If you are longing to enter more fully into the uniquely bold and joyful power of transformation, don’t miss this interview with Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries. During this conversation with Bishop Easterling, he shares his wisdom from 30 years working – heart and soul – in a community in Los Angeles that was the poorest neighborhood in the diocese at the time. Located between two large public housing and amid the territories of numerous gangs, the Delores Mission has faithfully loved her neighbors. In their conversation, Fr. Boyle shares his spiritual strategies, the importance of rolling up our sleeves to work alongside the afflicted in society’s margins, and how churches can better invite people into lives in fullness and abundance.
Father Gregory Boyle, S.J., is a Catholic priest of the Jesuit order. He is the founder of Homeboy Industries, the largest gang intervention, rehabilitation, and re-entry program in the world, and the former pastor of Delores Mission in Los Angeles. He is the author of the 2010 New York Times bestseller Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion; Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship, and his most recent publication, The Whole Language: The Power of Extravagant Tenderness.
Questions for Reflection and Extending the Conversation
Bishop Easterling: Beloved of God, welcome to another exciting edition of Thursdays at the Table, the place where we sit down and get to some of the deepest things that we know. I am so honored today that Father Gregory Joseph Boyle, an American Catholic priest of the Jesuit Order, is with us today. He is the founder and director of Homeboy Industries, the world's largest gang intervention and rehabilitation program, and the former pastor of Dolores Mission Church in Los Angeles, California.
Father Boyle has won numerous awards, including the Civic Medal of Honor from the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, the California Peace Prize granted by the California Wellness Foundation. One that I find very interesting, he was named the 2007 Humanitarian of the Year by Bon Appétit magazine, and he was inducted into the California Hall of Fame in December of 2011. His published works include Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion; Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship, and his most recent publication, The Whole Language: The Power of Extravagant Tenderness. Father Boyle, welcome to Thursdays at the Table.
Father Gregory Boyle: Happy and honored to be with you.
Bishop Easterling: Well, thank you so much. The honor is truly mine. Now, for those who aren't familiar with the initials SJ, help orient us to what that means in terms of the way that you are situated in Catholicism.
Father Boyle: Well, I'm a Jesuit. SJ stands for Society of Jesus or Saint Ignatius of Loyola. The founder called it la Compañía de Jesús. In the 1540s, somewhere in there, was born this troop of men who wanted to reimagine a way of living as though the truth were true and stay close to the marrow of the Gospel. It was a reaction to a lot of what was going on in the church, as were the Franciscans and the Dominicans, and then the Jesuits, which is now the largest religious order in the Roman Catholic Church.
Bishop Easterling: Indeed. Thank you. You are among several of those that I revere and follow in Catholicism. Father Richard Rohr is another. I'm drawn to the wisdom, but also the authenticity of the witness that both of you exhibit and offer to the world. Thank you for that.
Father Boyle: Sure.
Bishop Easterling: When did you know that you were called into intentional set-apart ministry?
Father Boyle: Well, I was educated by the Jesuits, so I knew them. My uncle was a Jesuit. We always had Jesuits over for dinner at my parents' house and when I was growing up at my grandparents' house. It was part of the air we breathed. I always found them quite prophetic and fearless and hilarious and joyful. The combination of all those things was really attractive to me. It was like, "I'll have what they're having." That was 51 years ago that I entered the Jesuits. When you stay, you start to discover and rediscover charisms and ways of proceeding that the Jesuits embrace that, to this day, I still find myself thrilled by.
Bishop Easterling: Your story is similar to exactly what we are trying to demonstrate through Thursdays at the Table, that some of the most transformative and informing conversations that we have are those that take place at our kitchen table. That's, again, where it sounds like you were introduced. I love the way that you talk about there was joy, there was laughter. Folks don't always think about those who were in ministry as being full of laughter and joy, but it sounds like those at your dinner table exhibited that or exuded that.
