who can’t imagine a future for themselves. It’s about kids who aren’t seeking anything when they join a gang. It’s about the fact that they’re always fleeing something,” Fr. Boyle said.
When Homeboy Industries first started, it was mostly an employment referral agency. The slogan on its T-shirts still reads, “Nothing stops a bullet like a job,” Fr. Boyle said. In the last five years, Fr. Boyle said he’s beginning to see that employment is only part of the battle. Eighty percent is about having a job and having a paycheck, but the other 20 percent comes from being a part of a healing community, he said.
“It’s about what psychologists would call attachment repair, you know, because gang members come to us with this disorganized attachment,” Fr. Boyle said. “Mom was frightening or frightened, and you can’t really soothe yourself if you’ve never been calmed down by that significant person in your life.
“It’s never too late to kind of gain this, so they repair this attachment and gain some resilience, and they redefine who they are in the world,” he said. “And then we send them on, beyond us, and then the world will throw at them what it will, but it won’t topple them.”
In the concluding moments of their conversation, Ms. Tippett discussed how Fr. Boyle’s work and philosophy truly embodies the incarnational heart of Christianity.
“The truth is, you know, we’re so used to a God — a ‘one false move’ God and so we’re not really accustomed to the ‘no-matter-whatness’ of God, to the God who’s just plain old too busy loving us to be disappointed in us,” Fr. Boyle said. “That is, I think, the hardest thing to believe, but everybody in this space knows it’s the truest thing you can say about God.”
This article appears courtesy of The Chautauquan Daily. Photo by Adam Birkan.