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Saint of the Hood

With Homeboy Industries, Father Gregory Boyle has turned the nation’s gang capital into an unlikely place of redemption. Behind one of L.A.’s great stories of moral uplift lies a 25-year struggle between a priest’s unlimited compassion and a city’s harshest realities

Illustration by Fabian Debora

The walls of Father Gregory Boyle’s office at Homeboy Industries are encrusted with family photos. Somewhere there’s a snapshot of his 88-year-old mother, Kay, though she’s all but lost among the scores of young men with shaved heads and gang tattoos. The Jesuit priest has welcomed generations of these gang members like prodigal sons into Homeboy, which he launched 25 years ago and has built into the most successful gang rehabilitation and reentry program in the world. Many of the men pictured underwent months of paid job training and therapy and laser removal of those tattoos, emerging as wage earners and committed parents. Others slipped back onto the streets or are serving prison time, or are among the 186 murder victims whom Boyle has buried. Staring out from their snapshots, they bear witness on this late winter morning to a little boy who grins and dances before Boyle’s desk, his parents slumped nearby in plastic chairs.

“You tested dirty?” Boyle asks Roberto, the boy’s 23-year-old dad. His eyebrows rise up on his reddened forehead. “Again?” A gang member at 13, Roberto was locked up as a teen before serving a year in jail. He has three children. He used to work at the Homeboy gift store, selling Homeboy baby onesies, Homegirl sweatpants, and signature tortilla warmers and travel mugs. By testing positive for marijuana in a drug screening, Roberto violated one of the few Homeboy employment rules that resemble those of the outside world—and was let go. Yesterday he sent Boyle a text message bordering on despair. His mother is moving to a small apartment at the end of the month, and he’ll have to find a new place to live. He has no money, no job prospects.

“The THC,” Roberto says, trying to explain the test results. “It was at a low level, Padre.”

“How do you know it’s at a low level?” Boyle asks.

“Because Cesar told me.” Cesar Ulloa is one of the senior Homeboy staffers who administers the tests.

“No, we don’t do levels,” Boyle says. “Got you!”

Latino, African American, or Asian American, in their teens or well into middle age, about 40 gang members crowd the lobby, awaiting an audience with the priest. Like a benign Don Corleone, Boyle spends his a.m. hours being hit up for favors—trainee jobs or emergency handouts, legal assistance, help with regaining custody of kids from the foster system. A few of the supplicants end up sobbing on his shoulder. It’s been this way since Homeboy moved from a Boyle Heights storefront six years ago to its postmodern headquarters at the center of Chinatown, two county jails within a mile’s reach.

The carved block letters on Boyle’s wood business card holder identify him as “G Dog.” Homies who’ve known him for years call him by that name or by “Father G” or simply “G.” To those who’ve met him more recently, he’s “Pops.” Boyle is 59 but looks at least a decade older. His beard is snow white and his bald dome ruddy. As a young, slender priest, he spent his nights pedaling around the region’s most violent housing projects on a Schwinn beach cruiser. Now his ride is a ten-year-old tan Toyota Corolla, he’s sedentary much of the day, and his frame is weighed down by a sizable paunch. Boyle sports the same shapeless, faded Tommy Bahama zip-up sweater he’s worn every day since the weather grew cold. He gives away the new clothes his mother and siblings buy him for Christmas. The plaques he receives at awards dinners and the knickknacks he gets from friends are regifted to homies. The exception is single malt scotch—that he keeps.

Boyle rises at 4:30 each morning in his room at a Jesuit-owned Craftsman bungalow in East L.A. for an hour of prayer and meditation. The rest of his waking hours belong to potential funders, to out-of-state gang intervention directors interested in Homeboy, to any homie who walks through the door. Weekends are for celebrating Mass and counseling detainees at youth probation camps, for baptisms, weddings, and quinceañeras, and for answering ex-gang members’ distress calls. Thursday is supposed to be his day off but rarely is. He spends at least a hundred days of the year away on speaking tours.

Those who love and depend on Boyle—from Homeboy’s senior staff members to directors of charitable foundations to his mother—have made scant progress persuading him to take better care of himself. They also worry about who could possibly replace him. In 2003, Boyle learned he had chronic lymphocytic leukemia. He was told that the prognosis for men in his age bracket meant another ten years to live. After four months of chemotherapy and four years of immunoglobulin infusions to boost his immune system, the priest’s cancer went into remission. His schedule resumed full force. Late last year a spot on Boyle’s nose tested positive for lymphocytosis, but his blood levels have remained favorable and his doctors advised that more chemo was unnecessary. “Honestly,” he says about his disease, “I don’t think about it even a little bit—ever.”

