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 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.