Listen to the conversation:
“Gang violence is about a lethal absence of hope,” Father Gregory Boyle says. “Nobody has ever met a hopeful kid who joined a gang.”
He is the founder of Homeboy Industries, the largest gang intervention, rehabilitation and re-entry program in the world. It includes a range of social enterprises created to employ and train former gang members and the 10,000 folks who walk in off the street every year seeking a better life. Besides job training, metal health and social services, the most important thing that Homeboy provides is hope.
“You’re not going out to the margins to reach people; you’re going out to the margins to be reached,” says Father Greg, a Jesuit priest who is better known around Homeboy as “G” or “G-Dawg.” “Then, just that stance alone allows for exquisite mutuality.”
Every day at Homeboy starts with a morning meeting. It sets the tone for the day. A prayer. A run-down of programs—mandatory drug tests, tattoo removal, therapy, baby and me class. It’s a raucous family meeting with inside jokes that visitors may not understand but still feel a part of. “How long?” a voice in the back chirps, “All damn day!” the homies sing in unison and the whole place cracks up.
Today, elder statesman Marco trains new homie Louie in the subtle art of nonverbal communication required as G’s runner. In this critical position, he manages G’s schedule and the flow of humanity that wants a piece of his time each day. Like a baseball pitcher and catcher, with a series of hand gestures, winks, and nods, G tells the runner when to bring someone in, and when to gently escort them out.
“I’m just trying to learn from Dad,” Marcos tells me, nodding G’s way. “He just knows things. I have no idea how he does it, but I’m tryin’ learn. He knows when something’s about to go down, and he comes out and deals before it gets bad. I think it’s just a feeling he gets. People walk in here all day looking for something. A lot of them, probably just freeloaders. But Dad, he never sends anyone away empty. He always gives . . . time, bus token, or somethin’. So, I’m just tryin’ learn.”
You go to the margins not to save but be to be saved.
As we’re about to begin our conversation with Father Greg, I see him gesture to Louie. He opens the door for a grandmother who shuffles in, steading herself with a walker. She came by to simply thank Father Greg, to tell him how much her grandson was helped by Homeboy. G asks after him. “He’s away right now,” she sighs, “he has mental health problems and sometimes he can’t be reached. But his time here, it mattered.” It dawns on me that she means her beloved grandson is back in jail.
You go to the margins not to make a difference but be made different.
Another series of winks and nods and Father Greg pops up again. This time motioning for a boy to be brought in.
In a hushed whisper, Greg asks this young man if he’s taking his meds. He shakes his head no. He’s here because his phone died, and he needs a new one. Greg peers up at him with such gentle love in his eyes that I blush and look away. Raw intimacy like this I have no business observing. “Where did you sleep last night? Go get yourself some breakfast. You probably haven’t eaten today. Please. We’ll work on your phone. Later. Now, eat.”
Father Greg acknowledges that new arrivals can require a lot of work to learn resiliency. “Unless you can give them safety and security, you’re not going to make many gains. Here we say that they find this sanctuary here, then they become the sanctuary they sought in the first place, and then they go home and provide that sanctuary to their kids. And now, without really noticing it, you’ve broken the cycle. Now you have this kind of generational sanctuary where people feel safe. Kids feel safe.”
Father Gregory Boyle has the brilliance of a revolutionary, the heart of a poet, and is on the short list of the most inspiring orators and authors of our age. But his fullness is best understood relationally. Like the sun, you can’t look head on. Greg’s ray is reflected in the tender adoration of transformed homies who he’s tipped off to the meaning of life: harnessing your wounds to become the transformational presence for another.
Many times, throughout the conversation with Greg and others at Homeboy, I have to pause. It takes enormous, exquisite focus to remind myself to accept the warm fold I was invited into. Like the rest of the homies, I walked in off the street as a total stranger. Without needing to prove my worth, they accepted and embraced me exactly as I was, just for showing up and wondering.
Each time a new homie took my hand in both of his and squeezed, telling me I was a blessing for being there, with more effort than I’d like to admit, I believed him. A voice inside me quips that they say this to all the girls. And they do. Because they truly mean it. But hell if I’ll dishonor their sincerity and disrespect their journey by rejecting their tender embrace. I call on every cell in my body to taste their offering. A delicious joy penetrates my heart.
Greg’s fierce love has created a constellation of hearts that embraces everyone in radicle kinship. For a moment, we see our separation is an illusion. We all want to get into heaven, but here at Homeboy, heaven gets into us.
“It’s not the place you come to, it’s the place you go from,” writes Father Greg at the end of his latest book, Barking to the Choir, quoting Martin Luther King Jr. to describes Homeboy. “What Homeboy Industries announces to the world is aspirational and not declarative of a fully formed, complete thing. Our community has always been about longing; always the desire for the desire.”
Don’t set out to change the world. Set out to wonder how people are doing. Father G teaches us that when we chose to savor the world, it gets saved. We are sent to the margins NOT to make a difference but so that the folks on the margins will make us different.
This story is part of an ongoing series featuring change-makers over 50. It’s created in partnership with Encore.org‘s Generation to Generation campaign, which connects older adults to kids who need champions. We sincerely thank them for inviting us to Homeboy Industries and for their incredible support in capturing the stories in this series.