Sophia is a project to collect life lessons from fascinating people. Subscribe to get our updates directly via Facebook or email, or share your own wisdom. For three decades, gang members seeking a new life have shown up on Greg Boyle's doorstep. A Jesuit priest, "Father G" leads Los Angeles' renowned Homeboy Industries, which offers extensive services and a supportive community to the formerly incarcerated and gang-involved. The nonprofit is best known for its social enterprises, like Homegirl Cafe, staffed by ex-cons and described as a "farm-to-table breakfast and lunch spot featuring Latino flavors, where homegirls serve tables instead of serving time." In recent years, Boyle has come to realize that jobs aren't enough. Gang membership is "about a lethal absence of hope in young people," he says. "Violence becomes a language, the language of the despondent, of the traumatized, of the mentally ill." Thus, more than ever, Homeboy Industries focuses on providing clients with services for mental health, substance abuse, domestic violence support, and relationship therapy. Boyle decries the trend of government programs that refuse to work with violent or serious offenders, who need the most support. And he likens many law enforcement-backed gang programs to treating lung cancer with cough medicine. In an interview with HuffPost, Father Boyle shares lessons he's learned about personal fulfillment, building relationships, and coping with death.
You've been working with gang members for 30 years, but that it took you some time to realize the importance of relationships to healing. Can you expand on that a little bit?
Yeah. In the early days, I'd say, "Nothing stops a bullet like a job." When somebody introduces me somewhere and they say that, it almost feels creepy. But in the early days, that's what we did mainly. We were dispatching gang members to jobs.
I would always say, a job handles about 80 percent of what needs to get handled. It gives the gang member a reason to get up in the morning and a reason not to gangbang the night before.
But I can see now that, whereas employment and all those things are true, it's kind of superficial. It doesn't get at what this is about. I would find somebody a job, sometimes even a career. But then a monkey wrench would get thrown and something would happen -- you know, his lady would leave him or something. Next thing you know, he was back in the neighborhood and then returned to prison. There was the discovery that no healing had happened. He hadn't gained resilience.
The difference now with people is the world is going to throw at them what it will but this time they won't be toppled by it. There's that whole process of attachment repair and gaining resilience. The largest task is to re-identify who they are in the world now. You have to move beyond the mind you have. You will say, I used to think courage meant packing a gun. Now, I can see that that has nothing to do with courage.
So things like that happen. And then, even though they move beyond our community, they're always connected to it. They're resilient. They know that they won't fall for the stuff they fell for before.
And it all has to do with healing, coming to terms with the things that had happened to them and the things that they had done. Their wounds become their friends rather than things to numb with drugs or flee from into violence.
Are there any other recent shifts in how Homeboy Industries approaches its work?
I think there are a lot of things. Actually, reaching back even beyond the work of finding jobs for gang members, in the early days I did kind of shuttle diplomacy between gangs -- you know, peace treaties, truces, cease fires, those kinds of things.
That was a lesson I learned early on. At Homeboy, we don't work with gangs. We work with gang members. If you work with gangs, you supply oxygen to gangs. You keep them alive because of the attention you pay to them.
We're not talking about the Middle East or Northern Ireland, where if you can just sit the sides down, they can discuss issues. I've had people criticize me. They go, "So you're against peacemaking?" And I say: I'm old fashioned. I think peacemaking requires a conflict. And there is no conflict in gang violence. None. Zero. Never.
It's not about anything. It's about a lethal absence of hope in young people. Violence becomes a language, the language of the despondent, of the traumatized, of the mentally ill. It's not about, you know, let's sit ourselves down and iron this out; I want my land back, or I want to practice my religion openly.
There are no issues to be worked out because it's not about what people think it is. The outsider view always drives the inside of what we do, our policy.
But I think more recently, what I've learned is that: If love is the answer, community is the context, and tenderness is the methodology. Tenderness is the connective tissue. You can say it lots of ways. You can talk about relationship and connection. I always talk about kinship.
