By Raul Vasquez
(Editors Note: Gang violence and finding an answer to this complex and multifaceted problem has been the subject of much debate recently in San Diego. The following article about Father Greg Boyle and Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles is a positive and successful model in dealing with this seemingly unsolvable problem and adds his ideas on the battle against gang violence.)
He’s been nearly killed in full-blown street gun battles. He’s buried 113 young men and women, most of whom he knew well, cut down senselessly by gang violence. In 16 years in Boyle Heights, he has put his body in harm’s way to break up gang fights, and comforted as best he could family members and friends of murdered children.
And yet Father Greg Boyle, ex-pastor of Dolores Mission Parish and founder of Homeboy Industries, is criticized constantly for working on behalf of those many call “hopeless cases.”
Boyle never said he was the solution to gang violence in Los Angeles, which last year produced over half of L.A.’s 656 murders.
But recently, the kind-faced, balding and gray-bearded Jesuit priest has grown concerned by calls for yet another “war on gangs” in Los Angeles. In an interview at his Homeboy Industry offices at 1916 East First Street just before Christmas, Boyle strongly objected to a growing attitude locally to “hate” gang members; talked about his long-term strategy for abating gang crime; and explained his motivations for working intimately with local gang members.
“I don’t think it’s necessary to identify an enemy to do something effective about gang violence,” said Boyle, in response to local television host Val Zavala, who when interviewing him in December insinuated that “hating” gang members like “enemies” was somehow useful and right.
“Hating is not effective. It doesn’t make us more determined. It doesn’t do anything helpful in any way,” responds Boyle. “All that does is diminish us as people and obliterate a real truth, which is we’re all in this together, we belong to each other, and we share a common humanity.”
Behind the city’s explosion in gang related violence in 2002, Boyle believes, was the ineffectiveness of the corruption and scandal-plagued (and weakened) LAPD.
With new Police Chief William Bratton in place, he hopes law enforcement can now fight crime by actively targeting criminals. But leaning only on police powers to fight gang crime isn’t the solution some are hoping for, he said. Boyle’s strategy to gangs, in turn, is a balanced three-pronged approach. “Prevention, intervention, and suppression.”
In other words, reaching kids when they’re young and not yet in a gang; actively providing better alternatives to those already in gangs; and maintaining a strong police force to protect neighborhoods from those who attack the community.
“I know if you do them all together and do them well, then we’ll effectively reduce (gang crime) not just in short term, but in the long haul,” he said. If not, “I don’t care what relief you think you are experiencing in the moment, but in the end, look at your watches and before too much time passes we’ll be back at the same (death) toll again.”
The problem, however, is there isn’t enough money to fund all three strategies.
Case in point is the elimination of the East L.A. Community Gang Reduction Project, an intervention program that since 1976 was instrumental in keeping unincorporated East L.A. gang violence to a minimum. Faced with a looming state deficit, the California Youth Authority shut it down last year.
And Boyle’s own Homeboy Industries, since 1992 providing thousands of jobs and counseling services to ex-gang members who’d be otherwise unemployable, survives from a few city contracts (like graffiti removal and landscaping) and private donations that have wavered under the weak economy. “People are willing to fund law enforcement, they are willing to fund after-school programs, or what they call prevention,” said Boyle. “But beyond the bad economy, nobody wants to fund intervention intervention is the neglected stepchild, and that’s what (Homeboy Industries) is.” Boyle points back to the bustling Homeboy Industries headquarters, a modern, spacious and clean office manned almost entirely by young men who have at some point in their life been in a gang; young men whose physical presence on the street still stirs fear, anger sometimes even hate in people’s hearts.
But inside Homeboy they are different. They work, smile, laugh, are at ease and lose the menacing expression (exterior) they often wear in public. Predictably, Boyle is criticized for caring for these young men, for trying to get them jobs and give them hope for a new life, and has even been labeled “soft on crime.”
When asked why he’s dedicated his life to working with gang members, Boyle explains that it’s to live as Jesus did, giving hope to those who need it most.
“(I try) to take serious what Jesus took seriously, which was standing with those on the margins, those whose dignity has been denied; the voiceless, the powerless, and those whose burdens are more than they can bear,” said Boyle, who often reminds that most gang members were raised in broken, abusive and drug scarred homes.
“Standing with them, that’s where He stood, so that’s where I want to stand. And while I’m standing there, I want to imitate the kind of God I believe in, one who is merciful and compassionate, and can’t take Her eyes off of us. That kind of God: loving.”
His voice quiets and he looks outside to the street. “That’s what I want to do. That’s my motivation.”
Yet Boyle isn’t the solution to gang violence. He never said he was. But if a solution to the old and complex problem of gang violence does exist, Boyle’s example of compassion, balance and hope is a fundamental part of it.
Published in Eastern Groups Publications, January 8, 2003