Monday, May 16, 2011

There’s Only Us

Wrote an article for the SM Observer on the Auh-Mazing Auh-Mazing Father Greg Boyle!!!

There’s Only Us

Father Greg Boyle Speaks at SMC

 “There’s no us and them, there’s only us.   Them is an illusion.”
-- Father Greg Boyle

Fifteen minutes early and I barely make it into the auditorium to see Father Gregory Boyle, aka the Gandhi of Gangs, speak at Santa Monica College at eleven o’clock on a Thursday morning.  With a white beard and a twinkle in his eye it wouldn’t be hard to confuse Father Greg (as the Homies call him) with Santa Claus.   Like Kris Kringle Father Greg has bestowed many gifts upon the children of Los Angeles, just not the gifts you would normally think of: Free Tattoo Removal, GED Classes, Domestic Violence Counseling, Anger Management Classes, Mental Health Counseling, 12 Step Programs … the list is endless.   Father Greg is the Founder and Director of Homeboy Industries and is an acknowledged expert on gangs and gang intervention approaches. 

Luckily for those who get there on time there’s an overflow room.  

It’s very humbling to see Father Greg speak.   Homeboy Industries, now located in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, is recognized as the largest gang re-entry program in the county, and has become a national model.  “I wouldn’t trade my life for anything,” he noted.  “I’m the luckiest man ever.”   States the man who buried his 174th gang member fatality 3 weeks ago.  And yet he still soldiers on. “We’ve backed ourselves into a corner as the largest rehab and gang intervention in the world.   We get over 1,000 people a month. You name it, we do it to help.”

How does this affect us in Santa Monica?   Downtown LA may be only eighteen miles away but it could be India for most of us (minus the occasionally jaunt to one of those hip new restaurants in the revitalized section).  Father Greg emphasized the distance (or lack thereof) between it all. “I had the honor of knowing Cesar Chavez,” explained Father Greg.  “A reporter once said to him, ‘these farm workers love you.’  He responded, ‘it’s mutual.‘”  Father Greg noted how even when you’re helping someone, in the relationship of service provider/service recipient, there’s a distance.   “It’s a distance we need to get rid of.  It’s about mutuality.”  Which can be hard thing to wrap your head around when your waiting for your five dollar Spanish Latte at the Urth Café (which I totally adore!) but something we all desperately need to do.  

Father Greg noted how we needed to follow the work of psychologist and philosopher Alice Miller.   “We’re enlightened witnesses.  We return people to themselves, holding up the mirror and telling the truth.” And how to we do that?   By recognizing that people are people, whether they’re yuppies or gang members.   “We need to dismantle this message of shame.  That I am disgrace,” stated Father Greg.  “You are exactly what God had in mind when he made you!”

After graduating from Loyola High School in Los Angeles in 1972, Father Greg entered the order of the Society of Jesus (aka the Jesuits) and was ordained a priest in 1984.  He received his BA in English from Gonzaga University; an MA in English from Loyola Marymount University; a Master of Divinity from the Weston School of Theology; and a Sacred Theology Masters degree from the Jesuit School of Theology.  Father Greg was appointed as Pastor of Dolores Mission Parish in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1986 where he served through 1992.

Homeboy Industries traces its roots to “Jobs For A Future” (JFF), a program created in 1988 by Father Greg at Dolores Mission.  Dealing with a geographic location housing the largest public housing west of the Mississippi many of the parish’s residents chose to find sanctuary in one of the eight major gangs available.   In an effort to address the escalating problems and unmet needs of gang-involved youth, Father Greg and the community developed positive alternatives, including establishing a school.  “We needed an alternative school for Junior High students.  I told them, ‘if I found a school would you go?’   ‘Yes.’   So we started a school in the church.  Which is definitely a different version of a church than a hermetically sealed building: good people in and bad people out.”  A day care program and finding legitimate employment for young people followed.   Boyle's motto is “Nothing Stops a Bullet Like a Job.”  JFF’s success demonstrated the model followed today that many gang members are eager to leave the dangerous and destructive life on the 'streets.'

In 1992, the year of the Rodney King beating, in response to the civil unrest in Los Angeles, Father Greg launched the first business (under the organizational banner of JFF and Proyecto Pastoral, separate from Dolores Mission Church): Homeboy Bakery with a mission to create an environment that provided training, work experience, and above all, the opportunity for rival gang members to work side by side. The success of the Bakery created the groundwork for additional businesses, thus prompting JFF to become an independent non-profit organization, Homeboy Industries, in 2001. Today Homeboy Industries’ nonprofit economic development enterprises include Homeboy Bakery, Homeboy Silkscreen, Homeboy/Homegirl Merchandise, and Homegirl Café.  But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing.  “Everything worth doing is worth failing at,” noted Father Greg with a chuckle.  “Homeboy Plumbing was a disaster.  Who knew people wouldn’t want gang members in their homes?”  

Along with jobs one of the biggest marks on the community by Homeboy would be the removal of marks.
Homeboy offers free tattoo removal on site with Ya 'Stuvo Tattoo Removal. Tattoo removal is a critical positive step in a long and challenging journey out of gang life and into positive social integration. Ya’Stuvo means, "that’s enough, I’m done with that.” 

“It started with Frank, he wandered out of prison with “F-ck the World” around his chin and he came to me saying, ‘I’m having a hard time finding a job.’  We looked for someone willing to volunteer a laser and time.   In the beginning we got 1 hour every 3 months, soon we had a waitlist of 3,000.”   Frank is now a security guard at a movie studio, with nary an opinion on the world written on his face.   

Ya’Stuvo now has two laser tattoo removal machines in two clinic rooms, a dedicated waiting room, and an office to hold records and data.  In spite of the fact that tattoo removal by laser is known to be painful and takes an average of eight to ten treatments per tattoo, and in some cases up to one year to complete, patient retention is virtually 100%.  A team of twelve volunteer physicians and a physician’s assistant under a supervising medical director perform an average of 350 treatments per month, about 4,000 – 5,000 treatments a year.

In 2010, Father Boyle's Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, a book recollecting his 20 plus years with the Homies, was published.  It received rave blurbs from many, ranging from human rights activists like Kerry Kennedy to actor Martin Sheen.   It also received the 2010 SCIBA (Southern California Indie Booksellers Association) Non-Fiction Book Award and was named as one of the Best Books of 2010 by Publishers Weekly.  It recently came out in paperback. 

The universe of Homeboy Industries is ever expanding. They recently introduced a line of tortilla chips and salsa at 256 participating Ralphs stores in Southern California.  And for the last four weeks running they were voted the best snack at Ralphs.   “I would have never though I would be worried did we beat Cheetos this week?”

But surprises turn up, that’s what happens when you keep striving.   “We’re all imagining something different for our world,” noted Father Greg.  “All of us want something different.   That vision still has its time.  And if it delays, wait for it.”

Kat Thomas is a writer is Santa Monica who was humbled beyond words by Father Greg.   You can find out more about her at

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