Jesuit Gregory Boyle offers an alternative to gang life with his program Homeboy Industries. And he witnesses miracles — like former enemies working side by side
At Los Angeles’ Chinatown metro train stop there is a viaduct, and underneath cars pass by an ugly factory building, houses with broken windows and a yellow building with swarms of muscled, tattooed men. This is where you’ll find “Homeboy Industries.” Here, young people find jobs and hope. Here they find Father Greg Boyle, or “Father G,” as they call him. He is the founder of a flourishing business that provides aromatic bread made from scratch, tasty lunches and a catering service.
The employees behind the counter, in the bakery or in the kitchen have specific qualifications: some years spent in prison, experiences in drug dealing or in the gang life on the streets. Their job prospects were practically zero, but Father Greg is convinced that everybody deserves a second chance. “Nothing can stop a bullet like a job,” is his motto. He focuses on rehabilitation, “jobs, not jails.” His motivation is deeply rooted in the Gospel — he is convinced that no matter how shattered and broken their lives may be, God is present in everyone. By letting them know that God wants and loves them exactly as they are, they take back their dignity.
Francisco, for example, grew up in Central South LA, “the worst address you can have to go through life in a legal way. My whole family was involved in the gang,” he says as we talk in the small kitchen at Homeboy’s. His face is completely covered with tattoos — red lips on his forehead, a cross, symbols and the number 38, the name of his former gang. “I got my first tattoo at 13, and in jail I got more and more,” he remembers. Now he wants nothing more than to get rid of them — he has already spent several hours in the tattoo removal service.
Father Greg offers this service for free, ever since he met Ramiro, one of his first homeboys in the job program. He told Father Greg that he had trouble finding a job. The reason was crystal-clear: the F-word tattooed on his forehead, expressing his anger and rage on display against the world. After Father Greg organized a tattoo removal for him, Ramiro found a job as a bodyguard at a movie production studio. Now he has a wife and two children that he can give what he never had — a home.
Francisco too wants to reach this goal. He works as a counselor for teens that are on the verge of joining a gang. “I want them to make the right decision,” he says, and he is trying to get a degree that qualifies him also for other employers, because after 18 months, his time at Homeboy’s ends. At age 13, he became a “soldier” in his gang, doing small jobs for the gang leaders. At 14, he became a father for the first time, but, unable to deal with the situation, he let his girlfriend and his child down. At 17 he was arrested because he and his friend shot a rival. Francisco’s sentence of eight years in prison was quite mild, mainly because the prosecutors could not prove who actually fired the gun.
After prison, he did everything to find a job, but without success. Just before joining the gang again, he met Father Greg and went to Homeboy’s. It was the turning point: “Father G was really interested in me,” he says, “like a guardian angel.” Francisco cleaned up his life; he got in contact with his now 13-year-old daughter whom he had never met, and he visits her and his two sons regularly. He and his fiancée are expecting his fourth child: “I will do everything better.”
Gabriel never thought that one day he would bake. For a Mexican man, that’s woman’s work. His father threw him out of the house while he was in his senior year in high school because Gabriel’s girlfriend was expecting a baby. After that, he would never ask anything else from his parents — that fierce spark in his eyes shows his determination. He became the breadwinner for his new little family by dealing crack and cocaine. He did that for seven years before he got caught and was sentenced to four years in prison. After that he had only one thought: freedom! “Even opening the fridge — eating when and how often I want — is the best feeling you can imagine,” he says. As soon as he was out of prison, his girlfriend got pregnant again. Gabriel was about to return to a life of drug dealing, but made the decision to go to Father Greg’s office instead. Now, he comes in on time every day in the early morning to prepare and knead the dough. His son Clayton is his pride and joy, and he has a goal: “I will be a real-estate agent, and when I’ll retire in 30 years, I’ll have a house in Florida.”
Facing gang life
The man responsible for these boys having positive goals they want to accomplish, Father Gregory Boyle, 62, radiates peace, even while some 20 homies are roaming around his office. “I would need ten times more jobs to answer the need,” he admits. There are a lot of young people who want to get out of the vicious circle of violence, fear and hatred. Boyle himself grew up in Los Angeles as one of eight children in a family of Irish descent. In 1972 he joined the Jesuits, and after completing his studies, the Order sent him to a parish in Bolivia. This was his first encounter with harsh poverty. Coming back to Los Angeles in 1986, he found himself in Boyle Heights, the poorest district of the city with the highest number of gangs, not far away from where he grew up, yet a completely different world. He soon discovered that Sunday sermons were not exactly what his parishioners needed. To meet their actual needs, he started a high school in the parish house and transformed the church into an asylum for illegal immigrant families in danger of being deported to Mexico. Not everyone in his parish was in favor of his actions: “I received threatening messages on my answering machine for the first time,” he remembers.
At the same time, he discovered the fatal spiral in the life of many youth: gang membership. “In the first weeks at the parish, I buried more young than old people,” he recalls. After a while, he understood: “Nobody joins a gang because it is exciting, or because they want to belong to some kind of ‘family’ or even because they dream of making money. The real reason is that they have no alternative.” Most of the young people can’t even imagine dying of old age — because it is so much the exception to the rule.
Father Greg recalls Travieso who, as required, shook the hand of every member in the bakery team when he started, even with a lot of his enemies. Arriving down the reception line of his new co-workers to Clever, they both stared at their feet, shifting their body weight. They started to work together, yet they did not speak much. Six months later, Travieso found himself surrounded by enemies of his former gang; they beat him to the edge of his life. In the hospital he was declared brain dead. When Father Greg came home from the hospital, his phone rang. It was Clever, in tears, asking, “Is there anything I can do — can I give him my blood?” And after a moment in silence, he added: “You know, he was not my enemy, he was my friend. We worked together.”
Jobs, not jails
According to the Los Angeles Police Department, there are more than 400 gangs in the city, with around 40,000 members. Most of them are divided by ethnicity; some are involved in drug dealing, others in smaller crimes, defining themselves by such crimes as well as by their power on the street. Father Greg first discovered that jobs were the best way out of gang life when he convinced his mechanic to hire Anthony. Working and receiving pay checks, for the first time in his 21-year-old life, Anthony was able to stay away from drugs and street fights.
To create jobs the Jesuit founded “Homeboy Industries” bakery in 1988. It provided jobs that were easy to learn and products that were easy to sell. They started with homemade bread, fluffy muffins and pizza. Later he added a silk-screen printing business, an orchard and a catering business. Now, after 25 years, even politicians and artists are proudly wearing the T-shirts and caps with the Homeboy logo, or with that from the Homegirl-Café, a catering service that hires girls formerly involved in gangs. Not every idea was a success though: “Homeboy Plumbing was a no go — nobody wanted to have an ex-gang member in their home,” Father Greg adds.
The income of the business brings in only one-third of the budget needs; close to 20% is funded by the government, and the rest comes from donations and grants. There is already a network of projects in other cities that are following the idea of Homeboy Industries, the biggest one being in Prichard, Alabama, run by a group of former Homies from LA. The projects have a higher success rate than boot camps or juvenile correction facilities.
Father Greg is not at all surprised. “It is God who is changing the people, not me,” — he says, remembering an ex-Homie who finally had a job and his first apartment to call his own. “Do you know who I owe all of this to?” the homie asked Father Greg, who got a little embarrassed to answer. The young man continued “To God — who else?” The Jesuit was very happy with that particular lesson in humility. It reflects the deep conviction he holds in his heart: that only unconditional love can change a person’s life.