Fr. Greg Boyle, S.J. — Leading with Tenderness
Too often as a society we are quick to judge, cast-out, and ostracize members of our community. At Homeboy Industries, Fr. Greg Boyle, S.J. has built a culture of radical compassion and kinship, welcoming every person in their wholeness.
In this episode you'll hear Fr. Greg share stories of walking with formerly gang-involved and incarcerated individuals as they seek healing, growth, and reintegration with their community.
The work of Fr. Greg and Homeboy Industries is inherently restorative — respecting the dignity of all and working together to repair the effects of harm.
Welcome. It is so good to be with you for this episode of Encounters with Dignity.
I’m Caitlin Morneau, your host for this podcast from Catholic Mobilizing Network, where we illuminate the synergies between restorative justice, Gospel values, and Catholic Social Teaching.
In this episode, we will hear from Jesuit priest, Fr. Greg Boyle.
Fr. Greg is the founder and director of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles which accompanies formerly gang-involved individuals through a range of social supports and enterprises. In addition to teaching practical job skills, Homeboys offers a loving environment to walk with these individuals as they heal from trauma and reintegrate with their community.
Father Greg is the author of bestselling books Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion and Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship.
Homeboys’ mission is quite visibly imbued with restorative justice principles.
Restorative justice, after all, is fundamentally about living in right-relationship with one another by honoring our mutuality and connectedness. This is the same spirit that Fr. Greg has helped cultivate at Homeboys. From his decades of ministry, he has gained profound insights into the meaning of kinship, belonging, and integral human dignity. When these qualities form the foundation of ministry or advocacy - especially in response to crime and violence - healing and hope become possible.
As you listen to Fr. Greg expound on these themes, I invite you to meditate on these questions:
When in your life have you felt truly seen and cherished?
Who are you in awe of, given all that they have to carry?
How are you called to stand with people who are marginalized by society?
Fr. Gregory Boyle:
I've been here in Los Angeles working with gang members for 37 years now, I guess. I think in the early days, we started the school, and then we started the jobs program to identify felony-friendly employers willing to hire gang members, and then we couldn't find those folks so we just started things. Maintenance crew, landscaping crew, graffiti removal crew, a crew to build our childcare center, all made up of rivals from the eight warring gangs just in my parish. It began just as a parish thing, and then it grew to deal with the 60 gangs, 10,000 gang members in, what we call the Hollenbeck Police Precinct. Now we serve the whole county, so there's not a gang member in any zip code or gang that doesn't know who we are, and what we are, what we do.
We don't exist for those who need help. It's only for those who want it. You have to walk through the door just like any recovery program. The 18-month training program is the centerpiece, but our principle evolved over the years. We would say when an educated gang member may or may not go back to prison or an employed one may or may not, but now it's our contention, in fact, guarantee that a healed gang member will never re-offend and go back to prison. That's become the centerpiece that the homies themselves always talk about. You have to do the work and it's an inner work, so there's a lot of therapy, a lot of group stuff.
Every homie who walks through our doors comes barricaded behind the wall of shame and disgrace. The only thing that can really scale that wall is tenderness, so we try to foster tenderness in each other so that we can be attentive to the homies who come through and they can be held in a safe place.
They come in and then they can suddenly breathe more easily and then they start to breathe differently. They start to find the resilience that they never knew before and, if it's true enough that the traumatized are more likely to cause trauma, it's equally true that the cherished will find their way to the joy there is in cherishing themselves and others. Eight months ago was the last time I went to New York and Chicago and had two homies who'd been to prison and they got up and told their stories.
Honest to God, if their stories had been flames, you'd have to keep your distance otherwise you get scorched. I think it's led everybody in the audience to truly stand in awe at what they had to carry rather than in judgment at how they carry it. It's why I always bring them. In the early days when the demonizing of gang members was so such a whole sale thing, I would tell stories about homies or I would bring homies because you wanted to put a human face on it because you were choosing to stand with the demonized so that the demonizing would stop. Then, later on, I think as the demonizing diminished, and I'm happy to say it did, then there was this how do we move beyond judgment, away from judgment and get closer to awe. In Acts of the Apostles it says, "And awe came upon everyone."
