Faith Matters

Fostering a community of tenderness and kinship

Fr Greg Boyle is a Los Angeles-based Jesuit priest who 30 years ago founded what has grown to become the world's biggest gang intervention and rehabilitation programme. In Belfast this week to take part in the 4 Corners Festival, he tells William Scholes about building hope and community and his ‘secret sauce' of radical kinship

Fr Greg Boyle, the founder of Homeboy Industries in LA, was the 4 Corners Festival keynote speaker. He is pictured, third right, with, from left, ex-gang members Jose Arellano, Hector Verdugo and Steve Avalos. Picture by Bernie Brown

THE similarities between loyalist east Belfast and the Chinatown district Los Angeles may not be immediately obvious.

But they won't have been lost on the people who came to hear Fr Greg Boyle, an LA-based Jesuit priest with roots in Dunloy, when he spoke in the Skainos Centre on the Newtownards Road this week.

He was in Belfast to take part in several events for the 4 Corners Festival which this year is considering the theme of 'scandalous forgiveness'.

Fr Boyle is the driving force behind an organisation called Homeboy Industries which emerged 30 years ago as a response to the LA's deadly gang wars.

It is tempting to draw a comparison between the Californian experience and the Northern Ireland Troubles and the continuing activities of paramilitary groups.

It is almost impossible not to; the resonances are obvious, not least because just a week before Fr Boyle appeared in east Belfast, a brutal murder linked to members of a loyalist paramilitary group was carried out close to the venue.

Some years, as many as 2,000 people - mostly young men - were killed in LA.

They were among the thousands involved in the gangs, their lives scarred by drugs, violence, loss and hate.

When he was appointed to Los Angeles's poorest parish in the mid-1980s, Fr Boyle quickly realised that there was one characteristic that all of the gang members shared: hopelessness.

"All violence is about something else," he explains.

"So find the something else and address it - all gang violence is about a lethal absence of hope."

Fr Greg Boyle, pictured centre, with some of his 'homies' at Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles

Dolores Mission Church also had "the highest concentration of gang activity in the world," says Fr Boyle.

"I buried my first young person killed because of gang violence in 1988 - and buried my 227th two weeks ago."

Fr Boyle set about freeing people from the clutches of the gangs by offering job training, counselling and other services.

In that sense, Homeboy Industries is not vastly different from other gang intervention and rehabilitation programmes found elsewhere.

Its figures are impressive though: it has a turnover of $20 million a year and more than 15,000 ex-gang members come through its doors annually.

Homeboy's services include tattoo removal, legal advice, mental health support and education programmes.

Churches should live as though the truth were true. They need to put first things recognisably first: inclusion; non-violence; unconditional loving kindness; acceptance

It runs a bakery and cafe, and even trains people to become qualified solar panel installers.

Homeboy Industries offers 18 month training programmes to help ex-gang members find employment.

But the key difference - or, as he puts it, the "secret sauce" - is that Homeboy a sense of community through what he calls "radical kinship".

"Homeboy is the same as many comparable programs in as much as we train, offer classes and the same menu of services as most places," says Fr Boyle.

"Our secret sauce is the fostering of a community of tenderness and kinship."

This is "completely foreign in the gang member's experience," he says.

"It is in this context that gang members transform their pain, so as not to ever transmit it again."

Fr Boyle says that since it was founded in 1988, Homeboy has earned a reputation for working with people that no-one else desires to work with.

"It's a principle of this place that we stand with them," he says.

'Compassion, Radical Kinship and Forgiveness' was the keynote event at this year's 4 Corners Festival. Pictured left to right at the Skainos Centre in Belfast are former gang members Hector Verdugo and Jose Arellano, Fr Greg Boyle SJ, temporary assistant chief constable Tim Mairs and former gang member Steve Avalos. Picture by Bernie Brown

Fr Boyle expands on where the sense of hopelessness felt by those drawn to gangs come from.

"Those who engage in violence are despondent or traumatised or mentally ill," he says.

"All three of these profiles are on a continuum of severity: some are more traumatised than they are mentally ill; some are more mentally ill than they are despondent.