But tenderness is the thing that moves love, so that it connects people. Love can just stay in the head or it can just stay in the heart, but tenderness moves it out into the world. And that's exactly what gang members long for. But surprise, surprise, it's what we all long for, is to be in kinship with each other, where we all feel like we belong to each other.
I saw someone quote a speech of yours on Twitter. Your punchline was, "They used to shoot at each other. Now they're shooting texts." What was the story there?
I had these two gang members with me who worked at Homeboy, and they were going to help me give a talk at a high school. So we met at 9 o'clock as the day began and we were driving in, and 15 minutes into the trip, Manuel in the front seat gets an incoming text. He reads it to himself, and he chuckles. And I said, "What is it?" He goes, "Oh, it's dumb. It's from Snoopy back at the office."
Well, I'd just seen Snoopy. And Snoopy, you know, greeted me in the morning. And Snoopy and Manuel work together in the clocks room, where they clock in hundreds and hundreds of workers. So I said, "Well, what's the text?"
And he goes, "Well, it's stupid." But then he reads it. And the text said, "Hey dawg, it's me Snoops. Yeah. They've got my ass locked up at county jail. They're charging me with being the ugliest vato in America. You gotta come down here and show them they got the wrong guy."
So we just howled with laughter. And it's at that moment I realize that Manuel and Snoopy were in fact rivals. They used to shoot bullets at each other. Now, they shoot text messages.
So the idea is the inevitability of kinship once you put people in the same proximity with each other, because you can't demonize somebody you know. Not only did they work side by side, they became such great friends.
Has technology changed the nature of the work that you do? Or changed how the people that you work with engage with the services?
Yeah. I would say that it's not really a Twitter crowd, and it's not an emailing crowd. Monumentally it's a texting crowd.
Especially with high school kids, I always talk about how kind of dexterous I am at it. For me, it's a relatively new thing so, you know, OMG and LOL and BTW and all that. I always say that the homies have taught me a new one, OHN. Which apparently stands for, "Oh, hell no." [laughter] So I use that one quite a bit.
But texting, it's almost a ministry, the texting ministry, partly because I'm on the road so much, so there's hundreds and hundreds of text messages a day. You're always responding to them.
One of my favorite things is to sit in an airport and do kind of Russian Roulette. You just spin down and text somebody out of the blue -- it's not reacting to something they've asked of you. You just say, "Hey, thinking about you." "How did that thing turn out?" You know, "Is the baby keeping you awake?" And all those things, you know.
It's a brand new thing for me as somebody who is 60 years old. It's an important thing because you can say something to somebody real quick and in a surprising way. It's real tenderness all the time.
There has been more national discussion about race. I assume that race is a topic that is enmeshed in the work that you do.
Yeah. And of course I only know what I know, just my own experiences.
We're in our fourth location now. We serve the whole county of Los Angeles, whereas before we were trying to be responsive to the members of eight gangs in housing projects. That's when it started.
There were seven Latino gangs and one African American gang, and the African American gang essentially moved out of the projects. So then the whole Boyle Heights area was like 99 percent Latino. When we moved to our next location, it was all Latinos. It was the 60 gangs in Hollenbeck Police Precinct, which had 10,000 gang members. They're all Latino.
But then, when we moved to our third location and especially now in our fourth location, African Americans are a bigger part of the neighborhoods.
Anybody who works at our locations works side-by-side with numerous enemies, rivals. Everybody does. There are no exceptions to that. But then, especially for guys who have had the segregated experience in prison where, you know, the whites stay over there, the blacks stay over there, and the Latinos stay over here, and the Asians stay over there. There are few places more segregated than California prisons.
This sort of challenges that. Working together, these people can come to a sense of, you know,We belong to each other. We're connected to each other. They find kinship and friendship even in a potentially tense kind of environment.
I heard someone say that women work things out face-to-face, but men work things out shoulder-to-shoulder. And I think that's my experience at Homeboy, that often women gang members are not going to sit on anything. They're going to get in your face and say, "Bitch, remember that time?" They'll really kind of work it out with words.
But guys will just sort of -- shoulder to shoulder, you know. They'll be making dinner rolls or whatever they're doing in the bakery. They're together in classes or workshops. And somehow, they're working stuff out, but they don't always need to verbalize it.
