Giving gang members a reason to hope

A Q&A with Father Gregory Boyle, gang youth minister and founder of Homeboy Industries

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Father Greg Boyle with Homegirl Cafe staff. Photo by Glenn Marzano.
Father Greg Boyle with Homegirl Cafe staff. Photo by Glenn Marzano.

By Traci Neal


After reading Father Gregory Boyle’s new book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, in which he writes about the two decades he’s spent ministering to gang youth and building a small nonprofit staffed by former gang members into a small nonprofit empire, we wanted to know more about this courageous and compelling Jesuit priest. His gang work began in 1986, when Father Boyle volunteered to pastor the flock at Dolores Mission Church in Boyle Heights, the poorest parish in the Los Angeles diocese and one set in the middle of the most intense and violent gang territory in the country. He got right to work, negotiating peace between feuding gangs, opening a school for kids who were no longer welcome at public school, organizing job programs, and putting out a welcome mat at the church, where gang members began to pass the time.

 

By 1992, Father Boyle had founded Homeboy Industries, through which he opened Homeboy Bakery and extended a hopeful welcome to neighborhood gang members. Since then, Homeboy’s service outreach has grown to include tattoo removal, job training and placement, case management, legal services, counseling, and more, while the bakery was followed by Homegirl Café and enterprises such as a silkscreen shop, a landscaping and maintenance branch, a retail store, and a literary magazine — all headquartered in a gleaming new building and staffed by former gang members from all over Los Angeles County who have learned how to come together in peace.

 

However, news broke this year that Homeboy — which has grown to become the largest gang intervention program in the country — would be laying off most of its staff — 300 in all — due to a lack of funding. By press time, donations trickling in to the organization had allowed some of the core staff to return.

 

How are you doing, Father?

It’s pretty discouraging. Morale is really low. The place used to tingle with hope and that’s not currently there, so… we’re hoping it’s a temporary pause. It’s quite sad.

 

Are you having to turn people away?

We never turn anybody away — we offer (counseling, tattoo removal, etc.) services to all. For the moment, we are unable to incorporate more (job) trainees into the program.

We get about 12,000 people a year who walk through our doors but not everybody is brought in (hired by Homeboy). There’s a rigorous pathway to that, but even so, there was always a chance, and that would pack them in. There was always some hope, and at least for the moment, until somebody rescues us in some big, angel-like way, there is no hope.

 

Why is it so important that they are “brought in”?

Because Homeboy is also a community of unconditional love and acceptance. That’s why they want to work here. It’s like a family where they enter into the joy of real attachment and acceptance, and then they gain a certain kind of resilience, and then they’re off and running….

 

Can you give a little more detail about how and why you started Homeboy Industries and how it has evolved since 1988?

I was pastor of the Dolores Mission parish in the city in the middle of two huge public housing projects, and together they comprised the largest group of public housing with the highest concentration of gang activity in the country. It was right in my parish, so you couldn’t ignore this. Plus I started to bury kids in 1988 — I’ve buried 168 altogether — so we had to start to do things. We started a school for junior high age kids, then they said, “If only we had jobs,” so we tried to find felony-friendly employers around the projects. When we couldn’t find enough jobs to fill the demand, we started our first business with Homeboy Bakery, and we’ve just added businesses since then.

 

Where has your funding come from in the past? Have you had support from the Los Angeles archdiocese and from your Jesuit Order?

Our funding has come from private donors and foundations mostly…. The Jesuits have been occasionally helpful but it’s kind of a “you’re-on-your-own” kind of deal, and the diocese has not provided funding.

 

How did this financial crisis happen?

I think it was just the perfect storm of recession meets brand new building meets a quadrupled amount of clients meets greater and greater need. Our program costs $10 million a year now and we have to live somewhere in the $7 million range, which will in fact continue to be devastating. Part of the problem is we had a capital campaign of $12 million, and our new building cost $8 million, so we cushioned in an additional $4 million. But our capital campaign should have been a $20 million campaign where you include in the programs that are getting started up in a larger facility and the greater demand on your services, but we didn’t do that and then the recession hit and foundations began to shrink in terms of what they were giving.

 

How has Homeboy affected the neighborhood over the last 20 years?

We aren’t about “a neighborhood” anymore. We were when we began (in the Pico-Aliso neighborhood). Now, we serve the entire county of Los Angeles — 1,100 gangs and 86,000 gang members. And in the 20 years we’ve been around, gang-related homicides have been cut in half, and in half again. All chiefs of police since then agree: Homeboy has been part of the reason.

