The Broad and Flaunt's #InfiniteLA Q&A: Homeboy Industries' Father Greg Boyle

by Brad Wete

Today we dropped the second video in our series with The Broad and Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors exhibit. We’re connecting the work of some of Los Angeles’ most renowned activists and creative minds with Kusama’s stirring pieces and installations, currently on display at the museum. We continue with Homeboy Industries' Father Greg Boyle, who we asked: How do you picture an ideal world?

Share your response to that same question on The Broad's Instagram, Twitter or Facebook pages--using the hashtag #infiniteLA--for the chance to win a pair of tickets to see Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors. Submit your answer by 11:59 p.m. PT on Friday, November 10. We'll be announcing the winner on Monday, November 13, along with the next video in our series.  Hit Flaunt.com for a Q&A with the two on succeeding despite being in a male-dominated field, how they met, and not making your dining experience a photo shoot.

Last week’s winner was Tammy Hornek, who shared her story of following her own path to her first love, art, after a career as an accountant. She is now in her 6th year teaching art classes to adults!

Below, learn a bit more on Father Boyle--why listening has been the key to many demonized and demoralized former inmates feeling better and becoming their best selves, how he became the hero of sorts he is today, and why tenderness is the needed all over the world.

 


Was there a moment where you realized that this is the route you wanted to take?

I’m a Jesuit priest and I was asked, after being in wonderful Bolivia, to be the pastor of this very poor parish in the Lord’s Mission. I’ve been there for most of my life now—half of my life, I guess. And so it was a parish that had the highest concentration of gang activity in the world, eight gangs in these two contiguous housing projects. So I started burying kids in 1988 and that was the sort of decade of death ‘88 to ‘98 and pretty soon I was burying eight kids in a three-week period.

So we started to do things. That was kind of vocation within a vocation within a vocation, you know. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I think I’ll work with gangs.” It’s “How do you not work with gangs when you’re in the place of highest concentration of gang activity in the whole world?” I didn’t have a choice. But then once I did it, I kind of felt that my heart was altered and I was being led and shaped. It’s been sort of unshakeable ever since.

That sounds like an eye-opening experience. Before that, what did you think of the world?

I didn’t know anything about gangs, but I was born and raised in the gang capital of the world: Los Angeles. But because I lived on the other side of town, we just weren’t exposed to this. I won multiple lotteries: the family lottery, the parent lottery, the zip code lottery, the education and mental health opportunity lottery. And then I came across the river and then I was on the east side, and that was quite eye-opening.

Nothing prepared me for this. I didn’t know anything about it, but then you kind of start to get to know people and then you discover the kind of the principle that demonizing is always untruth and you can’t demonize people you know. And in those days, demonizing is a wholesale thing. It was just huge. It was the friend of our enemy is our enemy. It was a short hop to demonize me for helping them.

Consequently, the first ten years of Homeboy Industries was marked by death threats, bomb threats, and hate mail, not from gang members but from people who would thoroughly demonize this population. So that was difficult. We haven’t had anything like that for really a long time.

What’s the thing about yourself that helps them trust you?

A lot of times we disqualify ourselves. We think, “Well, how could we possibly have anything to say to them?” Or, “I’m white, I’m not a gang member, I don’t have tattoos, I’ve never been to prison.” And we do that and it’s unfortunate, because this is a human thing, not a rarefied specialized thing. So if you’re a proud owner of a pulse, you can listen to people, you can receive people, you can allow yourself to be reached by people, which is kind of all you have to do; then you can help. We think it’s about message. Except the task is not about talking to people.

It’s about listening to people and suddenly that breaks it wide open, all hands on deck. It democratizes this effort. Rather than have it be this specialized thing. So it’s not a huge leap, I’ve never had a homie say, “Well, what you do you know about it?” And the reason they never have is because I never really yak at them. I listen to them. Now of course I’ve been doing this for longer than they’ve been alive, so I do have a thing or two to say occasionally, but it’s mainly about receiving who they are. An earnest gang member said to me in Houston who was working with other gang members, “How do you reach them?” And I said, “For starters, stop trying to reach them. Can you be reached by them?”  That’s the only thing that matters so that’s our principle around here.

So listening is the answer.

