The 2017 Laetare Medalist, Rev. Gregory J. Boyle, S.J.

It’s late in the afternoon, and in between rapid-fire meetings with homies waiting patiently outside the glass wall of his office, G is reflecting on the hundreds of photos on the walls that make his workspace more collage than cubicle.

“Everything is a gift, you know?” he says, speaking of the pictures that often are placed on his walls by someone else. “They’re of folks I’ve had to bury.”

G pauses at a photo near the ceiling of a young man in a wheelchair. “Just buried him last week. He was a sweetheart, that kid.”

He points to another of a featherweight fighter with his hands raised. “This guy is a boxer who used to work here. So he put that there.”

The tour continues, stopping at a pencil drawing of his own likeness. G’s face lights up. It is a near-perfect portraiture, with shading expertly applied to show his easy smile and the outline of his white beard.

“This drawing here was done by a guy on death row,” he informs. “I don’t even know him, but I hired his nephew, and he sent his uncle my picture.”

Soon enough the moment of reflection is over and G is about his business, conducting meetings five minutes at a time - one about a job, then a simple “handshake” (in which money moves from his hand to another’s), then a congratulations on completion of a project. The interactions are often short, but the sincerity is never lacking. Most end with a common exchange:

“Love you, G.”

“Love you too, son.”

The man known affectionately as “G” is Rev. Gregory Boyle, S.J. He is the founder and executive director of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, the world’s largest gang intervention and re-entry program in arguably the world’s gang capital. He is Father and father figure to the 10,000 people who come through Homeboy’s doors each year and participate in one of Homeboy’s social enterprises or services. Some leave behind photos, others just memories, all contribute to an unlikely community Fr. Boyle has shaped with an emphasis on kinship and community, where for 30 years rival gang members, former inmates and others cast aside by society have found renewed purpose as a result of Boyle’s ministry.

Greogry Boyle, SJ, sitting in his office.
The University of Notre Dame is honoring Boyle with the 2017 Laetare Medal, the most prestigious award given to an American Catholic. Established at Notre Dame in 1883, the Laetare Medal was conceived as an American counterpart of the Golden Rose, a papal honor that antedates the 11th century. Past recipients include President John F. Kennedy, Catholic Worker foundress Dorothy Day, novelist Walker Percy, Joe Biden, John Boehner, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, labor activist Monsignor George G. Higgins, jazz composer Dave Brubeck and actor Martin Sheen.

Boyle was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1984, and was originally assigned to lead the student service program at Santa Clara University. But on a trip to Bolivia in the summer of 1985, his trajectory changed. He was sent there ostensibly to shore up his Spanish, and in the process fell in love with the people of the poorest country in the hemisphere at that time.

“The poor are trustworthy guides,” he explains.

“The widow, the orphan — they're the ones who are supposed to guide the rest of us because they have had an experience of what it means to be cut off.”

“It wasn’t enough for me to do service at a university,” Boyle recalls. “So I went to my provincial and as luck would have it, they needed a pastor at Dolores Mission, which was the poorest parish in the city.”

Dolores Mission lies between two large housing projects, Pico Gardens and Aliso Village. When Boyle assumed pastoral duties, these two tracts represented the largest public housing development west of the Mississippi River.

“I was the youngest pastor in the history of the archdiocese,” Boyle says. “Which is to say, I didn’t know what on earth I was doing. At all. But one of the great gifts I gave to that community was my total incompetence. It meant they had to step up and get involved.”

The area at the time was known for something else – gang activity. If Los Angeles was the gang capital of the world, Boyle says, this area was the gang capital of LA. There were eight gangs – four at war with the other four. Boyle buried his first young person killed by gang violence in 1988; that number is still growing. In the early days he would broker a number of peace treaties between the warring factions, deals he says he doesn’t regret, but would never do again. The treaties gave the gangs a certain air of legitimacy; today, it’s more accurate to say Boyle works with gang members, not gangs.

