Father Greg Boyle: The Case for Hope
Father Greg Boyle is an American Roman Catholic priest of the Jesuit order. He is the founder and director of Homeboy Industries, the world's largest gang-intervention and rehabilitation program, and former pastor of Dolores Mission Church in Los Angeles. In 2010, he wrote Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, a book recollecting his 20+ years in the barrio.
I’d love for you to join me during this Lenten season. Sign up for Everything Happens reflections and videos, here.
Connect with Father Greg on his Facebook or on his Twitter. You can also find him at Homeboy Industries’ website, linked here.
Father Greg has written two beautiful books: Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion and Barking to the Choir: The Power Radical Kinship, you can find both of them linked here.
If, like me, you love Jesuit history, you should read this article on the faith.
CW: Gang violence, addiction
Kate Bowler: I’m Kate Bowler, and this is Everything Happens. I’m a historian, author, aggressively, fast walker. But lately, in a world that promises endless progress, even now in a pandemic, I’ve realized I just need to be a person. It’s hard to give up on the feeling that the life you want is just out of reach. If only you tried. Eat this food, find that relationship, just get the kids graduated or the parents this kind of care. Only then will I feel different. Better, whole. But that’s not the way this works. When I was 35, I was diagnosed with stage four cancer. And here’s the very fun thing about that. The world loves you better when you are shiny, when you are cheerful, when you still believe that your best life now is right around the corner. I’ve written multiple books on the history of the idea that you can always fix your life. So I’m going to be the one to say it. There are some things we can change and some things we can’t. And it’s OK that life isn’t always getting better. We can have beauty and meaning, community and love, and we will need each other if we’re going to tell the truth. Life is a chronic condition and there’s no cure for being human.
Kate: A few years ago, I was researching megachurches and celebrity pastors when I visited the largest church in America during the season of Lent, Lent is that wonderful, terrible time of the Christian calendar. When we take 40 days to walk up to Easter, when Jesus rises from the dead and death is conquered, et cetera, et cetera. But first, we take a very long time to think about everything that happens before that. Fear, death, broken justice, friends abandoning you, walking the lonely road of suffering and pain while everyone wonders why you can’t be better yet. Honestly, it’s the perfect time of the year to say, God, this is how it is, isn’t it? Anyway, so it was lent the saddest time of the Christian calendar on the actual saddest day of the year, Good Friday, Jesus is dead. So, you know, it’s not like a great time. And I walked into what was once a basketball arena in Texas, now Lakewood Church, run by a very nice man named Joel Olsteen, who just happens to believe that God truly, truly wants you to be happy and that suffering is optional. And a very nice greeter says “Happy Good Friday” with a big smile on her face. And then I went up to the escalator and another greeter, chirped, “Happy Good Friday”. And by the time I sat down, seven people had wished me the hap happiest of days when Jesus died. Very nice people, very nice church. But it reminds me of the wonderful quote from Martin Luther, who I paraphrase here, said that the world wants to dress the cross in roses. We want the cruelty and terror and fear that we know is true to be dressed up, cleaned up, prettied up. Don’t we just want the positive side of any equation? Spiritual or otherwise. New car, blessed. Matching family Christmas card, blessed. Pay raise, blessed. Well, what about exhaustion, long hours, caregiving, miscarriages, being left, being lonely, regret, shame. There is so much we learn about the world and ourselves when we are on the downslope of life, when we are not pretending that we are not mired in brokenness. This is what I love about the season of Lent, its honesty. So if you want to join me in that, I’ll be sending out daily reflections and posting little videos to help orient us for the 40 days of Lent. You can sign up for free at katebowler.com/Lent. One of the things I pray most regularly is, God help me see things clearly. And by that, I mean the beautiful, the terrible, when we see things clearly, we can be moved toward action. We can reach out to that friend who’s going through her treatments alone during covid. We can meet the financial needs of people who lost their jobs, shuttered their business, or just struggling to make ends meet. We can send encouragement to the parents who are stretched paper thin. We can offer words of gratitude to the frontline workers who are holding everything on their shoulders. There are people who see things clearly. And rather than recoiling in fear or feeling stuck by the magnitude of the world’s pain, they moved toward it. Today’s guest is one of those kinds of people.
