Father Gregory Boyle, the founder of Homeboy Industries, which is the largest gang-intervention, rehabilitation and re-entry program in the world, was the keynote speaker for the YMCA’s 62 annual Good Friday breakfast, which was held virtually on April 2.
“As we try to create a community of kinship. . .we are called to stand with the poor, the powerless and the voiceless,” Boyle said. “We stand with those whose dignities have been denied and those whose burdens are more than they can bear.
“We go to the margins so that other voices are heard,” he said. “We don’t go there to make a difference.” He explained that instead, it is the folks in the margins that “Make us different and alter our hearts.”
The priest said that Homeboy Industries has been around 33 years and he has seen thousands of people come through the doors, “all of them come barricaded behind a wall of shame and disgrace.” He told people that the only way to get behind the walls is with tenderness.
“Hommies always say that we’re used to being watched, but not to used being seen.”
“We hold the mirror up and tell them the truth that they are exactly how God saw them,” Boyle said. “We remind them of their unshakable goodness.
“A measure of health in any community is if people will stand with those in margin, rather than stand in judgment,” he said.
He explained how he had been invited to speak to social workers at a conference, in Richmond, Virginia, but when he found out it was going to be an all-day affair and the only speaker, he invited two gang members, who were in an 18-month training program, to go with him.
Jose, 25, who had been in prison, homeless and addicted to heroin, told his story.
“I guess you could say that my mom and me didn’t get along so good,” Jose said, adding that when he was six, his mom looked at him and just said, “why don’t you just kill yourself, you’re such a burden to me.”
At age 9, his mom dropped him off at an orphanage in Baja, telling the director she had found “this kid.” He was there 90 days, until his grandma learned where he was and brought him back to L.A.
His mom beat him every day and he used to wear three t-shirts, because the blood showed through from his wounds on the first two. “Kids at school were making fun of me,” he said. “I wore three t-shirts well into my adult years because I was ashamed of my wounds. I didn’t want anyone to see them.”
As an adult, he learned, “How can I help heal the wounded if don’t welcome my own wounds?”
“The measure of our compassion lies not in the service of those on the margins,” Boyle said. “But only in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with them.
“If we don’t welcome our own wounds, we may tempted to despise the wounded,” Boyle said. “You appear and the soul feels its worth. Suddenly people are not watched, but seen.”
Father Boyle said that the day before he had buried his 247th person – a young person killed “for no reason.” He buried his first young person in 1988.
He then spoke about “Bandit” who was always selling drugs and in trouble. One day Bandit came to Boyle’s door and said, “I’m tired of being tired.”
Boyle said, “He began to heal. He transformed his pain, so he didn’t have to transmit it anymore. He came to terms to what he had done and what had been done to him.”
A success story, Bandit stayed sober and 18 months later he had a job. “Five years later he’s the floor manager. Then years later, he marries buys a house and has three kids.”
Boyle said Bandit recently called him, and initially he was worried because often when he hears from people it’s not always good.
But in this case, “He wanted me to bless his daughter who was going to college.” Bandit and his wife didn’t know anyone who had never gone to college.
Boyle blesses his daughter and then afterwards told Bandit. “I give you credit for the man you’ve chosen to become. I’m proud of you.”
Bandit said, “I’m proud of myself. All my life people called me a low life – that I was no good. I showed them.”
Boyle concluded, “The soul feels its worth. We go to the margins and they disappear because you stand there, and you look people in the eye and you see them.”
Father Boyle is the author of the 2010 New York Times-bestseller “Tattoos on the Hearth: The Power of Boundless Compassion,” and his book “Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship,” was published in 2017.
He has received the California Peace Prize and been inducted into the California Hall of Fame. In 2014, President Obama named Father Boyle a Champion of Change. He received the University of Notre Dame’s 2017 Laetare Medal, the oldest honor given to American Catholics. Currently, he serves as a committee member of California Governor Gavin Newsom’s Economic and Job Recovery Task Force as a response to COVID-19.