That distinction not only describes how Boyle approaches gangs, but it also gives a glimpse into his philosophy on human connectedness. He emphatically rejects the notion that there should be lines that separate people: us vs. them, gang member vs. non-gang member, the haves and the have-nots. It’s a hard-won philosophy forged through immersion on the margins.

A woman wearing a homegirl shirt Greogry Boyle with a group of men on a city street

“You see what folks have to carry,” Boyle says. “You start to witness the dignity that had been denied. And in the case of gang members you start to see how heightened the demonizing was. You could feel yourself moving from being separate and superior to connected and compassionate.”

In 1988, Boyle and members of his parish formed an initiative called Jobs for a Future. It was a response to the many gang members who said what they could really use was a job. Soon Boyle was dispatching homies to felon-friendly employers in town. Eventually, his efforts reached the ear of Hollywood movie producer Ray Stark, who offered to help. Boyle asked for purchase and renovation of an abandoned bakery adjacent to Delores Mission. Stark wrote the check, and Homeboy Bakery was born. The organization grew and Homeboy Industries was officially established in 1992.

“The first 10 years there was a lot of hostility,” Boyle recalls. “Death threats, bomb threats, hate mail – not from gang members, but from folks who took exception to us helping gang members. ‘The friend of our enemy is our enemy.’”

There were additional challenges. The original bakery burned to the ground. And not every new program yielded results. Homeboy Plumbing, for example, never took off. (Boyle deadpans in speeches and writings that, “People didn’t want convicted felons in their homes. Go figure.”) Over time the organization grew stronger and public perception changed.

“This is a place that’s smart on crime,” Boyle says of Homeboy.

If the choice is tough on crime or soft on crime, no one will pick soft. But if the choice is tough or smart, people will choose this as a better investment than prisons.

The bakery was rebuilt and is now a part of Homeboy headquarters in Chinatown. It was the first social enterprise of Homeboy Industries. Today that list includes a silkscreen and embroidery operation and merchandise store; Homegirl Café, a farm-to-table restaurant serving breakfast and lunch; a catering business; and Homeboy Diner, the only restaurant inside LA City Hall. The bakery produces goods for the café and diner, as well as items for farmers markets and various restaurants around town. The goal with these enterprises is to teach soft skills – showing up on time, dealing with co-workers, etc. – to prepare former inmates for re-entry into society.

A rosemary plant
Four men wearing Homeboy shirts standing behind a stack of books

Homeboy grew not as a result of a carefully crafted master plan, but rather with timely responses to needs. Perhaps the clearest example is its tattoo removal service. Boyle recounts the beginnings of that endeavor in his New York Times Bestseller, Tattoos on the Heart. A homie named Ramiro came into his office one day with a tattoo on his forehead reading, “F*** THE WORLD.” He was perplexed that his job search wasn’t proving fruitful. Father G hired him at the bakery, and made a few calls to area doctors. Eventually laser treatments began to remove Ramiro’s tattoo. He went on to land a job as a security guard at a movie studio, “no trace left of the angriest moment of his life,” as Boyle writes.

Homeboy removes more tattoos than any other entity on the planet. They perform 3,000 treatments a month on former gang members and walk-in clients. It’s a critical service: not only can visible tattoos create a barrier to finding employment, but gang-related ink can pose a very real threat to a person’s safety and the safety of their family. That’s why removal of gang symbols is prioritized at Homeboy.

A man getting a tattoo removed from his left arm

It’s not a pleasant procedure. A laser essentially blasts the ink to break it apart, where it can be removed via the body’s immune system. One doctor described the feeling as similar to a large rubber band stretched and covered with hot cooking oil snapping at the skin. Some of the most hardened former gang members have been known to literally run out of the room during the first treatment. There are countless variables determining how long complete removal can take: age of the tattoo, overall health of the individual, type of ink used, amount of coverage. But the doctor is quick to remind clients, especially former gang members, it will be more painful to keep the tattoo on than to have it removed.