Kate: Father Greg Boyle has worked with former gang members in Los Angeles for over thirty years. He is the founder of Homeboy Industries, which employs and trains former gang members and offers free services to facilitate healing. His work has earned him the California Peace Prize, and President Obama named him a champion of change. Father Boyle is the author of The New York Times best selling books, Tattoos on the Heart and Barking to the Choir. And I was so excited about our interview today that I am slightly nervous right now. Father Boyle, I feel really lucky to be talking with you today.
Greg Boyle: Likewise, thank you.
Kate: You were born and raised in the gang capital of the world, Los Angeles, and I love that you are Jesuit. Jesuit is my favorite kind of priest. But you were ordained in nineteen eighty four. I’d love to hear about what was supposed to happen to your life. You were supposed to do something very different when you were first ordained. What was it?
Greg Boyle: Well, actually, after I was ordained, I went to Bolivia and then what I had scheduled to kind of run the service immersion program at Santa Clara University. So when we came back Bolivia, had sort of turned me inside out. And so I just I, boy, I wasn’t feeling it. So I mentioned that to my provincial. And as luck would have it and since I kind of somewhat spoke Spanish, he said, well, my gosh, well, I need somebody at Dolores Mission. And then that kind of changed my life. I’ve been here now since then.
Kate: And so what was it about Bolivia that turned you inside out?
Greg: Well, at the time, it was the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. It was poorer than Haiti, and so I, I was just the people were amazing and I went up into the mountains. That’s where they hadn’t had a priest in years. And so it was it was quite impactful. And so the poor kind of teach you the gospel and reveal the marrow of it to you. So, that was life changing for sure.
Kate: I’m completely obsessed with the history of the Jesuits. Right. Like, it is no surprise to you that every order has its own flavor. But I love that the Jesuit flavor is well, now I want to make it a spice, but I can’t think of one. Indigenization is not a spice, but like the ability to like, adopt and adapt to local culture there, just like famously learners by disposition. Is that kind of how you approached it where I mean, you’d obviously learned Spanish that you kind of you kind of came in order to fit in first as opposed to primarily as a teacher?
Greg: Yeah. You know, I think there’s this inclination to think if you go to the margins now, what do you do? The real question is what kind of person will you become out at the margin? So you don’t go to the margins to make a difference, because then it’s about you, you go to the margins so that the folks at the margins make you different. And I can remember a number of years ago, a hard core gang intervention worker, a former gang member himself in Houston, had come up to me after a talk and he was kind of pleading with me and he said, how do you reach them? You know, meaning gang members. And I found myself saying, well, for starters, you know, stop trying to reach them and you’d be reached by them. And so I think that’s a little bit of what you’re suggesting, that inculturation or going to other cultures, it’s not about I’m here to fix save rescue. But if I can allow myself to be reached by you, then suddenly everybody is entering into this exquisite mutuality where we’re all inhabiting our own dignity and nobility in each other’s presence. So that’s kind of the hope.
Kate: That’s why I always love the sort of history of translation, because you can’t inherently keep your own categories if you have to make them into something new, like what is this word? Like you know, what is this concept in category when I give it away? There’s just something so wonderfully subversive about that.
Greg: Yeah, but it kind of does turn the whole thing inside out, you know, which is the goal. And plus the only reason people burn out is not because of compassion fatigue, but it’s because they’ve allowed it to become about themselves. And they have sort of inadvertently insisted that somehow, you know, it’s their job to fix and save and rescue. But if you insist that it not be about you, then what you’re doing is you’re delighting in the people in front of you and you’re receiving people and you’re allowing your heart to be altered. And that’s eternally replenishing. You won’t ever be depleted if you do that. But people have this misconception. I think that, oh, I guess I’m just too compassionate as if there is such a thing. And no, actually, you’ve allowed it subtlety to have this be about you. And then and then the flipside of that, of course, is then it’s about success. Its about measurable outcomes. And as soon as it’s that, then then you’ve really entered into a different arena where it’s well, it’s kind of problematic because then you’re being driven by success rather than fidelity.