He does worry about Homeboy’s financial condition, which has drastically reduced the chances that a job applicant in the nonprofit’s weekly lottery will end up working there. Nonetheless, hope is what Roberto needs at this moment, and Boyle’s not about to withhold it from him—dirty drug results or no. Looking at the couple, Boyle brightens. “We don’t know if you tested ‘low,’ ” he tells Roberto. “Well, maybe it’s light! Maybe it appears light.”

“I had a whole month with not smoking, Pops,” Roberto says. “You know I’m trying real hard.”

Boyle grabs a pad and starts scribbling. “OK, being that it’s lighter, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to give you permission to go to the lottery this Friday.” He tears off the sheet and hands it to Roberto, then crouches at eye level with the boy, who laughs and reaches for the priest’s beard. “Yeah,” Boyle says, “Santa Claus! Santa Claus!”

“Son,” Boyle tells Roberto, “here’s the words I don’t like—‘I give up.’ So when you text me like you did yesterday and say, ‘I’m going to give up,’ I understand the stress. But you can’t give up because”—he gives the boy another jolly Saint Nick smile—“look at this guy.”


This feature was originally published in the May 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine.

Boyle with his parents in 1974, the day he took his initial vows

On the surface it can seem unreal—the extent to which Homeboy headquarters bears out Boyle’s bottomless faith in a population widely considered beyond redemption, let alone deserving of it. Young men from rival gangs sweep floors and clean windows with an enthusiasm seldom applied to menial labor and laugh at one another’s jokes. A former member of the Aryan Brotherhood with a swastika as big as a Third Reich flag’s inked on his chest accepts a compliment from a onetime race enemy. Along with the felons are gang-affiliated teenagers released from L.A. County probation camps, working part-time and enrolled in the alternative Pasadena high school that Homeboy has partnered with. The Homeboy ethos commands more loyalty from them than their gangs ever did. A rehabilitation agency that retains at least 30 percent of its clients is considered effective. According to a study by UCLA sociology professor Jorja Leap, 70 percent of Homeboy trainees complete the 12- to 18-month program. 

Deliberately overstaffed by employees with criminal records and little or no job experience, Homeboy’s commercial enterprises still manage to make a profit. The organization has diversified beyond a bakery and a silk-screening plant into special-events catering, bread and pastry sales at 24 farmers’ markets, Homeboy chips and salsa at Ralphs, a Homeboy Diner at City Hall, a Homeboy Café & Bakery at LAX, and solar panel-installation training. Under the guidance of Homeboy case managers, the workers go through a mandatory series of on-site anger management and parenting classes, narcotics- and gangs-anonymous meetings, and sessions on job-skill building and résumé writing. Tattoo-removal services were inspired by a homie who had the words “Fuck the World” emblazoned on his forehead and couldn’t seem to land a job. At the Homegirl Café, which occupies a corner of the headquarters, waitresses who’d been in gangs take breakfast orders from cops. Diane Keaton once came for lunch. Her server, a former gang member Boyle refers to as “Glinda,” told her she recognized her. Keaton chalked it up to having one of those faces that people seem familiar with. “Oh, now I know how I know you,” Glinda said. “We were locked up together.”

Boyle often talks about standing with God inside a circle of compassion: “We imagine no one standing outside of that circle, moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased.” Spend a few hours at Homeboy and you feel not so much brought into a circle but caught in a web that Boyle spins at its center—not to ensnare and exploit but to nurture and connect those otherwise separated by suspicion, fear, hatred. Even those who encounter him on a professional basis are powerless to keep things purely professional.

Writer Celeste Fremon met Boyle when she was researching her 1991 Los Angeles Times Magazine cover story about him. “After six months of shadowing the priest,” she wrote in G-Dog and the Homeboys, her subsequent book, “I began to notice something essential in me was transforming.” She became a den mother to gang members and spent nights in the projects trying to protect them. Playwright Bill Cain came out from New York in 2002 to gather material for a screenplay on Homeboy. Intending to stay six weeks, he remained more than a decade, sharing the partitioned garage the priest lived in for much of his career. “It was a great pleasure talking to him day and night,” Cain says, “to discover the infinity and lushness of the God he believes in.” Tattoos on the Heart, Boyle’s 2010 book of inspirational homie parables, became a best-seller both on the strength of his redemptive message and his lyrical gift for making everyone who comes into contact with him feel as though they’re his next of kin.

