G-Dog and the Home Boys : When Guns Are Blazing and the Bullets Fly, the Gangsters of Pico-Aliso Turn to Father Gregory Boyle
At exactly 7 p.m. on an uncommonly warm night in early March, 1990, some 300 mourners, most of them members of the Latino gang the East L.A. Dukes, descend upon Dolores Mission Church at the corner of 3rd and Gless streets in Boyle Heights. They arrive by the carload and cram themselves into the scarred wooden pews that fill the sanctuary. As they file into the small stucco building, they cast edgy glances toward the street, as if expecting trouble. They are here for the funeral of Hector Vasquez, a.k.a. Flaco, 17, killed by a single shot to the head two nights before in a drive-by incident that took place at the nearby Aliso Village housing project.
The attire worn this night conforms to the unwritten gang code of dress. Girl gang members wear their hair long at the bottom and teased high at the crown, their lipstick blood-red. The boys sport perfectly pressed white Penney’s T-shirts, dark Pendleton shirts and cotton work pants called Dickies, worn four sizes too big and belted, a contemporary interpretation of the old pachuco style. About 20 boys and girls wear sweat shirts emblazoned with iron-on Old English lettering that reads: “IN LOVING MEMORY OF OUR HOMIE FLACO R.I.P.”
Outside the church, the police are very much in evidence. A couple of black-and-whites sit just around the corner, motors running. Two beige unmarked cars, the kind favored by the LAPD’s special gang unit, and one plain white Housing Police sedan continuously circle the block.
At first, the mood in the church is tense, expectant. But when taped synthesizer music throbs from loudspeakers, the sound seems to open an emotional spigot. The shoulders of the mourners start to shake with grief.
Behind the altar, a bearded man in glasses and priest’s vestments sits quietly, watching the crying gangsters. When the music ends, Father Gregory Boyle rises and, taking a microphone, steps down to a point smack in front of the first row of mourners. From a distance, with his receding hair line and beard going to gray, he looks well past middle age. Up close, he is clearly much younger, not yet even 40.
Boyle takes a breath. “I knew Flaco for a long time,” he says, his gaze traveling from face to face in the pews. “He used to work here at the church. I knew him as a very loving, great-hearted and kind man.” Boyle pauses. “And now we shouldn’t ask who killed Flaco, but rather what killed him. Flaco died of a disease that is killing La Raza, a disease called gang-banging.” The crowd shifts nervously.
“So how do we honor Flaco’s memory?” Boyle asks. “We will honor him best by doing what he would want us to do.” Another pause. “He would want us to stop killing each other.”
All at once, there is a commotion in the sixth row. A hard-eyed kid of 18 with the street name Magoo stands bolt upright and makes his way to the center aisle. Slowly, deliberately, he walks down the aisle, until he stands in front of Boyle, staring the priest straight in the eye. Then he turns and walks out a side door.
The air in the church is as brittle as glass when Boyle begins speaking again: “If we knew Flaco and loved Flaco, then we would stop killing each other.”
Four more gangsters stand and walk out. Boyle’s face reddens and then turns pale, as the mourners wait to see what he will do. Finally his jaw sets. “I loved Flaco,” he says, his eyes starting to tear. “And I swear on Flaco’s dead body that he would want us to stop killing each other.”
The words explode in crisp, stunning bursts like so many rounds of live ammunition. Two more gang members get up and leave--but these boys walk with their heads down, their gaits rapid and scuttling. The rest of the mourners sit stock still, transfixed by the ferocity of Boyle’s gaze. “We honor his memory,” he says quietly, “if we can do this.”
FATHER GREGORY BOYLE IS THE PASTOR OF DOLORES MISSION Church, which serves a parish that is unique in several ways. First, it is the poorest in the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles--it is dominated by a pair of housing projects: Pico Gardens and Aliso Village. Second, within the parish boundaries, which enclose about two square miles of Boyle Heights east of the Los Angeles River, seven Latino gangs and one African-American gang claim neighborhoods. This means that in an area smaller than the UCLA campus there are eight separate armies of adolescents, each equipped with small- and large-caliber weapons, each of which may be at war with one or more of the others at any given moment.
The Clarence Street Locos is the largest of the gangs, with close to 100 members; Rascals is the smallest, with 30 or so. The rest--Al Capone, the East L.A. Dukes, Cuatro Flats, The Mob Crew (TMC, for short), Primera Flats and the East Coast Crips (the single black gang in this predominantly Latino area)--hover in size from 50 to 80 teen-age boys and young men. However large the membership, the “ ‘hood,” or territory, that each gang claims is minuscule--no more than a block or two square. A member of one gang cannot safely walk the half-block from his mother’s apartment to the corner store if that store is in enemy territory--much less walk the five or 10 blocks (across as many ‘hoods) to reach his assigned junior high or high school.
According to statistics compiled by the Hollenbeck Division of the LAPD, gang-related crimes in East Los Angeles were up a sobering 20% from 1989 to 1990 and are rising again, up 11% over the same period last year. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that in his five years as parish priest Greg Boyle has buried 17 kids who were shot to death by rival gang members and two who were shot to death by sheriff’s deputies. He himself has been in the line of fire seven times.
This is the tragic heart of the barrio, a bleak and scary part of Los Angeles that much of the rest of the city would like to block from its consciousness. Here junkies and baseheads pump gas for handouts at self-service filling stations, and bullet craters in the stucco walls of houses and stores serve as mnemonic devices, reminders of where this kid was killed, that one wounded. Yet surface impressions are not the whole of the matter in this parish: Beyond the most insistent images of gang violence, poverty and despair, a more redemptive vision comes into focus, a vision that comes clearest around Father Boyle.
Boyle lives simply. He wears the same burgundy zip-front sweat shirt every cold day, and the same rotating selection of five shirts when the days are sunny. His sleeping quarters are half a mile from the church, in a 1913-vintage two-story clapboard dwelling that he shares with six other Jesuits.
