I walked into the East LA bakery just a bit on edge. Every person in sight had at least a bit of body paint and black shirts with the "Homeboy" logo printed across their chests. But the aroma of fresh-baked bread filled my nostrils and I was asked not once but repeatedly by smiling employees if they could help me. This white boy was immediately at ease.
I had come to see the work of Father Gregory Boyle in assembling perhaps the most successful outreach program for former gang members in the country. I brought Julio Medina, a friend and 12-year inmate of Sing Sing, with me to see what he could bring back to his program, Exodus, which helps inmates make it on the outside back in Harlem.
Father Greg, as everyone calls him, sits in a glassed-in office at the nerve center of the program. He can see all the comings and goings. "We touch 12,000 lives a year," he explains to me in a soft but firm voice of a man who is determined but compassionate. The walls of his office are covered with dignitaries but it's the kids he points to. "This one here and this one over here," he tells me. "They didn't make it."
Father Greg explains that gang members can get their high school diploma, they can get counseling, they can get their tattoos removed. But ultimately the point is to find them work so they can become self-sufficient. That's how the bakery was born. "It was really an accident. There was an abandoned bakery across the street."
The bakery has flourished, now supplying the supermarket chain, Ralph's, baked goods throughout the state. Homeboy also has a thriving silk-screening business. But not all the business ventures have worked out. "We started a Homeboy plumbing business," Father Greg explains. "It just never occurred to me that folks wouldn't want gang members in their homes," he says smacking his forehead with a sheepish grin.
"You can see they do great work here," Julio whispered to me as we put on white hairnets and walked in to inspect the giant mixers and industrial size ovens in the bakery's kitchen. "Everybody's smiling here," he continued. "Did you notice?"
In another room, Julio and I were shown where tattoos are removed by laser procedure. Two machines were donated to Homeboy and there is now a 1,000 person waiting list.
Our tour guides, Gus Mojica, showed us scars on his forearms where his skin had been covered with tattoos. However, one vivid tat remains on his neck. It reads, "Fuck You." I asked Mojica why he still had that tattoo. "When I find a girl who can make me wish I hadn't got this tattoo," Mojica answered, "then I'll get it removed."
Moments later Father Boyle led me into his office, off the main lobby. Dominating one wall of the office is a portrait of Cesar Chavez that depicts the labor rights activist standing in a forest in autumn. The other walls are mostly covered with photographs and paintings. "It's mostly prison art," said Boyle.
I told Boyle about The Good Men Project's contributors who describe a defining moment in their life, an experience that transforms them. "In that moment," I said, as Boyle nodded, "is when miracles can happen."