n 1988, Father Greg Boyle received his first assignment after seminary. He was assigned to be the parish priest of the Dolores Mission Church in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. If L.A. was considered the gang capital of the world at the time, then Boyle Heights was the gang capital of the gang capital. Every other block in this neighborhood was controlled a different gang.
Father Boyle quickly recognized that to really be a witness to God’s love, he had to do more for the young men caught up in these gangs than just preside at their funerals. And after just a few months on the job he had already presided over scores of them.
So what he did was this: he hopped on his Huffy and biked from gang to gang trying to hammer out peace treaties between them. While he was ultimately unsuccessful he earned a lot of street cred in the process and gang bangers started hanging out at his church at all hours of the day and night.
Photo from America Magazine – Father Greg Boyle posing with some of the ex-gang members helped by Homeboy Industries
As Father Boyle got to know these young men, what he came to realize is that most of them didn’t really want to be in a gang. Rather, they saw gangs as the only way to improve their economic situation. The problem was, however, that when they finally decided that they wanted out, they so tatted and a had rap sheets so long that no sane business owner would hire them.
Out of love for these young men, Father Boyle started a tattoo removal service right there on church grounds. He then started talking to the managers of the factories in the neighborhood to see if they would would be willing hire these young men. While they agreed philosophically to the premise, no job offers ever actually materialized. So Father Boyle took matters into his own hands once again: against all advice, he started a bakery staffed entirely by ex-gang members. Much to the chagrin of his naysayers, the enterprise was an instant success.
Word began to spread through the gang community and soon there were more requests for jobs than they had openings In response, Father Boyle expanded and opened a silk screening shop, then a janitorial business, and then a café, again staffed entirely by ex-gang members.
Thus Homeboy Industries was born.
What does the story of Homeboy Industries have to teach us about God’s love?
If the story of Homeboy Industries began and ended with the work of Father Boyle it would certainly still be interesting, but it wouldn’t be instructive. However, seeing the way the transformative love of God was shared by Father Boyle with others has much to teach us.
Eventually, Homeboy Industries became so successful, that word of it made its way to the White House. In 2005, Laura Bush went to see what all the fuss was about. She toured the silk screening shop and bakery and was duly impressed. Several months after she returned to Washington, one of her staffers reached out to Father Boyle with an invitation to speak at a conference and then attend a banquet at the White House. The staffer also invited father Boyle to bring with him three of the quote unquote “homies” who work he worked with.
Photo from the George W. Bush Presidential Center Archive – Laura Bush posing with Homeboy Industries representatives at at the 2005 White House Conference on Helping America’s Youth.
Father Boyle chose three young men who he had been working with for years. In his own words, if you had put out a casting call for “homies” these are the guys who would show up: all big, scary looking guys, about 6ft tall and a couple hundred pounds each. Tattoos. Chains. Baggie pants. The whole nine yards. But for as intimidating as they may have looked from the outside, all three had hearts of gold.
This trip to Washington D.C. was their first time ever on a plane but they made it there with little issue. The conference went well. The banquet went well. Everybody was impressed with the young men and the work they were doing at Homeboy Industries.
On the plane back to L.A, Alex, one of the young men, got up to use the restroom. However, he didn’t come back for a full 45 minutes. When he finally returned to his seat Father Boyle jokingly asked if he had fallen in.
Alex didn’t so much as crack a smile. He had a look of panic on his face.
Photo from the George W. Bush Presidential Center Archive – Father Boyle embraces a program member
“Father, I’m so sorry.” Alex said, “I don’t what I said. I got talking to one the flight attendants, telling her about my job as tour guide at the silk screening shop. I even gave her an imaginary walkthrough of our operations. I told her about how I’m trying to make a new life for my wife and my kids. And I told her how yesterday we made history. Because although a lot of crooks had lived in the White House we gang members to ever be formally invited there. And I don’t know what happened, she just started to cry.”
This is what Father Boyle told him: “That’s okay, Alex. It’s just that she saw YOU. She didn’t see your tattoos. She didn’t see your chains. She didn’t see your jeans. She saw YOU. And what’s more, she saw that you’re a child of God. And sometimes when you recognize that someone is a child of God for the very first time you start to cry.”
“And that,” Father Boyle told him, “is a very good thing.”