Fresh Air Interview: The Rev. Gregory Boyle — Priest Fights Gangs With 'Boundless Compassion' For 20 years, the Rev. Gregory Boyle has run Homeboy Industries, an anti-gang program that employs and is run by ex-gang members in Los Angeles. Boyle recently had to lay off most of his staff because of financial problems. He recounts the decades he's helped ex-gang members turn their lives around in a new memoir, Tattoos on the Heart.
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Priest Fights Gangs With 'Boundless Compassion'

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Priest Fights Gangs With 'Boundless Compassion'

Priest Fights Gangs With 'Boundless Compassion'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

As a Jesuit priest working with gang and ex-gang members in L.A., my guest, Father Greg Boyle, has buried a lot of people, baptized a lot of babies and said Mass in a lot of detention facilities.

He started working with gangs in the mid-1980s. In 1992, he founded Homeboy Industries, for young people ready to leave the gang life. In addition to offering counseling and helping ex-gang members find jobs, Homebody Industry has several businesses, including a bakery, a silk-screen shop and a caf� staffed by former gang members. The idea is to teach them job skills, bring former rivals together and function as both a work site and a therapeutic community.

Father Greg received the California Peace Prize for his work, but times are hard, and Homeboy Industries is now unable to make payroll. The businesses are self-sustaining, but the counseling and administration staffs were laid off on Friday. About 330 of Homeboy's 427 employees were let go, but most are continuing to work without pay, hoping that Homeboy Industries will soon raise enough money to keep the entire operation going.

Father Greg has joined us several times on FRESH AIR. I recorded a new interview with him yesterday. He has a new memoir called "Tattoos on the Heart."

Father Greg, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's always such a pleasure to talk with you. The last time we spoke, when you were in remission from leukemia, and we were talking about, you know, facing serious illness, you said death is not on my top 10 list of things to dread. I more often than not dread meeting payroll.

So this time, the thing that you really, really dread has happened. You weren't able to meet payroll. So can you talk about what that's been like for you to handle personally?

The Reverend GREG BOYLE (Founder, Homeboy Industries): Yeah, you know, I'm pretty sleep-deprived at the moment. So that's what keeps me awake. And a lot of folks are kind of depending on me, and Homeboy Industries, as the largest gang intervention program in the country, really is this beacon of hope, and there is no Plan B, C or D for these folks when they get out of jail.

Now, we've had lots of white-knuckle rides, and we've just made it a couple times since November. We've been in trouble since November. We sort of publicly announced that, and we got from November to here.

What we really needed was sort of that $5 million cushion when we moved to our new headquarters three years ago, to really factor that in. We built a building, and we kind of vaguely forgot that we were going to put a program in it, and suddenly, we didn't double our the people we served - we quadrupled the people we served.

And so it was just intense. The place was packed, and the recession only added to the need and the fact that we're the only game in town. There is no other place people go to. So it was hard, and we sort of needed an angel, and we didn't get it.

GROSS: So, was it your job to tell 300 people they were being laid off?

The Rev. BOYLE: What I did was we have my council, which is nine of us who run the place, and half of them are homies. And I said, I will speak to this tomorrow at our morning meeting, which happens at 10 minutes to nine every morning.

But all of us, let's spend the day putting our arms around people and saying it's over for now. We're calling it a pause, but let's start to, even me, apply for unemployment, all of us, and - so we can keep the businesses open.

And so when I came back from lunch later on, it was this phalanx of gang members, you know, as I walked from my car to the office, and they were sobbing and hugging me, and we'll get through this, and how could I ever repay you. And I was a basket case by the time I got to the office, because it was so overwhelming and so heartfelt.

GROSS: You know, it's interesting because I was wondering if and apparently, this isn't what happened, but I was wondering, since part of what you preach is hope, that there's hope for people, that there's hope in this world, I was thinking that some of the people who you laid off might kind of be rebuking you, saying yeah, well, you said that there's hope, but obviously, there's not because this is folding, too. Even this opportunity is being taken away from me now.

