When our phone conversation began to push half an hour, Father Greg Boyle told me that he had to go because some homies had been waiting to see him and they were starting to mad-dog him. Such laconic, dry wit peppers his book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion. In that tome, he recounts his experiences serving as a parish priest in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles and then as the executive director of Homeboy Industries, the largest gang intervention organization in the nation. These stories are told – to borrow a biblical term – as a series of parables, always with pithy if heart-wrenching conclusions.
Homeboy was started as a bakery where gang members looking for “an exit ramp off this crazy, violent freeway” as Boyle put it in our interview, could find gainful employment. It now includes other social enterprises including a diner, a screen-printing factory, farmers market stands, and a host of social services. As Boyle writes in his book, Homeboy has become a symbol even for those who are not directly involved. It is not unusual for educators and intervention workers in Santa Barbara to take their kids on field trips to visit Homeboy’s headquarters in L.A. This Thursday, however, Father Boyle will be paying a visit to Santa Barbara. He was kind enough to chat for a few minutes last week, even if it meant risking the wrath of some his homies.
How familiar are you with Santa Barbara? I did my Novitiate, where one begins the first two years [of Jesuit priesthood], in Montecito, so I know Santa Barbara pretty well. In fact I worked in Santa Barbara juvenile hall briefly. But that was 43 years ago.
Were there gangs back then? There didn’t seem to be. There were poor kids of color then as now.
Part of the context of your talk is that the city is pursuing a gang injunction right now. How do you feel about injunctions? I’m not as opposed to them as a lot of people. On the one hand, they require the kind of police force that a lot of cities don’t have, one that is knowledgeable of whom everybody is. But the basic essential thing is that gang members can’t hang out here. But gang members will say, “This is my barrio. This is my neighborhood.” And I think that’s a small price to pay for the pain that has been caused.
The ACLU and folks expect me to be someone who is so solidly opposed to all this, and I think it’s a more complicated matter. It’s the community saying you can’t congregate here. Again, that at the basic level is a small price for gang members to pay for all the heartache.
It’s a very neutral thing, I think. So if you’ve been enjoined and you can’t go to the neighborhood, big deal. All you have to do is stay away and don’t be attacked and no consequence. Plus, it gives people a way to agree that gang members in their neighborhood is a decidedly bad thing.
The answer you just gave me might be surprising to a lot of people because you’re the guy who has been willing to work with gang members and to give them second and third chances. I’ve been doing it for 30 years. If there were an injunction in the community where I used to work where there were eight gangs and now there are only two, and if they were to hand a piece of paper to the gang members who don’t live there but the ones who live outside the community, and they say, “Here’s the deal, you can’t come here,” I defy anybody to say to me what would be wrong with that. …
[When those who have left the neighborhood come back,] I’ll say to the gang members, “What are you doing here?” They’ll say, “This is my barrio.” I say, “You don’t live here. These people live here, and they’re trying to live peaceful lives and raise their kids. But you come here, and you’re an attractive nuisance. Somebody’s going to say, ‘Hey, that fool’s over there right now,’ and pretty soon you have shooting.”
When people move on from the lifestyle, you encourage them to get away geographically. In a way, it represents the best mode of the community. It’s the community somehow saying, “If you come here, it endangers everybody’s lives.”
Speaking of violence, you write in your book that you’ve buried 167 people. Has that number gone up? To 193.
How do you keep doing it without suffering from something like PTSD? You stay anchored and focused and centered on the stuff that matters. Stay present to the person sitting in front of you.
In a lot of the tales you tell in your book, Tattoos on the Heart, young men or women seem to be turning their lives around, and then, bam, they get murdered. These aren’t Horatio Alger stories. These lives matter. There’s an idea out there that these lives matter less.
I guess that’s why people would be curious about your refusal to denounce injunctions. That’s crazy. We ought not to demonize a single gang member, and we ought not to romanticize a single gang.
There are other programs like Homeboy Industries but none with the same combination of success and scale. What’s made you so successful? I think that any program that’s born from below rather than on high is going to survive. This is a program that’s born of humbly listening and talking to people.
You have written disparagingly of a desire, especially on the part of nonprofits, for evidence-based outcomes. Can you explain your logic? We’ve grown accustomed to funders who want to reward nonprofits for how little money they spend rather than the impact that they have. I think not everything that works helps and not everything that helps works.
Father Greg Boyle is visiting Santa Barbara for the speaker series organized by Word and Life, an organization consisting of Catholic lay persons. He will speak on Thursday, January 23, at 10 a.m. at First Presbyterian Church, 21 East Constance Avenue. For more information, visit www.wordandlife.us.