It helps to have connections if you want to meet the Rev. Greg
Boyle, S.J.—gang connections. Father Greg doesn’t have much
time to tell his story to St. Anthony Messenger. Why?
Because he gives—and gives and gives—his time, his energy and
his influence (known in the neighborhood as “juice”) to the
young people of the Pico/Aliso District in East L.A.
Pico Gardens and Aliso Village, sometimes called “The Projects,”
is the largest tract of subsidized housing west of the Mississippi.
This huge piece of social engineering hasn’t worked out so well.
It’s poor, crowded and packed with gangs.
Some of Pico/Aliso overlaps Boyle Heights (different era, different
Boyle). Within those 16 square miles, 60 gangs claim 10,000
members, Hispanic and black. This equals violence and plenty
of action at the Hollenbeck division of the Los Angeles Police
Department—if Father Greg Boyle doesn’t get there first.
In two days hanging around Father Greg’s office, a modest though
vividly painted storefront on L.A.’s East First Street, G-Dog
or G, as the kids affectionately call the Jesuit, reveals life
in a very fast lane. The priest’s office—nine feet square maximum—is
a windowless, unfinished drywall box in the epicenter of the
600-square-foot headquarters of Jobs for a Future (JFF). He
has an open door in—and an open door beyond—to other offices,
storage for Homeboy Industries silkscreened items and the only
bathroom. Traffic through Greg’s doorway feels as hectic as
the L.A. freeway system.
Father Greg requests, “Hold my calls.” But when a prison inmate
gets a chance to phone, the priest reneges, “Well, let me take
just this one....” A young man comes by—dressed for success—to
tell his happy story and thank Father Greg for the contact,
the clothes, a job, a hope. With Greg on the phone and me in
the visitor’s chair, the young man preens back and forth between
the front and back doors of this short runway. He and the priest
exchange a complex handshake, a triumphant smile, a thumbs-up.
No words seem necessary. Pride is evident in both son—and father.
Father Greg is surrogate parent to hundreds of Hispanic youth,
many the children of Latino immigrants.
The office is crammed with memorabilia which I study while
he’s on the phone. Official framed certificates, plaques and
news clippings hang next to drawings by—and photos of—neighborhood
youth. Latin American artifacts and activist posters jockey
for wall space with strong, distinctive samples of graffiti
wall art. The colorful sketches Father Greg has pinned to the
wall have no ominous overtones, however. His poorly lit office
is bright with evidence of love.
How can Father Greg take time to talk about what’s already
happened when more is happening—right now? How can he speak
of his dreams when young dreamers are lined up outside the door?
“So—what do you want to know?” he asks as he hangs up the phone,
signs some kind of permission slip for a girl’s school function,
hollers out with pseudo-sternness, “No more calls!” and tries
to fit the story of his life into the 10 minutes before he dashes
to another appointment.
Gregory Boyle is one of eight children. His father, third-generation
Irish-American, worked in a family-founded dairy in Los Angeles
County. His mom worked to keep track of her large family. When
the young Greg graduated from L.A.’s Loyola High School in 1972,
he decided to become a Jesuit and was ordained a priest in 1984.
To this observer, it would seem that the Jesuit’s every assignment
(pre- and post-ordination) would present major hurdles for most
middle-class Americans: hospice, soup kitchen, prison, Latin
America, the South Bronx. For Father Greg, each contributed
to the pastoral awareness he brought to his 1986 assignment
as pastor of Dolores Mission. He wanted to be a Jesuit because
the Order has a social-activist bent. He wanted, he had said,
to work with the poor. Dolores Mission is certainly that. The
parish is within walking distance of downtown Los Angeles, yet
constitutes another economic and social hemisphere.
It’s been a bumpy 13 years for Father Greg, including a year
and a half away from the neighborhood after his six years as
pastor were concluded. Some people didn’t want him to come back
after his sabbatical, but they weren’t the young men—and young
women—who constituted the priest’s primary focus: gang members
and other kids on the edge.
When he returned in 1994, his assignment was to concentrate
exclusively on job development and related ministries with neighborhood
gangs—and not on the other urgencies Los Angeles’s poorest pastorate
had required of him. JFF is more than enough to stress a much
larger staff than the seven the agency employs.