We've had very few of them, but we have had some white supremacists that'll work at Homeboy, guys right out of prison who are tattooed and who were of a whole other mindset. We're not going to turn them away because anybody who wants to start all over again and be healed from all the stuff that's held them back, you know, they're welcome.
You write in your book about a period when you had to lay off a lot of staff when you were in dire financial straits. How are things today?
Yeah, this was around 2010. We had grown so big. We're a $15 million annual operation. About 41 percent of that comes from our social enterprises. So it's a heavy lift, always has been.
But it's kind of about priorities. Now we're looking at 2 percent government funding. We've been as high as 25 percent. But we've been around for 27 years, and everybody endlessly wants to reinvent the wheel.
So we get a new government regime in. They're going to start their thing, and it's frustrating. Some of it is born of just, I don't know, the world's worst analysis. Nobody has ever met a healthy treatment plan that was borne of a bad diagnosis. I don't believe that's probably ever happened. Everything is dependent on what you think this is about.
Recently, people have been asking me to evaluate a lot of new programs, ones that are mainly embraced by law enforcement in particular. These strategies are to gang violence what cough suppression is to the cure of lung cancer. I guess it works inasmuch as you can eliminate the cough. But the bad news is the patient is going to die because you have not in any way addressed what this is about.
Every approach and program and strategy is only as good as the analysis which undergirds it. So there are a lot of, I think, just cockamamie programs that are not strategies that get embraced by cities.
A lot of these new programs choose not to work with certain people. They're cherry-picking programs. They only want to work with what they call "the nons" -- the non-violent and the non-serious and the non-sexual offenders.
Now, we also don't work with sexual offenders just because it's too complicated for us. We have too many minors and liabilities. I wish, as a society, we could figure that one out.
But we work with the violent and serious offenders only. What we engage them in is pretty intensive healing. These are the only folks who truly have an impact on public safety. But "the nons" really only have impact on your jail populations. That's about it.
The people who really impact public safety are the serious and violent offenders. They need to find healing because, if they don't, then that's what continues to cycle. What's true of a kid who joins a gang, the profile of the despondent kid or the traumatized kid or the mentally ill kid, those three profiles get carried into the very people who walk in our doors at Homeboy trying to redirect and reimagine their lives.
All that is on a continuum of severity, some people more despondent than traumatized and some more mentally ill than despondent. But they're all kind of -- they're either all three or one of the three.
That's what we need to address. That's what needs to get healed. Otherwise, the thing continues. That's curing the lung cancer. But because the cost is so alarming and annoying, everybody focuses on that.
Other than programs that do not target violent/serious offenders, are there any other common approaches that aren't very effective?
Again, the quote is, "If you want to change the world, you change the metaphors." Part of the metaphor that needs to be changed is people still think this is primarily a crime issue when, in fact, it's a community health issue.
If you say, okay, this is a crime problem, then who should we talk to? Well, then it's law enforcement. People always ask me, "So tell us, how do you work with law enforcement?" I go, "We don't. I guess we call them if something's happened, like anybody else. But why would we work with law enforcement?"
I don't mean that in a hostile way. It doesn't make any sense to me. What would cops possibly have to do with the work we do at Homeboy?
It's a little bit like asking the drug rehab director, "How do you work with law enforcement?" They'd go, "Well, we don't. We do 12 steps, and people have sponsors and they go to meetings, they do the work and all that stuff." "Yeah. But don't you work with law enforcement?" A drug rehab center would be scratching its head.
The metaphor has to change, from crime to community health. That's what's gotten us into trouble, because right now it's all about suppression of the cause. It doesn't have anything to do with actually curing or healing or understanding what this is about.
Are there any policy prescriptions you think are critical? If you could wave a magic wand, are there some policies you'd put in place that would have an oversized effect on gangs and violence?
I think the minute we arrive at a sensible diagnosis of this, it would change everything. There's a program that [California attorney general] Kamala Harris has proposed. I like her, I voted for her. I'll vote for her for Senate.