The Rev. BOYLE: Yeah, you know, I guess there were all sorts of things I expected to happen. And, you know, I was quoted in the L.A. Times as saying, you know, hope has sort of left the building a little bit. And I even regret saying that because the homies, you know, they've sort of taken this battle cry.

In fact, we decided we weren't going to let the press know, right now. Well, you know, let homies be homies. They ended up, you know, calling all the press. You know, suddenly, L.A. Times photographers, ABC News, they're all in our office.

And the ABC News person said we talked to your nice press person, Melissa(ph). Well, she's a homegirl who works in the tattoo clinic, the tattoo removal clinic, you know, and - our press girl Melissa.

(Soundbite of laughter)

The Rev. BOYLE: So, but they decided to do it. And I watched them, and I thought oh, my God, you know, as one of the homies say: if we lose hope, then we will be unable to give hope. This was one of my senior staff who was a gang member.

And I thought that's right. So I've had to slap myself a couple times when I've gotten pretty discouraged. And the homies are all, you know, it's a Frank Capra movie. They're all, you know, we'll put on a show and charge admission. They're they go down to Alvera Street and ask for donations, and then they have a Polaroid camera. They say take a picture with a real, live cholo, one of the guys says, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

The Rev. BOYLE: You know, as a fundraiser. You know, I thought, and who doesn't want one of those pictures, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

The Rev. BOYLE: So I watched them. Apparently last night, a whole group of them stood at the entrance to Dodger Stadium as the cars back up to get into the parking lot with big, huge cans that say Homeboy and big signs that say Save Homeboy.

They went out and sold my book in front of White Memorial Hospital. They came back with $1,000. So, you know, I'm just letting them do what they need to do, and because this program stopped being my program a long time ago, and it's certainly theirs now.

GROSS: So you're not rewriting your life now. You're still dedicated to making this work?

The Rev. BOYLE: Well, our businesses are open, you know, and the odd thing is, and kind of ironic, I guess, is that our businesses couldn't be more fruitful. You know, the bakery, we've just got all these huge accounts and a brand new French baker.

Homegirl Caf� about to have all their salsas, which is a whole line of them, sold in every store at Ralphs supermarkets on the West Coast. We're being considered, and it looks like we're going to get it, to have a Homegirl Caf� at the new LAX airport extension.

Just huge, you know. The caf� makes double what it made three months ago. Now we are who we choose to be, and it's the best program we've ever had in two decades, the best configuration of it, really.

And then, you know, this happens. You know, the bottom falls out. So my hope is this will be a moment to for people in Los Angeles, especially, to put first things recognizably first and prioritize. You know, people raised $12 million to save the Hollywood sign, and there was this stray alligator named Reggie who they found somewhere, and they rescued him and put him in a pen, and it cost the city of Los Angeles $7.9 million. Well, that's like our annual budget.

And they rescued the Museum of Contemporary Art to the tune of $60 million. We both announced that we were in trouble at the same time, and people came to their rescue and endowed it for $60 million.

So a Warhol, and a Hollywood sign, and an alligator seem to be of more value, frankly, than the 12,000 gang members who walk through our doors every year. So maybe this is a moment for people to go, yeah, that's not right, actually, and maybe we could adjust our giving and our thinking.

GROSS: Let's talk about how what it was like when you started doing this work, when you started working with gang members. What was the gang scene like in L.A., and how would you compare that to what it is now - just in terms of size?

The Rev. BOYLE: Well, you know, numbers are hard to you know, the sheriff will tell you it's 86,000 gang members in L.A. County, and others will say it's closer to 100,000. And the truth is, people probably don't know.

Anecdotally, it feels like fewer people are getting engaged in gangs than when I first began in the mid-'80s. But I always talk about the decade of death, which is '88 to '98, and that was intense, reaching the highest moment in '92 when the county saw 1,000 gang-related homicides.

And just again, anecdotally, you know, I buried eight kids in a three week period - once. And that would be inconceivable now, because, you know, things have calmed down considerably since the horror of that decade of death.