Is he tired? It seems a logical question, given the pace observed
in just two days! The 45-year-old Jesuit answers, “I don’t expect
to be doing this forever, but I love it and it gives me life.
Like this morning—I’m coming from court and a kid flags me down
and he’s wearing his shirt unbuttoned, a nice dress shirt, nice
pants. He’s got a tie and he’s waving it. ‘Do my tie,’ he’s
begging. So I pull over because it’s an emergency. I
do his tie and he looks great and I say, ‘You know what, Johnny.
I’m proud of you!’ Johnny turns around and says, ‘Me, too!’”
When he isn’t fixing ties or talking on the phone, Father Greg
may be in court—as he was this morning—or visiting the 14 detention
centers where he celebrates Mass on a rotating basis, or out
raising funds through a combination of great stories, hard truths
and gospel witness. He might be out on the street. He might
be writing letters, since he answers every letter from a local
youth in detention. This averages about 40 a month, reports
Celeste Fremon, in her thick and thrilling 1995 biography, Father
Greg & the Homeboys. Her book is based on two years of following
G-Dog around in good times and bad.
Ms. Fremon, journalist, mother, advocate for Greg and the kids
known as homeboys (Hispanic slang for the kids on one’s
own block or in one’s gang; also known as homies), has
heard the Los Angeles Police Department complain vociferously
about Father Greg. They think he harbors and supports criminals.
She has attended some of the many gang-member funerals over
which Father Greg’s presided. She’s heard—and reported—the objections
of police officers who say he glorifies gang membership by allowing
Church burials for these young people. Greg sees a funeral as
a great personal heartache but also a significant teaching moment,
a time when other homies might let down their defenses and listen.
Celeste Fremon sees Father Greg as one of the neighborhood’s
greatest hopes. She describes Pico/Aliso as a war zone. She
sees gang leaders as the kids with the “most intelligence, social
skills, leadership capacity and the ability not to blink in
the face of danger.” She says that the Jesuit hasn’t brought
peace to Pico/Aliso but he has brought change. He has brought
such an infusion of love that some young men “have finally become
strong enough to save themselves,” the concluding sentence of
Ms. Fremon’s book.
Father Greg is often interviewed on gang issues for radio and
TV. He’s been featured on 60 Minutes and in People
Weekly. Fremon’s book, published by Hyperion Press, captured
a piece of the priest’s story between hard covers. Now comes
a movie—or at least a script. A fellow Jesuit priest, Bill Cain
of Nothing Sacred fame, has completed a screenplay for
Columbia Pictures. Since Father Bill once lived at Dolores Mission,
he didn’t have to reach far for the exciting elements of plot
and characterization. A production schedule—and the challenge
of casting—still awaits.
Father Greg has brought other dynamic and dedicated people
to work at Jobs for a Future. Emily Castillo, Norma Gillette,
John Tostado (see sidebar at end) and Carlos Vasquez are also
hard at work during the days St. Anthony Messenger visits
JFF’s First Street offices.
These staff members do what it takes to get kids working. Just
what is that? Emily arranges for a “Clean Slate,” which at JFF
means getting tattoos removed. White Memorial Hospital doctors
cooperate in this venture. Norma develops resumés and matches
those resumés with job opportunities. She is scouring the want
ads when I arrive, circling possibilities.
John and Carlos are job developers and case managers for youth
in their early days of employment. They write letters of recommendation.
They visit businesses to see how they can connect the energy
of their clients with the goals of businesspeople.
JFF helps its clients get the clothes they need to make that
all-important first impression. Father Greg spent part of this
interview on the phone checking his credit balance, apparently
finding the totals disappointing. “A million and one kids need
clothes to get to jobs and stuff like that,” he says, happily
exasperated by a positive problem. Gilbert, a neighborhood youth
now employed, is new at his job and “still pretty pushed for
clothes.” White T’s and black Dickey work pants, de rigueur
in the neighborhood, are—for that very reason—seldom admired
in the workplace. Father Greg and other staff members also serve
as tie-knot tutors and are happy to add that to their resumés.