His days are long. They start at 7 a.m., often with a trip to Juvenile Court to testify in a gang member’s behalf. They end close to midnight when Boyle takes one last bicycle ride around the projects to make sure that no trouble is brewing. In between, along with two assistants at Dolores Mission, he performs the conventional range of pastoral duties: saying Mass, hearing confessions, officiating at weddings and funerals or simply working in his monastic-cell of an office, dealing with parish business.
Whenever the door to Boyle’s office opens, gang members swoop in like baby chicks for a feeding. They come to him to have their hair cut, to ask for a job through his Jobs for a Future program, to sign up to feed the homeless (to comply with court-ordered community service), to ask for admission to Dolores Mission Alternative, the school that he started as a sort of Last Chance U. for gang members. But mostly they come to hang out, to talk, to tease and be teased, to laugh. Around Boyle, the gangsters’ defensive “screw you” expressions drop away. Twelve-year-old wanna-bes and 20-year-old tough-eyed veteranos jockey to be the favored child and sit next to Boyle in his car on his daily errands. They aren’t afraid to cry in his presence. They find any excuse to touch him. The gangsters have even christened Boyle with his own placa, his street name: G-Dog. But most simply call him G.
“G. is always there when you need him,” says one precariously reformed gangster. “I don’t have a dad. So I think of him like my father. Even when I was in jail, he always had time to talk to me. Even when nobody else was there for me. And, you know, when I wanted to stop gang-banging, sometimes I would have so much anger that I wanted to do something, kill somebody. But I would talk to Father Greg and he would help me so I didn’t explode inside. He’s the one we can all look up to.”
THE TERM “DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILY,” ONE OF THE FASHIONABLE buzz phrases of the ‘90s, acquires a special meaning in the Dolores Mission parish. Not long ago, on a whim, Boyle sat down at his computer and made a list of all the gang kids who immediately came to mind. Next to each name he wrote a coded description of the youth’s family situation: “AB” for father absent; “A” for alcoholic father; “AA” for alcholic and abusive; “ABU” for just plain abusive, “S” for stepfather, “I” for intact original family.
“I didn’t stack the deck or anything,” he explains. “I just wrote down 67 names sort of stream-of-consciousness. I found that most fathers were absent. The second biggest categories were alcoholic and alcoholic/abusive.” Out of 67 kids, only three had intact families with fathers who were not alcholic or abusive.
Pick three, any three, of the gang members that hover around Boyle’s door and delve into their family dynamics and the stories will disturb your sleep. There is Bandito*, whose father died two years ago of a heroin overdose. There is Smiley*, whose father is continually drunk and abusive. There is Gato*, whose basehead mother sold his only warm jacket to buy another hit. Or Gustavo Martinez, Javier Villa and Guadelupe Lopez--Grumpy, Termite and Scoobie, respectively.
Grumpy’s father was gone long before he was born. His mother beat him with the plug-end of the television cord, with the garden hose, a spiked belt--anything she could find. The beatings were so severe that she was jailed several times for child abuse. Some abusive parents are by turns affectionate and rejecting. Not this mother. In all the years of Grumpy’s upbringing, he never received a birthday gift or a Christmas gift or even a card. “Imagine,” says Boyle, “not one piece of concrete evidence of caring from a parent throughout a whole childhood.”
In Termite’s case, the blows were not to the body. His mother always professed great love for him. His father never hit him. What his father did was tell him he was worthless, despicable and generally a bad seed. Even now, when Boyle drops Termite at home, a call will sometimes come minutes later. It will be Termite pleading to sleep in Boyle’s office for the night. “My dad locked me out,” he will say.
“I know he cares about me,” says Termite, as if the words are a spell capable of making it so. But when pushed on the subject he averts his eyes. “I guess mostly he just acts like I’m not there.”
Sometimes it is not the parents but life in the barrio that provides the abuse. Scoobie’s last memory of his alcoholic father was when he was 3; his dad knocked his mother off her feet, cuffed Scoobie to the floor and snarled: “What’re you lookin’ at?” Scoobie’s mother gathered her kids and fled. However, the hotel in which she found shelter was so crime-ridden that, before he was 5, Scoobie witnessed three lurid murders, virtually on his doorstep. Add to that the problems of a young single mother with no resources and no child care and the picture becomes still bleaker.
Scoobie’s mother padlocked her preschool-age children in a darkened hotel room while she went to work for the day. “She was trying to keep us safe,” says Scoobie. When he is asked if his childhood had any happy times, he thinks for a moment: “I remember this one day when my mom took us all to the park and let us run around. It was so great, you know. For once we weren’t stuffed up in that little room. And we felt, I don’t know, just--free!”
So what does a barrio kid do when family and society have failed him? When he turns 14 or 15, he joins a gang, a surrogate family, where he finds loyalty, self-definition, discipline, even love of a sort. “We all want to be attached to something,” says Diego Vigil, an anthropolgy professor at USC who has studied gangs. “We want to connect and commit. If we can’t find anywhere else to connect and commit, we’ll connect and commit to the streets. The gang takes over the parenting, the schooling and the policing.”
ON A SUNDAY AFTERNOON IN JANUARY, 1991, Father Boyle takes Scoobie and Grumpy shopping for clothes. Both of them are large kids, bulky and muscular, each with a proclivity for fast, funny patter delivered half in English, half in Spanish. They are members of The Mob Crew and the Clarence Street Locos, respectively--traditionally friendly gangs whose neighborhoods are close to the church. Scoobie is 19 and Grumpy is 20, both veteranos , both too old to attend Dolores Mission Alternative. They are desperate to find employment. Their shopping destination is Sears. The idea is to get them non-gangster attire to wear to job interviews.
In the men’s department, Boyle pulls out pants and shirts for them to try on. He is careful to choose light colors. Grumpy and Scoobie keep edging back in the direction of the gangster look: dark colors and a baggy fit.
“Hey G., these pants are too tight,” wails Scoobie. In reality, the pants fit perfectly. “They’re fine,” Boyle counters, and Scoobie relents.