 

What has excited you most about the work you’re doing in LA?

When this program is run in its fullness, which it ought to be, there’s no place like it on planet Earth. It’s soaked with hope, with what Martin Luther King has described as the “buoyancy of hope.” Nobody could walk into the place and not be overwhelmed by it.

 

My book is selling pretty briskly, it looks like we’re going to have some of our Homegirl Café salsas in [a large supermarket chain], we’ve been approved to have a Homegirl Café in the new Los Angeles Airport extension; we have all these prospects for our bakery, we’ve got clients falling over themselves for our products; catering for Homegirl Café has tripled. The future looks bright. It’s just that we have to get to the future, which is the hardest part.

 

A $10 million annual budget is a bargain because if we kept just 33 minors out of probation camp it would save the county $6 million.

 

Do you think your program has the power to keep 33 kids out of trouble a year?

Oh my God! Way more than that.

 

Is there an overt spiritual aspect of the ministry?

The whole thing is about that, I would think. Not a lot of preaching goes on, but we have retreats, we begin our day with prayer.

 

What have been some of the biggest challenges?

That’s a tough one. We’ve had so many monumental starts and stops. I had two of my workers gunned down six weeks apart on my graffiti (cleanup) crew, we had the bakery burn down, and for 23 years we’ve always had the white-knuckle ride to meet payroll. I wouldn’t trade my life for anybody’s, though. It’s the most engaging, enriching, wonderful place, especially when it’s operating on all cylinders, which it isn’t at the moment, which makes it kind of a sad place.

 

Has this setback affected your faith?

Oh no, never. When tough things happen, God is not an accomplice, He’s a companion.

 

What will it take for you to stay open? How can people help?

We were able to get $1 million in donations just by people sending [money] in; that’s enabled us to bring back our senior structure. We’re holding the line at this point. We need $5 million bridge money to get us around the corner and then after that for a program that’s unique enough, and successful, beyond that what any organization wants is to not just survive, but to thrive and not to worry, that’s my hope. What would we need for that? Probably around $30 million…

 

In the same way that universities are endowed, my hope is that the crisis can be transformed into an opportunity of great fundraising and an endowment.

 

And then on top of that, we always want to appeal to employers to get this and understand that people are a whole lot more than the worst they ever did.

 

How is the book doing?

There’s only 1 percent of books that sell 25,000 copies and beyond and (as of June 1) I’m at 28,000, so I’m in the 1 percent club! It’s spent nine weeks on Los Angeles Times Bestseller List. After Simon & Schuster gets their cut, all proceeds come to Homeboy.

 

What’s kept you going?

God has kept me going. For me it’s never been about taking the right stand on the issues. It’s always been about standing in the right place. I’ve felt I’m meant to stand with these folks, to stand with the demonized so the demonizing will stop, to stand with the disposable so the day will come when we stop throwing people away. I feel particularly called to do that and will do it until the day I die. CD

 

Traci Neal [tneal@catholicdigest.com] is copy chief of Catholic Digest.

 

A closer look at Father Greg Boyle

 

Favorite prayer: “Take, O Lord, and Receive My Entire Liberty”

Favorite food: carnitas (a Mexican pork dish)

What he’s listening to: “The Chieftains featuring Ry Cooder, the ‘San Patricio’ tape. It’s a merging of Mexican and Irish music.”

What he’s reading: Living With Wisdom: A Life of Thomas Merton by Jim Forest

The best advice he’s ever received: “When I was a teacher, another teacher told me, ‘Know every name by tomorrow,’ and ‘It’s more valuable that people know you than that they know what you know.’ It was teacher advice but it’s served me in good stead with the homies.”

His hero: César Chávez

Favorite saint: Ignatius of Loyola

Favorite film: “The Godfather”

 

 

Help Homeboy Industries get back on its feet

 

To volunteer, donate (funds, stocks, cars), offer jobs, shop, or help in any other way, contact Homeboy Industries, 130 W. Bruno St., Los Angeles, CA 90012; homeboy-industries.org; donations@homeboy-industries.org; 323-526-1254.

 

Copy Chief/Bookshelf Editor Traci Neal

Traci joined Catholic Digest as copy chief and bookshelf editor in July 2006. She received her journalism degree from Southern Connecticut State University and has worked as a newspaper and magazine writer, editor, and/or copy editor since 1988.