I think part of the thing is people want to be noticed, people want you to pay attention and people would like you to remember their name. There’s little things and suddenly the only way that that guy is going to know he’s valuable is by somebody valuing him and that’s kind of the key because then you hold up the mirror and you return people to themselves. Here’s the truth of who you are, you’re exactly what God had in mind when God made you. And then right before your eyes you watch folks on the margins become that truth and inhabit that truth– that’s a powerful thing to have happen.


Why focus your time on this demographic?

I think it’s been an evolving thing, nobody intends to do something like this, but we backed our way into becoming now the largest gang intervention rehab and re-entry program on the planet. I didn’t intend to ever have that happen. Jesus never took the right stand on issues. He was always standing in the right place. Especially in the beginning days and I think it’s still true, but especially in the beginning days. You couldn’t find a more demonized population than this one. It matters to stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop.

It matters to stand with the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away. And it matters to stand with people who are poor, powerless, and voiceless or easily despised or readily left out. It matters to stand with those folks rather than taking the right stand on an issue. There are issues, there are policies, there are pieces of legislation that you want to advocate for or denounce, but it’s mainly about standing with folks, and then they kind of know that that’s where you’re standing––that you’re with them.

What is your idea of an ideal world?

I think Mother Theresa said that the problem in the world was that we’ve forgotten that we belong to each other. God’s dream come true, the only thing that quenches God’s thirst is a community of kinship, a place where there are no outcasts. Nobody is outside of the camp, everybody’s in. Then it’s the birth of a new inclusion, it’s the dismantling of the barriers that exclude. That is utopia.

This is the kingship of God. This is the hope that somehow we will arrive finally at a notion that there is no Us and Them. It’s just Us. So you have to work hard at it, but the good news is there’s a bi-product of that if you work towards that. The bi-product of that is peace, justice, and equality. So we always focus on those worthy goals: peace, justice, equality.

The truth is they can’t happen unless there’s some underlying sense that we belong to each other, that there’s kinship. People will say, “No justice, no peace.” Or they’ll say, “If you want peace, work for justice.” I would take that a step further and just say, “No kinship, no peace. No kinship, no justice. No kinship, no equality.” So if you work for kinship that’s what you’ll get, but we do it in reverse. We focus on those issues and we’re working for peace and we’re at cross-purposes because it can’t happen unless we are really connected to each other. Unless there’s connective tissue that is joining us.

Is there a traditional route of getting homies accepting to Homeboy Industries? Is the path linear?

A lot of it is just vicinity. You just have to put people in the vicinity of each other, so Homeboy's trying to be what the world is ultimately invited to become, which is a community of kinship. You can put two rival enemy gang members in the bakery and they are working side-by-side making croissants together and they’re not speaking, they’re not working things out. “Remember that time you shot me in the alley, or whatever.” They don’t, but something is getting worked out. They’re just in each other’s vicinity. 

I think that’s compelling and ultimately irresistible because then you connect that it’s been your deepest longing always to be connected to somebody else and to each other. So we have this notion that somehow kids join gangs because they want to belong.

No. No kid is seeking anything when they join a gang. They are always fleeing something. So it’s always best for us to address what they’re fleeing. But here, this is real community. Real community trumps whatever shallow thing they had before. This is the real deal. This is where they recognize. It’s kind of a powerful light that’s shining on their gang past that says, “Yeah that was empty. This is fullness.

Could you share a success story about one homie who’s become their best self?

I kind of don’t believe in success. I always get asked that, “Tell a success story.” I’ve written two books and I suppose you would find something from there. But if that’s true, then that means there has to be failures. I don’t believe in that either. It’s all about progress. People make progress in the good, they come to terms with themselves, they identify the pain that’s crippled them.

They transform their pain so they cease to transmit it, and then all of a sudden they’ve re-identified who they are; then they leave here after 18 months. And still the world will throw at them what it will, but this time they won’t be toppled by it. Now there isn’t anybody out there right now who isn’t in that category. I look out there today and see people who aren’t recognizable, not because I’ve transformed their lives or even that they’ve transformed their lives, but that they have found transformation in this place, in this community of tenderness. If love is the answer, community is the context. Tenderness is the methodology with the highest form spiritual maturity.

Only the soul that ventilates the world with tenderness has the chance of changing the world. So this is a foreign thing to them. Tenderness is foreign. Ultimately it’s compelling, but unless our loves becomes tender, then you can’t really connect. Love stays in the air or in your head or in your heart, but has to become tender. They come here with huge chronic toxic stress that needs relief and they find that here because this is more home than home. They find transformation in the presence of that.