“Look,” Boyle says to Scoobie and Grumpy as he hands the cashier a Sears credit card, “I’m spending a lot of bank on this today, and the deal is you have to be dressed and in my office every morning at 9 a.m., ready to look for work.” The two nod obediently and assure Boyle that they will indeed comply.
Both Scoobie and Grumpy are staying in Casa Miguel Pro, the temporary residence that Dolores Mission maintains for homeless women and children. “I’m trying an experiment in letting them stay there,” Boyle explains. “A lot of folks aren’t exactly thrilled that I’m doing this. But right now, neither of them has anywhere else they can go.”
After the shopping trip, Scoobie irons his new tan pants and shirt striped in shades of blue. Next he takes a bath. Finally he puts on the freshly pressed clothes and looks in a communal mirror.
“That ain’t me . . .” he says softly to the mirror. He stands back a little and looks again. “I look like a regular person,” he says, his expression so happy it borders on giddiness. “Not like the police say, not like another gang member .”
WHEN GREG BOYLE FIRST CAME TO DOLORES MISSION IN EARLY JULY, 1986, at age 32 the youngest pastor in the L.A. Archdiocese, he hardly seemed likely to become “the gang priest.” Raised in comfortable Windsor Square on the outskirts of Hancock Park, one of eight children of a third-generation dairyman, he attended Loyola High School, the Jesuit-run boys’ school on Venice Boulevard, from 1968 to 1972. It was a wildly inspiring four years for an idealistic Catholic kid. His teachers led peace marches protesting the Vietnam War, and activist Jesuits were making news all over the country as liberation theology--which marries social justice to spiritual renewal--came to full flower.
Boyle spent the next 13 years in religious training, culminating in his 1984 ordination in Los Angeles. He was posted to Bolivia, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, where he became the parish priest in a small village. The experience radicalized the young, middle-class priest from Southern California. “Bolivia turned me absolutely inside out,” says Boyle. “After Bolivia my life was forever changed.” He realized he wanted to work with the poor. And few places were poorer than Dolores Mission.
Boyle’s first year in the parish was tense and difficult. The priest before him had been a venerable Mexicano , and the community was slow to warm up to an Anglo, especially one so young. Since so few parishioners came to him, he decided to go to them. Every afternoon without fail, Boyle walked for hours through the neighborhood, particularly through the housing projects where most of his parishioners lived. He talked to people, listened to their complaints, played with their children. Over time he noticed that the majority of the complaints centered upon one issue: gangs.
Boyle made an effort to get to know the gangsters. He began by learning their names. At first, they brutally rejected the gavacho who spoke only passable Spanish. But he kept going back to them. “And you know,” he says, “at some point it becomes sort of flattering that the priest knows who you are.” Then he started going to Juvenile Hall to visit when kids got locked up, bringing messages from their homeboys. Or he’d rush to the hospital if they got shot.
He noticed that the kids who got into the most trouble were the kids who were not in school, and the reasons they were not in school were invariably gang-related. Either they had gotten kicked out of school because they had been fighting with enemy gang members, or the school itself was in enemy territory and deemed unsafe by the kids.
So in September, 1988, Father Boyle and one of his associates at Dolores Mission, Father Tom Smolich, opened a junior high and high school for gang members only. Dolores Mission Alternative was started on the third floor of Dolores Mission Elementary, the church’s grammar school. Through home study and specially designed classes, the school aimed to get the kids back on an educational track, or at the least to help them pass the high-school equivalency exam.
Boyle also started hiring gang members to work around the church at $5 an hour. “And before I knew it there was no turning back,” he laughs. “I felt like I sort of related to the gang members. They were fun and warm and eternally interesting. So gradually,” he says, “it became a ministry within a ministry.”
The rest of the parish, however, didn’t find the gangsters quite so “warm” and “interesting.” They saw only hair-netted homeboys doing heaven-knows-what in the same building with uniformed parochial-school children. Worse yet, these same “criminal types” were hanging out at the church as if it was their personal clubhouse. In the fall of 1989, Boyle’s most virulent critics circulated a petition asking then-Archbishop Roger M. Mahony to remove him from the parish altogether.
Things came to a head one October night. Boyle had called a meeting to clear the air. The school basement was packed with Boyle supporters and contras when a swarm of gang members unexpectedly walked in, underlining the tension in the room. One by one, the homies got up and talked: “We’re human beings, and we need help. And Father Greg is helping us.”
Slowly the tension began to lift. Parish parents rose to speak: “Father Greg is right,” they said. “These gang members are not the enemy. They are our children. And if we don’t help them no one will.”
That was the turning point. The parish stopped fighting Boyle’s programs and began adopting them as their own. In short order, the Comite Pro Paz en el Barrio, the Committee for Peace in the Barrio, was formed to address the gang situation. Parish mothers who had never before attended so much as a PTA meeting suddenly became activists in the gangsters’ behalf, organizing a peace march, holding a gang conference.
“What is going on at Pico-Aliso is very different than anything else I’ve seen elsewhere in the city,” says Yolanda Chavez, for the last two years Mayor Tom Bradley’s official liaison to the L.A. Latino community. “A lot of people are well-meaning, but they don’t help people organize themselves. They do things for them. Father Greg’s goal is always to help the people help themselves. He has become a focal point for their strength, empowering the community to provide the gang members with alternatives.”
SCOOBIE HAS BEEN JOB HUNTING FOR THREE WEEKS STRAIGHT, but now he is sitting in Boyle’s office and he looks terrible. His lips and jaw are bruised and swollen. His hands are cut up, and an incisor on the lower left side of his jaw is broken. He has just returned from the dentist. Boyle will pay the dental bills, which may be close to a thousand dollars.