Boyle was installed at Dolores Mission in Boyle Heights in 1986. He was 32, the youngest pastor in the history of the archdiocese. The Jesuit brought to his Spanish-speaking congregation a knowledge of the language that hadn’t advanced far beyond the level of distinguishing dios from día. The mission was sandwiched in L.A.’s poorest parish, between Pico Gardens and Aliso Village, two housing projects that before their demolition more than a decade ago were home to the greatest concentration of gang activity in the nation. Boyle believes he only got the job because no one else wanted it. He wanted it badly.

Four years into his tenure, amid the toxic bloom of the crack cocaine epidemic, there were 690 gang-related killings in Los Angeles County, accounting for 39 percent of all homicides. LAPD chief Daryl Gates had implemented Operation Hammer, a battle plan for nighttime raids and mass arrests. Gang members were a scourge to be met with zero tolerance and superior force. But Boyle saw the suffering beneath the violence. “I was blessed early on in this work to have the scales drop from my eyes by being in their presence,” he says. “They were so funny, heartwarming, and generous with other people.” For months he was met with rejection from parishioners, who were unhappy to have gang members in their church. The homies he won over by increments, rushing to the hospital beds of shooting victims, presiding over funerals for those who didn’t survive.


This feature was originally published in the May 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine.

Boyle bumping it with a Homeboy trainee in his office. Photograph by Damon Casarez

If Boyle was told about a fight, he would borrow the nearest bicycle, usually from a little kid, and approach the scene looking something like a Shriner on parade. The beach cruiser came later.  He’d sprint into the conflict, yelling and dropping F-bombs to part the sides. “It never felt heroic or weird,” Boyle says now. “It was always that kind of adrenaline. Lift the car, get out the grandmother. I didn’t fear a stray bullet, but you always have fear of rejection.”

Boyle managed to convince gangbangers that despite what they had done, they were made in the shape of God’s heart. You might give up on me, he told them, but I won’t give up on you. Boyle and neighborhood women began showing up at local factories and warehouses soliciting employment for gang members. The results were lackluster, and Boyle started handing out five- and ten-dollar bills for homies to do maintenance work around the church. In 1988, he launched his gang rehabilitation program as “Jobs for a Future.” The name held until 1992. The late film producer Ray Stark read an opinion piece by the priest in the Los Angeles Times and summoned Boyle to his office, asking how he could help. Boyle told Stark about a vacant bakery building across from his church. Stark bought the property, and that same year Boyle took over an abandoned tortilla-making machine from downtown’s Grand Central Market. He rechristened the newly diversified enterprise with the name gang members call each other: Homeboy.

Last year’s Los Angeles Film Festival marked the U.S. premiere of G-Dog, a documentary about Homeboy and Father Boyle by Academy Award-winning director Freida Lee Mock. The dramatic backbone of the film is a calamity known in Homeboy lore as “Black Thursday.” Mock’s cameras captured that April morning in 2010, when the entire staff gathered in the lobby of the headquarters and the priest, with tears in his eyes, told them that Homeboy was out of money and he had to lay everyone off. Black Thursday was the culmination of a long pattern of existential crises. The bakery alone was shuttered repeatedly during its first decade for want of funds—in 1994, 1995, and 1999, when an electrical fire swept through the front office and packaging area. It would take eight years for Boyle to raise $12.5 million for a new bakery and headquarters for Homeboy—with Stark and his wife, Fran, putting up $1 million.

G-Dog follows Boyle as the homies rally around him after Black Thursday, as Dr. Phil publicizes his ordeal on TV, as donations come pouring in. The nonprofit fixes its books and expands its businesses, and the documentary comes to its triumphant conclusion, with Homeboy looking stronger than ever.

It’s not looking that way now. Last fall Boyle had to lay off 70 trainees for lack of money, and at times there wasn’t enough petty cash for him to write the $50 checks to homies in need. Revenues from the bakery, the silk-screening plant, and the rest of the profit-making businesses account for about 40 percent of the total budget. Homeboy continues to rely mainly on contributions from foundations and individuals, and giving has dropped more than $2 million since the post-Black Thursday rescue. Government grants have been slashed by a third. What’s more, the organization doesn’t have an endowment fund, which might otherwise provide enough interest or investment income to guard against fluctuations in annual giving.

The economic downturn was partly to blame for Black Thursday. So was Homeboy’s new centrally located headquarters, the Fran and Ray Stark Center, which widened the applicant pool beyond Boyle Heights to all of Los Angeles County. Until Black Thursday, Homeboy was also imperiled by Boyle’s belief in a compassion that recognizes no boundaries, even the bottom line.

