A morning class with Fr. Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries

I had just finished getting some coffee. I was getting ready to cross the street when I saw a light-colored sedan. I quickly realized that inside was my guest speaker for that morning’s Introduction to Chicano Studies class, one I teach with about 400 students. I pointed to the parking spot where my guest could park and where I could give him the parking pass so he wouldn’t get a ticket.

“Hi Fr. Greg,” I greeted him.

He got out of his car and gave me an abrazo, or hug.

“Where are the homies you usually bring with you?” I asked.

“Oh, it was too early for them to come up with me and besides I have a lunch to attend and then another talk later this evening before I head back to L.A.”

I then walked him to the Isla Vista Theater, a part of the University of California, Santa Barbara campus where I teach. Some of my students were already outside the large lecture room waiting for the previous class to let out.

“Come over here so I can introduce you to our guest speaker,” I called out to them.

As they came over, I said: “This is Fr. Greg Boyle and he arrived early to sign some of your books before the class.”

The students eagerly formed a line as Fr. Greg started to sign copies of his recent book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, that the students are reading for my class. As he signed their books, he engaged them in conversation -- asking their names and where they were from. “Okay, kiddo,” he would say after he finished signing one book and turning to the next student.

After a few minutes, I escorted Fr. Greg into the lecture hall and with the aid of a technician gotten him wired up for this talk.

I knew what to expect since I have invited him several times to speak on my campus. He is a moving, powerful, sensitive, and funny speaker as he talks about the thousands of gang members or homies that he has worked with over the last three decades as a Jesuit priest in his hometown of Los Angeles.

I tell the students that he is the founder of Homeboy Industries, which focuses on getting gang members to rehabilitate themselves by hiring them in one of Homeboy’s related industries. Part of this assistance is to remove the tattoos from their bodies in order to help integrate them better into society. The only tattoos left, Fr. Greg hopes, are those in their hearts as children of God.

It doesn’t take long for my students to react positively to Fr. Greg. They are moved by his reflections on the gang tragedies including drive-by shootings that he has had to deal with along with the many gang members he has had to bury. But they also laugh at his stories about many of the homies, such as those that he took with him when former First Lady Laura Bush invited Fr. Greg to the White House after a youth conference in the nation’s capitol and told him he could bring a few of the homies.

The students cracked up as Fr. Greg detailed having to buy suits for the three homies he selected to accompany him and how one of the homies, in tasting some of the exquisite food served at the White House, exclaimed out loud: “This is nasty!”

Fr. Greg was a big hit but I hope that one of the profound things he said remains with my students. He told them that we will never get a hold on the gang problem until we recognize gang members as human beings.

“There is no them and us,” he stressed. “There is only us.”

I couldn’t help but think as he said this that such an insight should not only apply to the gang members, but also to undocumented immigrants. We are all children of God.

I can’t do justice to Fr. Greg Boyle’s talk, but I would encourage my readers to read his wonderful book filled with not only his experiences with the homies, but also his reflections on scripture and theology as they apply to the human condition.

Thousands are appreciating his words as his book has now been on The Los Angeles Times best seller list for several months.

Encountering Fr. Greg either in person or in his book is an experience hard to forget. Also, the book makes a great Christmas present. Please note that I do not get an agent’s fee for writing this. In fact, all royalties from the book go to support Homeboy Industry and so buying the book is in the Christmas tradition of giving to others as Jesus did for us.

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