Father Boyle: Yes, I think part of the measure of true and authentic discipleship, in general, is fearlessness and joy. The counter position to that, of course, is sadness and fear. Those are things you can always sniff out. You go, who is leading us? Are they fearless? Are they joyful? Then that just means that they have been able to connect to the deepest part of what our God of love is calling us to do and to be in the world. That will always issue in fearlessness and joy. If we're trembling, and we're behind locked doors, as the disciples were at that moment when Jesus somehow gets into the room --
It's funny how much that over the years, we have disparaged Thomas because he doubted, but the truth is he wasn't in that room. That's why I always liked him because he was out in the world. He wasn't trembling. He knew as much as everybody else knew, and he wasn't frightened. He, I'm going to presume, was out in the world engaged. That's why he missed out on Jesus showing up that first time. For me, it's always been a way to check in and to see if there's authenticity in how you move in kinship in the world. Those are two ways that I think are telling.
Bishop Easterling: I love that. One of the things I lament is that in the canonical books of the Bible that we have, we don't get to experience the fullness of who Christ was. I refuse to believe that Christ was somber, always so serious. I just refuse to believe that. We get a hint of it if you read some of the non-canonical books. I wish that we had a fuller understanding of how Christ was in more of his experience of a human being. Perhaps it would give us more freedom to feel like in church, in worship, as people of faith, we didn't always have to be so serious.
Father Boyle: There are more layers to that, even. I think that's such a good point because it's about being fully human, and it's about being playful, and it's about laughing, and it's about delighting. All these things that otherwise we've been saddled with and stuck with this notion that the harder thing is the better thing. No, the harder thing is just the harder thing. We think it has to be exhaustive and exhausting and arduous and difficult. Yet, it's all about joy, really.
It's not occasional joy. It's really all about joy. How do you acknowledge the beloved who is in every moment? Recognizing that we're only saved in the present moment anyway, so you might as well be anchored there delighting in the person who is in front of you. I agree with you. I think there's a richer fullness that hasn't been really afforded us by the tradition, and how over the years we just think Jesus is sour sometimes, and more serious than we are.
Bishop Easterling: It's a phrase that we started using a couple of years ago, MMFA, “Make Ministry Fun Again,” and this reminds me of that. We're just going to have to take that back. We're going to have to take that aspect that I know we can be confident in -- that was a part of who Christ was. We're going to just take that back and live into it more in ministry. Your first assignment carried you abroad. Tell us where you were and tell us how that informed and shaped your ministry, and then who you became as you continued to live out this sacred life.
Father Boyle: I was ordained in 1984. I'm not sure I would call it my first assignment, but before I came back to, I needed to do another year of theology, I asked, "Could I just go and take a break from studies and then immerse myself in a Spanish-speaking place?" I went to Bolivia. I knew some Spanish, but not enough to really do ministry. Then I ended up attaching myself to these two communities that hadn't had a priest in many, many years.
This was in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and in the hills with the Quechua Indians. It just turned my life inside out. In those days, Bolivia was the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, more poor than Haiti. There was something about walking with folks in such a dire situation, and yet they were able to always honor a sense of profound community, and we're in this together. People were all locked-arms. I found it exhilarating.
Not in a way that romanticizes people's poverty, but it was a way of their faith, their dedication to each other, their kindness in the face of just the most arduous kind of living. It turned me inside out enough that I was supposed to go to Santa Clara University to be the campus minister. I begged my provincial, my superior, "Please don't send me there. Send me to the poorest place we have where I could use Spanish," and that was Dolores Mission.
Bishop Easterling: All right. I love that. You say it turned you inside out. What perspective, if any, did it give you on the way that faith was being lived out in the United States?
Father Boyle: It's odd. When you go to a third-world country, and then you're propelled back to a first-world country, it creates something that's quite dispiriting. You have something near an abhorrence for how we live in the first world. At least, initially, that's how you feel. You feel like there's something wrong in this hyper-consumeristic modality.
Anyway, pretty soon, you just want to roll up your sleeves and walk with the folks on the margins, and the easily despised, and the demonized, and the disposable. You want to stand at the margin so that they won’t get erased. Then, that's enough. Rather than shaking your fist and denouncing all sorts of other things, you just want to simply walk with people, which in the end is more compelling and actually more productive.
