‘Cherish’: Ex-gang member on faith, building community, and the power of redemption

Published: Mar. 16, 2023 at 10:25 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) -Father Greg Boyle prefers to share the limelight at his many speaking engagements. The Jesuit priest savors unscripted tales from the hearts of his long labor: former gang members who have found a new lease on life via the Los Angeles’ mega-ministry called Homeboy Industries.

Father Greg Boyle, founder of the Homeboy organization
Father Greg Boyle, founder of the Homeboy organization(Action News 5)

The ex-gang members take center stage and offer personal snapshots of the darkness of gang life in east Los Angeles. “My father was a heroin addict,” said Joseph, a former gang member, “but by the age of 5 years old, my father killed himself in my home,” Joseph told a crowd assembled at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Downtown Memphis on a recent March evening.

The congregation listened as Joseph candidly spoke on his family’s deep ties to the gang life, including his own association with gangs that started at age 12. “I first went to jail at 14 and had been shot twice by the time I was 16,” Joseph said. “Most of my friends were dead by the age of 18 so I really didn’t see much of a future for myself,” Joseph said, holding the St. Patrick crowd in spellbound silence.

Before “Father G,” Founder of Homeboy Industries, stepped to the microphone, the spotlight graced another ex-gang member, Freddie. “I think a lot of us join gangs because we feel we don’t matter,” Freddie told his listeners. “Like no one hears us, no one sees us.” But Father Greg could not help but notice what gangs were doing to the tiny Catholic parish in L.A., Delores Mission, where he was installed as pastor in 1986.

Father G, Homeboy founder, speaks to the congregation
Father G, Homeboy founder, speaks to the congregation(Action News 5)

Some eight or nine gangs in nearby public housing and apartment complexes were at war with each other. Someone had to do something, especially with young teenagers wreaking havoc in nearby neighborhoods. “There had been so many junior high age gang members who had been given the boot from their school, nobody wanted them,” Father Greg told me while reflecting on Homeboy’s origins. The smiling priest decided first to start a school for the kids after he was unable to find one that would take so many children with troubled histories.

Next came the quest for jobs. “When we couldn’t find enough felony friendly employers, we started our own businesses,” Father Greg says. It started small, one gang member at a time. “Homeboy wants to be a safe place where people can be seen and then cherished,” Father Greg told the St. Patrick’s audience. Father Greg harps on the verb “cherish” in his talks and interviews because it encapsulates so much of the Homeboy approach. “If it’s true enough as it is that a traumatized person may well find their way to causing trauma, it has to be true that a cherished person will be able to find their way to the joy there is in cherishing themselves and others,” Father Greg told those assembled at St. Pat’s. “Every man and woman gang member who walks through our doors comes barricaded behind a wall of shame and disgrace and the only thing that can scale that wall is tenderness, " the Homeboy founder shared.

So, welcoming one soul at a time, Father Greg and his Homeboy team began dreaming up businesses they could create with ex-gang member man and woman power. Homeboy trains everyone in trades like silk screening, baking or recycling electronic products. It started small and taken 35 years but Father Greg has watched his humble vision grow beyond his wildest dreams. “And now we’re the largest gang intervention/ rehabilitation/ reentry on the planet, “Father Greg told me. “We have ten social enterprises. Rival gang members work side by side with each other, “he said.

Joseph, the former gang member said once men and women discover Homeboy, they share the experience with others who need to know about it. “People get there. They feel the love. They experience the magic that happens there and they go tell somebody,” Joseph said. Freddie, who’s training as an auto technician, says Homeboy has taught him the values to become a better person and an enthusiastic auto tech. “It’s a little greasy but I enjoy every second of it,” Freddie said to Father Greg’s delight. “I like it because it’s a way of giving back to people, “Freddie explained “and they’re always happy when the car is back in working condition.”

Joe Birch Interview some of the members of the Homeboy organization
Joe Birch Interview some of the members of the Homeboy organization(Action News 5)

Father Greg tells the stories of those he’s cherished in his books, including the 2010 bestselling “Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion.” The book shares stories about the start of Homeboy and tales from Delores Mission but it is mostly focused on the treasures the priest uncovered in the lives of former gang members who quite literally have become his family.

Joseph, whose biological father died of the darkness of addiction and suicide, said, “Father G is my father.” Joseph is just one of many that Father Greg calls his sons and daughters. “We’re all invited in our way to imagine a circle of compassion,” Father Greg told the St. Patrick gathering, “and then imagine nobody standing outside that circle.”

Father Gregory Boyle, SJ, Joseph and Freddie came from Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles to Memphis, March 13-16, 2023. They came at the request of Calvary Episcopal Church. Father Greg spoke at Calvary’s Lenten Preaching Series which celebrates its centennial in 2023. You can hear Father Greg’s message from March 15, 2023 at www.calvarymemphis.org. Click on Lenten Preaching Series and you’ll find his talk as well as a podcast dialogue with poet, peacemaker Padraig O’ Tuama of Ireland.

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