The program is called Back on Track, and I don't mean to be critical of it. This isn't a criticism. It's a clarification. It works with "the nons". It's classic outsider views driving what we're going to do.
Outsiders say, "What would help? I know. Life skills, delivery of certain services. The problem is gang members just aren't educated. They just don't know enough. They don't really know the consequences of what they've done."
There's a high moral distance and overlay that gets slapped on this thing. But it's all wrong, wrong, wrong, it seems to me. Now, services are good. I don't want to be critical of the program because anything that gets an inmate out of his cell and into anything productive is a good thing. And that helps.
But it's still a bad diagnosis. People need to heal. It's not just services, it's community. A lot of counties and cities, they get into services, and it ends up like the DMV. You know: Now serving number 43. Here's anger management. And here's parenting classes. And here's whatever it is, you know.
The missing link is community. Homeboy Industries is a wraparound community. It delivers services, all those services. But the fact is, this is a trauma-informed community. These are folks who have endured unspeakable things. And that has everything to do with why they have engaged in serious and violent crime. Everything.
So if we believe that this is about a lethal absence of hope and about the traumatized and damaged or the mentally ill, what would we do? We would infuse hope to kids for whom hope is foreign. We would help heal the damaged and traumatized. We'd deliver mental health services in the timely and culturally appropriate way. That's what we would do if we had the diagnosis right. But we don't.
People say, "These kids have to measure up, and they don't know enough, they don't have any skills." No. They just need to heal from this stuff.
Some of your Homeboys met with President Obama. How did that go?
We had a chance encounter with the President. The White House wanted me to bring some homies over when he spoke at L.A. Trade Tech. There was a briefing after the talk where he shook hands. And he asked one kid, Herbie -- he goes, "What do you do at Homeboy?" And Herbie says, "Well, I work at the diner, but I mainly work on myself." [laughter]
I'm on the other side of the room going, Good answer! Because we always talk about, we don't want any homies there who just wants the check. We only want homies who want the change. And it's not some moral change. It's about coming to terms. That is what the work is. Come to terms with what's been done to you. Come to terms with what you've done. Doing that work is the whole thing.
So Barack Obama looked at this kid and said, "I admire you." And I thought, yeah, that's right. It's admirable. It's admirable that kids who -- I stand in awe at what these kids have to carry rather than in judgment at how they've carried it. But people want them to measure up -- "if only you were smarter and if only you had these skills."
And we do training! Obviously, I'm not opposed to training. But the real deal, the real work is finding healing. Find that transformation. Transform your pain, so you don't have to transmit it anymore.
And that's what the graduate at graduation looks like when they leave Homeboy. They're resilient. Stuff is going to be coming at them like crazy. But they're really not going to be toppled this time. And that's different. They're not going to go into some kind of spiraling, crazy violent thing.
Let me ask about your upbringing. I've seen you speak relatively recently about your mom and having meals with her regularly. Is there anything your parents did for you that many parents don't do that left a lasting impact?
Yeah, you know, my mom is still alive. My dad died 20 years ago. She's nearly 90, so I try to see her once a week if I'm in town.
The thing mainly my family and my parents always underscore for me is the great disparity. I never joined a gang. Home was wonderful, great parents. I never felt despondent. I never felt traumatized or damaged except for the average run-of-the-mill Irish Catholic goofball stuff, but not the stuff that just leaves me slack-jawed in talking to homies.
I had a guy say the other day -- he's a grown man now. He was 10 years old, in his room. His mom walks in. She has deeply profoundly slit her wrists, and blood is just gushing out of her wrists. She says to him, "See what you made me do?" He ended up getting taken away and foster homes till he was 17. And then he said, "I prefer my anger to my shame."
I never had to encounter anything like that. I think morality has exactly zero to do with any of this. So once I start to say, "Well, I never joined a gang," as if I'm morally superior to that kid who had to endure that at 10 years old...
So, I had a wonderful upbringing. I just won the lottery in terms of zip code where I happened to be born, the parents to whom I was born and the life that we had.
When I testify in death penalty sentencings of gang members, prosecutors will always point at the defendant and say, "He had a choice whether to do these awful things or not."