The writer-director Chris Weitz got to know Boyle while working on A Better Life, the 2011 film about East L.A. immigrants that was his follow-up to The Twilight Saga: New Moon. He now sits on Homeboy’s board. “Homeboy Industries is not a business model,” Weitz tells me. “A major part of it is informed by Father Greg’s belief, and there are aspects of that belief that are simply not negotiable for him. Some people might regard him as unrealistic, but if anyone was realistic coming into the gang situation, I think a lot of things that had happened at Homeboy simply wouldn’t have.”

“The beauty of Father Greg’s approach is eternal, unrelenting hopefulness for those young people,” says Robert Ross, president and CEO of the California Endowment. “The curse is that it’s terrible for the balance sheet of a nonprofit, and it really can wreak havoc. Most nonprofits function with a very clear sense that resources and dollars are a constraint. They turn people away, put them on waiting lists, and send them to other programs. The money dries up and so do the services—end of story.”

Former KB Home CEO Bruce Karatz played a central role in Homeboy’s post-2010 recovery, volunteering while under indictment for manipulating stock options. “My immediate focus,” Karatz says, “was to assure the institutions who were primary funders at Homeboy that it was serious about managing itself. And for a year and a half it was about ‘How does Homeboy do everything it could to exist—to balance expenses with revenues?’ ” Only then did Karatz divert his attention to getting chips and salsa into Ralphs, putting the Homeboy Diner at City Hall, and cementing a partnership that paved the way to last month’s grand opening of another Homeboy Diner at LAX. Today Homeboy is more professionally managed than at any other time during its history. Tom Vozzo, formerly a division president of the Aramark food service conglomerate, became the organization’s first CEO. Viktor Rzeteljski, who had been a partner at the financial services and auditing firm KPMG, is chairman of the board of directors.


This feature was originally published in the May 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine.

Baking cookies at Homeboy headquarters. Photograph by Damon Casarez

While Vozzo and Rzeteljski come from corporate America, Homeboy’s senior staff has been promoted internally. With his long ponytail and tats of Che and Zapata occupying his biceps, Fabian Debora runs the substance abuse program. He’s a former gang member and addict who tried to kill himself in the summer of 2006 by walking onto the 5 freeway. He’s also the artist who painted the ceiling mural for the Homeboy Café & Bakery at LAX and the portrait of Boyle for this article. Agustin Lizama, who lost part of his left arm at age 12 in a drive-by shooting, oversees Homeboy’s anger management programs. Louis Perez, stout and rarely without his hairnet, is Homeboy Bakery’s generalissimo. And then there’s Hector Verdugo, once a high-level drug dealer with his Boyle Heights gang, who takes the seat behind the executive director’s desk when Boyle travels. Thirty-eight years old, Verdugo, who wears a Kenneth Cole watch and shows up for work in well-pressed slacks and patterned dress shirts, first met the priest as a teenager at Central Juvenile Hall. He arrived at Homeboy eight years ago as a trainee. Boyle envisions him running the organization someday.

Verdugo told his fiancée before they married last winter that Homeboy would always come first for him. “Since I’ve been at Homeboy, I got to see God at work,” says Verdugo, who’s Protestant. “You see miracles happen here, like a miracle factory. And when you see it happen in front of you, you know that this is supernatural—this is God.” Nevertheless, having once built a profitable enterprise in a brutal business environment, Verdugo finds himself closer to Vozzo and Rzeteljski than Boyle when it comes to finances. In January he went to the priest in his office and asked him to make his peace with a plan by Homeboy’s financial managers to cap the full-time trainee workforce at 200—and to reduce new hires to one a week. “We have a limited amount of money for this year,” Verdugo said. “We have a yearly budget that we have to follow.”

Boyle launched into what for him passes as a tirade. “The minute you’re saying ‘200 trainees,’ ” he said to Verdugo, his voice raised half a decibel, “we eliminate hope from the premises. More important than the help we provide is the hope we hold out. That’s the reason this place works: We hold out hope to 160,000 gang members in L.A. County. That’s huge—even more important than these guys who are working here right now. Now the board doesn’t get that—because it’s ‘Well, the budget is this. It has to be this. It can’t exceed that,’ and I go, ‘No, that’s not the way hope works.’ ” Boyle was overruled. The Homeboy workforce limit is 200.