To ensure employment opportunities, Father Greg began Homeboy
Industries, which markets T-shirts, sweats, mugs and hats bearing
the Homeboy logo. All these items are imprinted by Homeboy Silkscreen,
a for-profit subsidiary.
A visit to the silkscreen operation and to Homeboy Bakery—both
hot as blazes on an L.A. August afternoon—finds members of rival
gangs sweating side by side, learning skills they can use and
building a resumé that can also boast of their punctuality,
reliability and ability to cooperate. While the bakery employs
only 10 on a shift, young men can begin there, learn and move
on. The men I see have no time to talk. They are intent on creating
loaves of fragrant, yeasty, gourmet bread.
Carlos Vasquez explains that these are transitional, training
businesses, but both appear to be succeeding. The bakery, oddly
enough, failed as a tortilla supplier, but is getting good press
in its current reincarnation as a supplier to fine restaurants
with Frisco Baking Co. as distributor. KPWR, an L.A. hip-hop
FM station, has given the bakery $150,000 through its Knowledge
Is Power Foundation. It also engages the silkscreeners to make
Since St. Anthony Messenger’s visit to Jobs for a Future,
three more companies are in place: Homeboy Landscaping, Homeboy
Cleaning Service and Homeboy Artesania, which offers a cross
and Christmas decorations. (More information on all these initiatives
is available from Homeboy Merchandising at 323-526-1254. Their
Web pages can be accessed through the site www.proyectopastoral.org).
The Los Angeles Police Department’s anti-gang program is called
Operation Hammer. The general approach is to get gang members
off the street and into jail. Father Greg calls it the “full-incarceration
method” which he contrasts with his own “full-employment strategy.”
What explains this powerful and dangerous phenomenon of youth
gangs? Father Greg says, “It’s a sense of belonging. There’s
not something that pulls kids into gangs so much as something
that pushes them. It’s not so much what lures or attracts
them but what pushes them out of the four walls that should
be holding them in—and don’t.”
He continues, “The kid is sort of pushed out at home and then
gravitates around this group. He’s not so much, ‘Wow, doesn’t
that look attractive.’ It’s not, because they will join
a gang and they’ll have to watch their back forever. They’ll
endanger the lives of their loved ones and it goes on and on.
None of it is very attractive. But if there’s abuse or alcohol
or neglect or if the parents aren’t around,” kids look for a
place they can belong.
They are high-spirited young people, wary but clever and charming.
Armando Avecedo has a tattoo on his neck in Chinese characters.
Why? He explains, “So not everyone can read it.” How does it
translate? “Trust no woman,” he says deadpan, his dark eyes
delighting in the irony of telling so many his secret.
“We are prone as a society to demonize and reject these kids
and not want to help them,” laments Father Greg. “What if we
really were to deal with the problem rather than just resign
ourselves to warehousing the consequences? What if we were just
to say yes to kids rather than insist that kids just say no
to gangs? We want adults to be able to say yes to these kids,
to offer them a way to get on with their lives. They’ve been
through a lot. I’ve never met a victimizer who wasn’t first
victimized. So you have to deal with that compassionately as
Jobs for a Future—and the mission of Greg Boyle—is premised
on just that: a belief in the future, a future for each and
every young person in the projects. Father Greg works with kids
whose homes are broken, whose parents are unemployed, who have
dropped out of school, who say they “ain’t got no future.” To
them, the Jesuit says, “I can see your future! Trust me!” He
explains that much of his ministry is to imagine a future that
the kids can’t see—and help that future materialize.
I ask for a success story: kids employed, kids grown and out
of the projects, kids living the American dream. He points to
young men—like Fernie, pictured on the cover—working around
the office, answering the constantly ringing phones, packaging
Homeboy Industries orders, showing up for work, being “go-fers,”
being counted. “All the different gangs are represented right
now in our office,” he observes. “Not only does society need
to put a human face on gangs but enemies also need to put a
human face on one another,” he adds.
Still Father Greg is hesitant to speak in terms of success.
