Through his Homeboy Industries, Father Gregory Boyle has helped thousands… (Jay L. Clendenin, Los Angeles…)
It took me quite a while to get to Father Gregory Boyle's office at Homeboy Industries and finally spend some time with him. Exactly 10 years, in fact, and that was way too long.
We've chatted briefly on occasion, but as I explained to him on Wednesday, he seemed to already have been spoken for when I started writing columns for The Times in 2001. Reporters and other columnists knew him as both a source and a friend, and Boyle's years-long mission to turn gang members into working taxpayers was already well-documented.
So I went off and did my own thing, trying to find my way in a city that was foreign to me. And I learned a lot about this maddening metropolis and exhilarating experiment we live in. If I know anything after a decade of scratching around, it's that I've barely tapped the great well of untold stories.
Not long ago, I got two assignments from the folks organizing this weekend's L.A. Times Festival of Books. First, to climb up on a stage and field questions about the recently published collection of columns from my first decade on the hunt. And second, to share a stage with Father Boyle and discuss his best-selling book, "Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion."
I gladly accepted both pitches, then thought maybe I should beg off the Boyle assignment and let someone who knows him do the interview. But that seemed cowardly, so I began reading "Tattoos," and like the thousands who have catapulted the book onto the L.A. Times best-seller list for more than a year, I got hooked. By the time I finished, I realized it was naive to think I could ever really know Los Angeles without knowing Father Gregory Boyle, whose work epitomizes the notion of L.A. as a place of second chances.
Boyle, a Jesuit, doesn't think in terms of numbers or stats; his is a spiritual world in which simple acts of compassion make up the moments of the day, and a widely feared and reviled segment of the population fills him with humility.
In his 20-plus years of running Homeboy Industries, he has helped thousands of once-committed gang members — many of them bitter rivals — come together to burn the tattoos off their skin, train for jobs and move beyond lives filled with crime, despair and the very hopelessness that made gangbanging a kind of suicide mission.
How did he do this? This passage from his book explains it well:
"Sister Elaine Roulette, the founder of My Mother's House in New York, was asked, 'How do you work with the poor?' She answered, 'You don't. You share your life with the poor.'"
That's how Boyle approached his work in Los Angeles. When bullets flew, he rushed to the scene. When parents cried in the emergency room, Boyle consoled them. When the dead were buried, Boyle honored their lives. He broke bread with families during good times and bad, celebrated the small victories in a day, discovered the grace in giving, and represented kindness and hope to doomed, militarized kids who knew neither.
"We expect people to work on themselves here," Boyle told me in his office, a fishbowl from which he can see the constant flurry of activity. Kids from a juvenile camp had been bused in for tattoo removal. Homies were waiting in line to update him on their lives. Former gang members who now work at Homeboy filtered in, apologized for interrupting and conducted the day's business on the fly.
Boyle said the young men and women arrive at Homeboy, often from prison, with lots of work to do and many tough questions to mull: "Who am I? What is courage? What is manhood really about?"
Boyle and his staff don't answer those questions for Homeboy participants. They simply require that kids stay drug-free and keep their eyes open so they can find the right path for themselves.
"No hopeful kid ever joins a gang," said Boyle, who often finds poverty, imprisoned parents and untreated mental illness and addiction in houses that churn out bangers. Through the years, when he asked the non-bangers how they managed to stay clean, the answer was always the same: My mom would've killed me.
After my chat with Boyle, a former gang member named Stephanie Lane gave me a tour. Lane told me that she's 22, her mother just got out of prison and her father is in a mental institution. Growing up, mostly with her grandmother, Stephanie lived in the projects near Boyle's old parish. She joined a gang, spent 2 1/2 years in juvenile lockup, then got out four years ago.
Go see Father Greg, her grandmother said. Boyle, a longtime friend of the family, had been asking about her.
"Father G offered me a job and I said, 'I don't want a job.' He said, 'Yes, you do, you're hired."
Lane has been a tour guide and worked in the Homegirl Cafe the last four years. She's got a new assignment coming up soon and she's pretty excited about it. She's going to help open and run a new Homegirl Cafe in L.A. City Hall. She said Boyle has taught her that if the door to a good life ever closes, it'll be because she's closed it on herself.
"Father G is the man, because he made all of this happen," Stephanie said. "He never judged us, the way everybody does."
I told Stephanie I want to meet her grandmother, and I want to be there when her new cafe opens. Now that I've finally met Boyle and his crew, it won't be another 10 years before I go back.