Abrazos

“Jesus says what’s on God’s mind: Your truth is my truth. You are exactly what God had in mind when God made you. You watch a person on the margins inhabit that truth and no bullet can touch it.” ¬†Fr. Greg Boyle said those words a few days ago to an audience of more than 300 people at a Santa Clara University workshop I attended on mentoring troubled young people. Boyle is a Jesuit priest and the founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, America’s largest gang-prevention organization. Homeboy serves 15,000 gang members and former gang members per year, offering jobs (at a bakery, a silkscreening business, a cafe, a solar-panel installation company and other homespun enterprises), counseling, education, parenting classes and free laser tattoo removal. I met Boyle when I edited a story he told in Guideposts magazine last year. I visited Homeboy Industries then and later went back to write about a Homeboy success story, a former gang member-turned-artist named Fabian Debora. What strikes me about Boyle is that even as he has become famous–his memoir Tattoos on the Heart was a bestseller and he speaks around the country and appears on television–he remains grounded in the belief that there is no distance between the healer and the healed, between the priest and the gang member. Boyle’s aim is not just jobs or better lives for gang members. It’s persuading everyone, everywhere that the love of God is best expressed between people as kinship. “We’ve forgotten we belong to each other,” Boyle said at the mentoring workshop. “We have to move away from judgment that creates a high moral distance.”

Boyle told a story to illustrate this point. (He always tells stories. Every time I’ve heard him speak he devotes three-quarters of his talk to rambling, hilarious, piercing anecdotes about gang members.) The story was about a former gang member named Mario who came to work at Homeboy. Mario was a sweet, reedy kid with tattoos on every inch of his body except an oval around his eyes, nose and mouth. Boyle was invited to speak at his alma mater, Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. He took Mario and another homeboy with him, as he often does on trips, for company and to give gang members a chance to see other parts of the world. One thousand people came to the talk. At the end Boyle invited questions. A student stood up. “My question is for Mario,” she said. Mario, quaking, stepped to the podium. “You said when Fr. Boyle introduced you that you have a son and daughter about to become teenagers,” the student said. “My question is, what advice do you have for them as they head into adolescence?” Mario was quiet. “I want to tell them,” he choked, “I don’t want them to turn out like me.” He began crying. The student didn’t sit down. “Why don’t you want your kids to be like you?” she asked Mario. “You seem kind to me, and gentle and wise. I hope your kids do turn out to be like you.” Mario stared in astonishment. Then, as he buried his face in his hands to hide his tears, the entire audience rose to its feet and applauded. “Mario stands there with his face in his hands, reconciled to himself,” Boyle told the workshop audience. “He’s amazed at 1,000 people doing this for him. In that moment, in that room there was kinship.”