In eight years as priest in a poor parish in East Los Angeles, the Rev. Greg Boyle has buried 55 young people, many of them victims of gang warfare.
He shudders at the wasted lives but can’t turn his back.
“You either address the problem or you warehouse the consequences,” Boyle told an audience in Spokane last Friday.
A graduate of Gonzaga University, Boyle left Spokane 18 years ago to become a teacher, then a priest and a missionary in Bolivia in the mid-1980s. His work with the poor led him to Dolores Mission parish among the impoverished Latinos of East Los Angeles.
He shrugs off the danger of a place that regularly makes headlines for its gun-blazing violence. Boyle, who has won national acclaim for trying to help gangsters change their lives, returned to Spokane for the first time over the weekend to share his experiences and attend a church-sponsored conference on gangs.
“He has a wonderful sense of humor in the midst of all this death and violence,” said Gonzaga Professor Joe Albert, who invited Boyle. “The power of that love has really transformed the community down there.”
Longer sentences, bigger prisons, even the death penalty won’t stop gangs, Boyle said.
“How are you going to out-scare, out-bad them? What you have is young people who can’t imagine a future for themselves. Hope is the thing they can’t get a handle on.”
Boyle recalled a 15-year-old girl who burst into his office happy and smiling because she was pregnant. She was thrilled because she would have a baby before she died.
Then there was Chico. The gang member was so excited about getting a job that he sent a fax to the priest thanking him for helping him. He was gunned down soon afterward by his front stoop.
For Boyle, 42, a trip to a bloody hospital emergency room is as common as a first Communion. A “60 Minutes” crew was on hand in 1991 to film the burial of a gang member who had been trying to go straight. At such occasions, Boyle tells survivors to honor the dead by stopping the violence.
Boyle could be dead himself. More than once he has stepped between gangs to stop a shooting. He nearly has been hit by gunfire, including the time a bullet missed his neck by an inch. So why would he risk his life in a ministry where success is measured by helping people survive childhood?
“I don’t measure success,” he said. “I know this is right.”
Too many of the children come from homes of alcoholic or drug-addicted parents, Boyle said. Few of them grow up with fathers. They never learn that life offers opportunities outside of drugs and gangs.
He said gangs are attractive to them because they offer camaraderie and loyalty these young people have never known. The problems that lead to gangs are compounded by the lack of jobs in the inner city, he said.
The Dolores Mission parish, poorest in Los Angeles, has the highest concentration of public housing and gang activity in the West. In an area of about two square miles, eight gangs fight for territory.
His parish runs Homeboy Industries, a job-referral service and non-profit business designed to provide alternatives to gangs. Parish members share in the work, Boyle said.
He said it’s like taking a child’s hand and walking into a dark tunnel. You know there’s light at the end, but the child doesn’t, so you have to show him, often by example.
Boyle’s work was chronicled last year in Celeste Fremon’s book, “Father Greg and the Homeboys.” He recently sold the rights to a movie about his life and gave the money to parish programs.
He said he is accused of condoning gang activity but scoffs at such a suggestion. “This is not excusing this behavior. This is an attempt to do something about it.”
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