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Battling for life over death

Transforming lives: Homeboy Industries founder Father Greg Boyle at ACU Brisbane during his recent visit. He shakes hands with thousands of gang members in his hometown Los Angeles with a mission to transform their lives. Photo: Emilie Ng

Transforming lives: Homeboy Industries founder Father Greg Boyle at ACU Brisbane during his recent visit. He shakes hands with thousands of gang members in his hometown Los Angeles with a mission to transform their lives. Photo: Emilie Ng

By Emilie Ng

RESTORING hope within Los Angeles’ notorious gang culture has proven to Jesuit Father Greg Boyle that God can be found in the most unlikely people.

In 1988, Fr Boyle started what is now America’s largest national non-profit gang intervention and re-entry program, Homeboy Industries, when he was asked to be the pastor of Jesuit parish Dolores Mission Church east of downtown LA.

Fr Boyle visited Brisbane on August 11 to share his story with students and staff at the Australian Catholic University, along with members of ministries serving those on the margins.

Fr Boyle said he had never set out to found Homeboy Industries, but it was an “evolving” response to the increase of gang violence in his parish.

“There I was in the place of the highest concentration of gang activity in the world, so I never set out to do anything like this,” Fr Boyle said.
“It was the poorest parish, it was Spanish-speaking, and it was the joy of my life to show up there.” 
Gang members were responsible for many murders,  drug dealing, and violence, many of which took place in Dolores Mission.

“I started burying young people, a lot of them, a lot of kids, starting in 1988,” he said.

“And occasionally they were little kids, who were not the targets of anything but caught in a crossfire.

“Nobody old was killed – they were all young, 20 and younger.”

After listening to and watching gang members and meeting with parishioners, most of whom were women, the community started a school, a free gang tattoo removal van, and eventually job training.

Today, more than 15,000 men and women escaping the life-threatening gang culture call on Homeboy Industries to save them from harm or death.
“In Los Angeles there are 1100 gangs and 120,000 gang members, so gangs are the places kids go when they’ve encountered their life as a misery, and misery loves company,” Fr Boyle said.

“So they are in the company of people who are likewise miserable.

“People who don’t know think there is some rational positive reason why a kid would join a gang, like to belong, excitement, the thrill of it.

“But none of that’s true.

“They know full well that this will end in death or prison, but they don’t care that it will, which is kind of the key diagnostic moment, which we need to pay attention to. 
“Homeboy is to help facilitate, by way of community, this mutual transformation.

“Anybody who’s there, the 15,000 gang members a year who walk through the doors, or the folks that have been there for a while, and are trying to be of service.

“And then at the same time it announces a message to the world, what if we were to invest in people on the margins, rather than just endlessly futilely try to incarcerate ourselves out of this problem.

“And here in Brisbane, whatever the complex social dilemma is, what language is that behaviour speaking?

“Whether it’s homelessness, drug addiction, violence among the young, teenage suicide, what language is all that behaviour speaking.

“If you ask it that way then you can really get at it underneath it, as opposed to, let’s just alter behaviour, which doesn’t really get you very far, I don’t think.”

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