Greg Boyle and the Homeboys

Greg Boyle and the Homeboys

We live in a war-torn world. We are eyewitnesses to war within countries, war within regions, war within communities and families, and war within human hearts. This month, we spotlight a contemporary PeaceWeaver, who has spent his life addressing the causes, preventing, and halting war. For two decades, Greg Boyle has rescued young men and women from the ravages of soul-deep conflict. He is the Founder and Executive Director of Homeboy Industries, the world's largest gang-intervention, rehabilitation, and re-entry program.

Greg was born in 1954 to Kathleen and Bernie Boyle in Los Angeles, one of eight siblings reared in this devout Catholic household. Greg grew up loving Jesus and wanting to follow Him. He graduated from high school in 1972 and immediately joined the Jesuits, an order devoted to Christ's service and missions. His earned a bachelor degree in English from Gonzaga University, an MA in English from Loyola Marymount University, and advanced theology degrees from The Weston School of Theology and the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. He was ordained as a priest in 1984 at age thirty.

Along the way, Father Boyle taught at Loyola High School in Los Angeles, was chaplain in the Islas Marias Penal Colony in Mexico, and at Folsom prison. After he completed his theological training, Greg worked with Christian Base Communities in Cochabamba, Bolivia. He was then appointed pastor of Dolores Mission Church in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1986, the poorest parish in the city. At the time he stepped into this pulpit, the church sat between two large public housing projects, the territory of numerous gangs. Here he served for almost thirty years, until 1992.

Father Boyle and his parishioners lived through years of violence in those barrios. They witnessed the devastating impact of gang violence on their community during the so-called “decade of death” that began in the late 1980s and peaked at 1,000 gang-related killings in 1992. In the face of law enforcement tactics and criminal justice policies of suppression and mass incarceration as the means to end gang violence, he and parish and community members got together, prayed about the problem, and decided that a new approach was needed. Something was not working. He said, "In Los Angeles, the gang capital of the world, we have 1,100 gangs and 120,000 gang members so it is a daunting, complex social dilemma." They adopted what was a radical notion at the time: to treat gang members as human beings.
Greg Boyle opened Homeboy Industries in 1988, as an effort to address the escalating problems and unmet needs of gang-involved youth. Together, Boyle, parish, and community members began to develop positive opportunities for them, including establishing an alternative school and a day care program for young children, and seeking out legitimate employment. They called this initial effort, "Jobs for a Future."

Following the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Homeboy Bakery opened its doors. Homeboy offers an "exit ramp" for those stuck in a cycle of violence and incarceration. The organization's holistic approach, with free services and programs, supports around 10,000 men and women a year as they work to overcome their pasts, re-imagine their futures, and break the inter-generational cycles of gang violence. He often says, "Children find themselves adrift not because the informational signposts are illegible, but because there is no one around to guide and accompany them."

Therapeutic and educational offerings (case management, counseling, and classes), practical services (like tattoo removal, work readiness, and legal assistance), and job training-focused businesses (such as the Homeboy Bakery, Homegirl Café, and Homeboy Silkscreen & Embroidery), provide healing alternatives to gang life while creating safer and healthier communities.

Greg Boyle launched the Global Homeboy Network in 2014. Its mission is to work with organizations across the globe to create therapeutic communities that offer job skills training, cost-free programs and services, and social enterprise employment. GHN’s goal is to assist other organizations as they provide marginalized men, women, and youth with tools they need to change their lives and become productive members of their communities. To date, representatives from 400 states and countries around the world have visited the Los Angeles campus to learn about how to help gang members. The global network continues to expand each year.

In the summer of 2019, Homeboy Industries hosted a training event to share this model and its best practices. Homeboy Industries aims to be a positive alternative to the prison industrial complex in the United States and beyond. Boyles feels strongly that he was called to this: "Homeboy Industries has chosen to stand with the 'demonized' so that the demonizing will stop; it stands with the 'disposable' so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away."

Boyle wrote Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion (2010), a story about the more than two decades in the barrio. Simon and Schuster also published his 2017 book, Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship, and his 2017 volume, The Whole Language: The Power of Extravagant Tenderness. Today, Greg Boyle serves as a member of the National Gang Center Advisory Board, the Loyola Law School Center for Juvenile Law and Policy in Los Angeles, and the Attorney General’s Defending Childhood Task Force. He has received medals of honor, peace, book, and man of the year awards from multiple foundations, magazines, publishers, and halls of fame.

This month, we celebrate what God has done with the Home boys and girls in Los Angeles. In this man's heart, the capacity for caring is only exceeded by his love for his Savior. What a Peacemaker! Boyles and his church members have rescued two generations of warriors whom God has changed into His own peacemakers. He says, "Our best selves tell us that 'there but for the grace of God... ' and that, in the end, there is no distance, really, between us and them. It is just us. Our best and noble hope is to imitate the God we believe in. The God who has abundant room in God's grief and heart for us all. . . . I wouldn't trade my life for anybody's."

-Karen O'Dell Bullock
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