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Jesuit working in gangland honoured

Greg Boyle SJ, founder of the Homeboy Industries, will be presented with the University of Notre Dame’s highest Honour, the Laetare Medal, on May 21, at the college’s 172nd commencement ceremony. Previous recipients include President John F. Kennedy, Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day, and actor Martin Sheen. Fr Greg is being given the award for being a Catholic “whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church, and enriched the heritage of humanity” (Notre Dame News).

The American Jesuit met with Pat Coyle from Irish Jesuit Communications on a recent trip to Dublin.  In this interview he spoke to her about his work with Homeboy Industries, the largest gang intervention, rehabilitation and re-entry programme in the world and based in Los Angeles, California.

Fr Greg began his work among gang members in 1988 and he is the founder and executive director of Homeboy Industries, currently working with 10,000 men and women a year. He overseas an operation encompassing 8 entreprises with an annual budget of €14,000,000. Gang related deaths have decreased significantly in LA,  since he founded Homeboy Industries in 1992, without any government funding.

In the early days of his ministry, he noted the many differences between gangs at war, but later realised, “You discover that everyone is more similar than different, and in fact they’re almost identical in their stories of trauma and damage”.

Among the many works Homeboy Industries have started include the tattoo removal ministry which currently performs 46,000 treatments each year. In spite of the large number of removals there is still a huge waiting list according to Fr Greg who has written a book called Tattoos of the Heart.  He speaks of the many gang members who get their tattoos removed, each tattoo often requiring several treatments. He tells the story of a father who wanted a tattoo removed from his chest because he didn’t want his son to see it. Another “homie” (affection name of a homeboy member) needed the four-letter word removed from his face in order to get a job!

Fr Boyle is inspired by the gospel message of inclusion and feels there is a “triumph of kinship” at Homeboy Industries promoting a complete inclusion of those he works with – “There is no us and them; there is only us”, he says. Gang members feel a special kinship with him too. He tells one story of how some gang members protected him during a shoot-out.

Speaking about the gang members and former gang members, he says “I show up everyday and I know my life is saved. When I lack courage, they save me. They keep me anchored and I don’t get burnt out. I am standing in awe for what they have to carry.”

Whilst in Dublin Fr Greg visited Saint Declan’s School, the Jesuit school for children with personal or emotional difficulties, situated in Ballsbridge, Dublin. Just like himself, he knows the staff are saved because of those they work with.

The Jesuit considers himself on texting ministry when he’s out of the US as he gets in touch with his “homies” on his mobile phone.