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

“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.