"Go to the Margins": Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ, Visits ACE
“It is a lie, when we talk of a God that doesn’t comfort us,” Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ, told the ACE community last week. “And so we go to the margins, and we imagine a circle of compassion, and we imagine nobody’s standing outside that circle.”
Boyle is the founder and executive director of Los Angeles’ Homeboy Industries, the largest gang intervention, rehabilitation and re-entry program in the world. Its flagship program, Boyle said, is an 18-month job training program that employs former gang members in businesses such as restaurants, farmers markets, silkscreen printing, and electronics recycling. These jobs give employees opportunities to heal and build relationships with others from rival gangs.
“How do you reach them?” a former gang intervention worker in Houston once asked Boyle about his work in supporting Homeboy Industries’ “Homeboys” and “Homegirls.”
“For starters, stop trying to reach them,” said Boyle, who was awarded the 2017 Laetare Medal from Notre Dame.. “Can you be reached by them? Can you let them take you to their hovel and show you the view from there? Otherwise, it stays distant—service provider, service recipient.”
Boyle argued that the way we approach service must not be disconnected from how we view our relationships with others and with God. When we recognize that God loves us as we are, we can begin to break down the distinction between those who serve and those who are served. In turn, we grow more compassionate, and we can better recognize one another’s equal human dignities, in the eyes of a God who does not expect us to be perfect.
“I think that there’s the God we actually have, and then there’s the God we’ve settled for—the puny God, the lesser God, the partial God, the more realistic God,” Boyle said.
He recalled a misreading of Scripture by a former gang member, in which the man read “The Lord is exalted” as “The Lord is exhausted.” The latter, Boyle said, may be a better interpretation.
“The curveball that God sends our way is that God wants to just stay exhausted, other-centered, focused on you, a God who doesn’t want anything from you, only for you,” Boyle said. “Unless you land on the God we actually have, it’s hard to go to the margins, because then it doesn’t make so much sense.”
In one such act of serving at the margins, Boyle helped a former gang member recently released from prison, Dreamer, find a job with a vending machine company. When Dreamer returned to his office two weeks later, Boyle at first worried that Dreamer might have lost the job. Instead, Dreamer proudly held up his first paycheck.
“Do you know who I have to thank for this?” Dreamer asked Boyle. “God,” he said, surprising Boyle and making them both laugh.
“I defy you to identify exactly who is the service provider, and who is the service recipient. It’s mutual,” Boyle said.
Boyle’s work with Homeboy Industries has included founding a school for adolescents who had been expelled from other local schools in Los Angeles’ projects. To gauge students’ interest in the school, Boyle met them at home and pulled them aside for individual conversations.
“I said, ‘Hey, if I found a school that would take you, would you go?’ And to my surprise, every single one of them said, ‘Yeah, I would.’”
When he could not find a middle school willing to serve the students, Boyle established his own at Dolores Mission, in a former third floor convent.
But Homeboys Industries’ work, Boyle said, is about more than connecting former gang members with jobs and educations. By helping people find healing from their past actions and suffering, Boyle believes that former gang members can build resilience and, in turn, help their communities break and recover from cycles of violence.
In their own classrooms, Boyle said, teachers can help students find healing and realize their own worthiness in the eyes of God by encouraging them to see what Boyle calls the “truth” that we all share.
“Here’s the truth: You are exactly what God had in mind when he made you,” he said. “The task at Homeboy, and I suspect in a great many of the schools in which you are privileged to accompany kids, is that you have to reach in and dismantle the messages of shame and disgrace that get in the way, that keep people from seeing their truth.”
We praise God, Boyle believes, when we witness and serve at the margins:
“We are called to take seriously what Jesus took seriously, and he took four things seriously: inclusion, nonviolence, unconditional loving kindness, and compassionate acceptance. And we, too, want to put first things recognizably first.”