Bishop Easterling: Absolutely. When you were talking about, again, that “turning you inside out,” and you said, "Please don't send me there, send me to the people on the margins," you made me think about the song by Gregory Porter, Take Me to the Alley. Take me to the afflicted ones. In fact, that is where we are far more likely to encounter Christ than in some of our beautiful, ornate, stained-glass worship centers, places of worship. You took me right to that song. I'm not sure if you're familiar with it or not.
Father Boyle: No, but I will be now.
Bishop Easterling: Please, you must listen to it. It is really phenomenal. It's phenomenal. Again, in this Dolores, and am I pronouncing that right, Dolores Mission?
Father Boyle: Yes.
Bishop Easterling: Okay. This is where the ministry that I think you are now world renowned for, Homeboys Ministry, began. It makes me think about, there's that phrase, “not in my backyard,” a term associated with those who don't want programs geared toward the marginalized in their community, even if they espouse being a follower of Christ. From what I've read about how Dolores Mission was situated, the gang activity was literally already in your backyard. Did you incur any opposition when you discerned that you needed to be in ministry with these individuals who were involved in the gangs?
Father Boyle: Again, I was pastor of the poorest parish in the cities from '86 to '92. The first two years of being pastor there, the issues were all around immigration, and so there were so many undocumented in my parish. We had family separation. We had INS raids of where people worked. We had the Immigration Reform and Control Act. You had amnesty. You had a lot of immigration-related things. Then in '88, I was two years in, that's when I buried my first young person killed because of gang violence.
It was almost overnight that the gang reality became so intense. It was the beginning of the decade of death, '88 to '98, and '92 was the highest moment of gang-related to homicides. I was burying eight parishioners at one point in a three-week period, who had been gang members, who had been gunned down. In those days, we had eight gangs at war with each other just in this tiny geographic area, which was my parish, these two housing projects.
The LAPD called my parish the place of the highest concentration of gang activity in all of Los Angeles. Again, it wasn't so much a choosing to I think I'll work with gang members. It was mainly a response from a parish, do we ignore this, do we just have church on Sunday, or again, do we roll up our sleeves as opposed to burying our heads? That's what we did. We started a school, and we started a jobs program, and then we started social enterprises. Then we were off and running. Beyond the time that I was pastor, Homeboy was born in '88, and now we're 35 years at it.
Bishop Easterling: You say that it wasn't a matter of should we work with gangs. It was not ignoring what was going on right there, again, literally at your front and back door. You must be aware of how many congregations absolutely do ignore what's going on in their community and have many persons drive in too worship and then drive out again. What's actually taking place around the house of worship may or may not be a part of their everyday lives. You did something. It may not have felt so at the time, but it actually was profound and unique in the life of many faith communities.
Father Boyle: I didn't answer the first part of your question earlier, which is opposition. We've been around for 35 years, but the first 10 years were death threats, bomb threats, and hate mail, but never from gang members. Never, because we were always a sign and symbol of an exit ramp and a sign of hope always to gang members. We got these hate letters from law enforcement mainly, oddly anonymous LAPD or sheriffs, and they would just say, "We hate you. You're part of the problem. You're not part of the solution." It was kind of extraordinary.
Again, I grew up in LA in a privileged area where when the police arrived, you breathed a sigh of relief. They got the cat out of the tree. When I came to Boyle Heights, wow, I was astounded at how law enforcement treated our people. In fact, naively I went to the captain of our local station to say, "Hey, I'm not sure you know this, but they're taking gang members to the factories behind the projects, and they're beating them down for purposes of intimidation or interrogation and charging them with nothing. I thought maybe you might want to know that."
Well, trust me, he didn't want to know that. Then they ended up shooting the messenger. That was all part of the air we were breathing in the very first 10 years. I would write an op-ed piece about kids joining gangs because it's about a lethal absence of hope. Let's infuse hope to kids for whom hope is foreign. Oh, I would get hate mail and death threats left on our answering machine. That was solid for 10 years or so until our Homeboy bakery burned to the ground.
