Father Gregory Boyle Speaks of His Ministry With Gangs in East L.A.

News Story: October 1, 2010
Father Gregory Boyle

Father Gregory Boyle shared stories of his life and ministry among urban gang members with more than 200 students and visitors on Monday, October 18th. His address in the University Commons at Sacred Heart University drew a capacity crowd and a standing ovation, and a long line of people waited for him to sign copies of his new book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion. The public address was part of the Human Journey Colloquia series.

Ordained a Jesuit priest in 1982, Father Boyle is pastor of the poorest parish in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the Dolores Mission, ironically in the Boyle Heights section of the city. Nearly 20 years ago, he founded Homeboy Industries, whose work has been chronicled on 6o Minutes, and earned him an invitation to speak at the White House. Each year, it works with 15,000 people, employing hundreds of them in a bakery and silkscreen plant among other successful operations. Still, the challenges are enormous: Father Boyle recalled that he buried his 169th victim of street violence just three weeks ago.

With stories that were, by turn, heart-breaking and heart-warming, Father Boyle introduced the audience to his parishioners in East Los Angeles, where he has worked for a quarter-century. “We stand with the easily despised and those on the margin; we stand where Jesus would stand. And we work for the day when we will stop disposing of people. The gang members I know have taught me most of the valuable things I know; they help me discover the shape of God’s heart.”

A notable aspect of Father Boyle’s ministry has been the literal attempt to rewrite history – or more specifically, to unwrite it. He boasts that his organization performs thousands of tattoo removals each year. The tattoos, of course, are provocative gang badges: inescapable reminders of lives ruled by conflict. And it is hard enough to find jobs for many of these young street kids without that added handicap.

While pursuing a life of genuine service, Father Boyle says his ambition is never service alone, but kinship. “Jesus’ goal, simply stated, was that we be one. We certainly don’t look for a relationship between ‘healer’ and ‘wounded,’ but one of kinship. We should be in awe of the burdens that others have to carry, not stand in judgment as to how they carry them.”

Father Boyle set the tone for his remarks by recalling Mother Teresa’s words that we have “forgotten that we belong to each other,” and he referred often to the lines of the hymn, “O Holy Night” that when Jesus appeared, “’the soul felt its worth.’ And that’s really our job description as Christians: when we arrive, the soul should feel its worth. We need to tell people, ‘You are exactly the person God wants you to be’ and then work hard to see that that becomes true.”