But it was so common in those days: helicopters every night, shootings morning, noon and night and mothers putting their babies in the bathtubs at night in the housing projects, anticipating what everybody knew would happen, which is shooting all night long. So it's hard to even recall that, you know, because it's feeling not ancient history but a long time ago, really. And so obviously, you know, gang-related homicides have been cut in half, and in half again, since 1992. So it's quite different.

GROSS: Why do you think that's happened?

The Rev. BOYLE: Well, again, even law enforcement will acknowledge that Homeboy Industries is part of that, and for sure that's true. Policing got smarter. And since '92, which you recall was the, you know, unrest of '92, things were born at that point where people didn't wait for cities or police to solve this problem.

So Homeboy Industries was born. But so was A Place Called Home and after-school programs and communities and schools, and all sorts of things were born to address every aspect of this, from mentoring to loving, caring adults who paid attention.

People stepped up and saw themselves as stakeholders. So, all that occurred, really, in response to that moment. And so I don't think it's a surprise that frankly, those numbers have gone south. And even with the recession, people, you know, make a connection between the economy going badly and a rise in crime, and that hasn't happened.

In many ways, we need to brace ourselves because it probably will to some extent. But I think it's because we have so many things in place that can hold people and help people, and not just Homeboy but lots of programs, frankly.

GROSS: Now, you say policing got smarter since the '80s. In what ways has policing gotten smarter?

The Rev. BOYLE: Well, the narrative has changed. You know, when I began, it was Daryl Gates, who just died, who was the chief of police, and Operation Hammer, which was kind of a take-no-prisoners kind of approach. And CRASH, which was the gang task force, basically, whose acronym means Community Response Against Street Hoodlums.

Well, it originally was TRASH, Total Response Against Street Hoodlums. But even the LAPD thought that might be a PR disaster if they continued with that name. But that just tells you that was the narrative: gang members demonized, get them, wipe them out.

And frankly, I think Homeboy Industries has helped change the narrative. You know, what if we invested in people rather than incarcerate our way out of this mess? And cops embraced that, as well.

So it was at that point you endlessly heard every chief of police say we can't arrest our way out of this problem.

Well, 25 years ago, that was an enlightened thing to say, and now, you won't find anybody who doesn't say it. And they say you have to do prevention, intervention and enforcement, and nobody said that 20 years ago.

GROSS: My guest is Father Greg Boyle, who works with gang and ex-gang members in L.A. He founded Homeboy Industries. His new memoir is called "Tattoos on the Heart." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Father Greg Boyle, who has worked with gang members in L.A. since the mid-'80s. He founded Homeboy Industries, which provides counseling and also runs several businesses that are staffed by former gang members. Father Greg had to lay off more than 300 people last week.

Now, at Homebody Industries, you focus on people who want the leave the gang life, and you help them get out of it, but you write in your book that when you started working with gang members, you tried to create truces between rival gangs.

You eventually gave that up. Why did you give that approach up?

The Rev. BOYLE: Well, I always say the same thing, that I don't regret that I did it, and I'd never do it again. And part of the issue there is things are different now.

Gangs used they were indigenous when I did that. Every gang member lived in the neighborhood they claimed as their turf. And now, just about nobody does, or, you know, they live in they're a commuter institution at the moment. They commute from Montebello to the housing projects.

And that's partly due to the Bill Clinton one strike and you're out. So most of them got evicted because of criminal activity. So they don't live there, but they still come down and say this is my barrio, this is my turf, and I claim it.

So that's different. But the main thing is I think if you work with gangs, then you give oxygen to gangs, and it's one of the reasons why gangs are still around. So people who work with gangs...

GROSS: What do you mean by that, you give oxygen to gangs if you work with them?

The Rev. BOYLE: Well, for example, at Homeboy Industries, we always say we don't work with gangs, we work with gang members. So if you work with a gang, and it comes from a bad diagnosis, you end up thinking well, this is Middle East. Maybe this is Northern Ireland. Maybe we sit the two sides down and try to resolve this conflict.

Well, peacemaking requires conflict, and in gang violence, there is no conflict. There's violence for sure, but it's not about anything. So there's no you can't sit down and one side say if only we had our homeland back, or the other said if only we could practice our religion openly.

