Fr. Gregory Boyle, S.J., who trains tens of thousands of former gang members every year through his nonprofit, Homeboy Industries, delivered a message focused on love, kinship and serving others on Friday, November 3, at Benedictine University.
A crowd of more than 600 students and community members packed the Goodwin Auditorium to hear Fr. Gregory explain how, as a Jesuit priest, he's been able to reach some of the toughest gang members in Los Angeles and convince them to pursue a life free from guns and drugs.
"How do we bridge the distance that exists between us?" he asked. "I suspect there's no better time than our current moment in our country to address that."
The New York Times bestselling author of "Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion," explained how he launched Homeboy Industries in 1988 shortly after presiding over the funeral of a young man who had been stabbed to death. It was the first gang member he buried. Two weeks ago, he buried his 222nd.
Homeboy Industries focuses on helping gang members leave toxic environments so they can transition out of survivor mode and become part of a healthy, supportive community.
Many of the gang members Fr. Gregory came to know were afflicted by traumatic childhood experiences and spoke openly of physical abuse and abandonment, and had frequently been exposed to gun violence and incarceration.
"If their stories had been flames, you'd need to keep your distance or you'd be scorched," he said. "I would not have survived their childhoods."
Over time, Homeboy Industries became the largest gang intervention rehabilitation and re-entry program in the world. Today, the organization provides gang members with such services as an 18-month training program, therapy and tattoo removal.
"Our program is not for those who need help, it's for those who want it," Fr. Gregory said. "It's about healing and those who want to receive it."
Serving those who want help is only the beginning of the journey, however.
"Service is the hallway, but you don't want to stop there," Fr. Gregory said. "You want to get to the ballroom, the place of connection and exquisite mutuality and kinship.
"For no kinship, no peace. No kinship, no justice. No kinship, no equality," he added.
Fr. Gregory shared several transformative stories of growth and empowerment, citing one encounter with a gang member whose life he helped turn around.
"He's in his 40s now and doing well, but in his early 20s, he was like a yo-yo," Fr. Gregory said. "He'd be in and out of being locked up, I'd find him a job in the private sector or in one of our social enterprises and before too long, he would gravitate back to vague criminality, something usually involving drugs and then he'd wander back to me."
After spending time in jail and violating his latest round of probation, the gang member told Fr. Gregory, "This time, it'll be different."
Fr. Gregory had heard that before, but he didn't give up. He helped the gang member find another job working for a vending company. Two weeks went by, and then the gang member returned to Homeboy Industries.
"I couldn't even believe it," Fr. Gregory recalled. "Here we go all over again."
"But this time he reached into his pocket and he pulled out his very first paycheck," Fr. Gregory said. "He waved it proudly, and said, 'This paycheck makes me feel proper. I mean my mom, she's proud of me and my kids, they're not ashamed of me. And you know who I have to thank for this job?'"
"Well gosh, who?" Fr. Gregory said. "He looked at me strangely and said, 'Well, God of course. You thought I was going to say you?
"All I remember is the two of us falling out of our chairs howling with laughter, and I defy you to identify exactly who's the service provider and who's the service recipient," Fr. Gregory said.
"You don't go to the margins to make a difference," he added. "You go to the margins so that the folks at the margins make you different. The measure of your compassion lies not in your service of those on the margin, but only in your willingness to be in kinship with them."
This event was sponsored by the Office of the President, Campus Ministry and the Center for Civic Leadership. Benedictine brings thought leaders to campus to engage the community on important topics and have a transformative impact that encourages students to get involved as the next generation of leaders and responsible citizens.