Then suddenly the LA Times had an op-ed piece or an editorial that said, "Hey, this place doesn't belong to Father Greg Boyle. It belongs to Los Angeles." They got it in an instant. The City of Los Angeles has been carrying Homeboy Industries on their shoulders since then, but the first 10 years were -- It wasn't so much NIMBYism as you were referring to because we were that community. This was where it was happening, and it was indigenous.
Nowadays, gang members drive from Montebello to Boyle Heights, but they don't live in that community. When I was pastor, all the gang members lived exactly in my parish. Now they're more of a commuter reality.
Bishop Easterling: For those who are involved in the gangs, that's interesting. I want to stop you for a moment, and I want to come back to something you said because there are going to be some who hear this and say, "Oh, that cannot be true." That there were those employed by a law enforcement agency, who were first of all crafting, sending hate mail to you, and then involved in this kind of bullying, beating, criminal activity against those who were identified as gang members.
There's this tension in our society right now that when many look at our men and women in blue, they see nothing except individuals who are always of the highest ethical order, highest moral order, and if they do anything outside of that, it is only in response to something that someone who's deemed a criminal has initiated, but you are telling me that this activity was done intentionally. Can you just unpack that a little more?
Father Boyle: Well, I do want to emphasize that that was 30 years ago.
Bishop Easterling: Of course.
Father Boyle: All pre-Rodney King. That's not to say that things haven't changed. They have.
Bishop Easterling: Sure.
Father Boyle: Do I think an LAPD would take a gang member to the factories behind the projects now and beat them down? No, I don’t. I don't think that would happen. Just because the culture has changed enough, at least at the highest levels, where there's no tolerance for that kind of thing. That wasn't the case 35, 30 years ago. It has changed, but it still hasn't changed enough because there's a notion, for example, there's the guy who escaped the jail in Pennsylvania and was on the run, somebody who had been convicted of murder, was on the run for 12 days.
They capture him, and the sheriff announces, "Our nightmare is finally over and the good guys won." Well, you could draw a straight line from that statement, and absolutely everything we would like to change in law enforcement and all the things, the coloring outside the lines that happen. Because if we think there's such a thing as good people and bad people, well, then why are we surprised that there are excessive uses of violence, for example? Because after all, they're just bad guys, or they've established themselves as bad guys because they ran, they talked back, they didn't fully cooperate.
Again, for 40 years I've walked with gang members, and I've never once met a bad person. Never. I've met wounded people, broken people, traumatized people, despondent people, deeply ill people, but I've never once met a bad person. I've never met for sure an evil person. I've never met one. I'm 70, so maybe I've got a few more years and maybe I'll meet somebody, but I never have.
Naming things correctly will really help us. I love Jesus, but he saw the guy having seizures and thought he was possessed by a demon. He wasn't. He had epilepsy, and that doesn't change how I see Jesus, of course, but it does help us to name things correctly. Mike Pence, last night on the [presidential candidate] debate, said the answer to mass shootings is to expedite executions.
He just doesn't understand what it's about. It's about guns and mental illness. You roll up your sleeves, and you try to -- The day may come when we stop punishing a wound, and we seek to heal it. The minute we decide to do that, watch what happens. We will try to walk each other home to wellness. None of us are well until all of us are well.
Bishop Easterling: Until all of us are well, absolutely.
Father Boyle: Because these horrific things happen, it's -- We're all unshakably good, and we all belong to each other, and there are no exceptions. Now we can really help people who are really stuck in despair or an illness that they never chose, it chose them. The byproduct of that effort will be fewer to no mass shootings, along with being sensible about guns.
Bishop Easterling: In your phrasing and in what you've just said, you take me right back to the kitchen table that I grew up in. My mother, she may not have phrased it just the way you did in terms of naming things correctly, but my mother would cringe and sometimes actually vocally respond when she heard people say, "Well, that child is bad. That's a bad child."
