Founder of gang intervention program spoke on his experiences
By Frank Flegel
Father Greg Boyle, SJ, could be described as an individual who goes where others fear to tread.
He is founder and executive director of Homeboy Industries of Los Angeles, the largest and most successful gang intervention and rehabilitation program in the world.
Boyle was the guest speaker at the ninth annual Forward Together lecture series sponsored by the University of Regina and its three federated colleges: Campion, Luther, and First Nations University of Canada.
He begins all his talks with the phrase, "It's the privilege of my life to have worked with gang members and it will never come when I have more courage or be any more noble or be closer to God than the thousands and thousands of men and women who have walked through our doors from the mean streets of Los Angeles."
From that opening he begins the story of Homeboy Industries, which has successfully established a series of non-profit enterprises that provide jobs and job-related training for gang members.
His stories contain much humour and some pathos as he relates his experiences.
Once a gang member came into his office with “F--- the World” tattooed across his forehead and complained that he couldn't find a job. "Well, let's put our heads together and see what we can come up with," Boyle said he told the young man, to laughter from the audience. That intervention led to a tattoo-removing service that quickly had a waiting list of 3,000.
On a personal level, after obtaining several university degrees, Boyle was ordained a priest in 1984 and spent a year working in Bolivia. When he returned to the United States, he was posted as pastor of Dolores Mission Church, the poorest Catholic parish in Los Angeles, located between two large public housing projects, home to the largest concentration of gangs in the city.
Boyle and parish members organized their own school by asking the nuns who lived on the second floor of the parochial school building to move out so they could start a school for the area gang members. The sisters said yes, and that's how Mother Teresa Middle School was created.
An unnamed wealthy movie producer asked if he could do something for the group and Boyle asked him to buy the nearby abandoned bakery; thus was born Homeboy Bakery, which served as the foundation for all the other services the group initiated.
Their ventures weren't all successful, Boyle said. The plumbing venture failed. "Who knew people didn't want gang members in their house," he joked and accompanied his comment with an open-hand swipe across the top of his head.
Homeboy Industries now comprises a daycare centre, a Homegirl cafe, a silk-screening company, a restaurant inside the LAX air terminal building, the tattoo removal service, legal counselling, a farmers market that sells local produce, and many other services, all designed to support and employ gang members.
Boyle talked about kinship and compassion and going to the margins of society.
"We are all a lot more than the worst things we have done."