Most of us steer clear of trash talking, shady looking characters, emblazoned with tattoos. Fr. Boyle seeks them out. In many cases, he saves them.
Gregory Boyle was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1984. In 1988, he began what would become Homeboy Industries, now in downtown L.A. From 1986-92, Fr. Boyle was pastor of Dolores Mission in the most dangerous neighborhood of L.A. The church sits between 2 public housing projects considered the gang capital of the world. The county has 1100 gangs with 86,000 members. Homeboy has served members of more than half of those gangs. Through its businesses—a restaurant and bakery plus silkscreening and landscaping companies, rival gang members overcome generational hostilities by working together. Homeboys also provides tattoo removal, counseling and job placement services.
His memoir, Tattoos on the Heart, is written with humor and pathos. Fr. Boyle recalls stories of lives doomed from alcoholism, abuse and abandonment. And spiritual insights about interventions he’s made in those lives.
Fr. Boyle, known locally as G. Dog, writes about shopping with Cesar, just out of 4 years in prison. “It’s not just the fact that he’s large and…newly ‘swole’ from lifting weights. He exudes menace.” He takes Cesar to JCPenney for $200 worth of clothes. As they stand in line at the cash register, “People can’t help but turn and look.”
Cesar asks, “Damn, G…do I look that scary?”
“Yeah, pretty much, dog.”
At 3 the next morning, Cesar calls. Does Fr. Boyle consider him his son?
“Oh, hell, yeah.”
Cesar: “Nothing will separate us, right?”
Boyle writes, “Cesar did not discover that he has a father. He discovered that he is a son worth having. The voice broke through the clouds of his terror and the crippling mess of his own history, and he felt himself beloved.”
He meets with Looney, 15, just released from one of LA County’s 25 detention centers. Looney tells him about his grades from prison school. He boasts, “All A’s.” Fr. Greg views the card. He reads: 1A, 2B’s, 2Cs. He doesn’t mention the discrepancy.
“Bien hecho,” he says. “Nice goin’.”
He writes, “…he’s shaking now and desperate not to cry. I look at this little guy and know that he has been returned to a situation largely unchanged. Parents are either absent at any given time or plagued by mental illness. Chaos and dysfunction will now surround him as before. His grandmother, a good woman, whose task it is now to raise this kid, is not quite up to the task. I know that one month before this moment I buried Looney’s best friend, killed in our streets for no reason at all.”
Anthony, 19, arrives through his probation officer. “His parents had disappeared long ago in a maelstrom of heroin and prison time, and he was fending for himself, selling the occasional vial of PCP to buy Big Macs.” Anthony wants to become a mechanic. Fr. Greg approaches Dennis, his local mechanic, a taciturn guy who works miracles with engines.
Dennis wants no part of this kid. Fr. Greg sells as best he can. This one job would have a ripple effect, leading to peace for the whole neighborhood.
“Dennis just fills his lungs with smoke as I fill the air with earnest pleas. Finally, I just give up and shut up. I’ve done the best I can… Then Dennis takes one last sucking drag on his cigarette and releases it into the air, smoke wafting in front of his face, clouding my view. Once every trace of smoke is let out, he looks at me, and this is the only thing he says that day:
“’I will teach him everything I know.’”
Moments filled with such grace abound in the book. Fr. Greg is not only a man of determination and compassion, he is a splendid writer with a Masters in English. Of his efforts to help Anthony, he writes: “Compassion is always, at its most authentic, about a shift from the cramped world of self-preoccupation into a more expansive place of fellowship, of true kinship.”
One Christmas, Fr. Greg called 23 year old Miguel, abandoned by his family. Miguel worked on Homeboy’s graffiti removal crew. What did Miguel do for the holidays?
He was home, Miguel says, referring to his “tiny” apartment.
“All by yourself?”
“Oh, no. I invited homies from the crew—you know, vatos like me who had no place to go for Christmas.” He names the five homies—all former enemies from rival gangs.
They cooked a turkey, Miguel says. “Ghetto style… You just rub it with a gang a’ butter, throw a bunch a’ salt and pepper on it, squeeze a couple of limones over it and put it in the oven. It tasted proper.”
What else did he serve?
“Just that turkey. The six of us, we just sat there, staring at the oven, waiting for the turkey to be done.”
Fr. Greg also relates moments of anguish. He met Scrappy after 10 years in prison. 4 years later, Scrappy comes to see him, hoping for a job. Scrappy, who gangbangs and sells drugs, says, “I’ve never disrespected you.”
“How about that time you walked out on my homily at Cuko’s (Scrappy’s best friend’s) funeral? Or the time you pulled a cuete (pistol) out on me?”
“Yeah, well… besides that?”
They both start to laugh. After, he hires Scrappy for his graffiti crew. A few months later, Scrappy is gunned down at 5:30 am, while rolling a paintbrush over some graffiti.
“I used to tell homies that one of the reasons they continued to gangbang was they were never around to hear a mother scream when she heard her son was dead. I became something of a dreaded figure, I suppose—not unlike the uniformed officer knocking on the door of the family of the soldier serving in Iraq…
“I remember once seeing all the homies gather together plotting vengeance, immediately after the shooting of their homie Victor. They were all ‘posted up’ in front of his house in the projects, his mother sitting on the front steps, worried about Victor’s condition. Then I arrive. I lean over and whisper to her (having just returned from the hospital) that Victor is dead. And this time the homies are there to hear. Instant wailing, syncopated yelps, screams that curdle your insides. The homies didn’t do anything that night. They went home instead. The price of it all delivered to them, courtesy of a grieving mother’s vocal chords.”
Fr. Boyle buried 168 gang members, all killed violently.
Fr. Boyle celebrated Catholic services in all 25 detention centers in L.A. County. He handed out business cards, saying, “Call me when you get out. I’ll hook you up with a job, take off your tattoos, line ya up with a counselor. Don’t slow drag. If you do, you’ll get popped again and end up right back here. So call me.”
Fr. Boyle has been featured by many media, including on Mike Wallace. He’s won numerous peace awards. He fund-raises for HBI and speaks often, taking along 2 or 3 former gang members to sell Homeboy t-shirts, caps, etc. Several years ago this barrio hero contracted leukemia. Still, he keeps on. So does Homeboy, going strong after 28 years.
“My own Christian faith undergirds what I do, but what we do at HBI is try to imitate the kind of God we believe in: the God of second chances; the God of the spacious and expansive heart; the God who loves us without measure and without regret; the God who casts His lot with those excluded, hoping for greater inclusion for them. HBI isn’t about any religion; it’s about God’s own dream come true: that there be kinship.”
Amen, G. Dog.
(Thanks to my sister, Anne Towbes, for insisting I check out Tattoos on the Heart.)