It happened two nights ago, says Scoobie, when he was stopped by two uniformed police officers. He was doing nothing in particular--just hanging out with the homies when the officers ordered him up against a car with his hands over his head. “Then they pushed me down on my knees,” he says. Scoobie responded with a four-letter suggestion. At that point, according to Scoobie, one of the cops hit him in the mouth with a billy club. Then, he says, the cops made him lie down spread-eagled and stepped on his hands. Finally the police let him go without an arrest.
One of the activist parish mothers, Pam McDuffie, took Scoobie to the Hollenbeck Police Station to report the incident. The case is currently under investigation by Internal Affairs, but Boyle believes Scoobie’s story implicitly. “This is one of many, many cases of the police beating the kids down,” he says.
A few days after Scoobie’s trip to the dentist, there is new trouble. Boyle arrives at his office in the morning to find a message on his answering machine. “Hey G.,” says a young voice, “tell Grumpy I don’t have the money for the gun but I’ll have the money soon.” Boyle stares at the machine boggle-eyed. It is nearly inconceivable that someone would leave such a message with him.
Boyle goes upstairs to Grumpy’s room, and in a kind of false wall in the closet he finds a gun-cleaning kit and a metal strongbox. The box is heavy and the lid is stuck. Boyle carts it down to his office and shuts the door before prying the lid open. Inside, he finds $178 in cash, a neat list of investors and a box of 9-millimeter Beretta shells.
Boyle shuts the box, puts it in a desk drawer and waits for Grumpy’s inevitable appearance. The confrontation goes as follows:
“Do you have a gun?”
“Are you collecting money for a gun?”
Boyle opens the drawer to reveal the strong box. “You’ve really let me down,” he says quietly.
Grumpy’s face turns to stone. “When do you want me to leave?” he asks. Then eyes averted and brimming, he turns and walks out.
Two hours later Grumpy is back. “G., I know I let you down! I let you down, gacho ! I let you down big time!”
Boyle cannot bring himself to make Grumpy leave. “I know tough love is sometimes required,” he philosophizes later. “I just don’t know how tough the love should be.”
A SOLUTION TO THE GANG PROBLEM HAS BEEN EVADING THE LOS Angeles Police Department for decades, and from law enforcement’s point of view, the “love” should be very tough indeed. The ongoing police anti-gang program is dubbed Operation Hammer. “Hammer is a strategy in which we keep the pressure on,” says Captain Nick Salicos, recently of the Hollenbeck Division. “On a Friday or a Saturday night, we go out with 30 or 40 officers to known gang locations and arrest gang members for anything we can. Drinking beer in public. Anything.” If the crime can be shown to be gang related, and the arrestee is a known gang member, the sentence can be “enhanced"--made longer.
“The police try to make life as miserable as possible for gang members,” Boyle says, “which is really redundant since gang members’ lives are already miserable enough, thank you very much. And they hate me, I guess, because, No. 1, I refuse to snitch on gang members. No. 2, they can’t understand how I could care about these kids. And I can’t understand why they insist on criminalizing every kid in this community.”
A visit to Hollenbeck Police Station reveals that Boyle is correct; the police don’t like him much. Mention the priest’s name to most Hollenbeck officers and there is invariably much rolling of eyes, followed by remarks that range from the suggestion that Boyle is “well-meaning but dangerously naive” to veiled charges that he is an accessory to gang crimes to intimations that he is under the influence of Communists.
A ride-along in a black-and-white provides an instructive perspective. The streets seem meaner from inside a patrol car. The stares the police gather are hostile, threatening. “Although our job is to try to prevent gang crime,” explains Detective Jack Forsman of the LAPD’s special gang unit, CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums), “more often than not we can do little more than pick up the pieces once a crime has been committed.”
“What I don’t get,” adds another officer who requested anonymity, “is why Father Boyle refuses to preach against using guns and being in gangs.”
The remark infuriates Boyle. “Aside from the fact that it just isn’t true,” he bristles, “it has no respect for the complexity of the issue. It’s Nancy Reagan writ large: ‘Just Say No’ to gangs. I would say getting kids out of gangs is the whole point of my work here. But what is ultimately persuasive is a job and self-esteem and education and having the kid feel that he or she can put together in his or her imagination a future that is viable. Now I can sit there and say, ‘Get out of the gang!’ but I don’t know what value that would have. If any of this is going to be successful, you have to accept folks where they are. What they always get is: ‘Where you are is a horrible place and you’d better change.’ Well, look how successful that’s been.”
Boyle sighs wearily. “Part of the problem,” he says, “is that when you’re poor in the city of Los Angeles, you’re hard-pressed to imagine a future for yourself. And if you can’t imagine a future, then you’re not going to care a lot about the present. And then anything can happen.”
Although his approach is controversial, Boyle is by no means the only person working with gangs who decries the Just Say No approach as simplistic. “We have tried that,” says Chavez from Mayor Bradley’s office, “and it hasn’t worked. Force hasn’t worked. Police harassment hasn’t worked. Jail and Juvenile Hall hasn’t worked. Without options, gangs will thrive.”
Mary Ridgeway and John Tuchek are the two officers in the L.A. County Probation Department’s East L.A. Gang Unit who deal with arrested juveniles from Pico Gardens or Aliso Village. “There is the illusion,” says Tuchek, “that we are rehabilitating these kids. And I’m here to tell you that the truth is we aren’t even trying to rehabilitate them. We used to. But that doesn’t happen down here any more. That’s why what Father Greg is doing is so important. He’s their only resource.”
Ridgeway puts it another way. “At best, we can only deal with a fraction of the kids for a very short period of time, while he’s there for all of them, all of the time. Father Greg and I are, in many ways, coming from a different point of view philosophically,” she continues. “There are kids that I think should be locked up who he is reluctant to give up on--like a kid we both know who, fortunately, now is in Soledad. He was trouble every minute he was out on the streets.
“But, see,” she smiles, “Father Greg loves everybody. In all my years in probation I’ve met maybe two people who have his courage. He’s the kind of person we all wish we could be.”
