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

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.


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