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

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.