IN THE MONTH AFTER BOYLE FINDS GRUMPY’S GUN FUND, THE Pico-Aliso gangs begin to turn up the heat. By early March, Boyle is depressed. “Things have been awful around here,” he says one Monday morning. It seems that Looney, an East Coast Crip, was killed on Thursday as a payback for Clown, a Primera Flats kid who was shot by a Crip in September, 1990. “That’s how the game works,” says Boyle grimly. The night after Looney was killed, two Latinos, one a transient and the other a basehead, were killed. No one is sure if these killings were gang-related or not. Moreover, the Crips and Al Capone, gangs that have traditionally gotten along, have had two fights in less than 48 hours.
The bad news didn’t stop there. At about 8 p.m. on Saturday night, a kid from the Clarence Street Locos was headed down Gless Street to buy a beer when a Cuatro Flats kid approached him. Words were exchanged. Immediately each boy marched off to find his homies. In seconds, members of both gangs appeared from around corners, like magic rabbits, and began mad-dogging and dissing each other--glaring and shouting insults. A kid named Diablo from Cuatro hit Solo from Clarence, and someone yelled, “It’s on!” War had been declared.
Suddenly, 80 gang members were blocking the intersection of 4th and Gless. Fists were flying, heads were bashed, ghetto blasters were swinging. All the while voices screamed, “It’s on. It’s on!”
It was then that Boyle showed up, almost by chance. He had just dropped a kid off at home when he saw traffic backed up, he pulled over and raced to investigate. Then the situation became surreal. Into a tangle of brawling gangsters ran Boyle, grabbing arms and shrieking every four-letter word he could think of. At his screamed orders, the Clarence group backed up. Cuatro stopped swinging and halted its advance. On the edge of the action, kids on bikes still circled, shotguns bulging underneath their Pendletons.
Finally, Boyle was able to herd the Clarence kids across 4th and down Gless; the Cuatro force moved off, dispersing into the neighborhood.
Afterward, Boyle was walking alongside Mando, who, with his identical twin, has a lot of juice with the Clarence Street Locos. “You yelled at us, G.,” said Mando, shaking his head in genuine shock. “You used the F word !”
“In the moment,” says Boyle later, “I’ll do any damn thing that works.”
IT’S RAINING. FOUR HOMIES--TERMITE, Grumpy, Green and Critter--are hanging out in Boyle’s office as he opens mail and does paper work.
Critter, a slim, handsome kid with long, fringed eyelashes and a heartbreaker’s smile, rubs Boyle’s ever-expanding forehead with the palm of his hand as Boyle unsuccessfully bats him away. “I’m rubbing your bumper for luck, G.!” says Critter, moving in for another rub.
“Hey, G.,” interrupts Grumpy, “How come you’re in such a good mood?” Turning to Green: “Have you ever noticed that whenever G. is in a good mood it rains?” Grumpy pauses, possessed of a new thought. “Hey, you think maybe G. is actually Mother Nature in disguise? That means the drought is his fault, right? You think the drought is your fault, G.?”
Boyle looks up at Grumpy. “Here’s a letter here from a couple who want to adopt a child,” he says, deadpan. “What do you think, Grumps? You think it’s right for you?”
“Only if the madre is proper,” sniffs Grumpy. Meanwhile, the imagined scene of an unsuspecting young couple being introduced to their new “child"--a 6-foot, 200-pound tattooed homie named Grumpy--throws the rest of the room into spasms of hilarity.
Grumpy is discouraged about his job prospects. He has been answering want ads for weeks to no avail, he says. “You go in there and you fill out an application. Then they say they’ll call you but you can tell they’re looking at your tattoos and they’re not gonna, you know? It’s like, when you leave, you see your application flying out the window made into a paper airplane.”
Nonetheless, Grumpy has heard that applications are being taken at the post office on 1st Street. “C’mon, let’s go,” he says to Green.
“Nah,” says Green, “they won’t hire us.”
“C’mon, homes,” Grumpy persists. “Let’s just try it. Let’s go.” He attempts to drag Green. “C’mon homes.” But Green remains immovable. Finally, Grumpy sits back down with a sigh. No one goes to the post office this day.
After the homies vacate his office, Boyle stares dolefully at his checkbook. “Right now, I have a hundred dollars in the bank. And I have to pay the kids working for me on Friday.” He looks up. “But, you know, it’s weird. Somehow the money always shows up. It usually happens on Thursday, my day off. There’ll be no money in the bank on Wednesday and then I’ll come in on Friday and there’ll be a couple of checks on my desk. Checks coming from nowhere when they had to come--that’s happened at least 50 times since I first came here.” Boyle pauses. “It’s not like I think it comes from God . My spirituality doesn’t really take that form. But I do feel that if the work is meant to be done, somehow there’ll be a way.
“Now all I have to do is find $150,000 to give kids jobs this summer,” he continues. “Invariably, the violence in the neighborhood decreases in direct proportion to how many kids are working at any given time.”
With the Jobs for a Future program, Boyle usually has three or four construction and maintenance crews working on church projects. In addition, he is on the phone daily to local businesses asking them to hire homies. “We will pay their salaries,” he tells the potential employers. “All you have to do is give them a place to work.” Boyle adds: “Of course, it would be great if the employers would pay the salaries. But unfortunately, that rarely happens.
“The myth about gang members and jobs,” says Boyle, “is how’re you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm when they’re making money hand over fist selling drugs--the implication being that they will never want to accept an honest job. Well, I have kids stop me on the street every single day of the week asking for jobs. And a lot of times these are kids I know are slanging, which is the street term for selling crack cocaine. I always say, ‘If I get you a job, it means no more slanging.’ And I’ve never once said that to a kid who didn’t jump at the chance to do an honest day’s work instead of selling drugs.”
Four days later it is Saint Patrick’s Day, a generally uneventful Sunday until Grumpy approaches Boyle, his clothes and hands covered in paint. “Oh, I’ve been doing some painting at Rascal’s house,” he says, in answer to Boyle’s questioning look. Then he screws his face into a grimace. “You know, G.,” he says. “I’m not going to look for a job anymore.”
