Over the course of three decades as a Jesuit priest who started what has become the largest gang intervention program in the country, Father Greg Boyle has developed a steadfast message, one many in attendance at the Faith and Action Project spring conference May 2 at Eastern Star Church were likely familiar with before his keynote speech.
It’s about meeting people where they are with compassion, suspending one’s own sense of what’s right and what’s wrong and taking time to listen to those on the margins.
“It is a beautiful moment when someone takes the time to recognize the image of God in all of humanity,” Christian Theological Seminary interim President William Kincaid said when he introduced Boyle to the pulpit.
Familiar as they may have been with Boyle and his work, those in attendance were at the mercy of the emotional strings he pulled with ease, going from humor to disbelief to pity and back to humor again.
Boyle told stories of the gang members he’s come to know since he started Homeboy Industries in 1988. There was the “homie” — as Boyle calls the former gang members he works with — who stood up in front of a crowd of 600 social workers in Virginia and, through tears, told them about the mother who beat him daily to the point that he wore three shirts to school: one to soak up the blood from his wounds, another to soak up what the first shirt couldn’t and a third to hide it all. There were uplifting stories, like the former gang member — they call him “Dreamer” — who struggled to stay out of jail but proudly waved his first paycheck in the air in Boyle’s Los Angeles office after Boyle helped get him a job with a vending machine company.
“Those stories touched a different spot in me, remembering what I’ve been through and what I’ve come through,” said Dwight Fortune, who was addicted to crack cocaine for seven years and is now an author and speaker.
Fortune, 39, did nine months in jail for possession of stolen property — to “feed my addiction” — and understood what Boyle meant when he talked about meeting people where they are. Boyle said those who want to help shouldn’t go to the “margins” — to meet those in poverty, those stuck in a cycle of violence, those addicted to drugs — to save people “because then it’s about you.”
“We go to the margins so that the folks at the margins make us different,” he said.
Boyle, a white man who, prior to Homeboy Industries, was without natural connections to the people he works with, believes it’s this philosophy that has helped him reach so many people. Last year, with a budget of $19 million, Homeboy Industries welcomed over 400 people into its program. Once someone in need feels like they’re finally being heard, Boyle said, they can come to realize what he called the truth: that God had in mind who they would be when he created them.
“No bullet can pierce it, no four prison walls can keep it out, and death can’t touch it,” he said.
It was to Boyle’s point that people who have good intentions should stop thinking about how to “reach” those people and instead think about what those people can teach them.
For Bryan Chatfield, associate director at Holy Family Shelter on the west side, it was a lesson he plans to take back to his staff.
“We talk about serving with compassion a lot,” said Chatfield, 38, who ran for Indianapolis City-County Council, “but he added the point of being led by those we’re serving. That’s something that I never really thought about before.”
It might be easy to forget in some moments that Boyle is an ordained priest — he didn’t hesitate to include the occasional “damn” or “hell” in the non-Biblical way — but faith, even when not overt, is at the foundation of everything Boyle has done for the last 31 years.
He told a story about a former gang member who was reading a responsorial psalm at Mass and said, “The Lord is exhausted,” rather than exalted. The crowd got a good laugh out of that, as they did at many points throughout Boyle’s presentation, but Boyle said he actually prefers the exhausted God. He said the exhausted God is generous and without judgment. He encouraged everyone to try to please that God by reflecting the same character.
“This time together is not the place you come to,” Boyle said. “It’s the place you go from. It’s not just so much about taking the right stand on issues. It’s about standing in the right place. It’s more humble and it’s more effective actually when we do that.”
Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.