Jesuit Father Gregory Boyle learned a long time ago that he cannot save anyone.
That statement may come as a surprise to some, considering the fact that Father Boyle is the founder and executive director of Los Angeles-based Homeboy Industries, which is the world’s largest and most successful gang-intervention, rehabilitation and job-training program. Yet Father Boyle said he deliberately avoids trying to save people, choosing instead to give them unconditional love.
Father Gregory Boyle, SJ, speaks about his work with Homeboy Industries during a lecture at Nazareth College’s Linehan Chapel March 3. Father Boyle is executive director of the Los Angeles-based ministry that helps rehabilitate former gang members.
“I try to stay anchored in the present moment and I try to delight in the person right in front of me,” Father Boyle explained to a crowd of several hundred people gathered in Nazareth College’s Linehan Chapel on March 3.
Father Boyle spoke at several Rochester-area institutions in early March. His March 2 and 3 presentations at Nazareth were part of the college’s William H. Shannon Chair in Catholic Studies lecture series. He also spoke March 3 at McQuaid Jesuit High School and at Rochester’s Asbury Methodist Church.
Father Boyle and his parishioners at Dolores Mission Church in Los Angeles founded the precursor of Homeboy Industries back in 1988. At that time, Father Boyle was still attempting to save people, he explained to the crowd at Nazareth on March 3. One of those he was trying to save, a former gang member and drug dealer known as Lulu, changed the priest’s approach to gang intervention and his whole life, Father Boyle explained.
Lulu had been in a drug-rehabilitation facility for just 30 days when his younger brother committed suicide. Father Boyle drove Lulu to the funeral, and on the way Lulu shared a dream he’d had the night before. In the dream, Lulu and the priest were alone in a completely dark room when Father Boyle pulled out a flashlight, turned it on and aimed it at a switch on the wall.
“The beam of light is unwavering, and Lulu says, ‘I know I’m the only one who can turn that light switch on. I’m so grateful that you happen to have a flashlight,’” Father Boyle recalled.
In the dream, Lulu took a deep breath, flipped the switch and flooded the room with light.
“That story changed my life. I stopped doing ministry the way I had,” Father Boyle said. “I stopped trying to turn the light switch on for people. I knew I couldn’t save anybody. All I could do was love people.”
Father Boyle has been shining the light of his love on former gang members ever since, and encouraging others to do the same.
Love brings hope, and these are what former gang members need, he said, noting that kids join gangs because they suffer from “a lethal absence of hope.” They know full well that their participation in gang life will most likely lead to either incarceration or death, but they don’t care, Father Boyle said.
Father Boyle illustrated his point by sharing a story about a former gang member known as Speedy. This young man frequently risked his life by venturing onto the territory of a rival gang and didn’t care if he lived or died. One day, however, one of Dolores Mission’s parishioners mentioned to Speedy in passing that she knew he was a good uncle to his nephew and had seen him feed homeless people.
“She says, … ‘If anything happened to you, it would break my heart in two,’” Father Boyle said.
This woman showed Speedy a tiny bit of love in a very brief exchange, yet this exchange had a profound impact on Speedy, who turned his life around and now is married, has three children and holds a full-time supervisory job.
Another former gang member realized during the course of his work with Homeboy Industries that shame lay at the root of his destructive rage. Because of this revelation, he also was able to turned his life around. He made this personal discovery because Homeboy Industries provided him with a safe place and a community of tenderness, Father Boyle said, noting that other populations, such as the homeless, also need such communities.
“A community of tenderness is where you can find sanctuary. … They’re always watching their back and wondering what will happen next, unless you give them sanctuary, where they can be relieved of stress. Then and only then do they get to a place where they can discover their own truth, and know that it is the gift of a lifetime to be who they are,” he said. “Now the world will throw at them what it will, but this time they won’t be toppled by it.”