Father Greg Boyle moves swiftly around the headquarters of Homeboy Industries in central Los Angeles, looking a bit like Santa Claus, with twinkling eyes, a nice bushy beard, and a modestly comfortable middle. His birthday was May 19 and crowds of people pressed to hug him. A 57 year old Jesuit priest, he is the founder and president of an organization with an improbable name and a remarkable mission: to give hope to people our society seems to have given up as lost. The people who work with him call him a saint; even more, they see him as a friend.
Homeboy Industries was born 23 years ago as a modest job training program in the Delores Mission parish in Boyle Heights. Los Angeles was wracked by gang violence, with a seemingly unending cycle of violence passed on from generation to generation. Father Greg ached at the pain of those caught in the gang system. But more than preaching or coaxing, he looked to practical solutions. In Boyle Heights as in so many places, finding solutions meant finding jobs. He was able to support and to place many of the "Homies". One thing led to another and an organization emerged, organically. Homeboy Industries today is a bustling bundle of different offices and departments -- silk screen factory, café, bakery, tattoo removal clinic, legal clinic, classrooms, and so on. A non-profit organization, it is proud to call itself the largest gang rehabilitation program anywhere.
With the prospect of thousands of new prison releases imminent in California, the work of Homeboy is especially significant.
The words magic, love, and miracle tend to be bandied about during a visit to Homeboy, but it's also about hard work. The magic refers to the hard fact that there may be no tougher social work or social justice challenge than the young people who have grown up in the violent worlds of Los Angeles, gang capital of the world, and cities like it the world over. It takes magic of some kind to open doors to a different life. Love means the caring that Homeboy staff, led by Father Greg but deeply ingrained in the culture and values of the organization, offer to anyone who walks through their door. And "miracle" speaks to success stories.
Father Greg's best-selling book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, tells one story after another of young people who have turned their lives around, who hold jobs, care for their families, and help others to take those difficult first steps to shed their past life and start on the arduous path towards a new one.
The spiritual dimension of Homeboy Industries is evident in a daily morning prayer and message, and in some of the language that Father Greg and his staff use to describe what it takes to succeed. It is evident also in the pain -- Father Greg keeps track of the people he has buried (175) and everyone knows full well that for many who start on the path there will be steps forward, and steps backward also. But this is a robust spirituality that is grounded in hard earned experience and a deep commitment to professionalism. It is open to all, on both the client and staff end.
Vincent, Miranda, and Alvaro (not their real names, following Father Greg's example) all take enormous pride both in Homeboy Industries and in their own achievements. They tell their stories to visitors -- horror stories of abandonment, parents in prison and on drugs, violence and death, getting caught in a system that trapped them, sucking them ever deeper in. Each repeated that when they came to Homeboy it was the first time someone believed in them, and thus they could begin to believe in themselves.
Hope is thick in the air at Homeboy but there is no escaping the tough challenges that the organization and each of its clients face. "Jobs not jail" and "nothing stops a bullet like a job" are their mottoes, but getting a job, with a jail record, in today's job market is easier said than done. Homeboy's model is above all built on their hard learned message that a comprehensive approach is essential: dealing with legal issues, relationships with parole officers, parenting skills, anger management, domestic violence, getting academic credentials, learning what it takes to hold a job, and removing the tattoos that mark someone as part of the culture of gangs. The pieces simply have to fit together. That takes coordination, determination, and faith that it can work.
Father Greg does have boundless compassion and an infectious belief in rehabilitation. He is stubbornly determined that second chances are what America should be about. He takes his clients and friends one by one.
But the answers to the broader questions linger: why has our society failed so many young people? How can we cut the cycles of violence? What should our government (which serves our society and its values) be doing about these problems? And if government is unwilling and/or unable to serve people like those who walk in the door at Homeboy, who should? And who should pay? And what will happen to the many babies and children that are, today, born into the unforgiving street culture? Sadly, there are not many Father Gregs around, but happily there is at least one who can give us inspiration that it can be done and a healthy model of what it takes.
(an earlier version appeared in the On Faith site of the Washington Post)