Kate: Yeah, that sounds very familiar to me. I often think like, oh, I’ll die of compassion. I will just die this way. It won’t be cancer. It’s for sure going to be empathy. It does me in. But I think you’re right. It can very, compassion and outward facing, you know, acts of love can very quickly also just become a kind of pride where like, no, I was going to fix this. And this is about how I decided whether it was fixed or not.
Greg: Yeah, exactly right.
Kate: The work that you’re describing, where your parish sits in the midst of rival gangs, it sounds like it meant a lot of funerals.
Greg: So we had eight gangs at war with each other. And I buried my first young person, an identical twin named Rafael, who was stabbed to death in Hollenbeck Park not far from my church so he was the first one I buried. And then that was in nineteen eighty eight. And then I buried my two hundred and thirty sixth. A young woman named Brandy. That was two weeks ago. So. Yeah, so and that was what I called the decade of death, which was eighty-eight to ninety-eight, roughly. And again, you still had deaths after that and then certainly. Not that much before that action, so that was the crack epidemic, and then we had shootings morning, noon and night, and once I buried eight kids in a three week period, that was pretty, pretty intense.
Kate: This is a weird way to start a sentence, but my friend Corey has recently, a Pastor, most of my friends are pastors, has recently gotten onto the funeral circuit and she used to just do weddings like a lot of young, lovely idealists. And she said, you know, my work is a very different thing now. It takes a very different kind of work of truth to stand beside a coffin and have something and have something to say. And I I think what you’re describing is a kind of hope that most people would have a hard time describing. It sounds too like one of the very first acts of stubborn hope on your part was to really think about the the economic side of things. I know you said that nothing stops a bullet like a job. And so tell me, why was it why was it hard to place gang members? What was it hard to really think about employment for gang members and what did you do instead?
Greg: So the difference was in the early years was if you listen to gang members, they would say they needed a job or once you got to know them, then you realize, oh, this is about healing, that an educated gang member may or may not go to prison or return to prison and an unemployed one may or may not, but a healed one absolutely will not go back to prison or to gang bang or a life of violence. So. So that became abundantly clear to us and by midpoint, so probably 15 years ago when we shifted, you know, yeah. So the notion of nothing stops a bullet like a job was kind of our old conception. Consequently, employers weren’t willing to give people with records or tattoos a chance. So we started our own, you know, the Homeboy Bakery and then Homeboy Tortillas. And then so now we’re at we have nine social enterprises, so and they’re all, you know. We want to, we couldn’t wait for employers to hire them, we had to create our own employment opportunities.
Kate: And then the social services that wrapped around them, what are we talking about in particular, tattoo removal? What else?
Greg: Yeah, well, because it became so clearly about healing. That therapy, of course, recovery, you know, 12 step programs and then continuous education from GED to high school diplomas, so we’re always insisting that any of our trainees be connected to some ongoing educational experience. But if the idea is that, you know, a traumatized person is most likely to cause damage and trauma, then it’s equally true that a cherished person will be able to find their way to the joy there is and cherishing themselves and others. So if you can create a culture, an environment where they in a palpable way feel cherished and valued and honored, then they go home and they present that to their kids. And you’ve broken the cycle.
Kate: Yes. Wow. And it sounds too that, I mean, just by the nature of these enterprises that you’re asking people from all different kinds of backgrounds then to work alongside one another, that must really extend their vision of what? I don’t know what.
Greg: So it’s not only gainful employment, it’s an opportunity to. Stand next to somebody who you used to shoot at and make croissants in our bakery.
Kate: Will you walk me through what the process of rehabilitation looks like at Homeboy, like, can you think of a person in particular? Like, where do they come from? How do they leave? I’d love to get a sense of it.
