ORLANDO, Fla. — The founder of the world's largest gang intervention program told assembly attendees Tuesday, June 7, that the "only praise I think God has any interest in, is 'that you may be one.' That we inch our way to the margins to enter into relationship with others and allow ourselves to be reached by them."
Fr. Gregory Boyle, founder and executive director of the decades-old Homeboy Industries, sprinkled his address on the closing day of the Catholic Health Assembly with witty anecdotes and recollections of heartbreaking life stories of gang members he has known. Fr. Boyle has spent nearly 30 years working with some of Los Angeles' most hardened gang members, to help them get the services, jobs and care they need to exit a life of crime.
Based in Los Angeles' poorest community, the nonprofit Homeboy Industries has evolved to include a bakery, café, catering service, merchandise center, farmers' markets, diner, grocery store and silkscreen and embroidery business — all of them employing gang members seeking a better life. The nonprofit also provides case management, employment services, mental health services, education and tattoo removal.
Fr. Boyle said that people serving poor and vulnerable populations should not view and position themselves solely as service providers, but they should enter into authentic relationships with those they are serving. "How do we obliterate this illusion that we are separate — us and them?" He said there can be a distance between service provider and recipient. "We need to bridge that distance. We are all in need of healing."
He said that by entering into kinship with others, people can create communities that God would recognize as his own.
Fr. Boyle spoke of gang members he'd encountered whose lives were destroyed by almost unimaginable trauma, violence, abuse and neglect — experiences that drove them into the security of gang life. One gang member had been beaten so severely by his mother throughout his elementary school years that he had to wear three shirts to school every day to absorb and hide the blood.
He said messages of shame and disgrace are at the heart of many of the ills driving people into crime. "We have to reach in and dismantle these messages," he said. "We have to tell people the truth that we are all the same and that 'you are exactly what God had in mind as he made you.'"