'Father G' Offers Redemption From Gang Life

Father Boyle, a Jesuit priest in Los Angeles, has worked for years to help young people get away from "la vida loca" the crazy gang life. He's the founder and director of two job training programs "Homeboy Industries" and the "Homegirl café." Guest host Mandalit del Barco talks to Father Boyle, who's known in the community as Father G, about his vision for helping young people and how he has made it a reality.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, host:

I'm Mandalit del Barco. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up, President Franklin Roosevelt sent Walt Disney to Latin America in 1941 to combat Nazi influence. A documentary filmmaker tells us about Disney's adventures in South America.

But first, it's time for Faith Matters, our regular segment where we discuss matters of religion and spirituality. And few religious leaders have had as much experience combining their faith with the hard work of changing the world than Father Greg Boyle.

Father Boyle is a Jesuit priest in Los Angeles. For years, he's worked to help young people get away from La Vida Loca, the crazy gang life. He started and continues to run the job-training programs Homeboy Industries and the Homegirl Cafe. He's affectionately known as Father G, sometimes even called G-dawg, and I've known him for some years in the reporting often on street gangs in L.A. and Central America. Father Boyle joins us now. Welcome to the program.

Father GREG BOYLE (Jesuit priest, Homeboy Industries): It's good to be with you, Mandalit.

DEL BARCO: Father G, I have seen you talking with the kids in Boyle Heights and in East L.A. and in prisons that you minister, and I know you're able to speak their language. What do you think helps you get through to them. Is part of that message a spiritual one?

Father BOYLE: You know, I think in the end it's always relational. So, if you can engage people and connect to them and somehow reflect back, and return them to themselves, you know, where they can start to believe the truth of who they are, that they're exactly what God had in mind when God made them like all of us. That's a hard one to believe. But it's particularly hard for damaged and traumatized young men and women who think the exact opposite of that. So - but I think it's - there's no magic formula. It's really about holding a mirror up and telling them the truth and assuring them that the truth is really all good.

DEL BARCO: They seem to feel very comfortable with you, just talking to you. You're able to get their trust.

Father BOYLE: Well, I've been doing this for a quarter of a century, so there's a certain credibility probably. But with gang members, I'm in 25 different detention facilities where I do Catholic services, so they hear me preach. And then I always basically take stories from the streets in their voice and kind of reflect that back to them. So, I tell parables or stories or kind of underscore the value of what the Gospel message is for them by way of their own argot and way of speaking and…

DEL BARCO: Can you give some examples of that? What it says in the Bible what you preach to them? I mean, do you translate? Okay, let's say I was a home girl coming to you. How would you tell me about the Bible or the teachings?

Father BOYLE: Well, I wouldn't even say that I ever do that very specifically except in the context of worship. A lot of times there are kind of morality plays in as much as they're trying to get people to stop, you know, with the gang-banging lifestyle.

Like a story that I told the other day was something that happened, a kid who's sort of on the fence. He's about 16 years old and he works for me and from a gang, only a year in a gang, but he works in our janitorial crew. And he, you know, his face was rearranged. He had a black eye and some scratches and I sat him down. I said, my God, what happened to you? Well, he had gotten jumped by four enemy gang members not far from his home. So I looked at him and I said, are you having fun yet, and he started crying. And he lifted up his T-shirt to kind of dab at his eyes and he had a belt buckle that had the letter, the first letter of his gang. And I pointed at it and I said that letter and everything it represents has only brought you sadness. And then he told me something I didn't know actually. He said my brother was killed because of that letter. So, then he started to cry more and he just kind of felt like he didn't know what to do. And he says, what do I do now, you know.

I said, well, we start all over again. But I can't give you that desire to want to. You have to come up with that. And then he looked at me and kind of clear eyed and he said, I want to. And I said, well, let's start. But it was a moment, you know, where he could feel regret for all the posturing that gang members always do about the gang is my second family. They got my back and no gang member can name a single good thing that's come into their life because of the gang. So you want them to see that and then move beyond it.

DEL BARCO: Part of that message that you've told me that you share with them is sort of giving them unconditional love. And unlike so many other people, you don't write off the homies as unredeemable. In fact, you believe in redemption. That seems to be the key to some of your work.