It was already fairly evident in Boyle’s boyhood that the future priest and the Roman Catholic Church weren’t going to be an ideal fit. One afternoon he was sent home from parochial school for refusing to recite the Baltimore Catechism, a standard text for Catholic children in the ’50s and early ’60s that laid down the precepts of faith in a rote Q&A format. “I said, ‘No, I’m not going to memorize those answers,’ ” he says, “ ‘because I don’t think that’s what faith is about.’ ”

Devotion dominated his early impulses. Around 1962, when Boyle was eight, he would place bird corpses from around the neighborhood in his little red wagon. His mother, Kay, would watch as yet another funeral procession made its way toward the family home in the tony Mid Wilshire enclave of Windsor Square. At first only the boy next door would accompany Boyle and the makeshift hearse, but several other children would join the procession by the time it reached the creature’s final resting place in his backyard. “They were so serious, very serious,” says Kay. Boyle told his mother he had no memory of this when she brought up the burials a few years ago, but, Kay says, “Half that yard is full of dead birds.”

As a 12-year-old, Boyle spent evenings on the porch counseling other kids, some older than he was. “A lot of them would come over if they had problems,” Kay tells me. “Why they picked him I had no idea, but they did pick him for advice, maybe about girlfriends or school.” Boyle describes himself as always being older than his age. “You know how kids can be 10 going on 20?” he says over lamb chops and a glass of Laphroaig at Taylor’s Steak House. “That was probably me, but not in the way of being wild at 20. I was probably more 10 going on 40.”

On Sundays Kay and her husband, Bernie, a third-generation owner of a dairy called Western Farms, took their eight children to Mass at the neo-Gothic Saint Brendans Church, where Boyle and his brothers served as altar boys. But it was his admiration for his Jesuit teachers at Loyola High School, in West Adams, that led him to the priesthood. The Christ they followed wasn’t as much a stickler for canonical law and ecclesiastical hierarchy as the Vatican’s, and their politics, especially then in the late ’60s, were radical. “They were hilarious and always kind of cutting-edge,” Boyle says. “They took me to my first protest.” The summer after his junior year, while helping to feed adult cerebral palsy victims and supporting them in therapy pools, Boyle realized how drawn he was to the outcast and the disregarded. “There’s some old story,” Boyle says, “where a mother of eight kids is asked, ‘Who’s your favorite kid?’ And you expect her to say, ‘None of them are my favorite—they’re all my favorites.’ But instead she says, ‘It’s the one who’s suffering the most.’ ”


This feature was originally published in the May 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine.

Boyle in counsel. Photograph by Damon Casarez

Boyle decided to become a Jesuit in his senior year. “His girlfriend,” Kay remembers, “just cried her eyes out when she found out.” He cherished the year he spent in Bolivia, saying Mass for impoverished peasants in remote mountain villages, but was miserable when studying for his master’s degree. Unable to stand among the suffering, forced to focus on his own self-improvement, he doubted his priest’s vocation. “At every juncture of studies,” he recalls, “I would fall madly in love with a woman and think, ‘I’m going to leave.’ ”

Dolores Mission and the projects were seven-and-a-half miles from Windsor Square, but the poverty, violence, and deprivation of Boyle Heights were, as they say, worlds away. There was no shortage of suffering. On the Fourth of July, his first day as pastor, Boyle was called to the local public swimming pool. Two mothers had sneaked in and gotten high as their children drowned. In the late ’80s, Boyle and two neighboring priests opened their churches as sanctuaries for illegal immigrants. Roger Mahony, then L.A.’s archbishop, chided them for disregarding archdiocese protocol in the Spanish-speaking press.

Boyle had already appeared on 60 Minutes and in several newspapers before the first Rodney King beating trial, and the priest’s media profile only increased when his parish was spared rampant looting and mayhem during the riots that followed. With the barrio priest all over the news, Mahony announced Hope in Youth, a gang-prevention program conceived on a prelate’s grand scale. The projected five-year budget was $107.3 million, and the program would go national. Though Boyle had as much gang expertise as any priest in America by then, Mahony didn’t seek his advice. Hope in Youth hardly gained traction in Los Angeles, let alone beyond it, and folded within five years.

In the summer of 1992, Boyle left Boyle Heights to take the final vows of his order and serve inmates at San Quentin prison and at an island penitentiary off the coast of Mexico. The following year Father Paul Belcher, head of the Jesuits in California at the time, announced that Boyle would not be returning to Boyle Heights. Catholic pastors, he explained, are routinely rotated out after several years’ tenure. Parishioners complained to reporters that neighborhood violence had risen without Boyle. “To say that he was sent there by God, as if nothing could change without his presence,” Belcher said, “is kind of an exaggeration.” After the better part of a year of punishing press, Boyle was permitted to come back, with the understanding that he’d no longer be on the payroll of the archdiocese.

