Father Gregory Boyle: Life among the homies


I should have known better than to try to interview Father Gregory Boyle on his home turf, at the Homegirl Café in the Homeboy Industries building on the edge of Chinatown. It was like trying to interview Elvis in the lobby of the Flamingo Hotel.

Old ladies, homeboys, artists, a City Council member -- everybody wanted to say hi to the man who, from nothing -- less than nothing, which is to say, derision and debt and doubt -- crafted what is now the biggest gang “exit” program in the country.

Homeboy Industries, a complex of ex-gangster-run businesses, has been a 20-year-plus labor of, yes, love, and now Boyle is telling tales. Homilies, tear-jerkers and even bursts of humor from the barrio families and felons he serves are collected in his new book, published in English and Spanish. He sat across from me, drinking coffee and writing messages on flyleaf after flyleaf of “Tattoos on the Heart,” which could have been subtitled “Life Among the Homies.”

Your book made The Times’ best-seller list.

If this could become “Tuesdays with Homie,” I could keep my doors open!

You go into Borders, it’s in the religion section; Barnes & Noble, the sociology section; Amazon characterizes it in the motivational category. I’m happy with all of them. I don’t want anybody to pigeonhole it -- “Oh, it’s just a memoir by a priest who works with gangs.” Christian publishers all turned it down because of the language. I’m really happy that they did -- I’d rather it have as broad an audience as possible.

Were you even aware of the Eastside, growing up in the Wilshire area?

I never would have known where to find a gang. It never was part of my consciousness until I came to Dolores Mission.

I was kind of evangelized by the poor in Bolivia [where he was sent after ordination]. That changed my life. The poor evangelize you about what’s important and what is the Gospel, and that that’s where the joy is. I said, “I want to work for the poor. I want to go to Dolores Mission,” and [my superior] said, “How fortuitous; the pastor’s just left.”

When it comes to dogma, are you pretty ecumenical? Could you have as easily been, say, a Buddhist as a Catholic?

I like Eastern stuff and I think you can marry it to Jesus in a way that’s quite compatible and whole. It enriches my own Christian faith.

There are iterations of Christianity that say, “My way or the highway.”

I’m not down with that, as the homies would say. That doesn’t make sense to me.

Even within [my] own sad, tragic church, there’s a clerical culture that’s not very helpful -- it’s just about power and privilege and secrecy and sometimes even a willful wandering away from Jesus and the living of the Gospel. I think that the church can be returned to itself. It’s about standing at the margins and with the right people, with these people [he looks around the cafe], and that’s what the church ought to be.

What do you think about the newly designated archbishop, Jose Gomez?

Everybody’s talking about him being Latino. Frankly, I think people get nervous around Opus Dei, but I watched his press conference and it completely won me over because he got emotional when he remembered the people in San Antonio and said the real home for any priest and bishop is in the love for the people. I thought, “That’s a pretty beautiful line.” So I found myself cleaning whatever slate needed to be cleaned in terms of Opus Dei. It gets people like me a little nervous -- [people] who want to open the windows even more than Vatican II. But then he won me over. So actually I felt hopeful by the end of the day.

Your leukemia is in remission -- “intermission,” as one homie told you.

Now my visits with my hematologist are longer [apart]. It was once every three months. Now it’s once every six months.

So now you know what parole is like.

That’s right! I’m not on high-control parole any more. Fortunately. It’s a kind of leukemia that’s supposed to come back, and they’re all kind of wondering why it hasn’t.

I read that after your 1993 “tertianship,” a spiritual sabbatical, some forces didn’t want you to come back to gang work. Was that church politics or civilian politics?

I think it was a combo-burger of all those things. So I was in exile briefly, then I got a new [superior] and he let me come back. It was the most painful period in my life, frankly. It was complicated -- I think there was a lot of “this town ain’t big enough for the two of us” feeling.

And now you’re in this astounding house that Boyle built.

