When Gregory Boyle was a young priest he was assigned to a parish in one of the poorest sections of Los Angeles. He soon realized that the parish needed way more than Sunday services. Young men especially were in dire straits – hundreds of them were getting killed in gang warfare. The city’s police were in an all-out war on the gangs, and Boyle could see that wasn’t going to work. Ever.
“Gang violence is about a lethal absence of hope,” says Boyle. “Nobody has ever met a hopeful kid who joined a gang.” He set out to make sure hope came to the young men of "the hood."
Going way above and beyond his job description as a parish priest, he started with an alternative school and day-care program, then a bakery that grew into the nonprofit organization, Homeboy Industries.
It is now the largest and most successful gang rehabilitation program in the world.
More than 15,000 people a year are involved in Homeboy Industries' counseling, classes, legal assistance, work-readiness trainings, and actual jobs. It’s a positive alternative to gangs, up-leveling the hope factor for the area’s young men, just as Boyle planned it would.
It’s been a long hard road and it continues to be a struggle for Boyle, emotionally, physically and financially. I
n one three-week span in the 90s, he buried eight boys and young men. He’s received threats, hate mail, and hostility from—law enforcers who were suspicious of a priest “fraternizing” with gang members. “The logic,” says Boyle, “seemed to be that the friend of my enemy is my enemy. Therefore, I must be demonized for helping gang members.”
Keeping all the programs going costs over 16 million dollars a year, a tough goal for any nonprofit to meet. In the recent recession, Homeboy had to lay off 300 staffers.
Through it all, Boyle can see that gang membership is down and that gang-related deaths are down a full 65%. He can look at the gang members who have taken up his offer of hope and turned their lives around, like the 24-year-old who had spent 10 years in a juvenile detention facility. “It was his no-matter-what-ness that stuck in my head. He gives love, kinship, and unconditional acceptance . . . no matter what, and with no expectation of anything in return. That was unbelievable to me.”
Even the once hostile police have come around, like the one who said, “To a population who feels they have no avenue to opportunity and success, Father Greg’s understanding, compassion, and no-judgment methods have provided invaluable infrastructure and opportunities.”
For the last ten years, Boyle has been dealing with leukemia, carrying on at Homeboy while insisting that the work will keep going without him because it’s the former gang members who run it all, the young men who have responded when he’s said, "There’s that door. I think if you walked through it, you’d be happier than you are.”