Saturday, November 13, 2010

From the Back Pew: Homies and acts of kindness

By Michael J. Arvizu

I first met Father Greg Boyle three years ago when he came to speak to the young-adult ministry I was involved in at the time. We were thrilled and honored to have someone who has made a difference in thousands of lives take time out of his busy schedule to come speak to us about his two decades of work with gang members.

Father Boyle is known around the country for his work with some of Los Angeles’ fiercest gang members. His flagship company, Homeboy Industries, based in downtown Los Angeles, is a staple in the community and serves as a beacon of hope for young men and women looking to turn their lives around. What awed us the most was that the men and women he worked with were no younger than we were — mostly in their 20s and early 30s.

On Sunday, Boyle spoke at St. Bede’s Catholic Church in La Cañada. The talk was hosted by St. Bede’s and the Alumnae Association and Parents’ Guild of Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy. Earlier in the day, Boyle had been in San Diego giving a similar talk. He was also there to promote and sign his new book, “Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion,” a book chronicling 20 years working with gang members.

Boyle maintains a steady pitch in his voice when he speaks. He is never too loud or too soft. However, when speaking about the difficulties, or even the deaths, of some of his gang members, his voice deepens such that it seems as if he is almost groaning. And the pain of his loss is evident.

Then he picks up again and continues with another story. Perhaps he’ll tell you of the time he and three of his gang members, or homies, were invited to the White House.

“Surely crooks have been in this house before,” Boyle says of their visit. “But I think this is the first time gang members have been inside the White House.”

Funny, yes. But one homie almost didn’t make the trip because his probation officer wouldn’t give him clearance to leave the state. It’s almost as if, Boyle said, they were telling the parolee, “Who are you to think that you deserve the honor of visiting the White House?”

Or he’ll tell you the story of a former crack dealer, “Bandit,” who arrived at Homeboy Industries 15 years ago and today is married, has three kids, owns a home and recently saw a daughter off to college.

“¿Sabes que?” — “you know what?” — Bandit paused to say to Boyle, “I’m proud of myself. They used to call me a bueno para nada — a good for nothing.”

Then there’s the story of “Chico,” a skinny, 17-year-old kid with floppy ears with a single tattoo on his neck, who called Boyle one day out of the blue seeking employment. Chico got a job and found that earning a paycheck was the best thing that had ever happened to him. He and Boyle would spend their time having conversations about God, with Chico asking questions like, “Is God pissed at us?” and “Does God listen to us?”

Four months later, Chico was shot in the neck while standing on the street with his friends and died a week later, one of 169 young people Boyle has buried.

Boyle explains the essence of a homie story.

“It’s a story about the self being made to feel too small from having been bombarded with messages of shame and disgrace,” Boyle says. “How is that not our job description, as Christians, to reach right in there and to tell the truth all over again and to return people to themselves because of our kindness?”

MICHAEL J. ARVIZU writes for the La Cañada Valley Sun. Reach him at (818) 637-3263 or e-mail michael.arvizu@latimes.com.

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