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The Rev. Gregory Boyle (Getty Images)

Priest Fights Gangs With 'Boundless Compassion'

May 20, 2010 (Fresh Air)

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Workers at Homeboy Industries Tattoos on the Heart

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Homeboy Industries is the largest gang-intervention program in the country, serving the needs of thousands of East Los Angeles gang members who are looking for a way to leave the streets behind. Its motto is: "Nothing stops a bullet like a job." For the past 20 years, the Rev. Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest who started Homeboy, has mentored and counseled the more than 12,000 gang members who pass through Homeboy each year to learn job skills, get their gang tattoos removed and attend therapy sessions on everything from alcohol abuse to anger management.

In the past three years, Boyle explains, Homeboy moved to a new headquarters to provide more room for the five businesses it runs for ex-gang members. In that time, Homeboy quadrupled the number of people it serves. Now, the operation is in severe financial trouble. On May 14, Boyle had to lay off most of the employees working at Homeboy. He has stopped taking a paycheck.

"We've been in trouble since November," Boyle tells Terry Gross. "We sort of publicly announced and we got from November to here. But what we really needed was that $5 million cushion when we moved to our new headquarters three years ago to really factor that in. We built the building and ... suddenly, we didn't double the people we served. We quadrupled the people we served. The place was packed and the recession only added to the need and the fact that we're the only game in town. There is no other place that people go to, so it was hard and we sort of needed an angel and we didn't get it."

Boyle recently published a memoir, Tattoos on the Heart, which recounts his decision to leave his position at the Dolores Mission Church in Los Angeles in 1992 to focus on helping ex-gang members find jobs. He says that he looks at his position as a calling.

"I don't save people. God saves people. I can point them in the right direction. I can say, 'There's that door. I think if you walked through it, you'd be happier than you are.' "

Interview Highlights

On how the gang scene has changed in L.A. since he started working with Homeboy Industries

"The sheriff will tell you it's 86,000 gang members in L.A. County and others will say closer to 100,000 and the truth is, people don't know. Anecdotally, it feels like fewer people are getting engaged in gangs than when I first began in the mid-'80s. But I always talk about the decade of death, which is 1988 to 1998. That was intense — reaching the highest moment in '92 when the county saw 1,000 gang-related homicides. And just again, anecdotally, I buried eight kids in a three-week period once. And that would be inconceivable now. Things have calmed down considerably since the horror of that decade of death. But it was so common in those days. Helicopters every night; shootings morning, noon and night; and mothers putting their babies in the bathtubs at night in the housing projects, anticipating what everybody knew would happen, which is shooting all night long. So it's hard to ... even recall that because it's feeling like a long time ago, really. So obviously, you know, gang-related homicides have been cut in half and in half again since 1992."

On why he thinks the number of gang-related homicides has dropped

"Even law enforcement will acknowledge that Homeboy Industries is part of that, and for sure, that's true. Policing got smarter. And since '92 — which you recall was the unrest of '92 — things were ... at that point where people didn't wait for cities or police to solve this problem. So Homeboy Industries was born. But so was A Place Called Home, and after-school programs in communities and schools and all sorts of things were born to address every aspect of this, from mentoring to loving, caring adults who paid attention. People stepped up and saw themselves as stakeholders. So all of that occurred, really, in response to that moment. So I don't think it's a surprise that frankly, those numbers have gone south. And even with the recession, people make a connection between the economy going badly and a rise in crime and that hasn't happened. In many ways, we need to brace ourselves because it probably will to some extent. But I think it's because we have so many things in place that can hold people and help people."

On the first gang burial he attended, for Raphael, one of identical twins

"There are identical twins and then there are identical twins. And they were so identical even their mom had a hard time telling them apart. ... [T]hey happened to choose to wear the exact same clothes, and so Roberto was peering down at Raphael and it was like you had slapped a mirror there and he was looking at his mirror image. And so, for me, for it to be the first gang funeral I had done. It felt like kind of this image that stayed with me, like kids killing their mirror image and that whoever's in the coffin is identical to whoever was out there."

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