I say: not all choices are created equal. And wow, welcome to how complex human beings are. I just think, the reason I haven't killed human beings is not because my moral compass is intact, though I think it is. It's because I've never been stuck in a despair so bleak or damaged and traumatized, nor suffered mental illness. That's why I've never been a defendant in a capital case. That's why.
We would like to think it's because I know the difference between right and wrong. No. I've never been even remotely in that kind of state. In death penalty cases involving gang members, they're all mentally ill. All. You don't need to take Psych 101 to land on that.
But we don't want to talk that way. We want to talk about evil. And he's a monster.
You know, I've seen monstrous things. But I'll tell you, I've been with gang members for 30 years, and I've never met a monster. I've never met an evil person ever. I've seen some pretty horrible things that human beings have done to others. And I know lots of people who've killed others. But I've never met an evil person or a monstrous one.
I think that's important to underscore. We get caught up in this thing, it is the opposite of kinship, which is distance.
You talk a lot about kinship, the importance of relationships. As a Jesuit priest, you aren't able to marry. What is your thinking about choosing to forgo that type of very close emotional bond, in the context of your philosophy about the importance of human relationships?
I've been a Jesuit for 42 years. I wouldn't trade my life for anybody's. It's been an extraordinarily rich life. I have a lot of people in my life, and I think there's something key, the thing that leads to intimacy and relationship and connection, is tenderness.
But it's also that if we're hospitable to our own brokenness, then we don't despise it in other people, which is always sort of the issue. I mean, it's always the issue. I was watching this woman ask a question of Rick Santorum. It was just outrageous.
She was just, "Why have you done nothing about this dictator president of ours?" She went on and on. I know what that is. You're not hospitable to your own brokenness, which is important to do, so you're going to just despise it in the other. You're going to scapegoat, and it's going to be all about rivalry and winning the argument.
Humility is the place. A homie said to me the other day, "If you're humble, you'll never stumble." I think it's true. It's a place that makes your life rich. So for me, it's never been about the things that have been denied to me. Boy, I've never -- you fall in love in the course of your life. But there comes a time when you're madly in love with being loving. It doesn't get better than that.
Statistics suggest that violence generally is going down in the United States. There are ups and downs but the general trend line is down. But others seem to feel that the situation is particularly dire today. Do you feel optimistic about what you see today?
Yeah. I always try to be more hopeful than optimistic. But it's indisputable. The "decade of death" was '88 to '98. In 1992, L.A. County had 1,000 gang-related homicides. I mean, that's never happened before or since.
Ever since that time, that number has been cut in half and cut in half again. I'm going to go with the assistant chief of police who said not long ago, "I shudder to think what would happen if Homeboy didn't exist."
I don't mean that just to support what we do. I think we really jostled that notion of "tough on crime" versus "soft on crime". Now, everybody, even politicians, talk about, "I'd rather be smart on crime."
Homeboy always stood for that. It proposed this question: What if we were to invest in people rather than just mindlessly try and incarcerate our way out of this problem
Maybe the more important thing was how Homeboy was viewed by gang members. For the first time, they could imagine an exit ramp off this crazy violent freeway. If it's despair that put them on that freeway, what did it mean to have no way off the freeway? It compounded the despair. And it increased the violence.
That's what happens in that decade of death, '88 to '98. I think we'll never return to it. But there are still those three profiles of kids who join gangs. Those are still out there awaiting our collective addressing.
There was also just fatigue. All of us who lived through that time, we were exhausted from it. There were shootings morning, noon and night.
And still, kids get killed. I've buried 198. Two weeks ago was my last one I buried. I only keep track of those killed in gang violence.
Have you had any recent realizations about happiness, about personal fulfillment? Does the work that you do, is it basically all you need to have a great sense of contentment with your life?
Absolutely. You know, there's a part in the Gospel where the disciples ask Jesus, "Increase our faith." What that really means is, the question is, what should we give our hearts to? Once you find this thing that you give your heart to -- for me, it's about being on the margins.
It's about standing with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. That's important to me. That is something that I want to give my heart to.