The archdiocese still seems to hold him at arm’s length. Three years after following Mahony as L.A.’s chief prelate, José Gómez has yet to visit Homeboy. He didn’t respond to an interview request for this article, nor did Mahony, who’s now a cardinal. And while Gómez relieved his predecessor of his duties for covering up widespread priest abuse, Mahony remains well inside Boyle’s circle of compassion. “He and I no question butted heads a lot,” Boyle says. “But here’s what I do for a living: I try to insist that people not be defined by the worst thing they ever did or the worst chapter of their life, and that’s kind of the whole deal about Homeboy. It’s about redemption and that people are a whole lot more than the singularity of some act. And I believe that with all my heart. I can’t believe that about a homeboy and then not believe it about Roger Mahony.”

Ever since Boyle first appeared in newspapers more than two decades ago, he’s been on something of a rebranding campaign. What began as intermittent public conversations at local schools and business gatherings now takes him out of the city for months each year with a pair of homies in tow. His talks, though they necessarily cover a lot of well-trod territory, feel unrehearsed. In a high tenor Boyle speaks about poverty, rejection, abuse, courage, and the underlying goodness of homies with such tenderness that audiences and donors begin to grasp the gang problem as he grasps it—the result not of evil but, as he says, “a lethal absence of hope.”

But first he lets the trainees tell their own stories of desolation prior to finding redemption at Homeboy. Late last fall Boyle takes 27-year-old Joseph “Tito” Singleton and 19-year-old Mario Cisneros on a four-day speaking tour of the Bay Area. Neither has been on a plane before or seen San Francisco. Boyle drives them down the twists of Lombard Street and over the Golden Gate Bridge, ushers them onto a sight-seeing boat to see Alcatraz. Much of the time Singleton is cracking a confident smile under his narrow mustache, while Cisneros, lean and towering, usually wears a grim expression. His brown eyes, framed by long, thick lashes, glare as if anticipating a threat. His small mouth is set in a tense, straight line. His body is tightly coiled, at odds with the writhing ecstasy of the close-lidded, bare-breasted women tattooed on his forearms, one of them smoking a joint.

During his first few appearances, Cisneros struggles to find the words that come so much more easily to Singleton. Then at a reception on day two of the tour, a middle-aged woman, dressed for the office, comes up to him after his speech. She clings to Cisneros and cries and shudders against him in sympathy for what he’s had to endure. The next evening, speaking to more than 1,100 teenagers in the gymnasium at Oakland’s Bishop O’Dowd High School, the homie drops his guard.


This feature was originally published in the May 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine.

“I want to tell you a little bit about my life before I met Father G and before I came to Homeboy,” he says. “I grew up with my mom on drugs and my little sister running around in dirty diapers. My dad, he was a drug trafficker, and we never got along. I think I was six years old when my uncle OD’d. We thought that he was sleeping, so we walked up to him—poked him, tried to pick him up, but he was dead. My sister called the cops. Cops came, social services came. They took us away.”

In youth detention—at 13, 14, and 15—it was looking like he would be locked up his whole life. “I was running around, back and forth to jail, and I got shot in the stomach and still I’m not stopping—not asking myself ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’ Finally my little brother, 15 years old, gets shot—they killed him. ‘Is this the time?’ I said no, and I kept going and the gangs were at war, back and forth, back and forth. Little by little we’re just decreasing the population of our neighborhoods. And then finally I got tired of it. God’s giving me these passes, and I better take advantage of them…. So I walk through the doors of Homeboy Industries,” he says, “and it’s such a beautiful place. It’s the best place I’ve ever been. You can feel the love whenever you walk in. When Father G walks up to me and says, ‘You ready?’ I’m ready.”

Cisneros tells the students how he’s studying for his GED, how well he’s doing in Homeboy therapies for drugs and anger. “My life is different,” he says, his shaved head with its jumbo-size gang insignia glossy under the floodlights. “I’m the receptionist at Homeboy Industries. So if you ever go there, I’m the first person you see. You walk up and you’ll hear me say, ‘Hello, welcome to Homeboy Industries. How can I help you?’ ”

“Government programs, our civic life, our politics—most of us are pretty fed up with them,” says Robert Ross of the California Endowment. “To hear a speech from Father Greg is to take a vacation from the cynical world we’re accustomed to.” It’s a vacation that a lot of listeners want to pay for. “People will whip out a checkbook and start signing checks,” Ross says. “It’s an amazing thing.”

