By CJ Dablo
Sitting comfortably in a padded, red chair on a stage at the Expo Building in Bixby Knolls, the portly man with the white beard and glasses didn’t look like a Jesuit priest responsible for one of the most successful gang-intervention programs ever developed. During Wednesday night’s book-signing event hosted by the Bixby Knolls Business Improvement Association’s Literary Society, he was dressed in a green fleece-like jacket, without the telling white reverend’s collar.
Father Greg Boyle, affectionately known as “Father Greg” to the kids at Homeboy Industries, paints a surprising picture of the gang members who come to his organization for help. They arrive despondent, severely traumatized, damaged or mentally ill, he says.
Boyle dismisses the notion that kids are somehow lured into the gang lifestyle. They are damaged by terror and have seen torture, domestic violence or abuse, he explained.
“No kid is seeking anything when he joins a gang. He’s always fleeing something. Always,” Boyle said. “So, if you know this to be the truth, ‘cause I believe it is, then you start to address the stuff they’re fleeing rather than the supposed[ly] sexy attraction.”
Boyle’s book Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion will be released Tuesday, Feb. 22 in paperback. An audio version of the book will be released in March. Before a crowd of about 285 people, Boyle told stories of gang members who sought the chance to get a fresh start at Homeboy Industries.
Headquartered in Los Angeles, Homeboy Industries has been serving the Southern California community since 1988. Boyle, a Jesuit priest and native Angelino, has served as its director, shepherding the thousands of gang members who come through Homeboy’s doors.
Rival gang members work next to one another at Homeboy Industries, which has developed several niche businesses. Participants learn occupational skills as they undertake any of a variety of jobs such as waiting tables at Homeboy or Homegirl Cafés or operating machinery for their custom silk-screening and embroidery business. The operation has grown to offer its participants tattoo-removal and counseling services.
Drawing on ideas from Mother Teresa, Boyle attributes the success of the program to a philosophy that seeks to include everyone: gang members, felons, the traumatized and the broken.
“And so all of us together are invited to imagine the circle of compassion and then imagine that nobody is standing outside that circle,” Boyle said. “And to that end, I think we’re called to do something very specific, which is stand at the very edges with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless. We’re invited to stand with those whose dignity has been denied, with those whose burdens are more than we can bear.”
“I just think that he makes such an impact in the community,” said Stephanie Toller Negrete as she waited in line to get her book signed. The 45-year-old California Heights resident held two hardback books, one of which will be part of a Valentine’s Day gift for her husband.
The lessons that Boyle taught resonated with another member of the audience who was just about to stand in line to get his book signed. Rafael Vega, a 24-year-old resident of Boyle Heights in East LA, said he met Boyle about ten years ago. Vega said he wasn’t really at-risk to join a gang, but he’s lost a few friends who were gang members. After meeting “Father Greg” briefly and volunteering at one of his missions, Vega began a career path in community services. Vega said that Boyle motivated him and encouraged him.
Eventually, he plans to earn an advanced degree. He’s already finished four-year college and is now looking for a job. For now, he says he is interning at Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s office and also works at the Parks and Recreation Department.
“Now… almost ten years later since I last met [Boyle], I just wanted to come, speak with him and just. . .tell him thank you for being that motivation in my life,” Vega said.
Boyle retold a few of his stories, some humorous and some moving, of life with the young men and women he has helped: the kid who needed free legal help and asked for an attorney who could work “Sonny Bono;” the 174th burial he had to perform last week; and the young man who moved a flight attendant to tears when he told her his story about his life as a redeemed gang member who that day was on a return flight home from a trip to the White House.
That flight attendant saw in that man the shape of God’s heart, Boyle explained, describing a moment of mutual understanding during which two very different people become closely linked.
“People cry sometimes,” Boyle said. “Suddenly [there’s a] kinship…two souls feeling their worth: flight attendant, gang members.”