Boyle’s expression darkens. “Why?” he asks.
“I’m just not going to,” replies Grumpy. “No more job hunting.”
Boyle looks truly distressed by this news. “What are you talking about . . . ?” Boyle begins.
“Nope. I’m not looking for a job any more,” is all Grumpy will say.
Boyle throws up his hands. “What the hell am I supposed to do? Support you for the rest of your life?”
Finally, Grumpy’s face breaks into a gigantic grin. “I’m not going to look for a job any more BECAUSE I FOUND A JOB, G.,” he shouts. “I’m a painter! I’m painting stereo speakers!”
The rest of the day, Boyle cannot restrain himself. He tells Grumpy how proud he is, over and over. Grumpy tries to stay cool but his happiness is obvious and irrepressible.
TERMITE IS ONE OF THE REGULARS IN and around Boyle’s office. He is 16, has the huge, dark eyes of a yearling deer and a smile that unfolds fast, wide and bright. His hair is cut Marine short, shaved by Boyle with the No. 4 attachment of the church’s clippers. On his upper lip there sprouts a pale hint of brown velvet. When he is happy, Termite’s face is transformed into that of a deliciously mischievous child. In repose, his expression suggests someone waiting patiently for punishment. At all times, his shoulders slump more than is natural.
Termite is a Clarence Street Loco, jumped into the gang less than a year ago. So far, his gang-banging has been confined to compulsive tagging: Walk in any direction from Dolores Mission and you soon see the spray-painted message “CSL soy Termite.” Termite is not a kid drawn to violence. “I don’t mind if you want to go head up,” he says. “But it would be better if nobody had guns.”
Since last summer, Termite has been pestering Boyle for a job. Finally, the priest has talked a local self-storage company into hiring two homies, salaries courtesy of Dolores Mission. Termite and Stranger, a kid from The Mob Crew, get the call.
The timing is fortuitous. Termite’s father has just gone to visit family in Mexico, and with the weight of his dad’s anger briefly lifted, Termite is a new person. Instead of partying with the homies till all hours, he asks Boyle to drive him home before dark every night. He has all but stopped tagging and has started showing up at the alternative school every day.
The day before Termite and Stranger are to start work, Boyle drives them to meet their new boss, the manager of the storage company, a matter-of-fact woman named Yolanda. The boys listen quietly while she explains their duties--gofering and general cleanup. Afterward Boyle takes the two kids to McDonald’s to celebrate.
“We won’t let you down, G.” says Termite.
One week later, events have derailed Termite’s promise. On the first Sunday in April, at about 5 p.m., Boyle is driving across 1st Street, from East L.A. Dukes territory in Aliso Village toward the church. He sees a group of five Clarence kids, Grumpy and Termite among them, running in Pecan Park near the baseball diamond. It is not a playful run. Termite has a long stick under his jacket, as if he’s packing a shotgun. On instinct, Boyle turns to look behind him and sees a group of East L.A. Dukes near home plate, also running. The Dukes are sworn enemies of the Clarence Street Locos.
Boyle swerves his car to a halt on the wrong side of the street, rolls down his window and yells to the Clarence kids to get the blankety-blank out of there. Amazingly they do. As he raises his hand to open his door, there is a terrifying BOOM-BOOM-BOOM-BOOM-BOOM. Just behind Boyle’s head, the car’s rear window on the driver’s side shatters. When the shooting stops, Boyle gets out to confront the Dukes. They disappear fast as lightning.
Later, he drives back into Dukes territory. This time he finds them. “Did you want to f--kin’ kill me?” he yells, hoping to shock them into a new state of consciousness. “I prayed you would hit me so then maybe it would end. I’d be willing to die to end this.” The Dukes stare at him, then at the missing car window and the bullet holes in his car, one in the door frame no more than an inch from where Boyle’s head had been. They murmur frantic, ineffectual apologies.
Then one boy looks up just in time to see two gangsters on the hill above them--East Coast Crips. An instant later the noise comes again: BOOM-BOOM-BOOM-BOOM-BOOM-BOOM. Everyone dives behind Boyle’s car as the sky rains bullets. Miraculously, no one is hit. Instead a bullet has punctured the car’s right rear tire, just missing the gas tank, and come to rest inside the trunk.
The next day, Boyle wakes up with no obvious ill effects from the near misses except for a piercing headache. The pain is localized just behind his ear, where neck meets skull. In other words, about where the door-frame bullet would have hit if it had taken only a slightly different course.
AS USUAL, VIOLENCE spawns more violence. On Monday morning, when Boyle arrives at the church, he gets a call from Yolanda, the manager of the storage facility where Termite and Stranger are working. She is going to have to fire Termite, she says. It seems that on Friday he not only crashed the facility’s motorized cart, but, when he was supposed to remove graffiti from a wall, he replaced it with new inscriptions: “CSL soy Termite.”
It does not strike Boyle as entirely coincidental that Termite’s father returned from Mexico a few hours before Termite began this orgy of acting out. Nor does it help matters that the mood of the Clarence homies in general is restless. Two Clarence Street homeboys have been killed by Dukes since January, 1990, and Clarence has not yet retaliated. After yesterday’s shooting, they will probably begin to feel intolerably pressed. And most of the pressure will fall on the little heads, the younger gang members like Termite who have yet to prove themselves.
Boyle takes Termite to lunch to break the bad news about the job. First he gives him a stern lecture about responsibility and consequences. Then he turns Good Cop and assures Termite that losing the job is not the end of the world. “You know I’ll never give up on you,” Boyle says. “ Te quiero mucho, " he says finally. “ Como si fueras mi hijo " (“I love you as if you were my son”). At this, Termite starts to cry. Once started he cries for a long while.
At the end of the day, Termite’s actions are swinging farther out of control; he gets into a fight with one of his own homies. When Boyle sees him again, he is covered in blood. “It’s nothin’,” he mumbles.