“I feel called to be faithful, not successful,” he says. “I
feel called to be faithful to an approach and to a certain wisdom
about who these kids are. I believe that if they are given a
chance, then they’ll thrive and they’ll begin to imagine a future
What would this future look like? “Obviously, we want peace
in the community. We want the kids to have a sense of who they
are in God’s eyes. They’re such damaged kids in the sense that
they haven’t had much love or support at home. That affects
their sense of themselves, of who they think they are.
“They think they’re the bad son. I keep telling them over and
over, ‘You are the son that any parents would be proud to claim
as their own.’ That’s the truth. That’s not some fantasy. As
soon as they know that they’re exactly what God had in mind
when God made them, then they become that. Then they like who
they are. Once they can do that—love themselves—they’re not
inclined to shoot somebody or hurt somebody or be out there
They are the prized—if prodigal—sons. Jesuit Greg Boyle extends
to them—and to many a homegirl as well—the accepting arms of
a loving father.
Carol Ann Morrow, assistant managing editor of
Messenger, lived and worked in Los Angeles for three years.
She is also the editor of Youth
Update, a publication for Catholic teens of high school
the Streets, on the Payroll: Get this Boy a Job!
PHOTO BY CAROL ANN MORROW
John Tostado (far left) and Father Greg confer with Odiseo Escouedo about his job prospects.
Half a dozen times an afternoon, Father Greg Boyle says,
“Hey, John, let’s find a job for ___.” Both know they
have to seize the moment.
John Tostado, senior job developer, wants to have a placement
ready. That’s his job and he loves it. He says, “We place
between 280 and 400 gang members a year. We do a 30-,
60- and 90-day follow-up. Most of the time they’ll come
in here to tell us how they’re doing. About 70 percent
stay [employed]. I could tell you a success story for
every day I’ve been here.”
John is a high-energy young man formerly with Catholic
Charities of Los Angeles. He heard Father Greg speak and
it recalled to him his own youth—not in Pico/Aliso, but
on the West Side, in an area also beset by gangs. Gang
violence claimed the lives of nine friends as John was
growing up. He remembers—and he wants to change the situation.
What is that situation? “In East L.A., a lot of things
are lacking,” he begins, then amends, “A ton of things
are lacking! There’s the lack of a strong educational
emphasis in the community, though lots of people are working
on that. There’s no work, there’s over-population, broken
families, lots of drugs, crime...” He trails off, hesitant
to paint such a dark picture.
So John paints another picture, a picture of David. David
had just gotten out of “camp,” an especially tough juvenile
detention facility. He was 17, with no high school diploma,
wanting a job. “Father Greg said to me, ‘Find this kid
a job,’” John recalls. He took on the challenge.
John took David to a job interview during which a math
test was required. John failed; David passed. “I said
to myself, Wow, this kid is smart. He’s been in jail
for a long time but he’s intelligent.” The job was
at a lighting-parts company. David’s work would be to
fill orders for nuts, bolts, wiring and other lighting
components from design centers. He had to measure, locate
parts and ship them—or call and request further information.
He got the job!
“We’re riding home and David turns to me with tears in
his eyes. He says, ‘I’m so, so happy today. My father’s
going to be so proud of me.’ I said to David, ‘He should
be, but you need to be proud of yourself!’”
When John Tostado goes out job hunting on behalf of homeboys,
how does he do it? How can he convince an employer to
take on a kid from East L.A.? “I get to know them. I ask
what gets them up in the morning. Everybody has a story.
Then I share my story and why I get up in the morning.”
Aren’t employers nervous about hiring through Jobs for
a Future? “I make sure that employers know they are taking
a risk. But my question to them is, ‘Do you want to go
home feeling good about what you did?’”
John certainly feels good about what he’s doing. He says,
“We teach these kids that you have to be on time. There’s
a work ethic involved in a job. There’s a culture that
you have to abide by. It’s hard getting up every day and
going to work and being responsible.”
John Tostado is no starry-eyed hero-worshiper. But he
declares, “I go home every day and I say to my wife: ‘I
don’t get it! I don’t get Father Greg’s kindness, I don’t
get his willingness...his presence, his respect, his love,
Is Jobs for a Future a model that could be replicated
across the country? John considers the question. “The
concept of what we’re doing here will assist you in New
York. If there’s a Father Greg Boyle in New York, it will