A Jesuit Perspective: Rev. Greg Boyle, S.J., on Circles of Compassion
April 5, 2012
Los Angeles native Rev. Greg Boyle, S.J., is founder and chief executive officer of Homeboy Industries, the largest gang intervention program in the country. Appointed pastor of L.A.’s Dolores Mission in 1986, Fr. Boyle soon grew distressed by the rapidly intensifying gang-related violence and despair in the area. Two years later, Fr. Boyle created the Jobs For A Future (JFF) program to address the escalating problems and unmet needs of gang-involved youth. He worked with the community to establish an elementary school, day care program, and legitimate job opportunities for young people. Fr. Boyle and JFF launched the Homeboy Bakery business in 1992 to provide training, work experience, and an opportunity for rival gang members to work side-by-side. The bakery’s success prompted JFF to become Homeboy Industries, an independent nonprofit organization, in 2001. Today Homeboy Industries’ nonprofit economic development enterprises include Homeboy Bakery, Homeboy Silkscreen, Homeboy/Homegirl Merchandise, and Homegirl Café.
On May 19, Fr. Boyle will deliver Loyola University Maryland’s 2012 Commencement Address and receive a doctor of humane letters degree, honoris causa, from the University. While in New York in January to accept an award from the National Committee on Child Labor, Fr. Boyle—accompanied by a young married couple from Homeboy Industries he asked to join him as a delayed honeymoon—spoke with Loyola magazine about how his Jesuit vocation guides his work.
Q: What drew you to the Jesuits?
A: I was taught by the Jesuits in high school, and I found them both prophetic and hilarious. Remember, this was during the Vietnam War years, marked by civil disobedience. The protests they dragged me to set me on fire about the war, farm workers, and so on. I really saw the link between living faith, the promotion of justice, and finding God in all things. And they were joyful, they wanted to be together.
Q: How did you become interested in working with at-risk youth?
A: It wasn’t like I sought it out or even thought to seek it out. I was appointed pastor at Dolores Mission in 1986, and I started to bury young people in 1988. I’ve buried 180 more since, in
rapid succession. I had been sheltered from that reality. I was from L.A., but hadn’t lived in the city for a number of years. Within a few years of my arrival at Dolores Mission, the problems became quite vexing. The years 1988-98 were really a decade of death. Gang activity always stems from a lethal absence of hope—no hopeful kids ever join gangs, and this hopelessness was exacerbated by the economy and the use of drugs and guns. It became a lethal cocktail. There were shootings morning, noon, and night that decade. I began to feel that I could either bury my head in the sand or roll up my sleeves in response to the enormously complex social issues at work in the community.
Q: How do you feel your work with Homeboy Industries connects with your identity as a Jesuit?
A: The Jesuits have always been aligned with education, of course, but St. Ignatius also had a real sense of focus on the margins, of people who had been abandoned, of reaching out to those whose dignity had been denied. The poor, the sick, the demonized, the disposable—
St. Ignatius always wanted to stand with them. St. Ignatius imagined a circle of compassion and no one standing outside of it. And the young people I work with are definitely the “them” in “us versus them.”
Q: How has your work affected your personal and spiritual life?
A: I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and it’s completely transformed my life. It’s helped return me to myself. The homeboys and homegirls have taught me, led me, blessed me. They’ve meant everything to me. When I was a younger Jesuit, I imagined I would teach. I got an M.A. in English, thought I would teach high school. But then I was sent to work with the poor in Bolivia and my world was turned inside out, it changed everything for me. When I returned, my Provincial assigned me to Dolores Mission, because he needed a pastor there. It was the perfect marriage of my deepest longing and his immediate need.
Q: How do you know you’re making an impact?
A: I don’t really care about impact or success, and I don’t think God’s concerned with impact, either. You need to anchor yourself in what’s right, true, loving, and kind, and don’t alter it. If things are falling down around you, you can’t abandon that anchor for something more “effective.”
Q: What kind of role does a university have in work like yours?
A: I think the role of any university is to foster a vision of kinship with God, and to expand that circle of compassion I talked about so that no one is excluded. I think it’s the goal of everyone’s work, and the goal of every parish and every individual who wants to live as though the Truth were true.
Q: Do you think being a priest opens doors for you in working with gang-involved youth—or perhaps presents special challenges?
A: I think there is a perception that especially within the Latino community, there is some sort
of special path for priests. But that’s not true of young gang members. They don’t care. They may have been born Catholic—but all they really need to know is whether they can trust you or not.
Q: And how do you get to that place of trust?
A: It’s never about talking at them. It’s about receiving who they are, accepting who they are, and acting as a mirror so they can see they are exactly who God intended them to be, and that nothing pierces that—not a long incarceration, not death. The important thing to remember in ministering to people in prison is that everyone is a lot more than the worst thing they ever did. If people are looking for ways to help efforts like Homeboy Industries, donations help of course, but above all, making a difference comes from the way you see things, moving toward a sense of awe for what a person has carried and away from a sense of judgment about the way he carried it. That’s the mark of a healthy community.