Then at about 2 the next afternoon, Father Smolich sees Termite deep in Dukes territory with a can of spray paint; he is crossing out Dukes graffiti and replacing it with his own. It is a dangerously provocative act, considering the events of the last two days. Smolich demands that Termite hand over the spray can. Termite dances rebelliously away.
Two hours later, Termite is back in Clarence territory, on the pay phone at the corner of Third and Pecan streets talking with his girlfriend, Joanna. He sees Li’l Diablo*, another “new bootie” from Clarence, walking north toward 1st Street and Pecan Park, and sensing that something is up, he follows. All at once, Termite sees what is up: Li’l Diablo has a gun, and there is a group of Dukes gathered in the park. Termite watches as Li’l Diablo raises the gun, a .22, and fires one shot into the air. The Dukes scatter, running for the projects across 1st Street. Li’l Diablo drops his weapon and runs in the other direction.
At first Termite follows him. But then, on an impulse he cannot later adequately explain, Termite turns back and picks up the gun. Then he points it in the direction of the by-now faraway Dukes and empties it. Most of the bullets fall harmlessly to the pavement. However, one bullet strays into an apartment on Via Las Vegas, where a 6-year-old girl named Jackie is watching television with her mother. Jackie kicks up her small foot just in time for it to meet the bullet. Blood spurts, and her mother begins to scream.
Holding the empty gun, Termite stands on the sidewalk still as a statue for a long moment. Finally he runs.
In short order, the neighborhood is alive with rumor, and word of what has happened quickly reaches Boyle. It is hours before he finds Termite, milling nervously with some other homies a block from the church. Wordlessly, Termite climbs into Boyle’s car.
“I know what happened,” Boyle tells him. “Did you do it?”
There is a silence. “Yeah,” Termite says without meeting Boyle’s gaze.
Boyle informs him that he has hit a little girl. Termite is horrified. “A lot of people say,” Boyle tells him, “that in order to be a man you have to shoot a gun. But I’m telling you that isn’t true. The truth is, in order to be a man you need to take responsibility for your actions. That means you need to turn yourself in.”
Termite starts to protest. Then he is quiet for a long while. “Let’s go, G.” he says finally.
Inside Hollenbeck Police Station, two CRASH officers order Termite to spread his legs. As the officers briskly frisk him, he stands with his lips pursed, trying not to cry.
EVERYONE WHO MEETS GREG Boyle seems to go through the same two-step process. Step one is as follows: “Hey, this guy is really some kind of a saint!” And then step two: “There’s got to be a dark side.”
Yet when you get to know Boyle well, you find no ominous recesses of the psyche or murky hidden agendas. There are small things: a healthy-size ego, or the way he at times seems more quarrelsome with the police than might be necessary. But nothing you’d call dark. What you do find, however, is a man in the grip of a paradox.
The other priests at Dolores Mission, however fond they are of the gang members, admit that they keep an emotional distance between themselves and a situation that can be overwhelming and tragic on a daily basis. For Boyle, there seems to be no distance. He cares for the gang members as if they were literally his own children. Certainly it is Boyle’s offer of unconditional love that is the source of his magic. Pure love heals. But what happens if you give your heart to 10 dozen kids, many of whom will die violently and young, the rest of whom are dying slow deaths of the spirit?
“Burn-out is the cost, I think,” Boyle says. “Because I’m so invested in each kid, tragedies and potential tragedies kind of get into my gut in a way they probably don’t get into other folks’.” He laughs nervously. “A lot of it is the classic ministerial occupational hazard of co-dependency, where you get too invested. Only it’s kind of writ larger here, I think. And it’s also parental. It’s like, ‘Oh my God, my kid hasn’t come home yet and it’s midnight’ times a hundred.”
The analogy of Boyle as parent can lead to still riskier territory. If you ask most parents what they would die for, they reply, “My children.” Boyle grows uncharacteristically quiet when the question is posed to him. “I would die for these kids,” he says finally. “I don’t know how that would play itself out. But I don’t think there would be any question. It’s not a choice, you know,” he says. “It just is .”
This is not the first time Boyle has considered the possibility. The day the Dukes’ gunfire hit his car and came within an inch of killing him, he realized that a line had been crossed. It was not that they had tried to kill him; it was that they had known he was in the line of fire and they had shot anyway.
Two weeks later he had another close call. Late at night, Boyle was walking one of the younger kids home when the boy whispered, “Look out.” Boyle turned to see gangsters, guns at the ready, creeping along the bushes that fringe the Santa Ana Freeway on the east edge of Aliso Village. They were headed toward a group of TMC homies. But this time, seeing Boyle, no one shot.
“It was very similar to the day that the Dukes shot,” Boyle says. “But that time I arrived a split second too late and the action had already been put in motion. This time I think I arrived just early enough to stop it.
“As I walked home that night I felt so weird. I kept saying to myself, ‘I really think this is where my life will end. I’m going to die in this barrio.’ ”
He pauses, his eyes searching some interior distance. “But you know, what should I do differently? Would I not have intervened that day between Clarence and East L.A.? Just kept driving instead? I don’t think that would be possible.
“So what should I do differently?”
The question hangs in the air like smoke after a fire.
EVEN THE DUKES WERE impressed by the fact that Termite had turned himself in. “That’s firme ! That’s firme !” they said. But Termite’s father assessed his actions differently. We could have gotten you to Mexico, he told Termite, his voice scathing. “Can’t you do anything right?”
At Termite’s court hearing, his fortunes take an unexpected turn. His public defender--a fast-talking, upwardly mobile fellow named Brady Sullivan--not only undermines a witness’s testimony but also gets Termite’s confession thrown out on a Miranda violation. Termite is set free.
As far as Boyle is concerned, this is good news and bad news. The good news is that a sensitive kid with no prior record will not get two to five in a California Youth Authority lockup. “Termite is a wonderful, wonderful kid,” Boyle says. “And he shot a little girl. A lot of people can’t hold those two thoughts together. But, the task of a true human being is do precisely that.”