Every time that happened, I could look at my mother and see a visceral reaction. My mother had been an educator in the first part of her working life. She just recoiled at anybody naming a child as bad. She said, "There are no bad children, but if you say that to someone enough, then they will begin to live into the way that you have identified them." Again, you take me right back to the kitchen table that I grew up in, or grew up sitting at, rather.
Father Boyle: That's exactly right. That was the thing I used to always hear. I had a probation officer say, "Don't even try with that guy, Louie. He's just pure evil." You just go, "Wow." He ended up working for me, and every year we had a thing called the Homeboy Hero. We've been doing that for 25 years at our big dinner. He was the Homeboy hero one year, and the father of two beautiful autistic sons. He's so tender with them. You just go, "I don't know where people see that way where they see evil, where there's only goodness."
There's always goodness. People don't exactly see it. Complex trauma will keep you from seeing your unshakable goodness. Until you can hold the mirror up and say, "Here's who you are. You're exactly what God had in mind when God made you," and then you watch people become that truth, inhabit that truth.
Bishop Easterling: That's exactly right.
Father Boyle: … If you tell a kid he is bad enough, he'll start to believe that he is.
Bishop Easterling: Exactly, and live into it. I also love the fact that when you were talking about the individuals who lived in the community of the Dolores Mission, you said, "Our people," when you were talking again about the way that they were being treated by some of the law enforcement. "Our people," that deep identity with those who were in the community rather than seeing yourself as separate from, better than, over against, you identify as our people. What do you think that that does? What does that open up in terms of a relationship or potential for relationship?
Father Boyle: I think when you were asking me about Bolivia, and it's been so many years, but when I look back, you have nothing to bring to them especially when your language is so elementary school level. Then it's not about me bringing anything. I had a gang member in Houston after a talk I gave, and he was working with gang members now, and he pleaded with me.
He said, "How do you reach them?" Meaning gang members. I found myself telling him, "Well, for starters, stop trying to reach them. Can you be reached by them? Can you allow your heart to be altered?" If you go to the margins to make a difference, then it's about you, and it can't be, but if you go to the margins to be made different by the people there, then it's about us, and it's exquisitely mutual. I learned that a long time ago.
I don't think I've ever transformed a life in my life, but I know that transformation happens at Homeboy Industries for people, that it's the whole place and the whole culture and the whole everybody giving a dose of kindness and tenderness. I know that has transformed people, and I know that my life has been changed, but see that feels passive, but it isn't. It's the real deal. How do you allow your heart to be altered in such a way that everybody in this mutuality, everybody inhabits their own dignity and nobility together?
It's not something as a white savior that I impose in part, that I give. I've never felt that. I think Bolivia probably reminded me of how humility is so essential that I'm not bringing anything to the table, but I'm going to go to the table and to receive what's on it, speaking of kitchen table, and you're going to partake of it, and you're going to recognize the table as sumptuous, that this is plenty. I'm not going to go to the table and disparage what's on it here. Here, let me bring a casserole I made.
You can do that as well, but it's like you don't disparage the table, and you really don't fall in love with what you bring to the table … of receiving from what is on the table and from who's sitting around it. That is a profoundly Christian thing. It's not about, “let's go convert people.” You're trying to be in the world who God is: compassionate, loving, and kind. I think that's how you do it with great humility, where you allow yourself to be made different by folks who are on the margins.
Bishop Easterling: Well, I don't know if you realized at a particular moment a huge smile came over my face, and I leaned in to you because you touched on something that I was going to ask you about. Have you been accused of being this white savior who's coming in on a horse to save those individuals, most of whom I presume are people of color? Because there's a lot of rejection of that kind of assistance, that kind of, again, we're here to do something for you because, again, we're over against, but you touched on it yourself. You said, "I'm not a white savior."
You don't see yourself that way and even the authenticity with which you speak, and again, this our language, we're in this together. I'm not doing transforming. I'm perhaps more transformed than any transformation I've ever made possible. I think you've already answered my question in how you have perhaps been able to overcome that accusation and just in living out your ministry and who you are as a follower of God through Jesus Christ, not embodying that white savior mentality.
