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The Care He Has Given Returns to Ailing Priest

An outpouring of love buoys Father Gregory Boyle, healer of a troubled community.

June 07, 2003|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

For nearly two decades, he's embraced the boys others have shunned. He has prodded thousands of gang members to trade lives of violent crime for honest work, visited them in hospitals and prisons, comforted their families.

In the process, Father Gregory Boyle has become an iconic and healing presence in his Boyle Heights community.

But now the priest is ill with leukemia, and the people he has so deeply touched see that it is their turn to take care of him.

Since Boyle's diagnosis in March, he has been deluged with visits, calls and letters from people ranging from the Los Angeles police chief to homies in prison. Homeboys he hasn't seen in a decade have turned up, tears streaming down their faces, offering their organs and blood.

"I got a gang of blood, a gang of blood," Boyle says one homie told him.

People have plied him with health juices, vitamins and offers of Mexican healers and folk remedies. Actor Martin Sheen is urging him to take an all-expenses-paid trip to Lourdes, France, where healing miracles are said to occur.

Women at Dolores Mission Church, where Boyle first served as pastor in 1986, have organized a weekly prayer service Thursday nights.

Lupe Lorea, 63, who started the gatherings two months ago, says she became close to Boyle 15 years ago when he visited her wounded son at the hospital and stayed to listen to her troubled story of two abusive marriages. Since then, she said, Boyle has helped to guide her in raising eight boys as a single mother.

"He's the one who came to rescue me," Lorea said.

The first fund-raiser for Boyle's Homeboy Industries -- a $300-a-plate affair at the Cathedral Center tonight featuring top Roman Catholic clerics, public officials and such celebrities as Kirk Douglas and Anjelica Huston -- quickly sold out.

"Everyone is thinking ... that this may be my eulogy," joked the bearded and balding Boyle, 49. But the priest says his cancer is "inching toward remission" and believes he will outlast the six years that patients with his particular disease, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, are typically given to live.

Boyle says the outpouring of love and care has overwhelmed him. "I feel surrounded by God," he said. "I'm the luckiest person on the planet."

The Los Angeles native of Irish descent first met suspicion from gang members, but eventually won their respect and trust after he persistently sought them out, riding his bike through the Boyle Heights housing projects. He learned not only fluent Spanish but also their slang, mastered the intricacies of gang life and showed them what he calls his principle of "no matter whatness" -- "No matter how bad it gets, you never withdraw love."

When the public schools kicked out the gangbangers, Boyle started a school for them. When they told him that jobs would help keep them from gangs, he sent 100 parish ladies into the streets to solicit jobs from local businesses. When they began to call him "G-dog" -- these days shortened to "G" -- he knew he'd won their trust.

Angel Juarez, 23, said news about Boyle made some homies question God's fairness. "God knows who's good and bad -- Why him?" asked Juarez, who credits Boyle with turning him from drugs, booze and crime to a stable life of faith, family and honest work.

"I just trust in God to keep him safe and heal him," said Juarez, who was shot in the head in 1996 and now works from a wheelchair in Boyle's office. "I just keep on praying for him."

Despite two difficult rounds of chemotherapy, Boyle looked fit and surprisingly energetic during a visit this week to his busy office on 1st Street. A steady stream of young men, parents and friends stopped by to remove tattoos, apply for jobs, seek advice about wayward sons and plan tonight's event. As Boyle spoke, his eyes darted constantly, ever watchful for any sign of skirmishes among visitors and the former enemies now working side by side.

"Cesar, you have to work immediately the minute you get here," he told one youth.

Another walked into his office, fuming that his bike had just been ripped off, then returned shortly later to announce that it had been found. Boyle stopped him:

"As long as you got the bike, you don't get the kid, OK? It's settled, right?" The youth nodded his head in assent.

Boyle pulled out a manila folder, proud as a new papa. In it were pictures of an Alhambra bakery that, Boyle plans to announce tonight, will be the new home of Homeboy Industries' baking operations, which stopped in 1999 when the original bakery burned down.

Film producer Ray Stark, who donated the money for the first bakery, will be honored tonight, along with Boyle's board members Joanne and Robert Smith and a homeboy touted for his transformation, Fernando Leon.

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