There would be even more audience members opening their purses with tears streaming down their cheeks if Boyle could bring himself to appeal for money after these talks. As it is, the priest won’t conclude his message of kinship and connection with the passing of the collection plate. One time in his office he vented about the inability of the same executives who were demanding further budget cuts to find more funds to pay for services, but then he had to admit that he hadn’t been aggressive in that regard, either. Bruce Karatz once told me that Boyle was amazing at talking up Homeboy when the two met with donors but less so at closing the deal. “When it comes to asking for a check, Greg doesn’t like doing that,” Karatz said. “I don’t think Cardinal Mahony had trouble asking for checks.”

 …

In the early 1970s, Gloria Molina signed on as a counselor for gang-affiliated girls but left the field after finding herself at odds with the permissive attitude of her coworkers. She’s now concluding her final term as an L.A. County supervisor, having represented the 246-square-mile district that includes Boyle Heights for most of Homeboy’s history. Molina remembers Boyle’s emergence in the late 1980s. “It seemed like he had quite a strong presence,” she says, “and everyone automatically revered him.” But much of what she heard about him reminded her of the coddling that had soured her as a volunteer. “Some of these counselors were treating it as lightly as ‘Oh, you know. Boys will be boys’—and that kind of thing was always troublesome to me. And I think Father Boyle initially took that sort of attitude.”

Only in recent years, she suggests, has the priest followed a course more to her liking. “I’m not sure there was a turn or how it all evolved,” Molina says. “I just know that I was very pleasantly surprised when I saw him taking more ownership of the bad deeds of some of these kids.” Boyle says that his beliefs haven’t changed but rather the supervisor’s understanding of them did after the two sat down to talk a decade ago.

Though Molina hasn’t always been happy with Boyle’s approach, the county she helps oversee has only recently made a creditable attempt at gang-member rehabilitation. In 2008, the L.A. County Probation Department opened two Day Reporting Centers—one for gang-affiliated teenagers, the other for young adults on probation or facing jail time—that administer a six- to nine-month regimen of behavior modification, counseling, and job training. Unlike Homeboy, the DRCs don’t offer daily immersion, and classes are largely taught by probation officers, who are difficult for some clients to trust. They have also been short staffed. Deputy Probation Director Reaver Bingham acknowledges that this last problem will soon be corrected and that two more adult and two more youth DRCs will open later this year, accommodating as many as 500 to 800 clients each. The future of the DRC program for gang-involved teens, at least, seems secure. The county will pay for it as part of an agreement with the Department of Justice, which has been supervising the probation department for 11 years due to mismanagement at its youth probation camps. However, the adult DRCs are dependent on state funds, and services there may shrink or even disappear when that money runs out in 2016 or 2017.


This feature was originally published in the May 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine.

The pastor in 1992 with some East L.A. homies. Photograph by Damon Casarez

Even if the DRC program survives in its entirety, neither it nor Homeboy will be able to accommodate a significant portion of the tens of thousands of gang members who will be released from county custody in the coming years. Molina doubts that a large-scale rehabilitation program under the auspices of L.A. County Probation is even possible. “Our probation department has been in total disarray for decades,” she says. “Honestly, I’m surprised that people like Father Boyle can continue to function, considering how dysfunctional we are internally.”

The county supervisors awarded their first block grant to Homeboy for the 2010 to 2011 fiscal year. The $1.3 million contribution was made in the face of public pressure stemming from Black Thursday. The county funded Homeboy at the same rate for 2011 to 2012 but reduced its grant to $650,000 last year. Molina explains the reduction: “I think in this instance everybody was sort of saying ‘We need to start looking at how to—not wean them off, because that’s not the right term, but to try to find a way that they’re going to be more independently focused.’ We cannot rely on any one nonprofit agency to really be totally dependent on county funds.” The county’s current block grant contribution accounts for about 4.6 percent of Homeboy’s 2013 projected budget.

Supervisor Don Knabe, a conservative by L.A. standards, argued against halving Homeboy’s support, but he couldn’t persuade his four colleagues to go along. “They were concerned about fully funding Homeboy at the expense of all these other agencies—that we had to do equal across-the-board cutting,” Knabe says. “The reason I advocated to give Homeboy the full $1.3 million is that here we’ve got a program that works, and it’s a great referral for kids coming out of our system. Otherwise you’re just turning them loose to probation officers and expecting them to turn their lives around. That doesn’t happen.”

