Father Gregory Boyle’s head hung low as he sat between two young gentlemen sharing their stories of trauma and transformation. Of drug addictions and violence, of journeys in and out of juvenile hall and county jail. David and Ruben spoke of the role of Homeboy Industries in helping them forward into a hope-driven life. They called Father G their inspiration, their role model. They thanked God for bringing him into their lives.
Father G’s head wasn’t hung low in surprise or shame, he’d heard these stories and others like them a hundred times over. As the men lauded G for the community he’d provided, G smiled softly, with humility. Just a simple nod, as though he could feel the full weight of the messy, beautiful transformation of these men that he loved.
After David and Ruben finished sharing their stories, G stood to address the crowd packed into Seelos Theater at Worcester’s College of the Holy Cross on a cold February night.
“A day will never come when I am closer to God than David or Ruben,” he opened.
In his more than 40 years as a Jesuit and 30 years spent working with gang members in Los Angeles, Father G has been awarded the California Peace Prize and inducted into the California Hall of Fame. He’s won a James Beard Humanitarian of the Year Award and been named by the White House as a Champion of Change. He’s written a New York Times-bestseller and received the PEN Center Creative Nonfiction Award.
But with a humble nod, he doesn't acknowledge these accolades. “It’s been a privilege,” he said instead, “to know the thousands of gang members who have changed my life.”
For Father G, the founder of the largest gang intervention, rehabilitation, and re-entry program in the world, it is kinship with others that draws him towards God. As he provides jobs to former gang members in the Homeboy bakery, café, diner, or silkscreen shop, Father G savors the image of God in every person that comes to his desk.
“We don’t go to the poor to save them,” he told the room of students, priests, and guests. “Quite the opposite, actually. Because those on the margins have been cut off, have been hurt, have been lonely, God views them as trustworthy guides into the kinship God desires.
“So we go to the margins because there we will find the people who can lead us into our own salvation.”
I first heard about Homeboy Industries as a college undergrad. I was questioning how my love of food and my passion for social justice might possibly intersect when a friend guided me to the work of Father G. I browsed the website for a short while, but didn’t think on it much more. When Father G won a James Beard award last April, the presence of a soothing priest on the stage of the Chicago Lyric Opera was a balm to my fresh scars of restaurant burnout. I’d just weeks before made the painful, emotional decision to suddenly walk away from my career in high end dining. Watching my culinary idols receive recognition for their tireless devotion to an unforgiving industry didn’t do much to soothe me in my transition to post-restaurant life. But as Father G ascended the stairs clad in all black with starched white collar, I was reminded that making food can also be a tool to instill the hopeless with a reason to live.
So when I found out that he was coming to Massachusetts to speak, I eagerly spent an evening driving out to the center of the state to hear.
Father G shared stories of young men and women who’d come to Homeboy Industries seeking hope. Many had grown up surrounded by gang violence, and they sought a reason to wake up in the mornings. What they needed, G found, was a community of tenderness and compassion. They needed kinship, the oneness for which God has created all of humanity.
“How do we create and imagine a circle of compassion and then imagine nobody standing outside of that circle?” he asked.
We inch our way out to the margins. We stand with those on the edges, those who are demonized and disposed of. Those whose burdens are more than they can bear. And we stand there not because we have anything to offer or any capacity to rescue, we stand there because we need to receive. We need to hear the stories, we need to be reached.
If kinship were always our ultimate goal, he projects, then we would have no need to fight for justice or equality because it would be the natural result. “No kinship, no justice. No kinship, no peace. No kinship, no equality.”
But instead, we tend to see ourselves as rescuers or saviors. We see those at the margins as those with needs and we see ourselves as the ones with the ability to fill. We identify those who need help and we try to be the ones that save. And we burn out, because saving was never our job anyways.
Our job is to find the marrow of the Gospel, to take seriously what Jesus took seriously. Which, as Father G identifies, was only four basic things: inclusion, nonviolence, compassionate loving-kindness, and acceptance. We go to the margins to be reached, which is ennobling to those on the margins who have so much to offer.
“It’s selfish,” Father G admits. “And that’s kinda the trick. You’re not supposed to save the world, you embrace everyone in it. And once you learn to savor, I don’t know how it works, but the world gets saved.”
An audience member, aware that complex histories of race and privilege make it difficult to know how to live into a kinship that is both diverse and one, asked how to navigate these tensions. “The excuse everyone gives themselves,” Father G responded, “is that ‘I could never relate!’
“But I’m here to tell you, if you’re the proud owner of a pulse, you could relate to anyone humanly.
“The task is not to tell, it’s to receive. And since that’s the only task, everyone can do it.”
Just as last April, when Father G’s acceptance speech instilled me with new hope that I could inch my way out to the margins through my love for food, his lecture this week brought solace to my heart that aches over the present political climate. It’s a necessary kind of ache, the kind that pushes me where I need to go. But to keep from burning out, I’m striving to bear his wisdom in mind: My task is not to save, not to offer, not to tell. My task is to receive.
As Father G so preciously stated, “Only the soul ventilated with tenderness has the power to change the world.”
Interested in learning more about Father Gregory Boyle and the work of Homeboy Industries? Check out their website or purchase Boyle's New York Times-bestseller Tattoos on the Heart. Boyle's compassionate and vivid storytelling will leave you laughing out loud and welling up with tears at every page. If you read just one book this year, I highly recommend that this is it.