Father Boyle: No, I presume it's somewhere in there, in people's thinking, although people are always too polite to raise that, I suppose. I was against white saviorism before it became a thing. I'm aware of it. It's kind of being in a darkened, I wrote about this once, being in a darkened room and somebody has a flashlight aimed at the light switch. I will admit in my own near-burnout early years, I was trying to turn on that light switch on for gang members. Then you realize, no, you can't do that.
Everybody owns a flashlight, and everybody knows where to aim it. Then you have to be content with owning a flashlight and aiming it at the light switch. People will approach the light switch or not. It's a little bit like having a child who is an addict. If a mother of an addict could check herself into rehab for her kid, trust me, she would. That's not how it works. The kid actually has to go to the rehab.
All you can do is point to the door marked recovery and joy and life. “I hope, my child, I hope you walk through that door.” That's all you can do. You may close other doors. Say, "You can't live here until you walk through that door marked recovery." That's clear and loving. It's like that. You want people to inhabit the truth of who they are, where they discover their true selves in loving, where they know that loving is their home. They'll never be homesick if they know that.
You want folks to learn to love and let love be the only thing that they embrace, that they love being loving. When we say God is love or God is loving, we're not really saying how God is. We're saying where God is. God is in the loving. Once you discover that, then that's when the transformation happens. Because everybody in a culture, in a community, or as the great John Lewis said, we all live in the same house.
It wasn't aspirational. It wasn't one day we might all live in the same house. It was a declarative statement. We all live in the same house. He didn't make distinctions. Some people live in the basement. No. We all live in the same house. Once you establish, especially the early Christian notion of this, where it's the soul of God. In our case, a place that's safe where people can feel seen, and then they can feel cherished, that's the transformation. That no one person is the agent of -- it's the culture, it's the community.
It's this place of cherished belonging where everybody feels united, and we all move together in kinship. It doesn't allow for saviors, white, or otherwise. Everybody, obviously, which is a whole other issue in terms of our own society, that all the folks who work at Homeboy Industries are people of color and have all been to prison. I'm heartened that 70 percent of our leadership, everybody who runs the place, have come through the program now. They have a kind of ownership. The only minority there are old white guys like me.
Bishop Easterling: Again, I love this image that you paint, again expounding upon John Lewis's statement that we all live in the same house. If that is how all of us in faith communities really thought of it. … I think back to an episode that happened when I was in seminary. We were sitting in chapel and a homeless person walked in and walked up and sat on the front pew and people were repulsed. It was clear that the individual was really not welcome there, and I think that kind of thing plays itself out in all kinds of ways in our faith community. Why have we gotten so far away from this notion of all being created in the image and likeness of God, all being in the same house? I feel like we need to go to a spiritual rehab to reclaim this identity of all being of one and one.
Father Boyle: You're absolutely right. The early Christian community, they would greet each other with a big old wet kiss. Part of the reason they did it was because you only did that to your blood relatives. Then they wanted to indicate and signal, no, everybody belongs. It was their way of taking seriously what Jesus took seriously, which are four things: inclusion, non-violence, unconditional love and kindness, and compassionate acceptance.
We need to return to this, I would say, to this mystical sense. We've forgotten mysticism, and then we've just become frightened and defensive and who is in and who is out and who will be saved and who won't be. Yikes, what could be further from the God of love? My friend, Mirabai Starr, who I recommend, she's a mystic and translates mystics. She says once you claim the God of love, you fire all the other gods. It's important I think because I think firing other gods is our daily task.
It's how to keep ourselves close to the marrow of the Gospel. If we lose sight of that, then the church becomes the hall monitor, trying to keep people in line or- - The tribalism that's so pronounced in our country at the moment, I think the church needs to make amends for the ways that it's contributed to this great divide and division, and it's too bad.
Bishop Easterling: Mirabai Starr, who is a contemporary, again, of Father Richard Rohr that I mentioned at the beginning of our conversation, and one of the participants in the Center for Action and Contemplation. Again, you wouldn't know this, but folks in this conference know, again, I adore Father, Richard Rohr and actually spend time in New Mexico and at that center. Again, I very much appreciate Mirabai Starr and all of our mystics.
