As 1990 was coming to a close, Father Gregory Boyle did some grim mathematics.
In his first four years at Dolores Mission Catholic Church in East Los Angeles, three gang members in his neighborhood were killed. This year, his fifth, the tally was 12, with three dead in a single week.
Working in one of the city’s smallest and most dangerous parishes, the 36-year-old Jesuit priest has aroused opposition from the police and the community because of his strategy of “bombarding” gang members with unconditional love.
Boyle has won the affection and respect of gang members, who call him by the handle “G-Dog.” He pedals his bicycle nightly through the nearby projects, welcomes gang members to the church and encourages them to attend an alternative school on church property.
On a recent Saturday, Boyle had yet to remove a funeral sticker from his car when he was alerted of another gang killing. Earlier in the week, two gang members had been fatally shot during a car chase with police. Now, a third teen-ager was hit by rival gang gunfire--five bullets in the chest--as he sat on the front porch of his house.
“It’s hard,” Boyle says. “I’m tired of burying my friends. I don’t know how much more of it I can do.”
His frustration is a reflection of the deep sense of despair among some gang members. Hearing gunfire on a recent night, Boyle jumped on his bike and rushed to where the shots had been fired. There, gang members were arming for a counterattack. Trying to calm them down, the priest addressed the leader: “Now, come on, go home.” The teen-ager replied, “You know, G, I don’t have anything to live for.”
“I thought it just extraordinary that that was the first thing he had to say to me,” Boyle says.
Still, there have been bright spots in the year. Parishioners seem more accepting of the gang members, and the Dolores Mission’s alternative school has doubled its enrollment in the past year. In January, the school will move to larger digs in a nearby warehouse; the church is still trying to raise $250,000 to fund the program.
Meanwhile, the “Jobs for the Future” project, supported by private contributions, put 50 gang members to work in the neighborhood last summer. “You carry on,” Boyle says. “I plead the faith because I believe in education and jobs and accepting love. Whether that has immediate results that are evident is not my concern. I believe there is no other strategy better than (love).”