The measure of health in any community really resides in our ability to stand in awe at what folks have to carry. Then we all become friends with our own brokenness and our own wound, and it keeps us from being tempted to despise the wounded. That's the hope in bringing homies to tell their experience because we're quick to judge as human beings, and it's nice to hear people who know that they're a whole lot more than the worst things they've ever done so they don't identify with it anymore.
There's a great book called The Deepest Well by Nadine Burke Harris who's our surgeon general here in the state of California. It's about the ACEs study, the 10 checklist of traumas that if you've experienced them under the age of 18, 18 and under, she says if you're four out of the 10 checklist, four or five, that kid is going to have serious health issues as an adult–and I would add, difficulties in socializing if you are a four or five.
Every man or woman who walks through our doors, 15,000 of them a year, every single one is a nine or a 10 on the ACEs, which is whoa, that's just so huge. Once folks come to know that, and the 10 are things like physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, parent in prison, parent mentally ill, parent addicted to drugs, there are 10 of them.
If you've been exposed to these things and to the tune of nine or 10 out of 10, then that's just staggering. It should lead us not to say, "Wow! How come you're not making better choices?" Well, I mean, not all choices are created equal. I think morality is the least helpful thing when it comes to understanding the gulf that exists between the haves and the have-nots, and those that have access to things, and those who don't, and the great disparity in the difference between everything from healthcare to education to job opportunities, you name it.
My hope is that, at some point, we will bridge the distance that exist, that we will eliminate the least helpful thing which is this striking of the high moral distance that separates us, and get to a place of real awe and understanding of what people have to carry, which is I've never had to carry in my 66 years of living, I never had to carry what the folks at Homeboy had to carry, and the day won't ever come when I have more courage, or I am more noble, or I'm closer to God than they are. It's an easy thing to allow my heart to be altered by them and to be reached by them and to receive them. I've never felt tempted to transform their lives, or to fix them, or rescue them, or save them.
Quite the opposite. My salvation is connected to this in the most selfish way. That you go to the margins not to make a difference but so that the folks at the margins make you different. Then it's about us, then it's exquisitely mutual, and then it's ... If you go to the margins to make a difference, then it's about you, but you want to make sure it's always about us, and that in every step, we're obliterating the illusion that we are separate.
I think the secret sauce at Homeboy are probably our cultural competencies is what we call therapeutic mysticism, which means we see the wholeness in people, and once people are seeing the wholeness in them, they see that in themselves. The homies, they're used to being watched because they all came from prison, most of them, but they're not used to being seen, and so we want to see them. As the Buddhist say, "O Nobly Born, remember who you really are," and so we're always reminding people of the truth of who they are. When you remind people of that in a culture of tenderness that nurtures them, then they become that truth, then they inhabit that truth, and no bullet can pierce it.
So, we're not that interested in surviving as the fittest, but thriving as the nurtured. There are certainly a lot of things especially in terms of restorative justice and addressing mass incarceration that need to get addressed at the policy level and how people govern in individual states, et cetera but, on the ground, part of our own advocacy is embodied, it's with people as they really carry more things than most. People whose burdens are more than they can bear and people whose dignity has been denied. You create a community that cherishes them, and that's as compelling as anything.
I think in the early days when we listened to gang members and they said job, job, job, if only we had a job, and so that's what we did but I think probably 15 years in, once we knew gang members, we knew that healing was the essential piece. We still do jobs, but we've shifted to this other place. Kids join gangs because of a lethal absence of hope and because they're so traumatized they haven't been able to find their way clear to transform their pain, so they can cease to transmit it. These are all things that we want to address and announce in our country.
What if we were to infuse hope to kids for whom hope is foreign? What if we helped create communities of healing? What if we delivered mental health services in a timely and culturally appropriate way? What if we did all those things? What if we stood against forgetting that we belong to each other? Part of the issue, I think, for me is that it's always less about getting to solutions and more about getting to each other. The great John Lewis said we all live in the same house but he didn't qualify that. He didn't say some people live in the basement and some people live on the third floor. No. He said we all live in the same house. He didn't say one day, maybe, we'll live in the same house. He just says it straight out. We live in the same house.
