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Jesuit Greg Boyle, Gang Priest

Jesuit Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, addresses priests and the general public June 29 during the annual assembly of the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests in St. Louis. (CNS photo/courtesy Paul Leingang) See BOYLE-KINSHIP July 6, 2015.
(CNS photo/courtesy Paul Leingang) 

It helps to have connections if you want to meet the Rev. Greg Boyle, S.J.—gang connections. Father Greg doesn’t have much time to tell his story to St. Anthony Messenger. Why? Because he gives—and gives and gives—his time, his energy and his influence (known in the neighborhood as “juice”) to the young people of the Pico/Aliso District in East L.A.

Pico Gardens and Aliso Village, sometimes called “The Projects,” is the largest tract of subsidized housing west of the Mississippi. This huge piece of social engineering hasn’t worked out so well. It’s poor, crowded and packed with gangs.

Some of Pico/Aliso overlaps Boyle Heights (different era, different Boyle). Within those 16 square miles, 60 gangs claim 10,000 members, Hispanic and black. This equals violence and plenty of action at the Hollenbeck division of the Los Angeles Police Department—if Father Greg Boyle doesn’t get there first.

In two days hanging around Father Greg’s office, a modest though vividly painted storefront on L.A.’s East First Street, G-Dog or G, as the kids affectionately call the Jesuit, reveals life in a very fast lane. The priest’s office—nine feet square maximum—is a windowless, unfinished drywall box in the epicenter of the 600-square-foot headquarters of Jobs for a Future (JFF). He has an open door in—and an open door beyond—to other offices, storage for Homeboy Industries silkscreened items and the only bathroom. Traffic through Greg’s doorway feels as hectic as the L.A. freeway system.

Father Greg requests, “Hold my calls.” But when a prison inmate gets a chance to phone, the priest reneges, “Well, let me take just this one….” A young man comes by—dressed for success—to tell his happy story and thank Father Greg for the contact, the clothes, a job, a hope. With Greg on the phone and me in the visitor’s chair, the young man preens back and forth between the front and back doors of this short runway. He and the priest exchange a complex handshake, a triumphant smile, a thumbs-up. No words seem necessary. Pride is evident in both son—and father. Father Greg is surrogate parent to hundreds of Hispanic youth, many the children of Latino immigrants.

The office is crammed with memorabilia which I study while he’s on the phone. Official framed certificates, plaques and news clippings hang next to drawings by—and photos of—neighborhood youth. Latin American artifacts and activist posters jockey for wall space with strong, distinctive samples of graffiti wall art. The colorful sketches Father Greg has pinned to the wall have no ominous overtones, however. His poorly lit office is bright with evidence of love.

How can Father Greg take time to talk about what’s already happened when more is happening—right now? How can he speak of his dreams when young dreamers are lined up outside the door? “So—what do you want to know?” he asks as he hangs up the phone, signs some kind of permission slip for a girl’s school function, hollers out with pseudo-sternness, “No more calls!” and tries to fit the story of his life into the 10 minutes before he dashes to another appointment.

Irish-American Jesuit Homeboy

Gregory Boyle is one of eight children. His father, third-generation Irish-American, worked in a family-founded dairy in Los Angeles County. His mom worked to keep track of her large family. When the young Greg graduated from L.A.’s Loyola High School in 1972, he decided to become a Jesuit and was ordained a priest in 1984.

To this observer, it would seem that the Jesuit’s every assignment (pre- and post-ordination) would present major hurdles for most middle-class Americans: hospice, soup kitchen, prison, Latin America, the South Bronx. For Father Greg, each contributed to the pastoral awareness he brought to his 1986 assignment as pastor of Dolores Mission. He wanted to be a Jesuit because the Order has a social-activist bent. He wanted, he had said, to work with the poor. Dolores Mission is certainly that. The parish is within walking distance of downtown Los Angeles, yet constitutes another economic and social hemisphere.

It’s been a bumpy 13 years for Father Greg, including a year and a half away from the neighborhood after his six years as pastor were concluded. Some people didn’t want him to come back after his sabbatical, but they weren’t the young men—and young women—who constituted the priest’s primary focus: gang members and other kids on the edge.

When he returned in 1994, his assignment was to concentrate exclusively on job development and related ministries with neighborhood gangs—and not on the other urgencies Los Angeles’s poorest pastorate had required of him. JFF is more than enough to stress a much larger staff than the seven the agency employs.

