By Elena Dini
ROME — The founder of a Catholic community that offers “kindness and tenderness” to former gang members will be the main speaker at The Lay Centre March 21, for the next lecture in the spring VPI series.
Father Gregory Boyle, SJ, founded Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles 31 years ago. It all began when he was named pastor of Dolores Mission Church in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 1986. It was the poorest church with the highest concentration of gang activity in the archdiocese. He looked around and saw people in need.
That was the beginning of a new mission that gave rise to Homeboy Industries, today the largest gang intervention, rehabilitation and re-entry program in the world, welcoming each year thousands of people seeking to transform their lives.
“Since all gang members come to us with a high degree of chronic toxic stress, and have been all shaped by their own adverse childhood experiences, Homeboy offers a community of tenderness and kinship where they can find rest and safety and then are able to gain resilience and re-identify themselves in the world,” Father Boyle said in an interview with The Lay Centre.
Father Boyle described some of the challenges faced by his ministry.
“In the first 10 years, we received death threats, hate mail, bomb threats, not from gang members but from those who chose to hate us for helping gang members,” he said. “This is no longer the case. Not only has gang violence been reduced. The demonizing of gang members has also been reduced.”
Faith is an important part of the rehabilitation process, said the priest.
“At Homeboy Industries, gang members are returned to themselves and to their essential truth — that they are exactly what God had in mind when God made them,” he said.
The Homeboy Industries website describes the mission as providing “hope, training, and support to formerly gang-involved and previously incarcerated men and women allowing them to redirect their lives and become contributing members of our community.”
This happens in many different ways, ranging from tattoo removal to anger management and parenting classes, as well as an 18-month employment and re-entry program.
Father Boyle said he would “very much like to start residences” in the future “since gang members are released from prison and have nowhere to go.”
The Homeboy Industries website also includes plenty of stories of people, who took a chance and changed their lives for the better. Carlos Caballeros is one of these. He describes his excitement in graduating and getting his GED, and he is an inspiring example for those who are working hard to rehabilitate: “This is only the beginning for me. My words of encouragement: don’t let the words and thoughts of people stop you. Just keep striving because it’s your achievement you’re striving for, not theirs,” he is quoted as saying.
Father Boyle’s presentation at The Lay Centre March 21 is entitled, “Tattoos on the Heart: Contemporary Parables about Compassion and Kinship.” Register here