I think you're right. That's something that we've left out of our spirituality. We've left that out of the education that we offer in our churches, and I think we're the poorer for it.
Father Boyle: Yes, absolutely. Karl Rahner, a theologian, used to say that Christians of the future will be mystics, or they won't be Christians. I think he is absolutely right. I really think it's the more we can retrieve-- Lately, I've been immersed in mystics. Jim Finley and turning to the mystics, I recommend him. He's also part of Richard Rohr and Mirabai Starr gang. It's really important, I think, because you reach back, and you find these people who were at odds, and they were at odds with the church because they felt that the church wasn't anchored enough in love.
That's the whole point of the mystical quest. The mystical quest is never, or even the moral quest, has never kept us moral. It's just kept us from each other, but the mystical quest is something that unifies us, not just with the God of love, but with each other, which is God's dream come true.
Bishop Easterling: Absolutely. You talked about something else. You talked about this lethal absence of hope. I was hoping for a little while we could talk about how our faith communities could become integral in breaking down this recidivism rate that we see individuals find themselves in activity that perhaps gets them arrested, and then some go to jail, some go to prison, they come out, and there just seems to be this cycle where before you know it, they're right back in.
How do we break this lethal absence of hope? What can those of us, again, who claim to want to follow the way of Jesus Christ, how can we be living in a way that helps to break this recidivism and speaks to this lethal absence of hope?
Father Boyle: Well, I think we disqualify ourselves so much. We just say we think that there's no way that you can be beneficially present to somebody who's a returning citizen, for example, and yet, if anybody who's the proud owner of a pulse can show up and hold the mirror up and return people to themselves and delight in people and pay attention and be astonished by the goodness, and then to reflect that back to them.
Anybody can do that, and because anybody can do that, everybody should. There's exciting movements out there. There's the one parish, one prisoner started in the Pacific Northwest. It's a way of getting parishes to connect to folks who will be returned to their community while they're locked up, and communicating with them, and then receiving them when they come out and welcoming them to the community.
There are lots of ways to do it. It has to do with intentionality, but we're invited to the margins. You can identify the poor, the powerless, the voiceless, the easily despised, the readily left out. How do we invite parishes to stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop, and stand with the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away?
What this does, for example, at Dolores Mission Church since 1987, every night undocumented homeless, and now not so much always undocumented, but it was in the early days, were allowed to sleep in the church. Thousands and thousands since 1987 have received resources and meals and a warm, safe place to sleep every night. Now, this is the poorest parish in Los Angeles that does this every night, seven nights a week.
What it's done for the church, the parish, it's hard to count it. It is just so powerful how it's led parishioners to feel like it looks like to live as though the truth were true. They never feel like there's some kind of disembodied church where people gather on Sundays. They feel like this is exactly what the early Christian community experienced. Even though they're poor, and they only speak Spanish, and the parishioners, a great many of them are not formally educated, they know that not with a sense of pride, still with a humble sense that this is a privilege to serve these folks and to be beneficially present. They feel like, "Yes, this is what church should look like."
Bishop Easterling: Again, coming back to the way that we name things, you began responding to my question with the phrase returning citizen. I've never heard anyone say it that way. I've heard folks say criminals recently released, parolee, those kinds of things. Returning citizen, what a different image that evokes, just in hearing that phrase, returning citizen. It reminds us that they are still citizens of this great nation and have a right to life and life abundant. Is that a phrase that is used commonly with those in the ministry of Homeboy?
Father Boyle: Yes. It's out there now. It's “returning citizen.” I don't know. Citizens sometimes I have a hard time with because sometimes people aren't citizens, but returning community members, they're returning to us. They've served their time, paid their dues, and they should not be asked to pay any more of their dues because they've already paid it. If people don't hire them, or don't rent apartments to them, or don't allow them to vote, this is wrong.
