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Column: In the middle of a pandemic, a miracle came to Father Greg Boyle and Homeboy Industries

Father Greg Boyle at Homeboy Industries, which is being run in the parking lot because of COVID-19.
Father Greg Boyle, center, is running Homeboy Industries from a tent in the parking lot because of COVID-19.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Father Greg Boyle, the local saint of unconditional compassion, has been unceremoniously booted out of his office at Homeboy Industries and relegated to the parking lot.

“Come to my tent,” the padre advised, saying “the homies” had pitched him temporary quarters, and one of them observed that it “feels like Afghanistan in here.” Boyle is 66 and has long been under care for leukemia, so staff and homies thought he’d have a lower risk of getting the coronavirus if he moved outside.

I found Boyle at his desk in an open-air, white canopy lair, with a fan, a palm and woven flooring that would have made Lawrence of Arabia proud.

I wanted to ask about the miracle that visited Homeboy several days ago, when the $2.5-million Conrad N. Hilton Foundation Humanitarian Award rained down on the nonprofit — which has had its share of financial struggles in the past — like manna from heaven.

Greg Boyle, left, at Homeboy Industries.
Homeboy Industries, which was adapting to pandemic challenges, has won a $2.5-million humanitarian award.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
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Boyle, who founded Homeboy in 1988, said he knew the agency was in the running for the award. But he also knew it had rarely gone to a U.S.-based nonprofit, with past winners including Doctors Without Borders and the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims. Boyle took it as a bad sign when Hilton called on a recent Saturday to speak to him and Homeboy Chief Executive Tom Vozzo, saying the award committee had another round of questions.

But that was a ruse. The committee had actually called to deliver the good news.

“It nearly made us cry,” said Boyle.

For Boyle, humility is habit. He noted that he is not the recipient of the award; Homeboy is. That includes all the employees and volunteers and all the young men and women who grew up scared, abused and alone, slid into gang life and then knocked one day on Father Boyle’s door, broken, tired and looking for a chance to learn a skill and walk away from trouble.

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As if on cue, Alex, 34, whom I’d met at Homeboy a couple of years ago, came over to say hello under the big tent. He just had a baby and wanted to connect with Boyle, who’s going to perform the baptism. Alex told me he’s been doing well, for the most part, since I last saw him. You often hear two voices, he said, one telling you to go for the easy money on the streets, the other telling you there’s no future in that.

The latter voice sends him home, and home is here, on North Spring, just across the street from Chinatown.

“Don’t you love this, Pops?” Alex asked his mentor, gesturing to the majesty of the tent.

“It’s nice,” said Boyle. “But I miss the action inside.”

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On the inside, Boyle’s office is like a goldfish bowl, and he can watch as employees, volunteers, trainees and tour groups come and go daily, visiting the café and the store or traipsing through the lobby on the way to tattoo removal, drug testing or rehab counseling.

But Boyle is making the best of his outdoor digs, looking over my shoulder to monitor all movement through the building’s side exit. He tapped his heart repeatedly, sending messages of love to those who look his way for acknowledgment, for a sign that they exist, that they matter.

I know from past experience that you don’t sit alone with Father Greg, nor do you ever get all of him. You are in his realm, and he’s available in fits and starts, putting the business of helping his trainees above all else. It’s like interviewing a pilot while he’s flying a plane, or talking to the coach in the middle of a football game.

Father Greg Boyle, right, of Homeboy Industries, gives an air hug to a visitor under his tent office in the parking lot.
Father Greg Boyle gives an air hug to a visitor under his tent office in the parking lot.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
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“Junior, come here,” he told a young guy. “Here’s the thing, son, I want you to show up Wednesday morning, right here. I want to be here when you start.”

“OK, I’ll be here at 7,” said the guy.

“No,” Boyle said. “That’s too early.”

He knows everybody, remarkably, even those who got out of jail 10 years ago, signed up for the program but disappeared a month later, and now stand at the door again.

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As we talked, Joseph, 33, came into the tent, displaying his shirt, which has the name of his new employer on it.

“It’s $34 an hour,” said Joseph, who went through the eight-month solar training installation program Homeboy hooked him up with.

Boyle congratulated him and Joseph told me he first set eyes on Boyle at the age of 10, when he was in a detention camp. Father Boyle baptized him. As an adult, the first couple of times Joseph went to Homeboy after getting out of lockup, he wasn’t sure the program was for him. He’d see Father Boyle and think, “I don’t wanna waste his time.”

Now here he was telling Boyle that his 9-year-old is doing well and that he can’t wait to start his new job.

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A tap of the heart from the padre. Go in peace.

In normal times, Boyle is on the road more than a trucker. He packs a bag and takes homies with him on speaking tours, or to put a face to the characters in his acclaimed books — “Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion” and “Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship.”

But the coronavirus has knocked him off his rhythm. His speeches have become virtual — it was Missouri one day last week, Texas the next, both on Zoom — and he had to work from home for several weeks when Homeboy’s doors were shut. Now, with gang intervention declared an essential service, everything is up and running except for tattoo removal. But at a safe distance, with temperature checks at the door, and the boss in the parking lot.

Father Greg Boyle, left, of Homeboy Industries meets a visitor who wasn't wearing a mask.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
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“Wear your mask, son,” Boyle calls out.

One trainee, which is what Homeboy calls its transitioning clients, told Boyle not long ago that no mask was needed if you trust in God.

“Well here’s a news flash — God is telling you to wear a mask,” Boyle told her.

“We’re aware of a lot of folks who’ve tested positive,” said Boyle, “and I did a double funeral for a homie I knew 30 years ago who died in L.A., and the next day his father died, also of COVID, in Las Vegas.”

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But the bad news has been offset by some good.

Peter Laugharn of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation called Homeboy the largest gang intervention, rehab and reentry program in the world, and said the $2.5-million award “speaks to the power of standing with people who have been systemically marginalized, creating space for them to heal and invest in their future, with the intention of ending the socioeconomic inequities that impact communities.”

And the good news goes beyond the humanitarian award. Just as the staff was lamenting the forced closure of the Homegirl café, Homeboy was able to line up city and county contacts and began producing 10,000 a meals a week for shut-ins and homeless people.

“It kept everybody working, and in the bakery, we have everything from cookies to coffee cake that people are ordering online,” Boyle said. “People are buying tins of cookies and sending them to folks. On paper we would have thought this was going to be a bad moment, but there’s kind of a remarkable, generous spirit out there.”

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Tap the heart, spread the word.

steve.lopez@latimes.com


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