Jesuit, at Xavier, Says Helping Gang Members Begins With Love

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Declan Coles, 17, listened attentively at Xavier High School in lower Manhattan, as a guest speaker, Father Greg Boyle, S.J., gave a talk May 17 about Homeboy Industries, a Los-Angeles-based organization that offers job training and full-time employment through an 18-month program.

“I think Father Boyle is a great example of living Christ’s word,” Declan said. “He’s a primary example of seeing the good in everyone—seeing God’s face in everyone, especially the marginalized in society.”

More than 350 people attended the talk, including the entire junior class as well as students who had a free period, and teachers and administrators.

Father Boyle, who founded Homeboy Industries in 1988, gave three talks that day at Xavier—two during the day for students and one in the evening for the general public. The evening talk was co-hosted by St. Francis Xavier Church.

Father Boyle is a New York Times best-selling author and was last year’s Notre Dame Laetare medalist. That award is given in recognition of service to the Church and society.

At Xavier, Father Boyle spoke of the hardships and heartaches related to gang life in the Los Angeles area—gang members, their loved ones and close friends dying of gang-related violence or drug overdose; gang members struggling through life, with one parent absent and the other in prison; or with a brother or sister in jail and a close friend (homeboy) close to death in the hospital. The violent street deaths included men and women who had decided to change and were being assisted by Homeboy Industries, some caught in the wrong corner at the wrong moment.

“You want to stand with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless,” Father Boyle said during his talk, speaking to the students about the importance of faith and social justice taught by the Church.

“You want to stand with those whose dignity has been denied, and with those whose burdens are more than they can bear…You go from this place (Xavier) to stand with the easily left out and the readily despised.”

The messages stressed in his programs include the importance of learning to choose love over hate, he said. “You stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop,” he said. “That’s the vision of this place, and that’s what you’re called to do—to create a community of kinship, but with a particularity about the folks who are at the margins.”

The priest spoke about gang members seeking help at Homeboy Industries and witnessing with amazement when they first see former members of rival gangs working side by side at the organization’s bakery Homeboy Bakery.

“Love is the answer; community is the context, but tenderness is the methodology,” Father Boyle said.

Father Boyle advised the students not to think as Xavier as just “a place you come to,” but also as “a place you go from…That’s what Martin Luther King used to say about church.” The priest said the students should think of the school as a place that shapes, in a positive way, how they address the world, how they encounter it.

In quoting gang members and former gang members, he tinged the talk with humor and street-slang Spanish and English, and one expletive, evidently so that the listeners could get a true grasp of the street culture. It was obvious his audience was grateful for the honesty. He said Homeboy Industries has become the largest “gang intervention, rehab, re-entry” center in the world, early on getting many death threats, bomb threats and hate mail.

The organization’s bakery burned down in October 1999, due to an electrical malfunction; it was later re-built.

When a fire department inspector asked Father Boyle if he knew of any disgruntled former employees who might have set the fire, the priest replied, “No, all the disgruntled ones are still working for me.”

Joining Father Boyle in his talk were two former gang members, Steve Avalos and Jose Arrellano, who are ex-cons rehabilitated with help from Homeboy Industries. Now in their 30s, they spoke of their gang-life struggles and hardships, and expressed gratitude to Father Boyle and everyone at Homeboy Industries for helping them turn their life around. “God answered every prayer I had in prison,” Avalos said.

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