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Father Gregory Boyle: Life among the homies

Father Gregory Boyle talks about his book 'Tattoos on the Heart' and Homeboy Industries, the L.A. gang 'exit' program that is his labor of love.

April 10, 2010|Patt Morrison

I should have known better than to try to interview Father Gregory Boyle on his home turf, at the Homegirl Café in the Homeboy Industries building on the edge of Chinatown. It was like trying to interview Elvis in the lobby of the Flamingo Hotel.

Old ladies, homeboys, artists, a City Council member -- everybody wanted to say hi to the man who, from nothing -- less than nothing, which is to say, derision and debt and doubt -- crafted what is now the biggest gang "exit" program in the country.

Homeboy Industries, a complex of ex-gangster-run businesses, has been a 20-year-plus labor of, yes, love, and now Boyle is telling tales. Homilies, tear-jerkers and even bursts of humor from the barrio families and felons he serves are collected in his new book, published in English and Spanish. He sat across from me, drinking coffee and writing messages on flyleaf after flyleaf of "Tattoos on the Heart," which could have been subtitled "Life Among the Homies."

Your book made The Times' best-seller list.

If this could become "Tuesdays with Homie," I could keep my doors open!

You go into Borders, it's in the religion section; Barnes & Noble, the sociology section; Amazon characterizes it in the motivational category. I'm happy with all of them. I don't want anybody to pigeonhole it -- "Oh, it's just a memoir by a priest who works with gangs." Christian publishers all turned it down because of the language. I'm really happy that they did -- I'd rather it have as broad an audience as possible.

Were you even aware of the Eastside, growing up in the Wilshire area?

I never would have known where to find a gang. It never was part of my consciousness until I came to Dolores Mission.

I was kind of evangelized by the poor in Bolivia [where he was sent after ordination]. That changed my life. The poor evangelize you about what's important and what is the Gospel, and that that's where the joy is. I said, "I want to work for the poor. I want to go to Dolores Mission," and [my superior] said, "How fortuitous; the pastor's just left."

When it comes to dogma, are you pretty ecumenical? Could you have as easily been, say, a Buddhist as a Catholic?

I like Eastern stuff and I think you can marry it to Jesus in a way that's quite compatible and whole. It enriches my own Christian faith.

There are iterations of Christianity that say, "My way or the highway."

I'm not down with that, as the homies would say. That doesn't make sense to me.

Even within [my] own sad, tragic church, there's a clerical culture that's not very helpful -- it's just about power and privilege and secrecy and sometimes even a willful wandering away from Jesus and the living of the Gospel. I think that the church can be returned to itself. It's about standing at the margins and with the right people, with these people [he looks around the cafe], and that's what the church ought to be.

What do you think about the newly designated archbishop, Jose Gomez?

Everybody's talking about him being Latino. Frankly, I think people get nervous around Opus Dei, but I watched his press conference and it completely won me over because he got emotional when he remembered the people in San Antonio and said the real home for any priest and bishop is in the love for the people. I thought, "That's a pretty beautiful line." So I found myself cleaning whatever slate needed to be cleaned in terms of Opus Dei. It gets people like me a little nervous -- [people] who want to open the windows even more than Vatican II. But then he won me over. So actually I felt hopeful by the end of the day.

Your leukemia is in remission -- "intermission," as one homie told you.

Now my visits with my hematologist are longer [apart]. It was once every three months. Now it's once every six months.

So now you know what parole is like.

That's right! I'm not on high-control parole any more. Fortunately. It's a kind of leukemia that's supposed to come back, and they're all kind of wondering why it hasn't.

I read that after your 1993 "tertianship," a spiritual sabbatical, some forces didn't want you to come back to gang work. Was that church politics or civilian politics?

I think it was a combo-burger of all those things. So I was in exile briefly, then I got a new [superior] and he let me come back. It was the most painful period in my life, frankly. It was complicated -- I think there was a lot of "this town ain't big enough for the two of us" feeling.

And now you're in this astounding house that Boyle built.

Obviously lots of people built it and lots of people are part of it. I've been gone two weeks, so I see this kid I don't know, and we start talking and he says, "I have to work here." I said why? Then he starts to cry and says, "Because this is a blessful place." The fact that he recognizes this as a blessful place, that's palpable.

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