Jesuit Father Gregory Boyle relates stories of abuse and redemption from his ministry among the formerly incarcerated and gang members in Los Angeles. EmmaLee Italia photos
Jesuit Father Gregory Boyle relates stories of abuse and redemption from his ministry among the formerly incarcerated and gang members in Los Angeles. EmmaLee Italia photos

At times both humorous and gut-wrenching, the stories shared May 16 by Father Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, emphasized the struggles faced by former gang members the Jesuit priest has mentored and assisted over 35 years.

“We stand with the easily despised and readily left out,” the Jesuit priest of 50 years said to the crowd gathered in St. Paul Church, Princeton, for his talk “When the Wave Knows It’s the Ocean.”

LEARN MORE: Father Boyle’s Homeboy Industries

“We get to stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. And we stand with the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away.”

Father Boyle expounded on his ministry that began in 1988 in Dolores Mission Church in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles – which grew into the largest gang intervention and re-entry program in the nation, encompassing more than 250 organizations worldwide.

“You want to create a community of kinship such that God might recognize it,” he said. “We’re all invited to stand at the margins, because that’s the only way they will get erased.”

Poorest of the Poor

As pastor for six years in Dolores Mission Church, Father Boyle watched as his parish community in the largest group of public housing west of the Mississippi faced eight rival gangs at war with each other. The first step on his mission to improve the neighborhood was education.

“There were so many middle school-age gang members who had been given the boot from their home school – nobody wanted them, so they were wreaking havoc in the middle of the day,” he explained. He asked them, “If I found a school that would take you, would you go?” They all said “yes.”

When he couldn’t find a school that would take them, he asked the parish’s religious sisters – who readily agreed – to give up their convent to create a school for the displaced teens.

Shortly thereafter the former gang members expressed a desire for jobs, and Father Boyle teamed with women of the parish to canvass the nearby factories for “felony-friendly employers” – to no avail.

“So, we just started things – a landscaping crew, a maintenance crew – all made up of rival members of the eight gangs,” Father Boyle said.

When riots took hold of the city in 1992 following the Rodney King verdict, Father Boyle’s parish neighborhood was spared. The Los Angeles Times asked him why he thought that was the case.

“I said, ‘We have 60 strategically hired rival gang members who have a reason to get up in the morning, and a reason not to torch their community,’” he replied.

The resulting article drew the attention of a Beverly Hills movie producer, Ray Stark, who told Father Boyle he had $500 million. “How do you think I should spend my money?” he asked.

“I woefully undershot my request!” Father Boyle said ruefully. “I said, ‘There’s an abandoned bakery across from the school; you could buy it … we could put hairnets on rival enemy gang members, and they could bake bread, and we could call the whole thing Homeboy Baker

The non-profit Homeboy Industries grew from that bakery, encompassing multiple social enterprises. Services were added, which now include a kaleidoscope of mental health, education and rehabilitation opportunities, with an 18-month employment and re-entry program. 

Embracing Wounds

“Once you know what kind of God we have, that’s when the wave knows it’s the ocean,” Father Boyle said. “You’re one with God, this tender glance.”

He emphasized the need to encounter people with a stance inspired by a word from St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order: “acatamiento.”

“It translates to ‘affectionate awe,’” he explained. A measure of health, he said, “is the ability of us to stand in awe of what the poor have to carry, rather than stand in judgment of how they carry it.”

If we don’t welcome our own wounds, he continued, “we may be tempted to despise the wounded. If you go to the margins to make a difference, then it’s about you. But if you go to the margins so that the folks there make you different, then it’s about us … we want to take seriously what Jesus took seriously, inclusion, non-violence, unconditional loving kindness and compassionate acceptance.”

Ava Sass, junior in Notre Dame High School, Lawrenceville, and parishioner in St. John Parish, Allentown, was inspired by Father Boyle’s talk. “He went all out when supporting people who were part of gangs, and I think I could do that … for people in my life,” she said.

Visiting from St. Mary Parish in Littleton, Co., Jim Field said, “The thing I walked away with was the phrase he used, ‘when you cherish others, then they develop hope … and that breaks the cycle of despair and loss’ … it hit me right in my heart.”

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