Greg: Well, we don’t exist for those who need help. We are only around for those who want help. And so you have to walk through the door just like any drug rehab or rehabilitation center. And then, and then we drug test them and then we have them come to an orientation where they can see what homeboy’s about and they can decide if this is for them. And then we interview the homies themselves, interview three homies interview and then they present the recommendation to what we call the council, which is a group of more senior homies. And so then we bring them in and then it’s an 18 month program. And the 18 month sort of corresponds to the 18 months that it takes for an infant to attach to the caregiver. So it’s the same principle. And it’s also, you know, everyone comes into our, through our doors with a disorganized attachment. Mom was frightening or frightened. And you can’t really calm yourself down if you’ve never been soothed. So we provide that. And they come barricaded behind a wall of shame and disgrace and we’ve discovered at Homeboy the only thing that can scale that wall is tenderness, which is love that becomes concrete and real and visual and tactile. And then love is connective tissue rather than an idea. So but it’s more the culture. This is the thing that I think a lot of programs in the country get wrong. Because they’re so intent on content, you know, like let’s give them information, let’s train them, let’s give them our 12 step process or our five principles or whatever it is. But it’s really the culture that heals and it’s the relationship in the culture that heals. So, that’s kind of the secret sauce I think, at Homeboy is that people feel valued and held. They feel held more than anything else.
Kate: Yeah, yeah. Man, that sounds a lot like a lot of the churches and theological institutions I know. It’s like no, no, I have a 12 point power. I have a PowerPoint presentation I have prepared about correct beliefs. No, wait, stay still. No, eyes on the screen. If I could just explain it to you, then you would change your mind and therefore job done. But I mean, the work of the work of embodiment is I love your description of connective tissue and then pulling people toward like a web of love that maybe makes them gives them permission to let go of the other ties that they held really tightly to.
Greg: Yeah. I mean, but we’re also wide eyed about the profile of kids who join gangs. You know, people think it’s about that they’re drawn, they’re attracted, they’re pulled, they’re seeking something. But the truth is they’re actually fleeing something and that’s a key diagnostic moment, because then, you know, they’re feeling despair. You can’t conjure up an image of tomorrow. They’re fleeing the damage and enormous trauma that was inflicted on them. And then they’re probably fleeing some form of mental health issue.
Greg: Or combo burger of all three or two. Which is a key thing because otherwise. If if they’re being attracted to something, join a gang and see the world, wine, women, and song. Then what we try to do is to try to convince the kid, don’t just see the error of your way. But the gang violence is really a language. What language is it speaking? It’s the language of a lethal absence of hope. So if that’s true, as I’m convinced it is, then you you infuse hope to kids for whom hope is foreign and you heal the trauma and you deliver mental health services. That’s what you do. But but nobody’s ever met a healthy, good treatment plan that was born of a bad diagnosis. I don’t believe that’s ever happened in the history of the world. It’s important that you get the diagnosis right so that you can walk your way near you know, some kind of treatment plan.
Kate: Yeah, yeah, so I’m thinking a lot about the nature of time lately, partly that’s just from chronic cancer. You think a lot about horizon setting, but there’s such a powerful theological imagination for what you’re describing so beautifully that, like, hope, hope, like sets the horizon out a little further and that when people are living in chaos and pain and despair, like they just there’s just not enough horizon. And so it sounds like it would just be they wouldn’t even know where to start walking if they had the freedom to do it.
Greg: Yeah. You know, and people always say, you know, everybody deserves a second chance. But I would say, well, whoever gave them their first chance. I’m thinking of a guy who can be difficult, you know, and and he’s not a problem. He’s our population. But his behavior is kind of alarming. And he kind of can flip out on people, but he’s exactly who we need to be. But once you start to excavate a little bit, you discover that his mom gave birth to him and threw him in a dumpster and that in somewhere along the line maybe was in foster care, you know, when he was a boy they set him on fire, so. Yeah, he’s got some issues, you know. But at Homeboy we’re not really toppled by kind of the behavior, because the behavior is always the language, so we always want to understand what language it’s speaking.
Kate: That makes sense. And then what the, I mean, like something has to be extremely powerful to undo or to just change the nature of what that language looks like.
Greg: If you don’t transform your pain, you’re going to keep inflicting it. So you really do have to do the work is what we call it at Homeboy where you have to look at it. You can’t hopscotch it. You can’t sidestep it, which people do. I mean, homeys do it sometimes in a you know, there’s the usual way, which is self medicating. But there’s also, you know, I’ve I’ve watched it, you know, you can see somebody dive into recovery in such a way as to avoid their wound or dive into embracing Jesus so as to avoid their pain or another way is the, you know, dive into higher education. All these things are a good thing. But you want to make friends with your wound, otherwise you’re going to be tempted to despise the wounded both outside yourself and within yourself. So it’s kind of a central thing. But along with that, with therapy is also, you know, sometimes meds because sometimes people need something to float their boat, otherwise they’re going to take in water. So we have all that stuff, have for paid therapist. But we have forty nine volunteer therapists, including two psychiatrist. Because folks carry more than the average person.