Father BOYLE: Yeah. But it's also, you know, in psychological terms, you know, there is always that first attachment that we all have with our parents, you know. And if you don't connect to that, don't have that secure base of attachment, then it's going to reflect itself in a lot of behavioral issues. So Homeboy Industries is a therapeutic community that provides that experience of attachment. And that runs a gamut of, you know, being disappointed and delighting in their presence all at the same time.

That's what our experience of good parenting was. And so, there's a no-matter-whatness to it. No matter what you do, though, the day won't ever come when I withdraw love or support or care or attention. And then that has a powerful effect. And then this kid starts to feel resilient and protected and soothed in the world, and then that kid can move beyond and avoid all the stuff that used to get him stuck like gang banging or drug dealing or high-risk behavior, if you will.

DEL BARCO: And that seems to be the role like a parent, like a minister, like the priest, actually you are their priest.

Father BOYLE: Yeah. But you know a lot of times, people - I kind of roll my eyes a little bit about, you know, people want to just tell people stuff. And I'm not really big on that, you know, although you have conversation and you engage and you reflect them back to themselves. But, you know I have volunteers all the time who say I really want to volunteer for you because I believe I have a message that these young men and women need to hear.

And I always say the same thing, the minute you lose the message, be sure to give me a call, because I think they don't need to have you insert message into their ears. They need you to connect to their hearts. So, it's never about a message that we communicate in any way to them. It's about listening to them. They'll only know they're valuable if you are in fact valuing them. And so, that's where you want to be. You don't want to be preachy or let me tell you that Jesus is your personal Savior, though I believe that, you want to become the message more than announce it.

DEL BARCO: And your slogan is, nothing stops a bullet like a job. You've given them jobs. You've given them skills. You've helped them remove their tattoo so that they can be employed. I know you've been praised for this, but sometimes you get criticized for being easy on hardcore gang members.

Father BOYLE: I guess, you know, I don't know where that comes from. I mean, I hear it all the time, you know, looks like he - like I'm somehow co-signing on bad behavior. You would never critique the director of a drug rehab center for somehow being easy on drug addicts. I mean, you work with them, you accompany them, you help them leave that life behind. That's the whole point. So, I never quite get that.

If the demonizing in society is complete, then it's going to lead people to, in fact, demonize people who assist them even if he's assisting them in leaving that lifestyle behind. It's hard for people, but when the demonizing is kind of full scale that will always happen. But, oh well, you know, you do what you believe to be correct and right and just try to stay faithful to that.

DEL BARCO: And how has your faith sustained you in your work and even in your own life I know you have suffered from illness. You were diagnosed with leukemia, but I understand that's in remission. I hope that's true. Has it - how are you feeling these days and how has your spirituality helped you through all this pain and suffering that you see every day.

Father BOYLE: Well, yeah, obviously it's an essential part of, you know, beginning the day, anchoring yourself in the things that matter and putting first things recognizably first in your life. And I always get a lot of solace, I think, from, you know, Jesus on the cross with Ladron(ph), with the thief, you know, he sort of makes this promise, he says this day with me paradise. And a lot of times, people think it's about, you know, I'll see you in heaven, but it's really about today, this day, and it's really about companionship with Jesus. And it means paradise today. You know, you don't really get Jesus saying very often there'll be pie in the sky when you die. He's really talking about now and today, and it's supposed to be like that. You're supposed to delight in what's right in front of you. So that keeps me going. If you are paying attention, then the day is going to be pretty joyful, and a lot of delight will fill it.

I just came from burying my 168th young person killed in our streets because of gang violence, a young man named Keith(ph), who was a baker at our Homeboy Bakery. So these things are unspeakable and beyond hard, but you - if it was always burying human beings, you probably couldn't do it, but it's mainly a steady diet of watching people discover gifts and talents and goodness and then delighting in them themselves, and it's mainly that.

DEL BARCO: Well, thank you so much for sharing this day with us.

The Father BOYLE: Always good to be with you.

DEL BARCO: Thanks. Father Greg Boyles is a gang interventionist in Los Angeles, the director of Homeboy Industries and the Homegirl Cafe.

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