Community

Priest explains how recognizing kinship reduces gang membership

Jesuit priest Gregory Boyle presented a timely message for the holiday season by emphasizing the importance of remembering that “we belong to each other” in his appearance at the Morning Forum of Los Altos Dec. 4.

In his presentation “Lessons from the Field: Kinship as an Intervention,” Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, the world’s largest gang abatement program, explained how this basic truth has been at the core of the success of his nonprofit organization, which he founded 30 years ago.

Boyle, author of “Tattoos on the Heart” and “Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship,” has received many awards for his work, including the California Peace Prize, and recognition in 2014 as a White House-designated Champion of Change.

Two Homeboy Industries trainees, Danny and Jimmy, prefaced Boyle’s Morning Forum talk with a description of their lives before entering Homeboy’s rehabilitation program.

Danny described how he was raised in a “gang-infested neighborhood.” By age 14, he joined a gang, and by 15, he said, he was “getting high with my mother.” He added that he loved drugs “because they took away the pain I felt from losing so many friends to early death.”

With his life defined by 15 years of gang membership, Danny said he “was tired of being 29 with nothing to show for it.” He had heard of the work of Father Boyle and Homeboy Industries and entered its rehab program. For the first time, he feels that he can “be someone.”

Jimmy, like Danny, joined a gang when he was 14. His mother disapproved of his drug use, so after he graduated from high school, she kicked him out, which made him feel “like I lost love.” For seven years, he lived the gang life, most of the time living in a tent. Six months ago, his mother was killed in a drive-by shooting. Tired of suffering, Jimmy tried to kill himself, but after a medical team revived him, he entered a detox program for 60 days. His sponsor took him to meet Boyle, who Jimmy said “welcomed me right away.”

“It was an overwhelming feeling to be accepted and understood by others in the program with the same history as me,” Jimmy added.

Hope and healing

From 1986 to 1992, Boyle served as pastor of Dolores Mission Church, then the poorest parish in Los Angeles with the highest concentration of gang activity in the city. His work in the parish coincided with the “decade of death” that began in the late 1980s and had him burying hundreds of young members of his parish.

Motivated by Mother Teresa’s words, “We’ve forgotten that we belong to each other,” Boyle asked himself, “How do we act on this goal? How do we create a community of kinship?”

Boyle started a school for the many teenagers who, kicked out of school, were “creating havoc in the community.”

Once the school opened, Boyle realized that to get people out of gangs and off drugs, he was going to have to offer them hope for their future, a difficult task as so many of them were already felons.

He began looking for “felon-friendly” employers and then with  financial support from a film director opened the Homeboys’ Bakery. The Bakery was soon followed by Homegirl Cafe, a solar-panel training program and other businesses that provide opportunities.

Success story

Each year approximately 10,000 former gang members and incarcerated men and women become members of the Homeboy community to achieve the goal of redirecting their lives. To support that goal, the center offers drug abuse counseling and provides education, mental health, job training and legal resources.

“We need to heal the damage that has been done to them and give them hope,” he said. “Nobody has ever met a hopeful kid who joined a gang.”

Morning Forum is a members-only lecture series that meets twice a month at Los Altos United Methodist Church, 655 Magdalena Ave. For more information, visit morningforum.org.

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