Father Greg Boyle, SJ lives in reality. He makes decisions based on what is in front of him. He doesn’t stop to question the esoteric implications of the work he does, or wax on about policy or reform. Father Boyle’s concern is you, in front of him, in whatever you’re wearing, with the felony charge you brought along, because you probably need a job. And he’s got one for you.
If you’ve ever been to Mass in Southern California, Yelped the best food in Los Angeles, or read about gang intervention, you’ve probably heard about Father Greg Boyle, the founder of Homeboy Industries. Father Boyle has transformed countless lives through this ministry, and yet his mission from the start has been focused on restoring hope on an individual level.
As a young Jesuit, Father Boyle was placed at Dolores Mission, a little sister parish to a larger, wealthier one in East Los Angeles. When he arrived, Dolores Mission was primarily populated by refugees from El Salvador’s civil war. Those Salvadoran refugees, most of whom arrived in America in the early eighties (after the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero), were granted Temporary Protection Status in 1990. Boyle Heights, the neighborhood around Dolores Mission, was the heartbeat of Salvadoran culture in Los Angeles when Father Greg showed up in 1986. It was also the burgeoning home of what would become America’s deadliest export back to El Salvador: gangs.
Father Boyle’s parish was the epicenter of gang warfare, and much of his time was spent presiding over funerals. The deadly cycle of poverty was bearing out in his neighborhood, and the opportunity to break it was getting harder and harder to pull off — no one wants to hire a felon. With no job prospects and a steady stream of death and incarceration, hope was in short supply. Father Boyle’s neighbors who joined gangs believed their situation was inevitable. Life had one of two results: they would either be killed, or they would go to prison.
Surrounded by persistent hopelessness, Father Boyle figured out that the quickest way to disrupt this mindset was to employ the homies, giving them a job with a paycheck. He biked around East Los Angeles and made himself a nuisance in all the most dangerous places. He asked the people in these places to wash the windows of the church. He paid them out of pocket to build a garden. He invented tasks around the parish so that he could give his neighbors something, anything, to do in exchange for cash. He developed the mantra that’s now part of the Homeboy uniform — “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.”
The theology of Father Greg Boyle is disarmingly simple: kinship. Identify the group that no one wants anything to do with, and go there. Stand there. Sit there. Wait there. Like Jesus going to the lepers and prostitutes, Father Boyle moved toward the group that everyone else in Los Angeles was running away from, locking up, and shutting out. He dignified gang members by forcing his presence within them.
Father Boyle has spent decades cutting the chaff out of ministry. People join gangs because they need community and an income, so he invites them into a community and offers them a job. Gang members kill one another out of a desire for self-preservation, so he makes a space where safety is ensured — and invites everyone. Does this sound too good to be true? Father Boyle has two New York Times bestsellers full of stories that prove otherwise. Radical kinship is possible.
And it’s not a pipe dream. In 1999, the Homeboy Bakery, Father Boyle’s first formal foray with former gang members into a business, burned down. They built it bigger. Now there are Homeboy eateries in Los Angeles City Hall and a terminal of LAX. You can buy Homeboy chips and salsa at Kroger. There’s a Homeboy catering service. They’ve had three decades of silkscreen and embroidery services. Does your company need to recycle electronics? Homeboy’s got a branch for that. If you work in solar, you can hire a Homeboy graduate with all the appropriate training.
It’s easy for politicians and philanthropists to sit at the Homegirl Cafe, in the apex of one of Los Angeles’ biggest social enterprises, and consider it inevitable. But Father Boyle’s work is primarily individual. He built relationships with the young men and women in his parish’s neighborhood because he saw their need and fixed it. Why is that boy selling weed? Because he needs a job. The micro-nature of Father Boyle’s work feels radical because it goes against the impulse for how we seek to solve problems. Everyone wants to save the world. Father Boyle just wanted to save his neighborhood.
Instead of sporting the disposition of a long-suffering youth minister, as would be his right at this point in his life, Father Greg Boyle seems to dare the world to keep up with him. He’s constantly on the road, speaking at schools, conferences, and religious institutions. He’s been on NPR’s Fresh Air, On Being with Kristen Tippett, and How I Built This with Guy Raz. He received Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal. He beat cancer. And when he walked by me and my students in the parking lot of Dolores Mission, he stopped. My students gawked with the shameless awe only teenagers can pull off, and I asked him to bless icon bracelets we’d purchased at the market on Olvera Street.
“Sure,” he said, as I handed him the bag. He took the beads between his hands, spoke a blessing, and handed them back. He smiled and shook my students’ hands. Then his phone rang. “Hey, Mijo, what’s going on?”
Greg Boyle had to go. A homie called. And he’s got places to be.