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

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.