When I wrote last week about the gang-related trouble at a Downtown Cinco de Mayo celebration, a quote caught G-Dog’s eye. It was from Armando Garza, who was so upset about gang rowdiness at such gatherings that he launched an emotional diatribe against Chicano gang members.
“I hate them,” Garza told me.
G-Dog shook his head at that, because he thinks love and understanding, not hatred, are the ways to deal with gang members. They’re human, too, he reasons. “That quote cut me like a knife,” he recalls. “What is that all about? . . . Because what’s happening to us when we can so distance ourselves from our darkness? When we’re so distant in terms of being able to compassionately respond?
"(Gang members) hearing stuff like, ‘You are an idiot,’ ‘I hate you,’ is all they know. And to think that more of that will work with them is just insane.”
That’s the gospel of G-Dog, whose real name is never called out on the streets east of the L.A. River by the homies who know him.
And that’s the way G-Dog--the Rev. Gregory J. Boyle--likes it.
Father Greg was in the back of my mind as I wrote of Garza’s reactions to “punk cholos” because I knew what he would say. Unconditional love and an attempt to remedy the hopelessness and despair of street life are his solutions to the street gang disease.
More than anything, I was glad he is back, tending to his gang flock, and speaking out for them.
In late 1992, the parishioners and neighbors of Dolores Mission Roman Catholic Church in Boyle Heights pleaded with Boyle’s superiors to let the popular priest remain as pastor. As a Jesuit, he was completing six years at the parish, and it was time for a year’s renewal--something every member of his order must do before taking his final vows.
Many didn’t want to contemplate life on the streets without him. “G-Dog understands us,” the homies said, referring to the street moniker they gave the priest back in the 1980s.
But ever obedient, Father Greg left to pray, study and renew his commitment to God. He studied in Michigan. For a time, he was a chaplain at Folsom State Prison.
Late last year, ready for his next assignment, he was prepared to go anywhere to do the Lord’s bidding, but in January, his superiors sent him back to Dolores Mission. He had persuaded them that he could run a full-time gang ministry with the homies he knew so well around the Pico Gardens and Aliso Village public housing projects.
It is as if G-Dog never left. The homies still flock to him. The cops still mistrust him. And still, he never gives up hope.
“There’s not a day that goes by where somebody is in my office or on the phone where I say this kid has taken a huge leap forward in terms of discovering a reason for staying alive,” he says. “That’s worth everything.”
His message is the same one he embraced back in the ‘80s.
“I would hope that government officials have a healthy respect for the complexity of the gang problem,” he sighs. “They should never lose sight of the fact that there are human beings involved. There is no single solution.”
In a small storefront office on 1st Street, in neutral gang territory, Boyle works the phone to find jobs for his gang members through a church-affiliated program, Jobs for a Future. He also scrambles to find a wealthy donor who will put Homeboy Bakery on its feet. It’s part of an ambitious plan to flood L.A. with pan dulce made by gang members.
He isn’t deterred by the financial bust a few years ago of a similar church venture to make and distribute Homeboy Tortillas.
When he isn’t talking bread, he is talking with his homies.
He affectionately calls them “mijo” and “mija” even if, as the kids say, they mess up, which means anything from doing drugs to carrying a gun.
He gives encouragement and love in between the telephone calls that continually interrupt him. He figures he racks up $700 a month in telephone bills, mainly because homies call him collect from wherever they are.
The cops understandably don’t think much of Boyle.
They loudly voice the same suspicions they did during the time he was pastor of Dolores Mission, when they accused him of withholding information from Hollenbeck station officers about crimes in the area.
His retort is typical G-Dog: “I didn’t take my vows to the LAPD.”
Father Greg is so caught up in his work that he may not take the time to note that he turns 40 this week. “This gives me life,” he says, looking over his storefront operation. “It keeps me going.”
At work, he’s just G-Dog. “Nobody calls me father,” he tells me sheepishly.
Now that he’s back, I can call him that to his face.