It is not surprising to see Father Gregory Boyle widely celebrated these days. He may be, after all, the closest thing to a living saint that anyone in modern Los Angeles will ever know. And now that doctors have found that Boyle has leukemia, the sad reality that a saint in our midst may soon be gone has added a touch of anxiety to the admiration Boyle has justly earned since 1986.
That is when the 49-year-old Jesuit became pastor of one of the city’s poorest churches, Dolores Mission, in one of its toughest housing projects, the Aliso-Pico Village. Almost immediately he began to focus his ministry on people shunned and feared by many, Latino gang members. Since then, Boyle sadly notes, he has presided at the funerals of more than 100 of those young men and women.
However, he also founded Homeboy Industries, the nonprofit agency that has helped 500 former gang members find the jobs and self-respect to turn their lives around. And that has inspired thousands of Angelenos to ponder the possibility that the street gangs so many of us accept as an unpleasant fact of L.A. life could someday be eliminated.
That day is still a long way off, which is why Boyle inspires emotional outpourings like the one I witnessed at a recent fund-raising dinner for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. MALDEF, based in Los Angeles, is one of the nation’s major Latino civil rights groups. Its annual dinner draws L.A.'s Latino elite.
Yet among this year’s high-powered honorees, it was Boyle who inspired the most adulation. And his remarks, urging the audience to never give up hope for his young charges no matter how hopeless it might seem, had many in the audience in tears.
The sad fact is that even if Greg Boyle were to live another 30 years, instead of the five his doctors have told him to expect, he would make only a small -- if inspiring -- dent in L.A.'s gang problems. The latest estimates by gang experts is that between 100,000 and 200,000 young men and women in Los Angeles County alone are now affiliated with local gangs, if only as hangers-on and wannabes.
That sobering statistic was cited a few days after the MALDEF dinner by Los Angeles Police Det. Marc Espinoza. He was addressing Latino business leaders invited to learn more about the city’s gang problems by the Latin American Law Enforcement Assn., or La Ley, the organization of Latino LAPD officers. It was the first of what La Ley leaders envision as a series of conferences to bring nonexperts up to date on the reality of L.A.'s street gangs, as opposed to some misperceptions in popular media. Gangs are, for instance, not just a Latino problem. Although there are more than 500 Latino gangs, there are also more than 300 black gangs, more than 100 Asian gangs and at least 28 white street gangs, Espinoza said.
Follow-up sessions of the La Ley conference will focus on successful strategies to combat gangs, according to La Ley President Art Placencia, a veteran Hollywood Division detective. Significantly, the group will not just focus on getting more law enforcement resources. It also will push for intervention programs like Homeboy Industries that offer young people alternatives to gang life. “There are people smarter than us who are grappling with this problem,” Placencia said. “We are talking to business people because they are the movers and shakers who influence public policy, the folks to whom the politicians and bureaucrats listen.”
They are also the people who have the wherewithal to create, and make available, more of the kinds of entry-level jobs that Homeboy Industries offers.
There were only about 60 people at the La Ley conference. Nearly 1,200 people gave Boyle a standing ovation the night of the MALDEF dinner. If only a quarter of that larger group followed up on that show of support with specific efforts aimed at offering at-risk youngsters alternatives to gang life, it would make life easier not just for La Ley’s members and their colleagues in law enforcement. It would help carry on the admirable work begun by Father Boyle. Anyone who knows Boyle knows that he would want no other legacy.
Frank del Omo is associate editor of The Times.