Often a court will order an individual to have their tattoos removed. This was the case with Connie Cordero, who came to Homeboy in 2013 to have tattoos removed as part of her probation. It was not the first time she’d had contact with Boyle.

“The first time I met Father G, I was probably about 12 years old,” she recalls. “He’d pick up a couple kids in the neighborhood to go to church.” At the memory, she chuckles. “I’d send my brother. I went a couple times, but I was already pretty much involved in the street life.”

Years later, it would catch up with her. Cordero was arrested and indicted under RICO laws (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) for conspiracy to attempt murder and murder. The father of her children was arrested with her, and is serving four life sentences. Cordero was released after four years.

“I came home, I was 32 years old, and I truly didn’t know what I wanted or where I was in life,” Cordero says. “I had become accustomed to a certain way of living. Coming home was a new beginning.”

She stuck around Homeboy, attending classes offered there and enrolling in the standard 18-month trainee program. The program allows participants to rotate through the enterprises run by Homeboy, working while they take courses on topics like mental health, anger management and the like. Connie excelled in this environment, particularly in the coursework available. She went to school to become a substance abuse counselor, and was offered a job before she completed the trainee program.

Cordero came back to Homeboy, working as a Navigator. She guides about a dozen trainees through the program, offering support and advice from the vantage point of someone who’s been there. She was a transformation story almost a decade in the making, helped along not just by the courses and training offered at Homeboy, but also by the invaluable support system.

But her story includes one more, tragic chapter. Around Christmas 2015, Connie’s brother was murdered.

“Everything I was, the person who I had done all that work on to change, resurfaced,” Connie says.

I didn't know if I would make the right decisions. I was hurt, and I was angry. I wanted to give up. I had to find myself again. With the help of Father G, and everybody here, I was able to pull through.

“I’m proud of the person I am today, but I didn’t know how to deal with death. Father G said, ‘Let death be your greatest teacher.’ I was clueless what he meant at the time, but I think I get it now. I value life in a whole new way now.”

Connie’s story is an example of why Boyle says Homeboy evolved from its early days as just a dispatcher, a go-between connecting people with jobs.

“We saw how that wasn’t sufficient and healing had to happen. Now there are 18 months of essential healing, when they re-identify who they are,” Boyle says. “An educated inmate or gang member may or may not re-offend, and an employed one may or may not re-offend, but a healed one won’t ever re-offend, period. They gain some resilience and then they leave here, and now the world will throw at them what it will, but this time it won’t topple them.”

There’s an undeniable joy and dynamism at Homeboy, and it’s easily seen at the daily morning meeting. Just before each day begins, the trainees and staff join in the main reception area – right outside the glass wall of G’s office – for announcements and other matters of business: specials in the café, the day’s visitors (there are always plenty of them), the day’s course offerings, the day’s tattoo removal doctors, and announcements of who obtained a GED or earned a driver’s license, which are met with exuberant applause. The efficiency and organizational synergy on display would be the envy of any Fortune 500 company, the camaraderie a model for any team.

The meeting is evidence of the kind of healing Boyle describes. In the room at that time are former members of rival gangs, and in the not-so-distant past, an encounter may have led to a violent interaction. Here, there's only laughter, hugging, handshakes, and high fives. They cheer each other on because they've invested in each other, and are realizing the truth of the message Boyle has preached a thousand times: “There's only us.”

“I tell people Homeboy is something you feel,” Cordero says. “It’s not something I can explain. You have to see it.”

Steve Avalos, also a Navigator on staff, describes it this way: “I feel like Homeboy Industries is meant to help people who are broken. People who struggle. Someone like me.”

