A Jesuit priest makes a difference

David Rieff | Posted on 05/24/10

Homeboy Industries has also come to serve as something of a reproof to what Boyle sees as the overemphasis in our society on dealing with the gang problem almost wholly as a matter of policing and imprisonment. For twenty years, he notes, he and his colleagues have tried to get the policy makers in Los Angeles, in city and county government and in the police and sheriff's departments, to consider whether it might not make a great deal more sense "to invest in gang members, rather than just seek to incarcerate our way out of this problem."

Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, by Gregory Boyle, Free Press, $25, 217 pages

 

It is commonplace nowadays to use catchphrases like "make a difference" to describe almost any form of civic voluntarism. USA Today has even initiated an annual "Make a Difference Day" and recruited a good number of celebrities to participate. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this.  Even if one broadly identifies oneself, as I do, with the political "left" (to the limited extent that the left-right distinction is still a useful explanatory template), and believes that the government should play a greater rather than a lesser role in society, without voluntarism we risk quickly becoming passive consumers of state services. Equally, without individuals, civic associations, and communities becoming active, the sense of community itself -- so essential for a civilized society -- begins to wither (this is always a danger in cities in a way it is generally not in small towns).

Having said that, if we are being serious, most of us -- including the most dedicated civic volunteer -- understand how very hard it is to make a lasting difference; if, that is, one's goal is to sustainably alter the graver social problems of our society. Volunteering in a soup kitchen, admirable as it is, does not provide a solution to the problem of poverty, any more than working in a hospice promises a cure for cancer. Again, it is not supposed to. It is even possible that if everyone who could did some volunteer work, some intractable problems - notably illiteracy-- could be mitigated. But the world is a hard place, for all the goodness that exists in it, and for the most part individuals trying to change things for the better find themselves overwhelmed by the scale of our problems.

For a single person to make a profound difference to large groups of people (individuals often can be helped in this way) is therefore a rare accomplishment, and one that deserves to be celebrated. Father Gregory Boyle has done just that in his long career of neighborhood activism in the most deprived and crime-afflicted neighborhoods of East Los Angeles. For more than a quarter of a century, this Jesuit priest has managed to redirect the lives of literally thousands of gang members (there are said to be almost 100,000 active gang members at any given time in greater L.A.). Father Boyle has done so through a mix of personal contact and caring and institutional initiatives culminating in his establishing Homeboy Industries, a counseling, job training, and community support organization. All is provided free of charge and paid for by the money Boyle and his colleagues raise every year. As he puts it in his extraordinary memoir, Tattoos on the Heart, "We are a worksite and a therapeutic community...a training program and a business." As a result, he adds, "the place has become the ‘United Nations' of gangs," explaining that when members of enemy gangs work with one another, "a valuable ‘disconnect' is created on the streets."

Boyle's work began in earnest in 1984 when he became an associate pastor at Dolores Mission Church in the poorest parish in Los Angeles. Two years later, he became the church's pastor. He had come back to Southern California after two years of missionary work in Bolivia. The experience had transformed him. As Boyle likes to say (and here, in the interest of full disclosure, I should add that I have met and spoken with him several times), "You don't evangelize the poor, the poor evangelize you." Instead of going to Santa Clara University to run the student service program, he went to the Dolores Mission...and stayed.

Tattoos on the Heart (the reference, of course, being to the tattoos that are the most visible sign of gang affiliation) is in part a history of the development of Homeboy Industries. Boyle is justifiably proud of what he has accomplished, but he is candid about the limitations of his approach. Homeboy Industries, he writes, "is not for those who need help, only for those who want it." He is also candid that despite his success in turning around so many lives, the project "remains a tiny drop in a pretty deep bucket...and has operated as a symbol as much as a place of concrete help."

Homeboy Industries has also come to serve as something of a reproof to what Boyle sees as the overemphasis in our society on dealing with the gang problem almost wholly as a matter of policing and imprisonment. For twenty years, he notes, he and his colleagues have tried to get the policy makers in Los Angeles, in city and county government and in the police and sheriff's departments, to consider whether it might not make a great deal more sense "to invest in gang members, rather than just seek to incarcerate our way out of this problem."  

Of course, if we are being honest, for most of us our first reaction to the gang world tends to be carceral as well. Unless our professions put us in contact with such individuals, we experience the violence of gang members as either a savage interruption in our own lives or as something we see on television. The gang members themselves might as well be creatures from another planet, so unfamiliar are we with them as human beings. Our only daily "contact" with them, if you can call it that, is the gang graffiti that we see on the sides of the freeway or on the streets of inner-city neighborhoods. Boyle knows this, and I assume it is the main reason he chose to devote the bulk of his book to a series of extremely moving and highly nuanced portraits of some of the gang members with whom he has worked, both successfully and unsuccessfully. He does not present himself as having somehow transcended anger toward many of these young people. The degree of difficulty can be high, he writes, particularly when it is a matter of "kids I love killing kids I love." Speaking of two gang members who had killed a twelve-year-old named Betito of whom he was very fond, Father Boyle writes, "It was excruciating not to be able to hate them."

What Boyle is talking about here is compassion in the truest and deepest sense of the word. He emphasizes that he is not talking about loving the people who love you. For him, that is no great accomplishment. Instead Boyle is talking about loving the damned, loving your enemies, finding "some space for the victimizer as well as the victim." This, he insists, is what the highest honing of compassion really it, in that "it resembles more the expansive compassion of God."  

Most of us are not remotely capable of this. When Boyle writes that "a spacious and undefended heart finds room for everything you are and carves space for everybody else," one can only admire the sentiment. But could one live it, as Boyle has spent almost his entire adult life doing, as opposed to paying homage to it? For most of us, the answer is no, much as we might wish it were otherwise. Father Boyle is a moral exemplar, and there is a reason why they are so rare. What stays with you after finishing Tattoos on the Heart is Boyle's capacity for what, at one point in the book, he calls "endless acceptance and infinite love." Is there an element of naivety in it, and a degree of wishful thinking as well? Probably there is. But then, is that not what it takes to love unconditionally, "no longer saddled," as Boyle puts it, "by the burden of our persistent judgments, our ceaseless withholding, our constant exclusion"? And love, Father Boyle seems to be trying to tell us, is not for the faint of heart.

 

 

 

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