There are no issues to discuss. It's the language of the despondent. It's the lethal absence of hope that leads a kid, and suicidal tendencies, really, into his enemies' territory. He's not hoping to kill; he's really hoping to die.

Well, that's a whole other language that you don't want to sit it down on a table. You want to get underneath it and address it in a particular way. And besides, people who do this kind of work, working with gangs and truces and peace treaties, they always begin every paragraph with: Gangs will always be with us. So we might as well seek a peace treaty or a truce of some kind.

And the truth is, for 25 years, I've lived in one of the hot zones, they call them, and I've never heard anybody say that their deepest longing is that they want the day to come when gangs get along. They long for the day when gangs aren't part of the landscape and not part of the multiple choice for their kids, you know: A, go to college; B, learn a trade; C, join a gang. Even gang members imagine a future that doesn't include gangs. So...

GROSS: When you were trying to create truces among gangs, was there a certain theater that went along with that?

The Rev. BOYLE: Yeah, I mean, I learned a lot on that, because once they did it, and they brought all these people to the peace treaties, and then, you know, then you discover that everybody's armed. You know, and I thought what am I doing this for? You know, and then I started to do elect three delegates from each side, and as much as they'd say to you, hey, thanks for doing this, we really need to have peace, but the minute they got to the meeting, it was all posturing in overdrive. And I thought oh my God, is this the same guy who wanted to give peace a change, you know, an hour ago?

And so that was hard to deal with. So then I ended up doing these signed things where nobody met with anybody, and they'd be these, you know, pyrrhic victories, you know, like we promise not to shoot into houses, or we won't shoot for the month of August, you know.

So I had those, and then each side would sign it, and it worked. But it didn't get at the stuff you need to get at, which is address and infuse the sense of hopelessness, really.

GROSS: When you were working, years ago, when you were pretty new to this, you said you tried to meet gang members on the street, but that didn't work out very well. It was better to meet them when they were locked up or wounded in the hospital. What was the difference?

The Rev. BOYLE: Well, you know, usually when I started to walk in the projects, you know, they didn't know who I was, and there was no immediate cache. Being a priest was meaningless, even to Latino Catholics, and I was a white guy. So they thought I was a narc, you know.

And so there was always the performance part, you know, where kids had to perform in front of each other, and it was so artificial. But I knew that I needed to visit them once they got locked up or shot, and in the old days, there were more wounded than now, because the caliber of weaponry has changed so much.

So I would go visit them while they were locked or in a hospital, and they were quite vulnerable and teary and deeply grateful that you visited them.

Then they got out. Then they told their homies, hey, that guy visited me. And suddenly you had entre, you know. Suddenly, they were coming to you, and suddenly you had juice or influence, or suddenly you could say stuff and they'd, you know, halfway listen.

GROSS: So you've said that you don't see it as your job to convince people to leave the gang life. You work with people who are ready to and want to leave the gang life. Why is that your approach as opposed to trying to convince people?

The Rev. BOYLE: Well, because it doesn't really operate on a rational plane. You know it's - and the model really that's more helpful is recovery or rehab. So, you know, if you ran a heroin rehabilitation center, you know, you wouldn't be going out to the alleys and say, you know, put that syringe down.

GROSS: Right.

The Rev. BOYLE: Because it takes what it and recovery, 12-step programs, they always say it takes what it takes. And it can take whatever it takes, you know, a recent death of a homeboy or the birth of your son, or a long stretch, you just got out of prison. That sometimes does it. Or who knows? You wake up one day, and you say wow, I am tired of being tired.

Then they walk in the door. Because, you know, in my book, I say a lot of stories of what Teilhard de Chardin used to call the slow work of God, where you have to wait. And you can get to a point where you're going to kind of accelerate this, but no amount of me wanting that guy to have a life is really the same as that guy wanting to have one.

So, you know, ours is a God who waits, and who am I not to? So - but you have to wait. Otherwise, it won't work ever.

GROSS: My guest, Father Greg Boyle, will be back in the second half of the show. His new memoir is called "Tattoos on the Heart." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR. Here's music from Homeboy Industries MySpace page.

