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Painfully, the Priest of the Projects Leaves the Gangs He Loves


For weeks, Father Gregory J. Boyle was the guest of honor at a string of emotional send-offs, as the residents of the Pico Gardens and Aliso Village housing projects bid a bittersweet farewell to the patron saint of Eastside gangs.

He was feted with Mexican food and mariachis by those who credit him with being a true padre to the community's young gang members. Yet, in private moments, the gangsters approached Boyle in tears, asking why he must leave them, wondering if he will return to bury them if and when they are killed.

"That breaks my heart," said Boyle, 38, who arrived at Dolores Mission Church six years ago as the youngest pastor--in the poorest parish--in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles. "It's extraordinarily painful for me to leave."

On July 26, he celebrated his final Mass before embarking on a yearlong spiritual retreat required of all Jesuits. Boyle has asked to be returned to Dolores Mission next summer, though it would be as a community worker and not as head of the parish. His superiors at the California Province of the Society of Jesus, which teaches that Jesuits should be ready to ship out to wherever they are most needed, have made no promises.

It has been a time of intense personal conflict for Boyle, who has been forced to discover his very human limits.

This is a man exalted for his capacity to unconditionally love youths who have been denied love. He is painted larger than life on a neighborhood mural surrounded by the images of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Virgin of Guadalupe. But he has also been profoundly saddened that his love alone could not stem the barrio's bloodshed. Twenty-six times he has had to bury a young victim of the escalating violence he sought so hard to halt.

"I'm right at the edge of burnout, and at this point, if I do another year here I think I'll go over the edge," said Boyle, noting that his tenure as pastor has left him balder, grayer and pudgier. "Before, each death pinched me; it was a pain that would hurt and then go away. The last couple deaths got into the marrow of my bones."

The turmoil is at least as great for members of the eight gangs that operate in the Pico Gardens and Aliso Village housing projects--a two-square-mile complex in Boyle Heights that forms the parish boundaries.

The gang members fear that long-simmering rivalries could explode. It is the man they call "G-Dog," they say, that maintained whatever semblance of peace there may be, the glue that keeps the barrio from sliding into chaos.

"When he's gone, I can't even say how it's going to be," said Dreamer, a 21-year-old member of Cuatro Flats, who always seems to find an excuse to snare Boyle in an affectionate bearhug.

One of Boyle's most potent tools for keeping a lid on the violence is also in jeopardy. He has had 63 hard-core gang members on his payroll, making $5 to $6 an hour painting over graffiti, helping build a day care center, maintaining the church grounds and doing any other odd task that Boyle can invent so as not to leave them idle.

The money would come in the form of donations, sometimes

anonymously, that seemed to miraculously arrive in the mail just as the bank would call to remind Boyle that his account was overdrawn. It was in many ways a testament to the force of his personality. After he appeared on a recent segment of "60 Minutes," he said, the checks that poured in kept the homies employed for two months.

"We're losing something of tremendous value," said Breavon (Bebee) McDuffie, president of the Pico Gardens Residents Advisory Council. "Ain't nobody else in the same mold as G, not even the Pope."

In his place, the parish is headed by Father Peter Neeley, who was Dolores Mission's associate pastor. Neeley could not be reached for comment, but it is widely agreed that his calling is not with the neighborhood's cholos, who say he is a dedicated priest but has never embraced them with the same warmth as Boyle.

Boyle had tried to downplay his departure, assuring everybody that his absence would be only temporary. He will write, he will call, he will pray, he said, hoping to quash any feelings of abandonment among the many gang members who know all too well what it is like to have a father leave.

Still, he conceded that he may be fooling himself. Already he is feeling pangs of guilt over the day when the phone rings with news that one of the homeboys has been killed--and Boyle will not be able to come back to bury him.

"That will be torture for me," he said. "But that's part of life here."

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