Is he tired? It seems a logical question, given the pace observed in just two days! The 45-year-old Jesuit answers, “I don’t expect to be doing this forever, but I love it and it gives me life. Like this morning—I’m coming from court and a kid flags me down and he’s wearing his shirt unbuttoned, a nice dress shirt, nice pants. He’s got a tie and he’s waving it. ‘Do my tie,’ he’s begging. So I pull over because it’s an emergency. I do his tie and he looks great and I say, ‘You know what, Johnny. I’m proud of you!’ Johnny turns around and says, ‘Me, too!’”

When he isn’t fixing ties or talking on the phone, Father Greg may be in court—as he was this morning—or visiting the 14 detention centers where he celebrates Mass on a rotating basis, or out raising funds through a combination of great stories, hard truths and gospel witness. He might be out on the street. He might be writing letters, since he answers every letter from a local youth in detention. This averages about 40 a month, reports Celeste Fremon, in her thick and thrilling 1995 biography, Father Greg & the Homeboys. Her book is based on two years of following G-Dog around in good times and bad.

Ms. Fremon, journalist, mother, advocate for Greg and the kids known as homeboys (Hispanic slang for the kids on one’s own block or in one’s gang; also known as homies), has heard the Los Angeles Police Department complain vociferously about Father Greg. They think he harbors and supports criminals. She has attended some of the many gang-member funerals over which Father Greg’s presided. She’s heard—and reported—the objections of police officers who say he glorifies gang membership by allowing Church burials for these young people. Greg sees a funeral as a great personal heartache but also a significant teaching moment, a time when other homies might let down their defenses and listen.

Celeste Fremon sees Father Greg as one of the neighborhood’s greatest hopes. She describes Pico/Aliso as a war zone. She sees gang leaders as the kids with the “most intelligence, social skills, leadership capacity and the ability not to blink in the face of danger.” She says that the Jesuit hasn’t brought peace to Pico/Aliso but he has brought change. He has brought such an infusion of love that some young men “have finally become strong enough to save themselves,” the concluding sentence of Ms. Fremon’s book.

Father Greg is often interviewed on gang issues for radio and TV. He’s been featured on 60 Minutes and in People Weekly. Fremon’s book, published by Hyperion Press, captured a piece of the priest’s story between hard covers. Now comes a movie—or at least a script. A fellow Jesuit priest, Bill Cain of Nothing Sacred fame, has completed a screenplay for Columbia Pictures. Since Father Bill once lived at Dolores Mission, he didn’t have to reach far for the exciting elements of plot and characterization. A production schedule—and the challenge of casting—still awaits.

At Central Headquarters

Father Greg has brought other dynamic and dedicated people to work at Jobs for a Future. Emily Castillo, Norma Gillette, John Tostado (see sidebar at end) and Carlos Vasquez are also hard at work during the days St. Anthony Messenger visits JFF’s First Street offices.

These staff members do what it takes to get kids working. Just what is that? Emily arranges for a “Clean Slate,” which at JFF means getting tattoos removed. White Memorial Hospital doctors cooperate in this venture. Norma develops resumés and matches those resumés with job opportunities. She is scouring the want ads when I arrive, circling possibilities.

John and Carlos are job developers and case managers for youth in their early days of employment. They write letters of recommendation. They visit businesses to see how they can connect the energy of their clients with the goals of businesspeople.

JFF helps its clients get the clothes they need to make that all-important first impression. Father Greg spent part of this interview on the phone checking his credit balance, apparently finding the totals disappointing. “A million and one kids need clothes to get to jobs and stuff like that,” he says, happily exasperated by a positive problem. Gilbert, a neighborhood youth now employed, is new at his job and “still pretty pushed for clothes.” White T’s and black Dickey work pants, de rigueur in the neighborhood, are—for that very reason—seldom admired in the workplace. Father Greg and other staff members also serve as tie-knot tutors and are happy to add that to their resumés.

To ensure employment opportunities, Father Greg began Homeboy Industries, which markets T-shirts, sweats, mugs and hats bearing the Homeboy logo. All these items are imprinted by Homeboy Silkscreen, a for-profit subsidiary.

A visit to the silkscreen operation and to Homeboy Bakery—both hot as blazes on an L.A. August afternoon—finds members of rival gangs sweating side by side, learning skills they can use and building a resumé that can also boast of their punctuality, reliability and ability to cooperate. While the bakery employs only 10 on a shift, young men can begin there, learn and move on. The men I see have no time to talk. They are intent on creating loaves of fragrant, yeasty, gourmet bread.

