How to prevent kids from joining gangs
LA Jesuit’s advice rooted in Homeboy Industries’ success
By Karen Mahoney
Special to your Catholic Herald
RACINE - Drugs, crime, violence and death. These are the cold, true realities of life in a gang. As deadly as these factors seem, many of our children still become involved in gangs. Why? What do gangs offer that is worth risking one's life? To many youths, it comes down to one thing - a sense of belonging.
Jesuit Fr. Gregory Boyle challenged an audience at SC Johnson's Golden Rondelle Theater, Feb. 12, to abolish gangs by creating a community of kinship.
"We need to be obliterating the allusion of the separation of us and them," said Fr. Boyle. "Mother Teresa suggested that all the problems in the world are there because we have just forgotten that we belong to each other. We need to stand against forgetting that. Kinship is tricky - you can blink and miss it even when you don't want to."
Fr. Boyle is an expert in kinship. After founding Homeboy Industries more than 20 years ago in downtown Los Angeles, his ministry has made an impact on former gang members in every ZIP code in the county. While his slogan is "Jobs, not jails," his words are not empty. He invests in people rather than "trying to incarcerate our way out of the problem."
Each day lives are transformed by providing jobs for troubled youth at Homeboy's bakery, Homegirl Café & Catering, Homeboy Maintenance, Homeboy Merchandise, Homeboy Press and Homeboy Silkscreen & Embroidery. Services such as counseling, Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, tattoo removal, computer literacy, and help with academic subjects are paramount to giving former gang members something they had never experienced - a sense of hope.
"We need to reach in and dismantle what weighs kids down," Fr. Boyle explained. "No one has ever met a hopeful kid who joined a gang. It has never happened in history. Kids join in the lethal absence of hope. Their account of life is misery and misery loves company. In the LA community, the kids planned their funerals, not their futures. We see so much gangbanging and teenage suicide and we need to reach in and dismantle the messages. It's unfortunate for all of us; the gang issue is not a crime issue, but a community health issue that depends on the diagnosis. If the diagnosis is bad - how can the treatment be good?"
As one of eight children in an Irish Catholic family, Fr. Boyle remembers his mother wanting to keep a few remnants of her past life private. She sternly warned the kids not to go into the attic, but not surprisingly that is the first place they went.
"We sold tickets to the attic," he said, laughing. "We walked on the planks and dug through boxes when my mom was gone. In one old dusty trunk, we found a handwritten label on a record with Mom's name on it. It was a recording of 'O Holy Night' and on that record, we discovered that mom was an opera singer before she had eight kids. We couldn't believe it was the same woman who screamed at us!"
After playing the record until the grooves were nearly worn through, Fr. Boyle began to focus on the words of the song: "Long lay the world in sin and error pining till he appear'd and the soul felt its worth." The words echoing in his soul through adulthood, he began to believe that if he held a mirror to the faces of the troubled gang members that maybe the kids might return to themselves.
During his presentation, sponsored by Sustainable-Racine, he recalled a former Homeboy named Bandit who left the gang life behind, married and had a family. His first daughter was preparing to leave for college, something no member of his family had ever done. They wanted Fr. Boyle to say a prayer over the girl before she left. When he began to pray, each member of the family was reduced to tears and the startled priest wondered why.
"After the prayer, Bandit hung back and I said to him, 'I give you credit for the man you chose to become. I am proud of you.' He said to me, 'I am proud of myself. All my life people called me a low-life, good-for-nothing and I guess I showed them,'" explained Fr. Boyle, adding, "And the soul feels its worth ..."
Week after week, Fr. Boyle celebrates Mass primarily for gang members at downtown Los Angeles juvenile halls and detention facilities. At the end of each Mass, he hands out his business card and invites the youth to contact him when they get out.
"I tell them that I won't know where they are, but with my card, they will know how to reach me," he said. "I tell them we'll take off their tattoos and find them a job right away. It's important to not promote justice, but to celebrate it. Imagine a circle of compassion with no one standing outside the circle. You stand on the outside edges with those on the margins. Stand with the easily despised and readily left out. Stand with those who have burdens more than they can bear. Stand with the demonized so it will stop. Stand with the disposable so a day will come and we will stop throwing people away - especially kids."
Dreamer was a gang member who had been in and out of prison and given at least 94 chances to find a job. According to Fr. Boyle, who knew Dreamer since he was a kid, the cycle was always the same. Get a job, dissolve into criminality and beg for another chance. Finally, Dreamer was serious and contacted the patient priest one more time.
"I called a friend of mine who ran a vending machine company in California. He hired him right away and two weeks later Dreamer came up to me waving his first check. He told me that the check made him feel good," said Fr. Boyle. "He said, 'My mom is proud of me and my kids are not ashamed of me.'"
The stories are all similar. A troubled teen joins a gang to replace the family he doesn't have. Tattooed, angry and miserable, the gang member takes a chance to break from the cycle and Fr. Boyle waits with open arms and offers a job, a way out.
"Of course, to those looking from the outside, they might say it is a waste of a perfectly good job," he said. "But we need to stand against that idea. That is who we are as a people and that is what we hope to be. It's daunting, but if we choose to be enlightened witnesses, they might return to themselves. If we show up, tell the truth, hold the mirror up and tell them that they are exactly what God had in mind when he made them - then watch them inhabit that truth. No bullet can pierce that or four walls of prison can keep that out. We need to do battle with things and those that are saddled with shame and disgrace. It is hard to get out from under it."
Fr. Boyle has buried 166 youth who tried to escape the endless, downward spiral to hopelessness. While each death ripped into his heart, he chooses to focus on the impressive statistics of the thousands who left the life behind for a brighter future. And even sometimes in death, the truth of who they were in God's eyes rose above the sadness.
"That is the truth that no bullet can pierce. There are things much worse than death and not knowing the truth can be one of them," said Fr. Boyle. "We are called to step outside of the margins and create a kingdom they can recognize. People will say that we are wasting our time, but that won't make those voices heard in Wisconsin. A vision has time and it will not disappoint. If it delays, wait for it."