He quoted Mother Teresa, and at times being in his presence felt like it must have felt being in hers — if she were also as funny as Mark Twain, Jack Benny, Bill Cosby, or Louis C.K.
The Rev. Gregory Boyle, S.J. is that funny. He spoke at Lourdes University on Saturday night to a packed auditorium. Most of Toledo’s movers and shakers were there, along with another critical 1,000 people who care. More on them later. But Father Boyle is a storyteller with flawless instinct and impeccable comic timing.
And his subject is gangs.
For 30 years he has worked with the gangs in East Los Angeles, and in that 30 years, gang activity has been cut in half, and cut in half again. Father Boyle says, modestly, that he thinks the organization he founded and still heads, Homeboy Industries, has something to do with this. The LAPD agrees.
What is Homeboy’s secret? It is encapsulated in one of Father Boyle’s one-liners: “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.”
As the good padre himself might add, “Duh.”
Social science affirms what Father Boyle has found over and over again for three decades: A job gives hope, dignity, and skin in the game. As one of Father Boyle’s young friends told him: “Damn G, this paycheck makes me feel proper.”
That from a fellow who had done time and, as Father Boyle put it, “tended to gravitate back to vague criminality.”
Homeboy Industries started with a school. Working in the very heart of gang activity in L.A., Father Boyle found that most junior high kids had been kicked out of school. He asked each one: Would you go back to school if a school would take you? In 100 percent of the cases, the answer was “yes.” But no school would take them. He started a school in a convent, which he had to persuade nuns to abandon. (They gladly did.)
Father Boyle says that no hopeful kid ever joins a gang. Ever. Period. He says there are three and only three motives for joining a gang: Despondency, trauma, and mental illness. Sometimes they intermix. Homeboy now runs the largest and most successful gang intervention program in the world. It starts with two forms of preparation. One is “attachment repair” therapy, or what Father Boyle calls “the power of boundless compassion.” Then it removes tattoos, for those who wish this. It helps with presentation. And then it places young gang members in jobs.
Homeboy runs a restaurant, a bakery, a silk-screening company. And it also places young people in work outside its own enterprises. Father Boyle still does a lot of this himself.
He has always, intentionally, placed members of rival gangs next to each other in jobs, because “it’s impossible to hate someone you know.”
“Can I say this works every time?” he asks. Yes, he says, he can. And he tells the story of two young men who began as enemies. They had a history. When one of the young men was dying — because a rival gang beat him after he took a shortcut down the wrong alley — the other asked Father Boyle: “Can I give him my blood?”
These and other such tales are in his book, Tattoos on the Heart — a book I have been buying and giving to people since I first read it. My daughter tells me I have given it to her three times.
I told you about how hard people laughed at Father Boyle’s lecture last weekend. Many also wept openly. That is how powerful his message is. For it is only the message of Jesus — not “worship me,” but “follow me.” Father Boyle says, paraphrasing Mother Teresa again, that the problem with the world is simple: We have forgotten that we belong to each other.
And not as service providers and clients but as “a community of kinship.”
I noted the presence of the many and the great of Toledo at this meeting. Mayor Mike Collins was there. Father James Bacik was there — our city’s premier theologian and Catholic pastor.
Baldemar Velasquez was there — the world’s leading spokesman for migrant workers.
In this community we also have Randy Oostra, a corporate CEO who understands the practicality of compassion; Jack Ford, one of the most brilliant and knowledgable statesmen in the history of the state; and Romules Durant, maybe the most dynamic and imaginative school superintendent in the nation.
We have Carty Finkbeiner and U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, the two most successful politicians in the history of the city. With this talent, surely we can make a jobs program like Homeboy Industries work in Toledo.
The mechanism might be a Jobs Trust Fund, leveraging available private and public funds to make small business loans and create public works jobs. We endow churches, universities, and art museums. What about an endowed jobs program? We can do this. We have the leadership. And at least 1,000 Toledoans have their backs.
As Father Boyle said: No kinship, no justice. No kinship, no peace.
Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.
Contact him at: email@example.com or 419-724-6266.