It's the essential truth. Jesus says that you may be one and that's God's dream come true is this kinship, this connection. I think our God is so generous that it's not even about God. It's about us. It's about God's dream coming true that there is no us and them. There is just us and that we recognize we all live in the same house.
So, we have enemies, guys who used to shoot at each other, everyone has multiple of those people at Homeboy, but there they are standing side by side making croissants in the Homeboy bakery, and they hate each other, and they used to shoot at each other, and their animosity is personal and deep, and it goes back years. And then they become the deepest kind of friends. Now, does that always happen at Homeboy Industries? Yes.
Any exceptions? No. And it's because of the culture and it's the thing we most want to expose people to. In the old days, if somebody tested dirty, or just disappeared, or got arrested, we used to lament, we used to say maybe they'll be back. Nobody says that now probably for the last 10 years of our 32-year existence. Nobody says that now. They all say, "They'll be back." There's a certainty about it that is unshakeable, and they all come back. I just had a guy yesterday come in. He'd been gone a couple of years, went to prison, a good guy, but he came back. It's what happens because once you have a dose of unconditional high regard that people hold you in, that it's the most compelling thing there is.
That's why when I travel around the country before the pandemic, you run into programs and everybody has the same menu of services. We deliver these services. But I think what's missing sometimes is how do you keep those programs from becoming the DMV? Please see window 43 to receive the anger management service, or to receive the domestic violence class certification, or whatever it is. We do all those things too but, boy, are they secondary to the culture of tenderness and the healing ethos. That's the most important piece. The odd thing is it's the culture of care and tenderness that enables them to finish their GED, or get their diploma, or go on to community college. It's the culture of tenderness that helps them become better parents and parent in such a way as they were never parented themselves. They're all these by-products of the fact that they've been nurtured in a place that held them in high regard always.
The homies always say you got to find the thorn underneath. It means what language is this violence speaking because if you just want to get rid of violence, then it's not very sophisticated. It's ham-handed. You want to get underneath it. What's this violence mean? We had a fight yesterday. It doesn't happen very often, but a fist fight, three or four guys. All of us there are experienced enough that it's what does this mean? Let's find the thorn underneath. Then you have a high degree of reverence for how complex things are. It's not about you colored outside the lines and now you're all fired because we exist for folks like this.
Then they felt greatly remorseful, they felt they had let me down and disrespected me. Obviously, that pain is greater than just about anything. I think they would've preferred to be fired rather than experience that pain like they had disappointed me. I always say, oh, I'm too busy loving you, I don't have any time left to be disappointed in you but you want to get underneath. What's this about? What else is going on? How could we have done this differently? Then it becomes all learning. Nobody needed to be arrested, or fired, or banished. It's a good lesson because the largest mental institution in the United States of America is the LA County Jail, which tells us something very significant. It tells us how badly we're handling things. My hope is that we will find alternatives to handling things like that.
The other thing when you go to programs that are comparable to Homeboy around the country, the number one question they ask often is how do you get gang members to go there.
Honest to God, that's never been a problem for us in 32 years. They come to us and we don't ever coax, or recruit, or hand out fliers, or go to street corners and, "Why don't you give us a try?" When they're ready ... but Homeboy is a little bit like an AA meeting. Who's there? Somebody who's 20 years over, somebody who's 20 minutes over, and somebody whose drunk, but he's there. That's how we operate. It's on the continuum of readiness, and we're reverse cherry pickers. We don't pick folks who will give us good evidence-based outcomes. We want the opposite. We want the gnarly, the belligerent, the hard-headed. That's the guy we want. Somebody who makes a good impression. We'll help them, but we won't bring them into our 18-month program. We want folks who make bad impressions.