Having said that, I've gone through a lot of ups and downs -- times where I wanted it more than the kid wanted it. I wanted his transformation more than he did. That was in my early years. And that's how burnout happens. I discovered that no amount of me wanting that kid to redirect his life is the same as that kid wanting to do it.
My new thing now is -- I was in Houston, and a very earnest gang intervention worker came up to me, kind of pleading with me. He said, "How do you reach them?" I said, "For starters, stop trying to reach them."
The only question for me now in my life is, can I allow them to reach me? That's the only thing that matters to me now. It's not about fixing people or even helping people. It is, can you receive who these people are?
Because in the end, what's empowering is that they will feel valuable because you value them. This is why we keep rarifying stuff. The idea that only former gang members can work with current gang members is nonsense, because the task is listening to them, receiving them. If you're a proud owner of a pulse, then you can do that. Anybody can do that. And that's kind of liberating. That's been sort of liberating for me. So when I go into the office, that's what I want to do. I want to receive them.
Thich Nhat Hanh has a line in a poem where he says, "Keep your loneliness warm." It's a way of keeping your vulnerability, your own brokenness, all that stuff, you want to keep it at hand. You don't want to run from it. You don't want to hide from it. You don't want to numb yourself from it. It's a way of receiving who people are.
A PBS reporter ended his interview by saying, "How does it feel to have changed thousands and thousands of lives?" Well, I think that's nonsense. I said, "I don't even know what you're talking about." And I don't mean to be coy. I don't believe it. The only thing I know for sure is that I show up, and my life is saved every day.
I show up, and I get constantly rescued. I show up and suddenly I discover my own awakened heart, because of something someone has said. That's liberating for me. That's where I live most days now, in just trying to receive who people are.
At that point, it becomes all mutually transformational. Homeboy doesn't transform these lives. They come to Homeboy, and they find transformation. And there's a difference, I think.
Is there a book or a handful of books that have had a profound impact on your life or on your intellectual development?
Marcus Borg recently died. He's a scripture scholar. I would read everything that he would write because it's a very kind of liberating sense of the Gospel.
Dorothy Day, Cesar Chavez, these are people whose thoughts are so important. Richard Rohr is a theologian that I read.
And then, I'm a Jesuit. So I study the whole Ignatian spirituality stuff from St. Ignatius, who started the Jesuits. And I'm also sort of a part-time Buddhist. So I read all that stuff, you know.Pema Chodron -- she's kind of a key person for me -- and Thich Nhat Hanh. Pema Chodron is a Buddhist monk. She's a Westerner, but her stuff is wonderful.
One day, I'm in my office and I look out and my gosh, there's Pema Chodron in her big saffron robes. It was surreal. And she was just standing there. All the seats were taken by gang members. Nobody was giving her a seat. She's got to be 70. And I said, my gosh, tell that woman to get in here. Her head is shaved, and she's wonderful. I really recommend her.
She had just read my book. And she lives in town and thought there might be a chance that we could meet. It was completely unplanned. But she's like my hero. I've never been more starstruck than when she was there. I'd read every book she's written.
What do you think about when you think about death?
It's funny. You know, I've buried so many -- I do more funerals than I do weddings, especially in the old days. Death was sort of a part of the air you breathed.
And you know, I struggled with leukemia, so I've had my own little moments of mortality right there. But I -- the Dalai Lama, who I was privileged to speak in front of and meet last year, somebody asked him about his death.
He just shrugged and smiled and said, "Change of clothing." [laughter] I want what he's having! That is it for me: death has no power. Because I've had to deal with this so much, even in the community of Homeboy Industries, I always remind the homies that you need to compile these two lists.
First, list of fates worse than death, which is a long one. Second, you need the list of things more powerful than death. Kinship and knowing the truth of who you are, all that stuff is more powerful than death. Then death becomes, as a homie said to me once, a punk. [laughter] It has no power. It has no power over you.
So that's kind of where I am. One of the gifts of working here is you get your heart broken. And you sob. But you have to get to this place where death doesn't topple you. And that can only come from refining your lists of fates that are worse, and the things that are more powerful.