PORTLAND, Oregon — Division in the nation and in the church is not about hate or immorality, but about a lack of health and wholeness, said a priest who has ministered among Los Angeles gang members for over 30 years.
“How do we love each other into wholeness?” asked Jesuit Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, which offers job training and an accepting community for ex-cons and addicts. It’s been called the largest and most successful gang intervention enterprise on the planet.
Boyle said that rival gang members, for example, don’t fight because of hate but because they are not well, having yet to be touched by God’s extravagant love and mercy. Homeboy seeks to be God’s conduit, and staff have seen many gang members change radically after someone at Homeboy expresses tenderness.
Sparring Catholics could do the same for each other, the priest suggested. “We’re all just trying to walk each other home,” he said. “Otherwise, you think it’s about winning the argument. No, (we should say,) ‘You belong to us and we will help you to find wholeness.’ Moralism has only kept us from each other.”
One of Homeboy’s mottos is: “Not us and them. Just us.”
The Catholic Sentinel, Portland’s archdiocesan newspaper, interviewed Boyle recently on Zoom before a national audience, many of whom had watched “Homeboy Joy Ride,” a new film about the ministry from documentarian Paul Steinbroner of Wenatchee, Washington.
Boyle said “joy ride” is a good metaphor for what happens because when the former gang members feel love and are convinced they have inherent value, joy is one typical result.
In his film, Steinbroner interviews several tattoo-laden “homies,” as they are called, who speak eloquently of acceptance, lightness and the internally driven desire to keep being better, even amid lapses.
“They say Disneyland is the happiest place,” Steinbroner said. “No, it’s Homeboy.”
Boyle explained that if it’s true that the traumatized will do damage, “it is equally true that the cherished will find their way to the joy there is in cherishing themselves and others.”
During the pandemic, Homeboy used texts, Zoom and Facetime to keep sending that message to workers, many of whom were struggling like everyone else, perhaps with children at home and out of school.
Homeboy began making and delivering meals to lighten the burden, not just for the ministry’s workers, but for thousands of homebound and elderly Angelinos. Even Prince Harry and Meghan Markle came to make dinners.
Then the homies went out two-by-two, Gospel-like, delivering meals to apartments and houses. The offices hosted several vaccination clinics.
Viewers had a chance to ask questions and wondered how a Homeboy Industries could start in Portland, which has seen a spike in gang violence in the past year. Boyle said the organization has decided against franchising, but always helps people who want to use the ministry as a model and tailor it to their town.
There are about 350 such programs in the United States and about 50 in other nations, including Guatemala and Scotland. All the groups confer annually to share what works and what doesn’t.
“Love is the answer,” Boyle said. “Community is the context. Tenderness is the methodology.”
Those who hold a vision of a “puny” God who is focused on power and the need for saving a hopeless people will have a hard time being tender, Boyle said.
“But if yours is a God of love who is standing right next to you and sustaining you and sees woundedness and pain and bitterness and then invites you to wholeness and healing,” he said, “tenderness is going to be easier for you.”
Father Boyle has a new book coming out in the fall from Simon & Schuster: The Whole Language: The Power of Extravagant Tenderness.
Langlois is managing editor of the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Portland.