The church is responsible in a large part because we think prisons are where bad people go. The church backed this sin horse many, many centuries ago. It's bad. They could have backed another horse. Then it all becomes indictment instead of invitation. I think Jesus was only about invitation. He was always inviting people to life in fullness and abundance. My joy plus your joy complete.
We could have backed that horse, but the sin horse was worked. It kept people afraid. If I don't go to heaven, I can't miss church on Sunday, I can't miss mass because that's a mortal sin or whatever. This is maybe more Catholic than anything else. Again, did it work? Yes. It worked for me. It worked on a lot of people. Did it help? Not even a little bit. It didn't help even a little bit. The church could have embraced the thing that helped, but it didn't. It embraced the thing that worked. Not everything that works helps, but everything that helps works.
Bishop Easterling: Well, ultimately.
Father Boyle: The more the church, people of faith and worshiping communities, the more we invite people to joy rather than indict people. I think the better. It's fuller. It's why people don't go to church because they go, "Why?" Again, I think the mystical approach has more fullness to it than the approach that just says, "Cut that out."
Bishop Easterling: You stop that. Just say no. [laughter] You spoke to it a little bit. We won't go there. We won't deal with just say no. You spoke to it a little bit, but I wonder if you could be a bit more intentional. Congregations that do want to have more of an outward facing ministry really do want to try and make a difference in their community, but they're genuinely afraid of that engagement. What would you say to them?
Father Boyle: Well, all fear is born from ignorance. You want to move with some intentionality beyond the ignorance. There are two controlling principles at Homeboy. One is everybody is unshakably good, no exceptions, and we belong to each other, no exceptions. Once you embrace those profoundly Christian notions, then it propels you outside of yourself in your own congregation. It allows you to, you go, "What am I afraid of?"
Again, all harm is created by people who aren't well. How do we do what Jesus did, which was nonstop healing? Levi, the tax collector, people were grumbling because he is eating with them. All people see is sin. Jesus only talks about health and illness and getting well. That's a signal to us that we need not be afraid of the bad guy because thank goodness, there are no bad guys.
Roll up our sleeves again and try to engage in the same healing as Jesus did, where we pay attention to people, we listen to people, and we cherish people, and then suddenly you watch them inhabit their own goodness, which they didn't really believe was there.
Bishop Easterling: You speak about that in Tattoos on the Heart, one of your books. You talk about, "Jesus says you are the light of the world." You say, "I like even more what Jesus doesn't say; he does not say one day. If you are more perfect and try hard, you'll be the light. He doesn't say if you play by the rules, cross your T's, and dot your I's, then maybe you'll become light. No, he says straight out, you are the light. It is the truth of who you are, waiting only for you to discover it." That's beautiful. That's profound.
Father Boyle: He also doesn't say, "Hey, everybody, look at me. I am the light of the world." No. He doesn't say, "I am the light of the world." He says, "You are." That's also important in terms of Jesus, not just ourselves. Jesus is, and so is God, is always deflecting, is always, why are you looking at me? Come on now.
Bishop Easterling: That's right. Why do you call me good? There's only one that's good, that's exactly right, but that isn't how we teach Christ, though. That really isn't how we teach Christ. Again, I think we've turned it on its head, and we've confused who Christ is so much that our worship of Christ then becomes contorted, and the way that we then, in our emulation, in our living out of Christ is also I think contorted. You talk about no need to contort yourself to be anything other than you are because you are already that light.
Father Boyle: Then the Christ in me recognizes the Christ in you, and then you go out into the world, and you can see Jesus and you can be Jesus. That invitation gets simpler rather than more complex.
Bishop Easterling: We're back to that in a good way. I had talked about this song, and I just want to leave us with these words again from Take Me to the Alley. “Take me to the alley. Take me to the afflicted ones. Take me to the lonely ones that somehow lost their way. Let them hear me say, I am your friend, come to my table, rest here in my garden. You will find a pardon.”
Thank you so much for the work you do, Father Boyle. I think that you are inviting people to the table where they know that they can find pardon, they can find the beauty of who they are, and you really are helping to transform our world. Thank you.
Father Boyle: Thank you. Privilege being with you.