"So we infuse hope, heal the damaged and deliver mental health services."

Some may see echoes of Fr Boyle's diagnosis of the LA gang problem in our own paramilitary groupings' memberships.

Interestingly, however, he says that "conflict resolution is meaningless".

"There's violence in gang violence but no conflict - because it's not about anything," he says.

Even if you accept that genuine conflict is not a reason for gang-type violence, there is a bunch of other problems that need addressed.

Radical kinship is the place where there is not an us and them - only us. In our own way, and in our own place and time, we are called to create the front porch of the world we all long for - obliterating, once and for all, the illusion that we are separate

This brings us back to the Homeboys Industries 'secret sauce' and the infusion of hope.

"The only delivery system of hope that I know of is a human being - a loving, caring adult who shows up and pays attention," says Fr Boyle.

"Other things, like concrete help and employment and education are important, but no substitute for the baseline which is a community of tenderness that offers relational wholeness and transformation."

This is where Fr Boyle's idea of 'radical kinship' comes in.

"Radical kinship is the place where there is not an us and them - only us," he explains.

"In our own way, and in our own place and time, we are called to create the front porch of the world we all long for - obliterating, once and for all, the illusion that we are separate."

Or as he said in the Skainos Centre: "No kinship, no peace; no kinship, no justice; no kinship, no equality."

Those who have been involved in violence have to come to terms with what they have done in the past.

"This is always important in healing," he says.

"You have to come to terms with the unspeakable things done to you; and you have to also come to terms with the things you have done.

"Then we can make friends with our wounds - and never be tempted to despise the wounded again."

Underpinning Fr Boyle's approach is the essentially Christian belief that all humans have dignity through being made in God's image.

This makes forgiveness deeper and more powerful - even for those whose past actions might make forgiveness appear scandalous.

Fr Greg Boyle, pictured at the 4 Corners Festival in the Skainos Centre on Sunday. Picture by Bernie Brown

"Forgiveness allows for your own brokenness and permits a comfort level with the brokenness of others, which all leads us to inhabit our own dignity and the unshakable truth about ourselves - that we all are exactly what God had in mind when God made us," he says.

And, of course, no-one is beyond redemption: "Everyone believes in the God of second chances. And everyone is a whole lot more than the worst thing they ever did."

Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pope, says the day must come "when we stop throwing people away".

Fr Boyle emphasises this in a university talk, which can be viewed on YouTube, as he delivers a crescendo of challenges to his audience.

"You go from here to stand with the demonised so the demonising will stop," he says.

"And you stand with the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away.

"And you stand with those whose dignity has been denied, and you stand with those whose burdens are more than they can bear.

"And you stand with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless.

"Make those voices heard."

It is powerful stuff; and so highly does he value his 'homies', Fr Boyle is able to say: "It has been the privilege of my life for 30 years to have been taught everything of value by gang members."

Whether or not you choose to tightly draw the parallels between LA gangs and Northern Ireland paramilitaries, the story of Homeboy Industries should still give us pause for thought.

To what extent do any of the interventions - whether policing, community or through measures like the social investment fund - seek to inspire a sense of 'radical kinship'?

How do they seek to build hope and dignity and create an environment in which forgiveness can be fostered?

There is a challenge to the Churches and, in particular Christians, in all this, too.

"Churches should live as though the truth were true," says Fr Boyle.

"They need to put first things recognisably first: inclusion; non-violence; unconditional loving kindness; acceptance.

"These are the four things Jesus took seriously. We should too."

  • The 4 Corners Festival continues until Sunday.

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  • Upcoming events include: ‘They Started It - Exploring Forgiveness at School’ at Stranmillis University College at 7pm today; and ‘Towards a Forgiving City’ at Clonard Monastery at 7pm on Sunday.
  • More information at 4cornersfestival.com

Former LA gang members, pictured left to right, Jose Arellano, Steve Avalos and Hector Verdugo. Picture by Bernie Brown

Homeboy Industries headquarters in Los Angeles

An ex-gang member at work in the Homeboy Industries cafe

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