By: JONATHAN ROBERTS
Father Greg Boyle, an American Catholic priest, received the call to minister to the marginalized in 1986. He was appointed to Dolores Mission Church after his ordination—the poorest Catholic parish in Los Angeles, situated between two large public housing projects. It was a community suffering immense gang violence. Father Boyle quickly realized that he could not go to the margins and ‘rescue’ gang members and that law enforcement tactics of suppression and mass incarceration would only intensify the problem. Rather, Father Boyle took a radically different approach: he treated gang members as human beings.
Devastated by the growing number of young people lost to gang violence, Father Boyle and parish and community members created Jobs for a Future in 1988. Jobs for a Future provided positive opportunities for gang-involved youth, such as establishing alternative schools and daycares and seeking out legitimate employment. To Boyle, at the heart of gang violence was a ‘lethal absence of hope.’ He sought to stop the influx of youth joining gangs by giving them a reason to be hopeful.
In the midst of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Jobs for a Future partnered with Proyecto Pastoral, a community-organizing project in East Los Angeles, to launch a social enterprise business called Homeboy Bakery. The business sought to bring hope to gang-affiliated youth through employment opportunities and personal development.
Father Boyle’s pastoral term ended in 1992, and he briefly left his role at Dolores Mission and Jobs for a Future to spend his tertianship (the final year of Jesuit formation) as chaplain at the Islas Marias Federal Penal Colony in Mexico and at the Folsom State Prison near Sacramento, California. He returned to Jobs for a Future in 1993. In the ensuing years, Homeboy Bakery garnered immense success and launched several additional social enterprises. In 2001, Jobs for a Future reorganized into an independent nonprofit known as Homeboy Industries.
Homeboy Industries employs and trains former gang members in a range of businesses, and provides critical services to 15,000 Los Angeles men and women who seek a better life. Its services range from tattoo removal to anger management and parenting classes. An 18-month, full-time employment program helps former gang members re-identify who they are in the world and offers job training so they can move beyond Homeboy Industries and become contributing members of the community.
Homeboy Industries is the largest and most successful gang rehabilitation and re-entry program in the world. However, at the foundation of its esteemed recognition is Father Boyle’s humble, strongly-held conviction: gang members are human beings, and deserve the utmost compassion. The gang does not define these men and women. We should not despise, fear, or avoid these tattoo-laden former gang members, but recognize ourselves in them—that, as Father Boyle once said in a speech, “there is no ‘them’ and ‘us,’ there is only us.”
Survivors of gang violence and human trafficking are not so different. Both groups have endured suffering and hopelessness, trapped in industries that regard them as nothing more than expendable. Society often defines their identities by their situation. People avoid the stories of trafficking victims in the same way they avoid looking at the full-body tattoos of former gang members: it isn’t comfortable to acknowledge and is too different from others’ reality.
Father Boyle’s friendship toward gang members in East Los Angeles can and should be realized in our relationships with survivors of human trafficking. In the fight against trafficking, there is no ‘them’ and ‘us.’ We are all together in this movement.