Carlos Vasquez explains that these are transitional, training businesses, but both appear to be succeeding. The bakery, oddly enough, failed as a tortilla supplier, but is getting good press in its current reincarnation as a supplier to fine restaurants with Frisco Baking Co. as distributor. KPWR, an L.A. hip-hop FM station, has given the bakery $150,000 through its Knowledge Is Power Foundation. It also engages the silkscreeners to make logo T’s.

Since St. Anthony Messenger’s visit to Jobs for a Future, three more companies are in place: Homeboy Landscaping, Homeboy Cleaning Service and Homeboy Artesania, which offers a cross and Christmas decorations.

Why These Gangs?

The Los Angeles Police Department’s anti-gang program is called Operation Hammer. The general approach is to get gang members off the street and into jail. Father Greg calls it the “full-incarceration method” which he contrasts with his own “full-employment strategy.”

What explains this powerful and dangerous phenomenon of youth gangs? Father Greg says, “It’s a sense of belonging. There’s not something that pulls kids into gangs so much as something that pushes them. It’s not so much what lures or attracts them but what pushes them out of the four walls that should be holding them in—and don’t.”

He continues, “The kid is sort of pushed out at home and then gravitates around this group. He’s not so much, ‘Wow, doesn’t that look attractive.’ It’s not, because they will join a gang and they’ll have to watch their back forever. They’ll endanger the lives of their loved ones and it goes on and on. None of it is very attractive. But if there’s abuse or alcohol or neglect or if the parents aren’t around,” kids look for a place they can belong.

They are high-spirited young people, wary but clever and charming. Armando Avecedo has a tattoo on his neck in Chinese characters. Why? He explains, “So not everyone can read it.” How does it translate? “Trust no woman,” he says deadpan, his dark eyes delighting in the irony of telling so many his secret.

“We are prone as a society to demonize and reject these kids and not want to help them,” laments Father Greg. “What if we really were to deal with the problem rather than just resign ourselves to warehousing the consequences? What if we were just to say yes to kids rather than insist that kids just say no to gangs? We want adults to be able to say yes to these kids, to offer them a way to get on with their lives. They’ve been through a lot. I’ve never met a victimizer who wasn’t first victimized. So you have to deal with that compassionately as Jesus would.”

Imagining a Future

Jobs for a Future—and the mission of Greg Boyle—is premised on just that: a belief in the future, a future for each and every young person in the projects. Father Greg works with kids whose homes are broken, whose parents are unemployed, who have dropped out of school, who say they “ain’t got no future.” To them, the Jesuit says, “I can see your future! Trust me!” He explains that much of his ministry is to imagine a future that the kids can’t see—and help that future materialize.

I ask for a success story: kids employed, kids grown and out of the projects, kids living the American dream. He points to young men—like Fernie, pictured on the cover—working around the office, answering the constantly ringing phones, packaging Homeboy Industries orders, showing up for work, being “go-fers,” being counted. “All the different gangs are represented right now in our office,” he observes. “Not only does society need to put a human face on gangs but enemies also need to put a human face on one another,” he adds.

Still Father Greg is hesitant to speak in terms of success. “I feel called to be faithful, not successful,” he says. “I feel called to be faithful to an approach and to a certain wisdom about who these kids are. I believe that if they are given a chance, then they’ll thrive and they’ll begin to imagine a future for themselves.”

What would this future look like? “Obviously, we want peace in the community. We want the kids to have a sense of who they are in God’s eyes. They’re such damaged kids in the sense that they haven’t had much love or support at home. That affects their sense of themselves, of who they think they are.

“They think they’re the bad son. I keep telling them over and over, ‘You are the son that any parents would be proud to claim as their own.’ That’s the truth. That’s not some fantasy. As soon as they know that they’re exactly what God had in mind when God made them, then they become that. Then they like who they are. Once they can do that—love themselves—they’re not inclined to shoot somebody or hurt somebody or be out there gang-banging.”

They are the prized—if prodigal—sons. Jesuit Greg Boyle extends to them—and to many a homegirl as well—the accepting arms of a loving father.

Carol Ann Morrow is a freelance writer and editor. This article appeared in the August 1999 issue of St. Anthony Messenger.