(Soundbite of music)

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Father Greg Boyle. He's a Jesuit priest who has worked with L.A. gang members since the mid '80s and in 1992 founded Homeboy Industries. In addition to providing counseling and job placement, it runs several businesses, including a bakery, cafe and silk screen shop that are staffed by former gang members. Last week, Father Greg had to lay off 330 of Homeboy's 427 employees. Although, for now, most are continuing to work without pay, hoping that they will soon raise enough money to keep all operations running. Father Greg has a new memoir called "Tattoos on the Heart."

Homeboy Industries has a motto and that motto is on T-shirts and I think probably coffee mugs, because you sell a lot of stuff as part of the Homeboy Industries business.

Father BOYLE: That's right.

GROSS: And so the motto is: Nothing stops a bullet like a job. But you've buried a lot of young people over the years that you've known and worked with. And the tally while you were writing the book was 168. Have you kept count? Like what's the tally now? You say the numbers of deaths have really decreased. The number of shootings has decreased.

Father BOYLE: Yeah. It's still 168 and that was three months ago.

GROSS: So that's good.

Father BOYLE: Yeah, that is good. Yeah, I mean again, it's not like it was. Though, one of the kids I laid off name Omar(ph), he called me on Sunday. He says I have to talk to you, and I laid him off a week before the big layoffs because he was not showing up and we knew we had to lay some people off. So he calls me really quite urgent. And I said well, come over to my office. I'll be in my office. It was just the two of us. And he says, I had to talk to you because I have to thank you for everything you've ever done for me. I kind of went crazy when you laid me off. I was hanging in the neighborhood, in the barrio.

I even was going to tattoo my whole face up, but I didn't do it. And then I woke up the other day and I said I have to thank G for all he's ever done for me, but especially for having laid me off. And he looked at me and he says because it woke my ass up proper. And he sort of decided. And so he enrolled at Trade Tech and wants to study psychology so he can become a counselor. Well, he was shot in the head last night.

GROSS: Oh, God.

Father BOYLE: Yeah. He was sitting in front of his home. And his gang is far away from where he lives, so I don't even know how to piece it together, the gang that's near there. Maybe they thought he was somebody else. But anyway, he's in a coma and I'm actually going to go see him right after this. So, because I haven't been able to, but heartbreaking, you know? And...

GROSS: I'm really sorry to hear that.

Father BOYLE: Yeah. He's such a terrific kid. Such a good kid. And I have it in my mind, you know, this moment with him.

(Soundbite of clearing throat)

Father BOYLE: It was important to him to thank me. You know, he had sort of anchored himself in this gratitude that somehow was very important for him. And he actually didn't have to do that. You know, he just could've gone on with his life, but he especially wanted to thank me for letting him off that somehow it become this alarm clock. And then he got perilously close to the flames and he pulled back and he went no. I've learned something. And he had been with us for about six months. But he was a one foot in, one foot out, and then he decided to put all feet where they needed to be and then this happens. So it's pretty heartbreaking.

GROSS: In your book you write about your first burial in 1988. It was an 18-year-old who had a twin brother. And you describe how the dead 18-year-old's twin was dressed just like his brother in the coffin. What impression did that leave with you?

Father BOYLE: And, you know, how there are identical twins and then there are identical twins. I mean they were so identical that even their mom had a hard time telling them apart. And so, and they happened to choose to wear the exact same clothes and so Roberto(ph) was peering down at Raphael(ph) and it was like you had slapped a mirror there. And he was looking at his mirror image. And so for me, for it to be the first gang funeral I had done, you know, it felt like kind of this image that stayed with me about kids killing their mirror image, you know, and that whoever's in the coffin is identical to the folks who are out there and perhaps, you know, the perpetrators of stuff like this. And interesting, he was stabbed to death, which was again, this was so early in the days when even guns weren't that around as they are now. But yeah, he was stabbed in Hollenbeck Park.

GROSS: Have you baptized babies who've you've watched grow up and then fall into the gang life? Like you've been so hopeful baptizing them and then you see them enter a gang as time goes on?

