In the late 1980s, when gang killings in Los Angeles were growing out of control, Father Greg Boyle took the initiative to change things for the better. He created Homeboy Bakery in which former gang rivals would work side by side and get to know each other as human beings instead of enemies.
Father Greg’s approach of building kinship became successful, eventually turning the project into Homeboy Industries, the largest gang intervention, rehabilitation, and reentry program in the world. Father Greg has also written a book inspired by his experiences. It’s called “The Whole Language: The Power of Extravagant Tenderness” and we discussed his work recently on “Christopher Closeup” (podcast below).
Father Greg recalled those early days when he was pastor of Dolores Mission Church in Boyle Heights, the poorest parish in the city. He was burying kids murdered in gang violence on a regular basis, so he and others in the community aimed to figure out a way to “respond to the death and suffering.”
Animated by a Christian-based community model, they sought to implement “the marrow of the gospel” in the here and now. They determined the bakery idea was one worth trying, and it wound up working successfully. Father Greg said, “[Attorney] Bryan Stevenson always says: be proximate to folks at the margins and watch what happens. The same thing is true at a micro level where you have homies, enemies, guys who used to shoot at each other. Have them stand next to each other and make croissants all day. They don’t have to work stuff out, they don’t have to talk about issues or resolve conflicts. No, just have them make croissants. Watch what happens. It’s one of those guaranteed things where you say it always works and it always helps. And it always advances a sense of kinship and community.”
Building kinship remains at the heart of Homeboy’s mission, and one of the best ways to accomplish that is by listening. Father Greg explained, “I think people listening and paying attention is the primary way that we show love. It’s not about advice that we dole out. Can you receive people? Can you allow your heart to be altered? Can you be reached by people? It’s an active thing to allow yourself to be reached.”
Listening also allows you to hear the stories and backgrounds of the gang members trying to redirect their lives toward a better way. Those backgrounds generally involve a great deal of suffering, sometimes caused by family members. “Traumatized people are going to be more inclined to cause trauma,” said Father Greg, “but it’s equally true here at Homeboy that cherished people will be able to find their way to the joy there is in cherishing themselves and others. At a higher level, systems won’t change until people do – and people change when they’re cherished. So this is a consequential step in action as well.”
The title of Father Greg’s book “The Whole Language” refers to our ability to see the whole person, not just one dimension of a person. “[That’s] how God sees,” he said. “Love is God’s religion, loving is how we practice it…We try to love each other into wholeness and walk each other home to a place of connection and kinship.”
One of the things that can negatively or positively affect our ability to be loving is our perception of God. Father Greg explained, “You see people who are exacting, judgmental, demanding, and quick to be disappointed…Where does that come from? I think it naturally comes from a notion of God that’s puny…Richard Rohr says, and I think it’s quite helpful, that we are all created in the image and likeness of God, but our image of God creates us, it directs us, it tells us how to respond to things. So are we inclusive or are we exclusive? Is there room in our hearts for people or not much space at all? Are we merciful or are we drawing lines instead of erasing them? All that stuff is always reflective. So it occurred to me that the most consequential thing in our lives is how expansive and spacious our notion of God [is].”
As an example, Father Greg recalled a funeral he held for a man he’d known for 38 years, a homie who died of an overdose. At the funeral, one of the deceased man’s daughters asked, “Why was he taken from us?”
The implication is that God took this man from his family, which is a distorted vision for how God operates in this world. “God didn’t have anything to do with it,” said Father Greg. “Fentanyl did. And so probably better to talk about fentanyl than about what kind of God we have.”
Tenderness is more indicative of Father Greg’s perception of God, and that quality is on full display at Homeboy Industries, sometimes to the priest’s surprise. He said, “It’s kind of odd. You would think [tenderness would] be so foreign [to these gang members], and consequently, it would be out of reach. But I’ve never been around more affectionate human beings than gang members. They’re very tactile, they’re always hugging, they’re always saying sweet things…I’m an Irish Catholic from the old school, where my parents – I always knew they loved us, but it took them a while [to vocalize it]…But you do not ever, today, here at Homeboy, not say ‘I love you’ to people. It’s constant and it’s comfortable. We say it when we finish a conversation, and we say it when we begin one.”
One of the key takeaways Father Greg wants to leave people with is the idea, ” “People aren’t wicked. They’re just strangers to their own goodness…I hope that people will embrace loving as their practice, as their intention, as the thing that they work at.”
(To listen to my full interview with Father Greg Boyle, click on the podcast link):