The bad news is that Termite will not go on a badly needed, if enforced, vacation. Instead, he will be back in the neighborhood and back in the gang life.
At first, Termite is euphoric at being free. But soon, reality sets in; the Dolores Mission neighborhood is no longer a safe place for him. His mother talks about sending him to live with an aunt in San Bernardino or his grandmother in Mexico, but Termite doesn’t want to go. He says he wants to be near his girlfriend, Joanna, a sunny-natured girl of 14. His mother relents on the condition that Termite stay away from the church and the projects.
For two weeks straight, Termite spends his days cooped up in a darkened house with his dad, who works at night. Predictably, it isn’t long before the situation blows itself to smithereens. Termite is back hanging out, staying at friends’ houses, tagging everything he can find, particularly in East L.A. Dukes territory.
Word is soon on the street that Termite is a marked man. His mother has answered the phone at home and heard the death threats. “It’s hard to know what to do,” Boyle worries out loud. “I don’t want him to feel boxed in. When that happens a kid is likely to feel that the only thing to do is to go out in a blaze of glory, or take somebody else out in a blaze of glory.” When it is mentioned to Termite that he is all but asking to be killed, he cocks his head quizzically. “Sometimes I just don’t care. Sometimes I feel like I want to die,” he says, then looks away, “and I don’t know why.”
A week later, the inevitable has happened: Termite has been shot. He was hanging out with homies from both Clarence and TMC near the corner store at Gless and 4th. A truck whizzed by and dozens of bullets were fired. Only one connected. It grazed the left side of Termite’s head above his ear and blew a crater an inch-and-a-half deep and six inches in diameter in the stucco wall behind him. There was lots of blood, but no serious damage.
No one knows for sure who the shooters were--or who the intended target was. But Termite believes he knows. “I didn’t tell anybody,” he says, “but I was thinking when I was lying there on the ground, ‘This bullet was meant for me.’ ”
LIKE THE VOLUME OF A boom box turned up notch by notch, the violence around Dolores Mission grows in frequency and intensity as the days move from spring to summer and on toward fall. Grumpy gets a bullet in the stomach. Two Jobs for a Future construction workers are shot on two different nights. Thumper, from Cuatro Flats, who was out walking with his girlfriend, has his hair parted down the middle by a bullet that skimmed neatly across the top of his skull. Sniper, from TMC, is shot twice in the shoulder and once below the heart. All his wounds are through-and-throughs--the .38-caliber bullets passed straight through his body and out again. An hour and a half after he is rushed to White Memorial Hospital emergency room, Sniper is back on the street, a jacket over his bandages. “He has no insurance so they wouldn’t give him any pain killers,” says Boyle, “not even some Tylenol.”
And yet there are bright spots. Grumpy recovers and is still employed. Green finds a job making conga drums. Scoobie makes it onto one of Boyle’s construction crews, and his foreman gives him rave reviews. The morning after Critter receives his diploma from Roosevelt High School (with some help from Mission Alternative) on the stage of the Shrine Auditorium, he starts a new job at a downtown law firm. “I think maybe after a while they’re going to let me do some computer work,” says Critter happily. “I told ‘em I got an A-plus in my last computer class.”
And then there is Termite. After he was shot, he asked if he could move into Casa Miguel Pro with Grumpy. “Casa Pro is supposed to be for mothers and children,” explains Boyle. “If I let Termite in it would just open the flood gates. Grumpy genuinely has no where else he can go, but if I gave a room to every kid who has an intolerable family situation I could fill up Casa Pro plus the Hilton.”
In the end Boyle found a compromise. He told Termite he could sleep on the floor of his office. For a time, things seemed to settle down.
Then, a few weeks later, the shooting starts again. Boyle is at Aliso Village talking to a group of TMC homies when unidentified gangsters open fire with automatics and “gauges"--shotguns. The shooting goes on for nearly two minutes. But, as is often the case, the gangsters are bad shots and no one is seriously hurt.
The next day, Termite is picked up by the police. He had been wandering in Dukes territory, carrying a loaded .38. He pleads guilty to a charge of carrying a concealed weapon and is given a minimum sentence--approximately six months--in a county probation department youth camp.
IT IS 9:55 P.M. AND BOYLE has finished his bicycle rounds through the projects; things are quiet and he grows contemplative. “You know,” he says, “people are always asking me what I consider to be my victories. But I can never think of things that way. With these kids, all you can do is take one a day at a time. A lot of days it’s two steps forward and four steps back. On other days it’s like the line in Tennessee Williams’ play, ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’: ‘Sometimes there’s God so quickly.’ Then it’s joy upon joy, grace upon grace.”
Grace or none, it is clear that Boyle loves this place and the job. “You go where the life is,” he says. “And the life for me is here in this parish--especially with these kids. The happiness they bring me is beyond anything I can express in words. In the truest and most absolute sense, this work is a vocation.” He laughs softly. “And for good or ill I can do no other.”
There is an irony here. In July, 1992, Greg Boyle will in fact “do other.” A Jesuit is normally assigned to a particular post for six years, no more. The goal is detachment--it should be the work, not the person, on which redemption depends.
Next summer marks the end of Boyle’s assignment as pastor of Dolores Mission. He is then expected to spend the next 12 months in prayer, study and renewal before he takes his final vows. (Jesuits wait until a man hits his middle years before final vows are offered.) “After that,” says Boyle, “I’ll probably be able to come back here in some capacity, maybe as director of the school.” But not even this is a sure thing.
When asked what effect his departure will have on the homeboys, Boyle is quick to be reassuring. “It’ll be fine. The structures are in place now--the school, the Comite Pro Paz, the Jobs for a Future program. I am by no means irreplaceable at Dolores Mission.”
Maybe, and maybe not. A look into the faces of the gang members who love Boyle as they love no one else in the world makes you wonder. One thing is sure: For good or ill, by this time next year, Father Gregory Boyle will be gone.
* The name of this gang member--and others so marked--has been changed.