Father BOYLE: You know, not so much. You know, I mean I think especially the kids who have had contact with Homeboy Industries, you know, they decidedly make a choice and then, you know, you ask them, would you ever want see your son, you know, a part of your gang? And, you know, they always say the same thing. You know, I will beat his ass. You know, or I would try to calm that impulse down. But the point is, I won't let this happen, you know, and they know enough that it's only been a source of, you know, tragedy and heartache and they don't want that for their kids. So, you know, the truth is no. You know, and I have endless stories of kids watching their kids go to college and being so proud of that. And, you know, so I think the cycle gets broken, especially if you can infuse hope in the right way at the right time.

GROSS: My guest is Father Greg Boyle, who works with gangs members and ex-gang members in L.A. and founded Homeboy Industries in 1992. His new memoir is called "Tattoos on the Heart." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Father Greg Boyle, who has worked with gangs members in L.A. since the mid '80s. He founded Homeboy Industries, which provides counseling and also runs several businesses that are staffed by former gang members. When we left off, we were talking about gang members he's buried and babies he's baptized.

Now you also perform mass a lot in probation camps, which are detention centers?

Father BOYLE: Mm-hmm. Yeah, they're two juvenile halls and youth authority facilities, jails and 20 probation camps.

GROSS: So what are those masses like? What do you do during the masses? And do you deliver sermons?

Father BOYLE: Well, yeah, I think like the book, you know, basically has all the stories that I ever use. You know, I always tell three stories and they're kind of parables that illustrate something. And I try to, you know, take the Gospel and process it for them, and I use their language and I always, you know, I have kind of my method, you know, which is: make them laugh, make them cry, make them think. If each story can have one of those it's been a pretty good day, you know? But I use their language and sometimes it's a little earthy and sometimes it's taken right from their playbook, you know, and stuff they know.

GROSS: So when you use that earthy language, are...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...the people in the detention centers and probation camps surprised to hear that language coming out of the mouth of a priest?

Father BOYLE: Well, a lot of time the earthiness is in Spanish so, you know, but depending on how much people really know Spanish - and I'm often just telling stories as they happen or happened.

GROSS: Oh, so you're quoting people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Father BOYLE: I'm quoting people so I always keep my distance.

GROSS: You're not responsible.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Father BOYLE: I spoke at this mega Christian church where people were quite horrified. You know, they gave me 45 minutes and I figured well, so I told endless stories, you know, and people were a little bit shocked. And I thought, oh my gosh. Come on. And then asked me questions like, you know, that's all well and good, but I just want to know do you bring gang members to Jesus, you know? And I said well, actually they bring me to Jesus. Which they didn't like that answer either, you know. So, but again it's a big deal but it's sort of how the story works, is to sometimes quote as they say it and then - but then the kids can connect to it and so.

GROSS: Do you measure your success at all by the percentage of people who end up attending church services or becoming, you know, more deeply Catholic?

Father BOYLE: No. You know, I mean I was at a kind of gave a talk and there were some church people there and they said, we just can't get gang members to come to our prayer meetings. I went my God. I said look, unless your church is offering concrete help to those gang members, Jesus is not interested in the prayer meeting. Trust me. It has to begin with, how can I help you navigate your life and recognizing that you are carrying more burden than anybody is? It has to be concrete and it has to begin there. If it ends up in the prayer meeting, all the better, but it can't begin there because people aren't, you know, dying for your message. They're just dying because they can't feed themselves. And so begin there. Roll up your sleeves and do the concrete thing, you know.

GROSS: As a Jesuit priest you took the vow of celibacy. No spouse. No children. Would it be harder to do this work if you had a family? If part of your heart was preoccupied with your family as opposed to the people who you were working with?

Father BOYLE: I suppose so. It's odd. Somebody asked me this last night. Yeah. Yeah, I think it would be. Of course, you know, and there's the kind of a dedication to the thing. Although, I am much smarter about this than I was when you and I probably first talked, because in the old days, you know, I'd ride my bike in the middle of the night and put that Uzi down. Are you sure you want to shoot that guy? And so sleep was not a thing that happened very often and it was crazy. And now I go to bed, you know. So I...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Father BOYLE: And I know that, you know, I can't save anybody anyway. I'm going to do what I can do and then I'm going to knock out at night. So that's what I think ought to happen. Because it was kind of crazy-making and it was -certainly I was just this side of burnout. So and I haven't been close to that for all the stress I go through in my life. I'm a different person than I was long time ago.