Kate: Yes. I love the way you’re talking about the sort of mass of humanity here. Like the idea that like when you said that if you don’t, like if you don’t make friends with your wound that you will despise the wounded. Is that right?
Kate: But so often, whether we imagine it or not, like we need some people to be better or worse than others so that we can feel like we’ve gotten somewhere like I so I study like cultural scripts about luck, how people decide that they’re deserving. And it totally runs counter to what you’re describing. They just like we want the meritocracy so badly so that we can just we can map our best life now plan like no, I really got somewhere plan. No, put me in a high school reunion. I’ll show Derrick that I really made it. It’s hard to get out of that.
Greg: This is why Jesus said it’s really hard for a rich person to enter into this kind of kinship. Because it has something to do with bank account. It has to do with hubris, you know. So, humility looks at the poor and says, hey, how could I help? But hubris, looks at the poor and says, here’s what your problem is. And part of the issue often with people who are wealthy or powerful. Is that is they have this narrative that’s just soaked with hubris and they and it’s hard for them because they struggle to be humble, and you can’t allow yourself to be reached by those on the margins, the widow, orphan and the stranger unless you’re humble. And so everything is you know, I grew up in the gang capital of the world, which is how you began this interview. But, you know, there was no chance that I would ever join a gang and that has nothing to do with morality. It’s because I won all these zip codes lottery, the zip code lottery for parents and education and socio economic strata. I won all these lotteries. And so it’s total luck, of course. And, but a rich and powerful people have a hard time sometimes with that, I think. Oh, they’ll know bootstraps meritocracy, I was the smartest, I was the morally, ethically whatever. And I go yeah, well, I don’t know. I think probably ninety five percent of it was just the luck of the draw. That you weren’t born in Aliso village housing project, but you were born in Hancock Park, Los Angeles.
Kate: You love the word kin. Give me a pitch on like, why we should use the word kin and think about kinship. I love it.
Greg: Well, kinship is God’s dream come true that we may be one, you know, it’s about there is no us and them, it’s about obliterating the illusion that we are separate. And it’s standing against forgetting that we belong to each other. So, a lot of times people think, well, God’s dream come true is that you love God. Well, I mean, that’s just a human projection. And I that’s what I would want if I were God. But the generosity in the spacious, expansive art of God is that we be one. And that’s God’s dream come true. So it’s exquisitely mutual, it’s not me serving you even on the margins, but it’s about us again, inhabiting this vicinity together. And so you’re always endlessly imagining the circle of compassion and then imagining nobody standing outside that circle. So that’s the goal that’s the kinship, that’s the thrust towards this connection with each other.
Kate: Yes. Which brings us back to what you said about like not really being able to save other people that you’re not out there to save gang members, that this is like that that rescue is just like. Not sufficient for what this is supposed to do.
Greg: Yeah, you never do that. You just you never. Because that’s why it doesn’t work. That’s why you don’t make progress, and that’s why. As well, that people burn out, you know.
Kate: I’m sure you’re a big fan of Dorothy Day. You just inherently are our Dorothy Day. So I’m sure you secretly love her. I, you know, she’s such a powerful example of someone who. OK, so this is a point that one of my mentors in American religious history, Laurie Maffly-Kipp, said she was like, if you read Dorothy Day, the you know, who lived in slum housing, who was involved in the labor movement, et cetera, et cetera, if you read her and compare her with other contemporary theological contemporaries like Richard Niebuhr and Reinhold Niebuhr, they talk about they both talk about precarity. The idea like things can be given and things could be taken away, but only Dorothy talks about it like it’s not a state to be overcome. It’s not something you’re trying to get beyond. Like we’re not actually trying to figure out the magic of getting back to durability. That is like it is the place we must inhabit because that’s where God is. And that just really reminds me of what you’re describing.
