L.A. Program Proves that Nothing Stops a Bullet Like a Job

How a Catholic priest in Los Angeles launched the largest gang-intervention program in the country.

The job description sounds like a recipe for disaster: pastor of an urban parish in an under-resourced region of East Los Angeles marked by multiple warring gangs. Any one of the words would have made the assignment daunting: Pastor. Urban. Under-resourced. Gangs. Taken together, most people would have run the other direction. Most people know that success, or even hope, is not to be found there.

Greg Boyle is not one of those people. As a young Jesuit priest in 1986, he asked for just such an assignment. When he arrived as the pastor of the †fa, though, he was daunted by the challenges. A quarter-century later, Father Boyle is recognized around the world for his transformational ministry: as a priest of Delores Mission Church, and even more for founding and leading an innovative set of programs and social businesses known as Homeboy Industries.

Homeboy traces its roots to 1988, when it began as a jobs-training program based in the Delores Mission Church for former gang members and those recently incarcerated. Father Boyle believed that the best hope for getting people out of gangs was to develop their skills and help them find jobs.

As the jobs-training program caught hold, in 1992 Father Boyle turned his full-time efforts to Homeboy. Started with a bakery, the organization has grown over the last two decades into a remarkable network of more than a half-dozen social businesses and other programs designed to offer life-giving hope to young people — especially former gang members. The motto of Homeboy is “nothing stops a bullet like a job.”

Homeboy Industries has set thousands of young men and women onto flourishing, stable lives, helped to revitalize the community, and become a model for communities across the United States and beyond. It is the largest gang-intervention program in the country. Father Boyle has drawn the attention of Democratic and Republican presidents, the news media, and influential business leaders and celebrities. It is a remarkable story of faith and of transformation.

Yet during this same period, Father Boyle has also performed dozens and dozens of funerals for young men and women who remain trapped in gang wars either as participants or as innocent casualties. Each funeral takes a toll on Father Boyle, on the community, and on the belief that new life is possible.

Father Boyle’s ministry in East Los Angeles is a testimony that Christian witness is both possible and powerful in urban contexts. It is not glamorous work; the costs are high and setbacks are typical. The work has to be guided by hope rather than optimism, perseverance rather than quick-fix techniques, and resilience rather than progress.

The work remains a ministry in some fundamental ways, and Father Boyle is more than a savvy social entrepreneur and humanitarian. He is a priest. Homeboy Industries shines as an example of how and why Christian witness can thrive and serve even, indeed especially, in under-resourced, challenging urban contexts.

Four lessons can be learned about ministry and urban contexts from Father Boyle and Homeboy Industries:

First, Homeboy Industries was rooted in prayer and listening.

Father Boyle didn’t arrive at Delores Mission Church with a program or set of techniques to change the neighborhood. Rather, he paid attention to the prayers of his parishioners, many of them mothers worried about their children. He then engaged the young men and women in the neighborhood, most of whom didn’t come to mass. As he listened to their despair, he began to see that just telling them to stay out of gangs wouldn’t work. He needed to be able to offer alternatives of hope.

Second, Father Boyle re-connected the gospel with social innovation.

For several decades the church has seemed to retreat either into a focus on spirituality or advocacy for social justice. Too often it has lost its vision as an agent of social innovation, a commitment that has marked Christian witness through most of its history. Father Boyle developed a vision that re-claims the vitality of Christian witness precisely by its connection to, and relevance for, the daily lives of people and the well-being of the whole community and neighborhoods.

Third, Homeboy Industries has engaged in creative experimentation with a willingness to fail so they could succeed sooner.

Not everything has worked. Homeboy Plumbing was a failure, because it turns out people didn’t really want former gang members coming into their homes. But the social businesses that have worked are now enabling 75 percent of the gang members and formerly incarcerated to discover new life and not return to their old patterns of living — more than double the norm. A willingness to fail ought not to be surprising for people who follow someone who ended up on a cross. The key is believing in resurrection, in new life, in second chances.

Fourth, Father Boyle embraces partnerships with people and organizations, even unlikely ones.

His focus is on the mission, not on purity codes or creating safe zones of protection. This posture has led him to relationships across personal and social divides, including rival gangs and the even riskier divide of rich and poor. He welcomed a former CEO into the mission of Homeboy, Bruce Karatz, even though Karatz was at least partially interested in Homeboy as a way to minimize his risk of going to jail post-indictment. In the end, Karatz helped stabilize Homeboy’s business model and develop new revenue sources, drawing the attention of Fast Company because of this unlikely partnership and innovative vision.

Father Boyle may travel in “fast company” and be able to develop partnerships with influential people and organizations, but his heart and daily life are still among the homeboys and homegirls in East Los Angeles. Father Boyle’s ministry, for all of its visionary innovation and impact, remains rooted in relationships.

One of his homeboys, a young adult named Luis whom Father Boyle describes as “whiny and exasperating,” recently asked Father Boyle for a blessing. Father Boyle explained how he responded: “I said, ‘You know, Luis, I’m proud to know you, and my life is richer because you came into it, and when you were born, the world became a better place, and I’m proud to call you my son. Even though’ — and I don’t know why I decided to add this part — ‘at times, you can really be a huge pain in the ass.’”

In response, Luis looked up at him and said, “The feeling’s mutual.”

Image via jondoeforty1.

L. Gregory Jones
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