GROSS: Tell me more about that difference and how you use your time differently and how you redefine your sense of what you're capable of doing and what you're not.

Father BOYLE: Well, you know, again it's a discovery that, you know, I don't save people. God saves people. I can point them in the right direction. I can say there's that door. I think if you walked through it you'd be happier than you are. But in the old days I'd say, here's the door. Watch me walk in it, you know.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Father BOYLE: And I thought I could do that for people. And, of course, you can't, you know.

But the other thing is you have a lighter grasp on life, which is what you want to have, you know and you want to be able to delight in stuff. You know, the other day, Diane Keaton came to Homegirl Cafe, and - the Oscar-winning actress and movie star - and she came with a regular and she had never been there before. And the place is packed at lunch, you know and it's really gourmet, quite good food. And her waitress was a woman named Glenda. And Glenda's been there, done that, been to prison, gang member, tattoos - she does not know who Diane Keaton is. So she's taking her order and Diane Keaton says well, what do you recommend? And so Glenda says this, this and this, and she rattles off her favorites. And Diane Keaton says well, I'll have that. Then something dawns on Glenda. She looks at Diane Keaton and she says, wait a minute. Where do I know you from? You look so familiar to me. I feel like we've met before. And Diane Keaton sort of deflects it and humbly says, oh gosh, I don't know, I suppose I have one of those faces that people think they've seen before. And Glenda goes, no now I know. We were locked up together.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Father BOYLE: Well, it just took my breath away. And I sat back when somebody told me this and I thought, you know, I wouldn't trade my life for anybody's. And part of having a light grasp is to sort of keep your eyes open and listen more carefully, because in the end, you know, it's not just about going to the hospital right now to see Omar. It's about people being comfortable in their own home sweet home, in their own skin, you know? And people delighting in each other and people discovering each other and the kinship of this a felony-ridden homegirl meeting this movie star, as improbable as this all seems.

GROSS: So you were talking about how there was a time earlier in your life when you'd go on your bicycle in the middle of the night and say, put down that Uzi, and trying to save lives. Did you ever actually save somebody by riding around in your bicycle in the middle of the night?

Father BOYLE: Oh gosh. You know what? Probably. You know, you've got people inside or you know, in those days, you know, if I wasn't on my bike I'd say get in the car. I'm taking you home. No, I just could be here a little bit more long no. Let's go. So I was always rounding up homies. You know, time to go home. You don't need to be out here. And often enough, you know, the shooting would begin shortly thereafter. And, you know, the kid was grateful that I had snatched him up, you know.

GROSS: And were you considered off limits as a target?

Father BOYLE: Well, I mean, I've been in a lot of shootouts, you know. But I, you know, never took it personally because...

GROSS: What do you mean youve been in a lot of shootouts? What does that mean?

Father BOYLE: Well, because, you know, I would be out on my bike and I'd be standing with this group from this gang and in the darkness, in the housing projects and we would just be talking and people would creep up, and open up fire. And - or drive-by and shoot. And they always did the same thing. It was like Secret Service. You know, they'd tackle me to the ground and envelop my body with theirs, so make sure I didnt catch a bullet, always. That never didnt happen.

And so, then the next day I'd go to the offending gang members, at least the gang, I knew the gang and I'd say, wow, I was there last night when you shot, when you guys shot. And once I went to a brother who was from an enemy gang and I said, just to let you know, I was standing there right next to your brother when you guys came over to shoot. And he was one of the shooters. I said, all I could think of was, would you go to your brothers funeral if you were in fact responsible for his death?

GROSS: When we last spoke in 2004, you were in remission from leukemia. So hows your health?

Father BOYLE: I'm good. I'm good. I'm doing okay. You know, the prognosis was like 10 years and I'm at eight. And whatever combo burger they used of the chemo, you know, it was a combination thats been very effective. So I'm doing okay.