Greg: Yeah. She shows that, you know, she chose precariousness, you know. And then it was able to bring her some focus, so so she’s able to you know, she quotes Ruskin, who talks about the duty to delight. And in fact, there’s a book about Dorothy Day called The Duty to Delight, and and so she was kind of a irascible character. So there wasn’t she wasn’t warm and fuzzy. We kind of knew where she where the focus needed to be with her life. She was in San Francisco in 1906 when the earthquake hit. And she was a little girl and her reflection on it was because she was just marveled at how changed people, this is a kind of a good covid thing because, she just looked and watched how instantly people were galvanized to help each other and pulled people out of the rubble and help and rebuild their lives. And her reflection was how come we’re not like this always? And I thought, well, yeah, that’s kind of where we are right now. You know I think we experienced the same thing in many ways, that people are in this together and wanting to help each other in spite of the initial, you know, let’s hoard toilet paper, moment, you know. But then there was this thing. You know, where people I’m finding people remarkably, it has galvanized generosity in people. And that was her experience, was she looked at it and she said, yeah, if only we could carry this into the next moment, you know.
Kate: And then then all of a sudden, like, the sameness has advantages, like, oh, maybe I’m in pain. And maybe that like it it moves us into a kind of kinship you’re describing.
Greg: It’s different than other things that hit us, though. The storm has hit us all. We’re all in different size vessels, somebody’s in a steam liner, and then somebody’s just barely clinging to an inner tube or a piece of driftwood.
Kate: Yes, that’s right, that, like, peels away the veneer, the yeah, of like what we what we like to imagine is happening.
Greg: Yeah and the disparities preexisted the pandemic. But you you can kind of now see with greater clarity how it exacerbates the underlying issues of health care and mass incarceration and employment and you name it.
Kate: Yeah. I just really I’m so grateful for your vision of interdependence and love that is not tidied up. I think it speaks to, like the the richness of what we are called to do, which is to figure out how to love each other more, more, more than we imagine that category could hold.
Greg: Yeah, I think you’re right.
Kate: Well, thank you for giving me so much more language for the embodiment of, that you just see these virtues in Homeboy Industries and frankly in you. There’s such a tenderness and a compassion and a love of joy that I hope we can all embody. Thanks so much for doing this today.
Kate: There are two halves to the story of our world, in my humble opinion. I love Lent because it allows me to understand one half: our brokenness. The reason why someone would have to bury teenagers as part of their job, the pain and suffering of the world. The realities front line workers see every day. But then there’s the other half. The beauty, the hope, the embodiment, the feeling people get when they start pulling for each other. The stretching of our horizons, the weird more than enoughness that love makes. Great pain, great hope. Two powerful realities that are ever before us that we must keep in the front of our eyes, or else we fall into despair. What Father Boyle calls hope’s lethal absence. So let’s take a minute to see our reality clearly in the everydayness of our joys and sorrows. The people we miss, the loves we have, the dependance we resent, the joy of service, the funerals, the weddings, the email. No wait, there is no redeeming email. We live in the terrible, beautiful mystery of a world not yet redeemed and a today that stretches in front of us with an invitation to see and to love still, to hurt and to try again, to stumble in the dusk and to begin again in a new dawn.
Kate: Oh, and before I go, if you still want to join me for the season of Lent, we can do this together. We need each other to orient ourselves to the light, to hunt for hope, to speak realistically, to make our way through. I’ll be posting a video every morning on Instagram and Facebook, as well as sending out daily email reflections to help orient our day. I hope you’ll join me. Visit Kate Bowler dot com slash Lent to sign up for free.
Kate: Today’s episode was made possible by our lovely partners, the Lilly Endowment, the Duke Endowment and Duke Divinity School, who support our faith and media project. We are so grateful for their generosity and investment in what we do. And of course, my team, who I am obsessed with, Jessica Richie, our executive producer, Harriet Putman, our associate producer, Keith Weston, our sound designer. And the rest of the Everything Happens crew who make this project so much fun. Dan Wells, AJ Walton, Mary Jo Clancy, J.J. Dickinson, Launa Stewart, Kelly Dunlap, Erin Lane and Jeb and Sammi, thank you. This is Everything Happens with me, Kate Bowler.