By Anne Marie Amacher
The Catholic Messenger
Kinship and compassion are two qualities that Father Greg Boyle, SJ, emphasized during his commencement address to students graduating from St. Ambrose University in Davenport. Fr. Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, gave the address May 10 at the iWireless Center in Moline, Ill.
He told the 656 recipients of undergraduate, graduate or doctoral degrees to dismantle barriers and stand on the edge of the margins. “Stand up for the poor, the powerless and the voiceless.” Stand up for those whose dignity is denied and who are left out. “There will be no peace, no justice without kinship,” Fr. Boyle said.
For 30 years he has worked with his “homies,” those who are working to leave gangs in L.A. and make a better life for themselves. “They taught me to text. Sure beats talking to people,” he laughed. He shared a story of two rival gang members who now work together. “They realized they were from rival gangs and shot bullets at each other. Now they shoot text messages. That is kinship.”
Twenty-six years ago, Fr. Boyle began addressing the gang problem in the area he served at Dolores Mission. “There were eight gangs fighting.” He buried his first gang member in 1988 and his 194th two weeks ago. Without his efforts, there would be many more funerals.
Fr. Boyle started a school for gang members to educate them. They said they wanted jobs. Jobs would be a key to leaving gang life. But there weren’t many felony-friendly businesses out there. So the priest started Homeboy Industries. First was the bakery. He noted that Homeboy Industries has had successes and some failures. “Plumbing was not successful,” he laughed.
Today Homeboy Industries has eight businesses: Homegirl Café and Catering, Homeboy Farmers Market, Homeboy Bakery, Homeboy Diner, Homeboy and Homegirl Merchandise, Homeboy Grocery and Homeboy Silkscreen and Embroidery. They even have a restaurant inside LAX airport.
Fr. Boyle said God’s dream is for true, exquisite mutuality —enemies working together.
“St. Ambrose is not a place to come to, but a place to go from. Create kinship,” he advised the graduates.
Honorary degrees were bestowed on Fr. Boyle and Laurel Walker, retired president and CEO of Skip-A-Long Child Development Services and Skip-A-Long Family and Community Services in the Quad-Cities.
Father Boyle rehabilitates gang members
Father Greg Boyle, SJ, felt his calling to the priesthood toward the end of high school. “The Jesuits taught me. They were radical and cutting edge,” Fr. Boyle told The Catholic Messenger in an interview before the commencement ceremony for St. Ambrose University on May 10.
Fr. Boyle was ordained in 1984 and became pastor of Dolores Mission in Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights in 1986. For the first two years there he focused on immigration work. By 1988 he found himself having to bury young people who had died in gang violence. “The scales fell off my eyes at that point.” He changed his focus to find out what he could do to help.
“I asked them, what could I do? They were saying, ‘if only we had jobs.’ This was the beginning of a solution.”