So a Jesuit priest and a Sister of Mercy nun walked into Homegirl Cafe, and for a moment, it seemed that anything was possible, up to and including world peace.
Not just any priest, but Father Gregory Boyle of Homeboy Industries. And not just any nun, but Sister Mary Scullion of Project HOME in Philadelphia. I'm coming up on 40 years of telling stories, and in that time, I haven't come upon anyone who's done more good in the world than Boyle and Scullion.
Boyle has offered gang members a way out of that life since 1988, beginning at Dolores Mission in Boyle Heights. I met Scullion in 1985 while working in Philadelphia, where she ventured onto icy winter streets to reel in homeless women with severe mental illness. Since then, she's built a supportive housing empire, transforming more and more lives each year.
Scullion was in Los Angeles earlier this month to have a look at Boyle's operation. "There's always something new to learn," she said with the same enthusiasm she had when I met her nearly 30 years ago.
At lunch, she wanted to tackle another business matter.
"We've got to find ways to leverage the pope's visit," Scullion said, referring to a planned Philadelphia visit next September by Pope Francis.
This is how she works. If she could, Scullion would sneak into the pope's hotel room and refuse to leave until he helps her promote a campaign to end hunger, poverty and homelessness. And she would get him to buy at least a few hundred of the T-shirts that Project HOME will design and Homeboy Industries will manufacture for the event.
Scullion invited me to join her in Philadelphia for the event, and I have trouble saying no to her. She asked Father Boyle too, but I don't think he made a commitment before Scullion had to leave for her flight back home.
Now here's the thing: I know Boyle and Scullion well enough to know that they'd rather I write about the people they work with than write about them. So I asked Boyle if he had any particularly interesting cases lately. He thought about it a minute and said I might like to meet Rudy Martinez.
He's a big guy, Boyle said. Seven feet tall, no kidding. And he works in security at Homeboy, but as imposing as he is, he's got a gentle manner that calms gang members who strut into headquarters on the edge of Chinatown "all hard, menacing and insecure, dogging the room."
I took a seat at a table with Martinez and realized that even sitting down, he's taller than half of America. He's got tats on his arms and neck, and a shaved head, and with all his bulk, you might think you should make a run for it. Except that Martinez, 34, has something in his eye — the thing Father Greg had referred to — that makes you think most of the hard edges have been scraped off of the gentle giant.
Martinez grew up in Norwalk and, by his accounting, could have been a good basketball prospect. But recruiters don't generally look for talent in prison. I asked Martinez where he did time, and the Homegirl menu isn't as long as the list he gave me.
"My dad was a heroin addict, my mother was an enabler," he said, beginning the narrative of how he thinks he got things twisted in his head.
He was 8, and his mom said go get Dad for dinner, but the bathroom was locked and there was no answer. They forced the door open and found Dad on the floor.
"He was black and blue, and he wasn't breathing, and my mom was screaming for us to call 911."
His father survived, and Martinez said he grew up telling himself to be a different kind of man. But that didn't work out too well. He got jumped into a gang early on, ripped people off and smacked them around, and went heavy-duty into all kinds of drugs. When his dad told him to cool it, Rudy told the old man he had no room to talk, and kept on wrecking his own life while his dad was fixing his.
"When I first went to county jail, it was like an accomplishment. Yeah, a badge of honor. And then I made it to the Big House," said Martinez, who figures he's spent more than half his adult life behind bars. And at a certain point, he began to wise up a little.
"It was 2012, I was sitting in my cell in Susanville, looking out the window, thinking about my future," Martinez said.
And what did you see, I asked him.
"Emptiness. I had this moment of clarity, and I said, 'Rudy, is this what you want to do with your life?'"
His answer was no. But he wasn't out long before he got nabbed for driving without a license. There he was again, caged up and down on himself. And he decided the first thing he was going to do when he got out was go see this Father Greg guy he'd heard about. He'll hook you up with a job, Martinez was told. That was the word.
"I came here not knowing what it was about," said Martinez, who soon found that jobs are not handed out like candy canes. They'd give you an opportunity, yes. But you had to decide you were ready to make big changes and stay committed for 18 months.
Martinez is 14 months into it, determined to make it the rest of the way, stay out of trouble after that and go to work somewhere, preferably at Homeboy.
"I started going to classes," he said. "Anger management, substance abuse, parenting, therapy. At first I was going to them because I had to go to them. But as time when on, I started going because I wanted to go and because it was making me feel better inside.
"There was a moment when I realized this was life. It's spending time with family, being a productive member of society, paying taxes, pushing your kid on a swing."
Father Greg takes his young men on a retreat when he thinks they're ready "to question the belief system which undergirds the gang lifestyle. It repositions things like courage, manhood, loyalty, respect" and helps them "re-identify who they are now."
Martinez penned a poem at that retreat, writing that he had become "someone I never thought I could be, a person with hope and finally set free. Free from the disguise, free from the lies. A person of interest."
Will he make it? I asked Father Greg.
"He will make it," Father Greg wrote back, "because he's made the necessary pivot. Gangs are false, fake and hollow. The 'belonging' they offer does not lead to 'becoming.' True community, like the unconditional love and tender acceptance of Homeboy, leads to becoming."
He added that "it's the promise of a job that brings them in, but in the end, Homeboy is not interested in folks who want the 'check,' only those who want the 'change.'
And there was a P.S.:
"I'll go see the Pope in Philly … if you go!!!"
Sister Mary, here we come.