GROSS: How did all the work that youve been doing with gang members and ex-gang members, how does that compare to the life you expected to be leading when you first decided that you wanted to be a Jesuit priest?

Father BOYLE: Well, you know, now I've been working with gang members longer, you know, more than half of my life practically, so I dont know. I mean, I -who knows what I thought this life would be when I began this adventure? And I just sort of found myself backed into this reality and therefore, a vocation within a vocation. I'm a Jesuit priest but I, you know, this is what do. I work with gang members and I feel a kind of affinity and gift, even. But who would've thunk it, you know? I mean, I didnt anticipate it. And again, for as stressed out as I am most of the time I still wouldnt trade my life for anybodys because...

GROSS: But what made you feel called in the first place?

Father BOYLE: To be a Jesuit?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Father BOYLE: Well, I mean, I like Jesuits. They taught me. And this was at a particular time when they were hilarious and joyful and nobody funnier on the planet Earth than the Jesuits I knew. And they were getting arrested protesting the Vietnam War. I loved both those things. So you put them together and I thought, boy, thats what I want to do for my life. I want to be prophetic and take stands and stand with those on the margins. And I want to laugh as much as I can.

Thats as deep as the thing was for me when I entered the Jesuits, you know. And then - but within that I thought, well, I want to work with the poor. And then, well, I want to learn Spanish. And that found me at Dolores Mission, the poorest parish in the city, with the highest concentration of gang activity in the world at the time. I didnt know that when I went there and by a long shot. And then, you know, then I kind of found this other way of being as I, you know, continued to be a Jesuit and a priest.

GROSS: So you wanted to take a stand and have a lot of laughs, too?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Youve obviously taken a stand. What about the laughs?

Father BOYLE: Oh well, you know, I just think, you know, its just its about delighting, you know? Today is my birthday. So I...

GROSS: Happy Birthday.

Father BOYLE: Thank you very much. And I get endless texts from homies and they're just the sweetest theyve just filled up my cell phone here with texts. But funny, hilarious, sweet, filled with just the greatest expressions of stuff, you know.

GROSS: Will you tell us one?

Father BOYLE: Oh, one of the texts?

GROSS: Yeah.

Father BOYLE: Well, in deference to you, always I turn my I power off my cell phone, so no, just sweet. I mean, its just filled with, you know, they bag on my hairline and do all sorts of things. And the homies have taught me about texting. This is the thing I love. You know, they lol and btw and omg. And theres a new one, ohn, which apparently stands for oh hell no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Father BOYLE: And I've been using that one quite a bit lately. But one of my favorites was a homie who was we were driving to go give a talk and he got a text and I said, what is it? Hes chuckling. Oh, its from Snoopy back at the office. And Snoopy and Manuel work together in the clock-in room where they clock in all these people. Its a big job.

And I said whats it say? And he says - and we had just left Snoopy 15 minutes before, so we knew he was in the office - and he says, hey, dawg, its me Snoops. Yeah, they got my ass locked up at county jail. They're charging me with being the ugliest vato in America. You have to come down right now. Show them they got the wrong guy.

So we died laughing. And then I realized that Manuel and Snoopy are enemies, that they used to shoot bullets at each other and now they shoot text messages. And, you know, the word for that I suppose is kinship, you know. And...

GROSS: Thats one of your goals, to get former rival gang members working together...

Father BOYLE: Exactly. If I can get them texting.

GROSS: ...on the job at Homeboy. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yeah, get them texting. Yeah. So may I ask how old you are today?

Father BOYLE: I am 56 years old today.

GROSS: Well, Happy Birthday.

Father BOYLE: Thank you.

GROSS: I hope its a good year for you and I wish you really good luck with getting on track with Homeboy Industries and being able to meet payroll again.

Father BOYLE: Great. Thank you, Terry. I appreciate that.

GROSS: Father Greg Boyle is the founder of Homeboy Industries in L.A. and author of the new memoir Tattoos on the Heart. We spoke yesterday. You can read the first chapter from his memoir on our website,, where you'll also find a link to the Homeboy Industries website.

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