By Avery Zendejas & Sylvia Valdez
When you first walk into the lobby of Homeboy Industries in Downtown LA, there is no denying that some of the faces looking back at you are intimidating. Some of them are covered in tattoos, not just their arms, but even the faces of a few. You can see in the eyes of some of the men and women in there, that they have been through and seen things most of us only experience in movies about gangs and the inner city.
But then after that initial moment, or two, of quickened heart rate, a funny thing happens. The men and women you at first only saw, and maybe judged by their outer appearance, smile at you and ask if they can help you. And just like that, a barrier is broken.
Welcome to Homeboy Industries.
If you haven’t heard of them by now, here’s your chance. Homeboy Industries, located on the corner of 4th and Bruno St in Downtown Los Angeles, basically Chinatown, has unmistakably been changing lives one positive message at a time.
Homeboy Industries, officially established in 2001, offers former gang-involved and previously incarcerated men and women an opportunity to do a 180-degree turn on their lives. They do so through the largest, most comprehensive and successful, rehabilitation, and re-entry programs in the country. Some of the services offered at Homeboy include tattoo removal, anger management classes, parenting classes, and cooking classes. Homeboy is able to be so effective not just because it provides those services, but because it also provides opportunities for employment and real job experience, a key component of moving someone from a dead-end life to one of productivity. Homeboy enterprises employ its clients in a variety of opportunities where they learn valuable skills. There is Homeboy Recycling, Homeboy Foods, an online apparel store, silkscreen and embroidery, a bakery, Homegirl Catering, a grocery, a diner at City Hall, a Farmer’s Market. And one of the best restaurants you will find anywhere, Homegirl Cafe, where you can get Latino food with a healthy twist. Homegirl Cafe describes it as a place where “homegirls serve tables instead of serving time.”
What gets you about Homeboy though, isn’t all that. It’s hearing and seeing the very real men and women whose lives have been changed, saved actually, by the organization and its amazing founder, Father Greg Boyle, who participants lovingly refer to as Father G.
It doesn’t take long on a visit to hear some of the stories of tragedy, gang violence, torn families, and lost lives that so many experienced before being introduced to the program. Each individual face and person has a story to tell. Amazing stories to tell. Sometimes frightening and sad stories. But what makes the stories most interesting is hearing how Homeboy changed everything. It isn’t like in the movies, with lives turning around overnight and easily. It’s real. It’s about the commitment and the work the former gangbangers had to put in, and the effort of Homeboy to be there for them. And see beyond their tattoos and what they had done up to then.
It’s impossible to know Homeboy Industries without knowing its founder, Father Greg Boyle. Boyle became an ordained Catholic priest in 1984. Heavily educated in the study of God, Father Boyle holds remarkable accolades including a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and English from Gonzaga University, a Master’s degree in English from Loyola Marymount University, a Master’s of Divinity degree from the Weston School of Theology, and a Master’s of Sacred Theology from the Jesuit School of Theology from Berkeley.
He is also the author of the New York Times Bestselling book, “Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion.” The book has been honored by the Southern California Indie Booksellers Association, Pen USA, Publishers Weekly, and Goodreads Choice Awards.
Father Boyle did not have to choose this particular path, working with gangs and former gang members. But after spending time in a gang-filled area on one placement, he knew this was what he wanted to do. And he earned the respect of the gang members because he showed that he was there for them and that he was not going to turn his back on them.
Having been exposed to significant, traumatic violence during the 80’s, one can’t help but wonder how Father Boyle copes with it all. He was out of town when we had to go to press so we didn’t get to talk to him for this article. But in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Father Boyle confessed, “I’m more balanced about it. My Job isn’t to fix or rescue or to save. It’s to accompany, see people, listen to them.”
He is tireless in his efforts. And so are the many other professionals and volunteers there. And so are so many of the people who graduated from or are working through the program there. It is so easy to feel their gratitude for Homeboy and what it does. Father Boyle would likely be the first to say Homeboy isn’t about him anyway. It is about the men and women who are fighting a different fight now. Fighting to overcome their pasts and the sometimes means streets they came from. Homeboy is a vehicle for transformation. Its ultimate goal is to give people a chance to be something other than what they or the world might have originally expected from them. It is doing that. And doing it very well.
If you would like to show your support to this non-profit organization, here’s how. You can always donate, participate in Homeboy’s 5k run/walk, hire from Homeboy, volunteer at Homeboy, and donate clothing. It’s time to be a part of something that’s bigger than yourself. Be part of a community, change a life, in the words of Father Boyle, “No one has ever met a hopeful kid who joined a gang.”