“BC is not the place you go to; it is the place you go from.”
This was the message Fr. Greg Boyle shared with the Boston College community in Saint Ignatius Church last Tuesday evening. Fr. Greg, author of the New York Times bestseller, "Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion," and Los Angeles Times bestseller, "Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship," founded Homeboy Industries in 1988.
Since its creation, Homeboy Industries has developed into the largest gang intervention, rehab, and re-entry program in the world. Homeboy offers an array of services to former gang members, from employment opportunities to rehabilitation programs.
Fr. Greg and two “homeboys,” Omar and Francisco, spoke to the audience about their own experiences working at Homeboy, as well as some of the things they have learned through this work. Fr. Greg added at the end that he always tries to bring two homeboys or homegirls who are former members of rival gangs to force them to integrate by sharing a hotel room.
Omar, a former gang member who fled home at a young age when his father passed away, voiced that growing up, “I just wanted to hear ‘you matter.’” He came to Homeboy because they never turn anyone away, no matter how many times they come back. Fr. Greg emphasized this, saying that members will often come to him and voice that “this time it will be different.” Sometimes this is the truth and sometimes it is not, but no matter what, every member is welcome through the door at Homeboy. To the same point, Fr. Greg emphasized that Homeboy is not a place for people who need help, but for people who want help, those who are actively seeking a change in their lives.
A child of two immigrants, Francisco spoke of the verbal, mental, physical, and substance abuse that plagued his childhood home. He shared that he has been shot 33 times, stabbed twice, served prison time for 25 years, and was in a coma for six months.
“Homeboy opened my eyes to what I needed to fix and address, so I wouldn’t repeat that for my kids," he said of his time at Homeboy.
Fr. Greg focused on the idea of service, addressing some of the problems that come from a mindset of serving others with the intention of making a difference in them or in their community. He emphasized the idea of meeting people at the margins, because these margins will not be erased until we go out and stand with them. Kinship, rather than service, should be the end goal.
“You go to the margins so the people at the margins can make you different, not for you to make them different,” he said. This takes away the idea of the service provider and the service recipient. “Service is the hallway that leads to the ballroom—the place of exquisite maturity.”
As a person engaging in service, it is never about you, Fr. Greg reminded. If it is about the other person, the service will always be fulfilling. To Boston College students, who are fortunate to have the chance to receive a quality education, he noted, “Do not be paralyzed by your privilege; turn it on its head.”
Fr. Greg referred to his friendship with Cesar Chavez, the leader of the Mexican-American Civil Rights movement. He shared a story of Chavez describing how reporter once told him, “Wow, these farmers love you,” to which Chavez instantly responded, “Well, the feeling is mutual.” In the sunlight of kinship, there is no distinction between the people involved.
Another piece of wisdom Fr. Greg shared was in response to the question, "How do you reach them?" He says, stop. Stop trying to reach them. Instead, return these people to themselves by getting rid of the things in their lives that stop others from seeing who they truly are.
One parting story Fr. Greg shared was about a homeboy, Jose. At age six, Jose’s mom asked him, “Why don’t you just kill yourself? You are such a burden.” At age nine, his mom brought him to an orphanage and told them, “I just found this boy on the street.” Jose withstood beatings to the point where he needed to wear three shirts to cover the scars and the bleeding. He was ashamed of these wounds for so long, until he realized the importance of welcoming his wounds in order to help heal others who are wounded. In order to feel their pain, he needed to feel his own wounds.
Fr. Greg illuminated the message of this story by explaining that "compassion is our willingness to look inwards.” If we do not understand our own wounds, we harm those on the margins.