Bridging the Gap Between Us and Them

Q&A with Father Gregory J. Boyle, Founder of Homeboy Industries

Us vs them. Me vs you. At a time when the whole world seems to be polarized on topics such as politics, religion, war, and policy, what is actually driving us all apart? In the fourth episode of The Story of God with Morgan Freeman, we take a look at these differences that disrupt harmony and create division. But despite the differences, is it possible to bridge the divide?

In 1986, Father Greg Boyle was appointed pastor of Dolores Mission Church, one of the poorest Catholic parishes in Los Angeles. The church was located between two large public housing projects with the highest concentration of gang activity in the city. Having witnessed the devastating impact gang violence was having on his community, Father Greg and his parish decided to take a “radical” approach: treating gang members as human beings.

For the past 30 years, Father Greg and Homeboy Industries has worked with gang-involved youth to provide positive opportunities for them, including employment and education, and help people understand that perhaps these two groups of people aren’t as different as one might think. “We’re all in need of healing. That’s one of the things that joins us together in the human family,” Father Greg says. Below, Father Greg shares with us how to better understand gangs and gang violence, the work Homeboy Industries is doing and how he has learned to shift his objective in helping others.

As someone who has spent many years experiencing inner city gang violence, what do outsiders misunderstand about gangs and gang violence from your point of view?

Father Greg: Gang violence is always about something else. You have a notion that it’s like the Middle East or Northern Ireland – if we could just get the sides to sit down and talk. But it’s about a lethal absence of hope; it’s about traumatized people who can’t see their way to transform their pain. So rather than addressing the violence head on, if you infused hope to these folks to whom hope is foreign, or if you help heal people, or even if you delivered mental health services in a timely and culturally appropriate way – that would do it.

Consequentially, the outsider’s view is always driving the inside of our policy. “If only we could teach kids to make better choices” or “if only gangs weren’t so attractive” or “If only these kids knew the difference between right and wrong” – all of these are false notions driven from the outsider view and that’s essentially what we’ve never gotten right about it.

"If you want to change anything, you have to change the metaphor."

What are some of the challenges as you try to tell that story in the city of LA and elsewhere?

Father Greg: In the early days, the demonizing of the gang member was whole cloth and pervasive. Demonizing is always untruth, so we know that it’s always going to be wrong, but that has dissipated a little bit. You know it is said, “” In Los Angeles, I think Homeboy Industries has changed the metaphor. It’s moved people in two ways: 1. Human beings are involved. As simple as it may seem, that notion was unorthodox 30 years ago. 2. If people are given the choice – tough on crime or soft on crime – no one will pick soft on crime. But if their choice is soft on crime or smart on crime, everyone will pick smart. So that shifted things, in fact you can even measure it. We’re better off than we were 30 years ago, and we’re better off than we were 10 years ago, but still have a long way to go. Little by little folks are making progress in the good.

Can you tell us how your work has personally changed you since you started 30 years ago? How has your life been changed by the relationships with the men and women that you serve and that you work with?

Father Greg: In my first 6 years, I was perilously close to burnout. I look back on that now and it’s like being in a darkened room. You have a flashlight and aim that flashlight on the light switch. The healthy response is to say, “I own a flashlight; I know where to aim it so this guy can follow the beam of light and turn the light switch on.” What led me to burnout is that I was spending all my time trying to turn the light switch on for these folks. Then you realize no amount of me wanting that guy to have a life will be the same as that guy wanting to have one.

A former gang member in Houston, trying to help other gang members, once said to me, “How do you reach them?” I said, “For starters, stop trying to reach them and be reached by them.” That’s a whole different thing. I’ve come to the understanding now that you don’t go to the margins to make a difference. You go to the margins so that folks at the margins make you different.

“I just want to make a difference.” I wish it was a sentence we’d retire. It’s so soaked with you. But, if you go to the margins and cast your lot, with for example gang members, every day you are made different because you are allowing yourself to be reached and you’re receiving them. That’s exquisitely mutual – both parties at the same time inhabit their own nobility. It’s not me to the rescue. We’re all a cry for help; we’re all in need of healing. That’s one of the things that joins us together in the human family.

Can you share a bit about what it looks like for some of these guys who may be experiencing hope for the first time as result of this relationship and the transformation that takes place?

Homeboy Industries provides job training and social services for formerly gang involved men and women.

Father Greg: Homeboy Industries is not for those who need help – it’s only for those who want it. Part of recovery is that you have to willingly walk through our doors. When you’re ready, come in. It’s a little bit like if we were an alcohol rehab center instead of a gang rehab center. We would never send folks out to bars and sidle up to folks saying, “I couldn’t help notice that’s your eighth beer.” That’s absurd in alcohol recovery; it’s also absurd in gang recovery. Folks willingly come in. They’re all coming with a huge burden of chronic toxic stress. They find relief, a sanctuary if you will. Then they themselves become the sanctuary that they sought, then they go home and provide that sanctuary for their kids. Suddenly a cycle gets broken.

Is there a scenario where gang violence could be eradicated in Los Angeles?

Father Greg: In 1992, we had 1,000 gang-related homicides in LA county. Since then, it’s been cut in half, and then cut in half again. And yet, you’re still seeing gang homicides. No kid is seeking anything when he joins a gang – he’s always fleeing something. So, societies, families and communities need to address what that kid is fleeing. Otherwise, gangs will be an avenue. The decade of death was ‘88 to ’98 – I buried eight kids in a three-week period back in the day. Part of me says it will never return to those levels. Yet, we just had a kid killed the other day.

I go to a lot of cities and people make mistakes on this stuff. I was in a city once and the chief of police handed me a brochure. It was one of those brochures you hand to parents of kids who may be gravitating perilously close to gang activity. In it, it said, in big capital letters, “The number one reason why kids join gangs: excitement.” Well, if I compiled a list of 200 reasons why kids join gangs, excitement wouldn’t be on my list. That’s a classic outsider view trying to figure it out. “Why would a kid join a gang? Oh, I get it. Excitement. Put that down. Put that in our brochure.” I just shake my head.

Or the other day, I heard on the radio, “Violence causes violence.” That’s just crazy – people focus on the number of bullets flying and just try to calm the flying of bullets. Any place I go, I try to encourage people to see this a different way. I get it, people are freaked out by the number of deaths or shootings, but unless you get underneath this and address the despair, then you can’t make much progress. 

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Father Greg has authored two books, the first which became a New York Times bestseller titled “Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion” and his second titled “Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship,” which will be released later this month.

To learn more about Homeboy Industries, visit http://www.homeboyindustries.org.

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