Father Greg Boyle: I thought I could “save” gang members. I was wrong. The heart of ministry is to receive people and then enter into the exquisite mutuality God intends for us all.

Fr. Greg Boyle, in America Magazine, 28 March 2017

Photo courtesy of Homeboy Industries

I don’t believe in mistakes. Everything belongs, and, as the homies say, “It’s all good.” I do believe in lessons learned.

I have learned that you work with gang members and not with gangs, otherwise you enforce the cohesion of gangs and supply them oxygen.

I know now that gang warfare is not the Middle East or Northern Ireland. There is violence in gang violence but there is no conflict. It is not “about something.” It is the language of the despondent and traumatized.

In my 30 years of ministry to gang members in Los Angeles, the most significant reversal of course for me happened somewhere during my sixth year. I had mistakenly tried to “save” young men and women trapped in gang life. But then, in an instant, I learned that saving lives is for the Coast Guard. Me wanting a gang member to have a different life would never be the same as that gang member wanting to have one. I discovered that you do not go to the margins to rescue anyone. But if we go there, everyone finds rescue.

Louie was 19 years old, a gang member making money hand over fist by running up to cars and selling crack cocaine. He quickly became his own best customer. After my many attempts to get him into rehab, he finally agreed to check himself in. He was there one month when his younger brother Erick did something gang members never do. He put a gun to his temple and killed himself. Gang members are much more inclined to walk into enemy turf and hope to die than to pull the trigger themselves.I called Louie and told him what happened. He was crestfallen. “I will pick you up for the funeral,” I said, “but I’m driving you right back.” “I want to come back,” he said through his tears. “I like how recovery feels.”

When I arrive at the rehab center, Louie greets me with un abrazo, and once in the car, he launches in. “I had a dream last night—and you were in it.” In the dream, he tells me, the two of us are in a darkened room. No lights whatsoever. No illuminated exit signs. No light creeping from under the door. Total darkness. We are not speaking, but he knows I am in the room with him. Then, silently, I pull a flashlight from my pocket and aim steadily on the light switch across the room. Louie tells me that he knows that only he can turn the light switch on. He expresses his gratitude that I happen to have a flashlight. Then with great trepidation, Louie moves slowly toward the light switch, following closely the guiding beam of light. He takes a deep breath, flips the switch on, and the room is flooded with light. As he tells me this, he begins sobbing. “And the light,” he says, “is better than the darkness.” As though he had not known this was the case.

We cannot turn the light switch on for anyone. But we all own flashlights. With any luck, on any given day, we know where to aim them for each other. We do not rescue anyone at the margins. But go figure, if we stand at the margins, we are all rescued. No mistake about it.

Father Greg Boyle, S.J., is an American Jesuit priest who works with Los Angeles street gangs as the founding director of Homeboy Industries in California. Before founding Homeboy Industries as a non-profit ministry to his neighborhood’s predominantly Hispanic gang members in 2001, Father Boyle was a pastor of Mission Dolores church in 1986-1992. Homeboy Industries got its start when he founded Homeboy Bakery in 1992, following the L.A. race riots, as a way of getting gang members off the streets. He previously taught at Loyola High School and worked with Christian Base Communities in Cochabamba, Bolivia. He also spent time as Chaplain of the Islas Marias Penal Colony in Mexico and at Folsom Prison in the U.S. He is the author of Tattoos on the Heart and is also a public speaker who has been honored by numerous organizations for his work.

On Aug. 17, 2014 America Magazine interviewed Father Boyle by email about his work on behalf of gang members.

You’ve been working with L.A. gang members for more than three decades now. How has the work changed or evolved for you over the years?

In the early days, when the work was focused on the eight gangs—at war with each other in my parish—I worked with “gangs,” not just “gang members.” I would facilitate truces and cease-fires and peace treaties. It made sense to do this then. Whereas, I don’t regret doing it, I’d never do it again. If you work with gangs, you supply oxygen to the gangs. This is not good. Plus, you romanticize gangs when you do this, as if gangs were the Middle East or Northern Ireland. They’re not. Now, at Homeboy Industries, we say, “we don’t work with gangs, we work with gang members.”

How has your Catholic faith been affected by working with gang members?

In 30 years, I have had to bury 194 young people killed because of gang violence. Kids I loved—killed by kids I love. People always ask me if such a thing has led me to question my faith. I’m always asked this. Not entirely sure why. These deaths and the grief surrounding them have shaped my faith, not shaken it. God stands with us and God’s heart is broken by the very thing that breaks our hearts. I suppose that if death were the worst thing that happened to us, perhaps we’d be toppled.  Worse than death, is not knowing the truth of who we are: exactly what God had in mind when God made us. My faith is indeed stronger because I know the thousands of gang members who have blessed my life.

Where do you find God most clearly in your ministry?

We are not invited to rescue, fix or save people. The heart of ministry is to receive people and then enter into the exquisite mutuality God intends for us all. Saving lives is for the Coast Guard. An earnest fellow, working with gang members, asked me once: “How do you reach them?” I said, “For starters, stop trying to reach them. Can YOU be reached by them?” This is the essence of a ministry that empowers by listening, receiving and welcoming. My life is saved everyday by contact with folks who are at the margins. And the day won’t ever come when I am more noble, have more courage or am closer to God than these people.

What’s the greatest consolation in your ministry?

When homies know that they are exactly right and that they are loved by a God too busy to be disappointed.

What’s the greatest desolation in your ministry?

Meeting pay roll every two weeks.

How do you overcome the hatred that gang members feel for their enemies?

Human beings can’t demonize people they know. Put enemies together, say, baking bread, and humans can’t sustain animosity. Impossible.

You’ve often said that “nothing stops a bullet like a job.” Why are jobs so important for keeping young Catholics off the streets and active in their faith?

God’s hope is that “my joy is in you, and your joy complete.” That’s God’s wish for everybody (not just Catholics). But folks have to feed their kids and pay their rent. And people of faith must not rest until all our brothers and sisters are able to do just that.

Your job referral ministry at Homeboy Industries involves tattoo removal and helping people overcome drug addictions. How do tattoos and drugs impact the lives of young Latinos in your Los Angeles neighborhood?

Tattoos are an impediment to future employment. Most mistakes can’t get erased. But tattoos can. Gang members use drugs and alcohol to self-medicate rather than confront their past and darkness. Homeboy Industries help them move to transformation, healing and attachment repair, without the use of a controlled substance.

One of the most powerful obstacles to getting off the streets is that many people with deep wounds in their lives turn to drugs as a way of numbing their feelings, blinding themselves to the bleak reality of their situation. In your own ministry, how do you help addicts overcome their physical dependency on drugs and help them find better ways to cope with life’s sufferings?

Love is the answer. Community is the location. Tenderness is the methodology.

With marijuana now legal in Colorado, some Catholics are concerned about the drug’s effect on drivers, which is similar to alcohol but more difficult to measure in terms of setting a legal limit. As someone with first-hand experience of working with drug addicts, how do you feel about efforts to legalize pot and other recreational drugs?

I suppose it would be helpful to treat marijuana like alcohol.

Violence is another kind of addiction that often blinds people to love of God and neighbor. What perspective does the Catholic faith give people in confronting violence?

The question to ask is: What language is this behavior speaking? For violence is not a behavior, it’s a language. The language of the despondent, the traumatized and the mentally ill.

What can Catholics and others of good will do to help the homeless, gang members and other marginalized members of society discover God’s love in their lives?

Show up and learn from them.

What are your hopes for the future?

To be able to financially sustain what we do.


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