2011 Opus Prize Recipient
Father Gregory Boyle, S.J.
Fr. Greg Boyle grew up in the “gang capital of the world,” Los Angeles, California, just west of where he has spent more than 25 years ministering to the families of Dolores Mission parish, and mentoring hundreds of young people whose daily lives have been dominated by membership in neighborhood gangs. A Jesuit priest, he is the founder and Executive Director of Homeboy Industries, an organization that he created 23 years ago as a modest job training program in the east Los Angeles community of Boyle Heights that continues to be wracked by a seemingly unending cycle of gang violence and murder passed on from generation to generation.
Fr. Greg realized early on that while many young people struggling with gang involvement wanted his compassion and coaxing, this approach was not nearly as effective as finding them jobs. “Jobs not jails” is Fr. Greg’s mantra for those with a prison record, though getting a job in a time of statewide recession is hardly an easy task. He has placed many of the “Homies” with local businesses, and eventually started a bakery and then (briefly) a tortilla press in Grand Central Market -- the first “industries.” Today, Homeboy Industries is a bustling place of six social enterprises (silk screen business, café, diner, bakery, farmers markets and retail store). It also hosts a continuum of services (tattoo removal clinic, legal services, charter high school, mental health counseling, parenting classes and much more). The building overflows with young people working toward a better life. Homeboy Industries is located in the heart of the city in a gang-neutral area, and is proud to call itself the largest gang rehabilitation program in the country.
Hope is thick in the air at Homeboy, but there is no escaping the tough challenges that the organization and each of its clients face. Homeboy’s model is built on the hard-learned message that a comprehensive approach is essential to truly leaving gang life: dealing with legal issues, relationships with parole officers, parenting skills, anger management, domestic violence, earning a GED, learning what it takes to hold a job and removing the tattoos that can be a fatal stamp of recognition. A young person must face all of these pieces at once, a total lifestyle change that takes determination, coordination and faith that it can work.
The spiritual dimension of Homeboy Industries is evident in a morning prayer and a daily “thought” from Fr. Greg or one of the Homies, who echo his message of unconditional love and acceptance. It is also evident in the pain – Fr. Greg keeps track of the people he has buried through acts of violence (nearly 180) and everyone knows full well that for many who start on the path there will be steps forward, but also back.
Fr. Greg’s recently-released book, Tattoos on the Heart, is a memoir of his work with gang-affiliated youth and a call to kinship for all to erase the boundaries that separate us. An inspirational speaker, he can move listeners from laughter to tears and then to personal reflection in the same sentence. He is a man of boundless compassion and an infectious belief in rehabilitation. The young men and women he works with say that this is the first time someone believed in them, and thus the first time they’ve believed in themselves. Fr. Greg is stubbornly determined that second chances are what America – and Homeboy Industries – is all about.
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