Obviously lots of people built it and lots of people are part of it. I’ve been gone two weeks, so I see this kid I don’t know, and we start talking and he says, “I have to work here.” I said why? Then he starts to cry and says, “Because this is a blessful place.” The fact that he recognizes this as a blessful place, that’s palpable.

I was at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City and saw a quote from a Martin Luther King Jr. speech: “I have felt the power of God transform the fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope.” Well, I’ve felt that here; they’ve all felt that here, and I defy anybody to walk into this building and not feel that. It’s not pie in the sky, it’s not Pollyanna, it’s deeper and stronger.

When it comes to funding, why has this place had more near death scenes than Sarah Bernhardt?

Because there’s a fullness to the place, and funding the fullness is a $10 million annual concern. Three and a half million gets raised by our businesses, so I have to raise $6 million, and that’s a daunting task. But you think Homeboy Industries costs a lot, wait until you get the bill for our nonexistence. It’s not just that we serve 12,000 gang members a year, but we stand as a symbol to even those who don’t walk in, and who are locked up. If you didn’t have [us] as some future possibility [for them], that would have a devastating impact to the county.

So why is that 6 million so hard to get?

People say, “Gosh there’s no money.” I say, in six months, MOCA got $60 million. I don’t begrudge the fact that they got their money -- I love MOCA. But that’s the truth. This is a harder sell. We had difficulty at the same moment it was publicly known that [MOCA] needed money. And the people in this city came to MOCA’s aid, and with us, not so much.

How well is the city reconfiguring its gang program funding?

The City Council was saying, “Look, we don’t have gang problems in [each of] our district[s]. It’s unconscionable for [each] to take a slice of this money.” That’s progress. Every Tuesday morning, [Chief Bill Bratton] would meet here with his brass -- it’s a symbol, but it’s important. I’m a little discouraged with Bratton as he would point at good [crime] numbers and take sole credit for them -- its an enormously complex dilemma, so it stands to reason there are a whole set of solutions that have to be equally complex. Look at the last 20 years: We’re here, and A Place Called Home is here and LA’s Best is here. I know that’s why the numbers have gone down, along with the sensible deployment of police. Lots of things have worked.

You always bring up the number of young people you’ve buried. Why keep the tally?

Because you want them to matter. There’s an idea that’s taken root in the world: There just might be lives out there that matter less than other lives. And so the minute you can get people to say, “I don’t want to live in a society where that’s true,” then suddenly 168 lives matter to you.

Don’t criminals need to take responsibility?

A politician said, “Gang members should pay the consequences of their crimes.” I go, “Not only do I agree with you, find one person on the planet Earth who’s going to disagree.” You hear that all the time, that [we] coddle gang members. Would you ever accuse a drug rehab center -- oh you’re coddling addicts? No, we’re trying to help them leave that behind. If you don’t have exit ramps, then how is it we can tell them to get off the freeway?

Don’t you ever get frustrated and want to shake people by the lapels?

Oh, I get frustrated. You just want to throttle people. I tell my staff, “You have to get used to two steps forward, five steps back.”

We don’t save anybody here, because no amount of me wanting that guy to have a life is the same as that guy wanting to have one. Ours is a God who waits. So who are we not to?

There’s always a question about what happens when you’re gone.

I’m not going to pretend I don’t have this role in this place, but I’m not where I was 20 years ago, 10 years ago. I don’t micromanage anything anymore, which is nice. The issue has gotten answered in a way that, I’ll be honest, it wasn’t true 10 years ago, but it is now.

What do you do for yourself?

I try to catch a dinner with a friend, maybe a movie. I love movies. I’m pretty eclectic -- I’ll go to the Laemmle in Pasadena for the foreign kind of thing. I don’t mind something like “Avatar,” more popular stuff.

Let me guess that your favorite isn’t “The Bells of St. Mary’s”?

Probably my least! This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript.