WINNIPEG — No child joins a gang to gain friends, wealth or power, says a Jesuit priest who has lived and worked among the gangs of East Los Angeles for more than 20 years. Even if a gang member tells you that, it’s still not true, says Rev. Gregory Boyle, SJ.
Boyle told an audience of 300 at the University of Manitoba Oct. 6 that if you dig deeper that gang member will tell you “ ‘my mom would put her cigarettes out on my skin. My dad would hold my head down in the toilet.’ No kid is ever seeking something; they are always fleeing. If a kid can’t conjure a vision of tomorrow, if his present isn’t compelling, he won’t care what he does or what happens to him. Ninety-five per cent of gang members want what others have, and that’s purpose.”
Boyle said communities continually misdiagnose the causes of urban violence.
Boyle is the founder of Homeboy Industries, the largest gang intervention, rehabilitation and re-entry program in the United States, now it’s in 25th year. He was in Winnipeg to give this year’s St. Paul’s College Sol Kanee lecture and paid the city a high compliment saying it is “so good” because of accomplishments such as the Arthur V. Mauro Centre for Peace and Justice at the college and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
Boyle, a native Angelino, was ordained in 1984. He worked in a penal colony in Mexico and California’s Folsom Prison and brought those experiences to Boyle Heights in East Los Angeles, where he was pastor at Dolores Mission Church from 1986 through 1992.
Boyle started what would become Homeboy Industries, a non-profit organization employing and training more than 300 former gang members every year in enterprises such as Homeboy Silkscreen, Homeboy Bakery and Homegirl Café. Homeboy also provides essential services to 12,000 people a year. It provides on-the-job training and programs including mental health therapy and tattoo removal.
“The task at Homeboy is to dismantle the messages of shame and disgrace,” Boyle said. “Each of us is a whole lot more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.
“We are called to create a community of kinship but how do we create a community where no one is standing outside of it? Margins are erased when you choose to stand there. You stand with the powerless, you stand with the easily despised and the easily left out, with the desperate, so the day will come when we stop throwing people away. Peace and justice is a byproduct of our kinship. It can only happen if you stand for kinship and communities.”
Boyle said the ex-gangers — he calls them “homeys” — “taught me everything of value, including texting. People who were rival gang members used to shoot bullets at each other, now they shoot texts.”
He said the tattoo removal service began with an ex-convict who had an obscene tattoo on his forehead. “He said to me, ‘I’m having a hard time finding a job.’ I found a doctor with a laser machine who gave me one hour a month.”
“Serving is a hallway to the ballroom of community. The hope is that there is no longer a distance between us. We are all in need of healing, that is what it means to be human.”
Boyle said the measure of the health of a community “is its ability to stand in awe of what the poor have to carry, rather than in judgement of how they carry it. Find your way to the margins, look under your feet, the margins are being erased because you stood there. But beware, because you will be told you are wasting your time.”