So vans from the county’s probation camps continue to arrive at Homeboy headquarters, unloading teenagers in shackles to receive free tattoo removal. Once they’re released, many of the juveniles will return to Homeboy for a part-time job and counseling. Young men who’ve left county jails crowd around Boyle’s door. The priest works with as many as he can long after whatever meager public funds he receives are gone, but for every one he accepts, he has to reject dozens who often have nowhere but their neighborhoods and gangs to return to.

It’s been 20 years since Hollywood first approached Boyle with the idea of turning his story into a major motion picture. “It probably began with Tom Hanks,” Boyle says, joking about who might have originally played him. “By now maybe it’s Sean Connery.” One of the obstacles to getting a movie made has been the subject’s insistence that it not be primarily about him—a principle he applies to his speeches and to his homilies in Tattoos on the Heart. Most of his Homeboy anecdotes begin with the priest in the shower mulling over a recollection, unlocking the meaning and building the narrative as the water splashes down. “The stories I don’t tell,” he says one Saturday during the drive back from a probation camp in the Angeles National Forest, “are the ones where I’m too much the hero. So homies will endlessly come to me and say, ‘Remember the time when they were beating me down and you broke through?’ And sometimes I’ll tell them, ‘I think you’re making it up.’ But the reason I don’t remember it is because I would never tell that story.”

Boyle even minimizes the actual role he plays at Homeboy, which goes a long way toward explaining why he’s one of the few people at the Chinatown headquarters who doesn’t seem worried about how the place will continue without him. A decade ago, while undergoing chemo for his leukemia, Boyle got wind of a succession plan. “In kind of a goofy period,” he recalls, “when they were anticipating my departure from the world, my board was kind of thinking, ‘Oh, we need to start to identify priests.’ And I go, ‘No, it’s crazy.’ First of all—who? And second of all, that’s so simplistic, it means you don’t get it.”

Succession is an issue that has preoccupied Chris Weitz, who wonders about Homeboy’s future absent “this extremely charismatic central figure—somebody who’s vital to everything that goes on there.” “It’s also worrying in terms of fund-raising,” Weitz continues, “because Father Greg is so magnetic—he speaks beautifully on these issues, and he’s tremendously inspiring. It’s something everyone has to grapple with as best they can.”

Boyle’s designated heir at Homeboy, Hector Verdugo, can see himself stepping in as the chief administrator when his mentor is gone, but he can’t imagine taking the Jesuit’s place as homie paterfamilias. “None of us had fathers, and G, he’s the father figure,” Verdugo says. “He embraces us all—physically, emotionally, and spiritually.” Boyle’s leukemia is a weight. “I can’t, I don’t want to think of ever losing G,” Verdugo says. “We’ve had so much loss. All of us have had so much loss. That’s when your guard comes up. I guess everyone’s going to have to take on that role, but I try not to think about it.” Those few who share the priest’s confidence in Homeboy’s post-Boyle future do so not by discounting his influence but by amplifying it more than the worriers do. “The real miracle of what Greg does,” says Janis Minton, a philanthropic consultant and longtime friend of Boyle’s, “is that he keeps embodying and bestowing his beliefs onto others, and they become him. I think that’s hopeful.”

Only Boyle would regard the notion of his indispensability as what he calls “a funny sort of criticism” leveled against him. People frequently ask him whether the whole place would crumble if he were removed from the picture. It’s a question that underscores the paradox of Boyle. By giving less than complete devotion to Homeboy, Boyle could have eased the sting of his inevitable departure, but restraint has never been a part of his nature. “What would I do differently?” Boyle asks. “Would I accept people less? Would I have served them with less resolve? I don’t know what I could have done to make that different.”

There was a time, when he was Homeboy’s micromanager as well as its inspiration, that Boyle fretted about whether the organization would prosper without him. But now, between his frequent trips and surrendering control to his executive staff, he often finds himself as much in the dark as that new Homegirl Café waitress who had no idea what a customer was talking about when he ordered a plate of nopales and eggs. “One of the reasons I don’t mind being on the road 100 days a year is that I’m not going to be at Homeboy forever,” Boyle says. “I presume I’ll be there till I die—but you never know.”          

 


 

Ed Leibowitz is a writer-at-large for Los Angeles. His last feature for the magazine, a profile of Los Angeles Unified School District superintendent John Deasy, appeared in the September 2012 issue.