Avalos was a gang member and former inmate who earned release with the help of a letter Father Boyle wrote to California governor Jerry Brown, who just happened to visit Homeboy the week prior to the letter’s delivery. “My mom got an email, saying ‘Congratulate Steve on his freedom. I’ll see him on Friday.’ Friday I came in, he gave me a hug and a job,” he says.

For Avalos, Homeboy is about family. He too started in the 18-month training program, but was offered a job in case management elsewhere before he finished. He chose to stay at Homeboy because his passion is working with youth from similar circumstances. He points out the stark contrast between inclusion in a gang, and acceptance at Homeboy. Gang initiation often entails standing in a circle of other members and enduring a thorough beating by those you respected. Genuine acceptance – and the joy that comes with it – is offered at Homeboy.

“You can laugh from your stomach,” Avalos says.

You don't have to watch your back. You don’t have to wonder what someone's intentions are. You’re allowed to be who God intended you to be.

Boyle tells the story of a young homegirl who came to him in mid-November and asked why Homeboy had to close on Thanksgiving. After all, that’s mainly at night, she reasoned.

“It was her way of saying this is more home than home,” Boyle says. “What they find here is something stronger than what they had in any gang. But also, even stronger than what they had in their families.”

Homeboy Industries is closed for an extended holiday break over Christmas and New Year’s, but in the middle of that week or so, they host a “Back to Homeboy” night. It’s a chance for the family to reunite over pizza; an opportunity to feel themselves again. A chance re-engage in what Boyle seeks through Homeboy and in life: kinship.

“There’s a world that says there’s ‘us and them.’ We say there’s only us,” says Boyle. “No kinship, no peace. No kinship, no justice. No kinship, no equality. No matter how singularly focused you may be on those worthy goals, this place knows that they can’t actually happen unless there’s a sense we are connected and belong to each other. So peace, justice and equality become byproducts of our kinship. Work for kinship, and watch what happens.”

If Homeboy has grown over 30 years without following a strategic plan to the letter, it has done so by striving toward the same ideal. Kinship is the impetus for Boyle, an Irish Catholic who grew up in a different time in a different part of the city, to form so many close bonds with people of very different circumstances. Boyle confides he “wouldn’t survive a day” of the childhood of many of the people who come through Homeboy's doors. Yet he is quick to point out that his is not a quest to save lives, but to join them. He seeks not to reach the outcast, but rather to be reached by them. He stands in awe of the things they carry – abuse, abandonment, addiction, a criminal record – and doesn’t pronounce judgment on the way they carry them. And the impact of this approach is obvious.

Cordero describes it this way: “A lot of people will say Father G means everything to them, because he’s a father figure to so many. So many days he’ll be out traveling and you see the emptiness. And then you see him walk through the doors, and it’s like the sunshine comes in. Literally. You see everybody’s spirits lift.”

“He believes in you until you believe in yourself,” Steve adds.

It’s nearly time for business hours at Homeboy to end for the day, yet Fr. G will likely have several more hours of work to do. He meets with the last few who are waiting outside his office, and asks one particular visitor if he’s literally staying away from a trouble.

“Are you staying away from a certain neighborhood?” he asks. Then for emphasis, adds, “You know what I mean by a ‘certain’ neighborhood?” The young man answers in the affirmative. G gives him a pat on the back and walks him out the door.

Soon the last few conversations end, with their characteristic warmth a hallmark of the joy infused in Boyle's work. It's a byproduct of the interpretation Boyle offers for a mediation of St. Ignatius, in which he says, “See Jesus standing in the lowly place.” For Boyle, it’s crucial that Jesus isn’t issuing an exhortation or demand from that place; rather, Jesus is simply saying, “Here’s where I am. And here’s where the joy is.” It’s been the prism through which he’s viewed his work: not grim duty, and not a lifesaving venture, but a passion for mission that has yielded ultimate joy.

“You don’t go to the margins to rescue anybody,” G says. “But go figure, if we all go to the margins, everybody gets rescued. That’s how it works.”

The front facade of Homeboy Industries