Just because that's who we are and we want to be able to stay anchored in really accompanying the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away. We try to imagine in society a circle of compassion and then really insist on imagining nobody standing outside that circle. We want to represent that. We don't really care what our numbers say. We're not called to be successful, we're called to be faithful, and we want to stay anchored in really walking with folks who were nobody else, everybody else has given up on.
The thing is, it’s like recovery. So in recovery from alcohol or drugs, they'll always say it takes what it takes. The same is true of gang recovery, if you will. It's the birth of a son, the death of a friend, the long stretch in prison. It takes what it takes. A mother came in to see me the other day wanted some help with her son who was addicted to meth and extremely erratic behavior. I said there's nothing we can do without him. No amount of us wanting him to go to rehab will ever be the same as him wanting to go to rehab. It's the same principle at Homeboy's. You wait for people, but there's something thrilling about the swinging of the front door. That once you come in, there's an aroma, a homie said to me once. It's true. There's some kind of palpable sense of a place that really keeps people coming back. It's the principle of attraction more than anything else.
People have a longing both in the church and outside the church. They have a longing to connect themselves to some wider, more spacious, expansive sense of things just like our God is always trying to move beyond this puny sense. How do we get to a larger view?
If you invite people to that, they're drawn to it, and I'd learned that early on. If I shake my fist, it's about me. If I invite people to their own goodness and spacious tender heart, then it's about us. It's not about what's more effective. Again, it's always about what's more true, and good, and just, and right, and you want to stay anchored in that, and feel sustained in the God who loves us without measure and without regret. You just want to be in the world who God is, that compassionate, loving, and kind, and all the while, you want to take seriously what Jesus took seriously. It's how you stay anchored in the marrow of the message. Inclusion, non-violence, unconditional loving kindness, and compassionate acceptance. If we take those four things seriously, then we're aligned with the heart of God. I think that's the essential thing.
It's always the same source, which is you get to this thing of the Christ in me recognizes the Christ in you and so you delight in the people in front of you, in front of the homies and the homegirls. You receive them and your heart is altered and changed forever by them. It happens mutually. Then it's this God that's larger than we could ever imagine. Then it's never about some tiny, puny gain or success. That's where the joy is. My joy, yours, your joy, complete, which is God's hope for us all.
The community at Homeboys shows us that by creating environments where people are met with mercy and compassion, we can heal wounds, cultivate resilience, and upend a throw-away culture.
In Paul’s letter to the Romans he describes the qualities of mutual love - that it is sincere - anticipating one another in showing honor, enduring in hope, affliction, and prayer. Rejoicing together, and weeping together. Exercising hospitality rather than vengeance, associating with those who are outcast.
Restorative practices are another way of allowing individuals in a community to be in the habit of building sacred relationships and remembering our belonging to one another.
Through sharing stories and listening deeply…
… we may come to know one another’s wholeness and hurts
… we may appreciate the tremendous weights and wounds that others must carry
… and we may discern our mutual responsibility to one another when needs become clear
Through this approach, relationships become both harder to damage and easier to repair. And communities, as a whole, are strengthened.
Thank you Fr. Greg, and everyone at Homeboy Industries for your model of radical kinship. And thanks to all of you for listening.
I hope you enjoyed this episode of Encounters With Dignity. Be sure to subscribe to our show from your favorite podcast platform, or by visiting catholicsmobilizing.org/encounters. For podcast updates and other news from Catholic Mobilizing Network, follow us on social media or sign up for our emails at catholicsmobilizing.org/join.
If you feel ready to engage more deeply with restorative justice practices, then check out “Paths of Renewed Encounter,” CMN’s restorative justice engagement guide for Catholic communities. Find it at catholicsmobilizing.org/paths.
Be sure to tune in next month to hear the powerful testimony of two families who journeyed through a restorative justice process in the wake of grave harm.d by her boyfriend, Conor, in:
Let us close in prayer…
God of Abounding Compassion,
How you long for us to cherish and nurture one another into thriving
How you desire for us to see the wholeness in one another as you do
How you yearn for your beloved creation to know margins no longer
Pour into our hearts your grace, tenderness, and healing spirit to make your dream a reality.