Father Greg Boyle: The Answer to Every Question Is Compassion
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You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today, my guest is Father Greg Boyle. Father Greg is a Jesuit priest who is the founder of Homeboy Industries. He’s the author of the bestsellers Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion and Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship. With Sounds True, Father Greg recently participated with Pema Chödrön in a sold-out event on the UCLA campus, On Cultivating Courage. Proceeds from the event are benefiting Homeboy Industries, which is the largest gang intervention, rehabilitation, and reentry program in the world. To learn more, check out homeboyindustries.org.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Father Greg and I spoke about his early work in Bolivia, where he was evangelized by the poor, and how he doesn’t go to the margins to save, but to find rescue. We also talked about the culture of safety and tenderness that is foundational at Homeboy Industries, and how he teaches that community trumps gangs. We talked about how to deal with the judgments we may feel towards gang members or others who commit crimes, and how to seek “a compassion that can stand in awe at what people have to carry, rather than in judgment of how they carry it.” Finally, we talked about what it means to Father Greg to be in the world as God is and to offer love that seeks no return. Here’s my conversation with a very inspiring and open-hearted human, Father Greg Boyle.
I want to begin by thanking Pema Chödrön, whose business manager called me a little over a year ago and said, “Pema Chödrön—” For those of you who are not familiar with her, she is a Tibetan Buddhist meditation teacher. Very beloved by many, many people, including Sounds True. “Pema Chödrön has become familiar with the work of Father Greg Boyle. She wants to do an event with him and have all the proceeds go to his organization, Homeboy Industries. Tami, Sounds True, will you put this event on?”
I think it was only a quarter of a heartbeat that it took me to say, “Hell yes, of course. Heaven yes, we want to do this.” In that process, I had the opportunity to become familiar with you and Homeboy Industries. So I want to thank Pema for the introduction, and now this opportunity to introduce the Sounds True audience to you, Father Greg, and also to your work at Homeboy. If people aren’t familiar with you and Homeboy, this is going to be, I think, a big heart-opening treat. At least it has been for me. So right here, at the beginning, can you introduce our listeners to Homeboy Industries?
Greg Boyle: Well, Homeboy has been around for 30 years and has evolved. In fact, it’s way into now becoming the largest gang intervention, rehab, reentry program on the planet. About 15,000 folks a year walk through our doors. We are located in downtown Chinatown, LA, the gang capital of the world, with 120,000 gang members. 1,100 gangs. We’ve grown over the years in terms of what we saw ourselves doing. Now we’re committed pretty much to creating this community of tenderness, of healing. So that gang members who freely come to us can redirect their lives and discover the truth of who they are. And also get paid to be trained in a variety of social enterprises, restaurants and such, which is really secondary to the healing.
We have a lot of services and tattoo removal therapy, case management, lots of every imaginable curricular offering. Substance abuse focus as well, in terms of helping them with their addictions. We’re kind of a one-stop shop. But our secret sauce is really this community of tenderness that allows them to find a sanctuary so that they can become the sanctuary they sought. They can go home to their kids and present that sanctuary to them. And thus break a cycle.
TS: I want to talk much more about this idea of a community of tenderness. But before we get there, if someone listening were to come out and visit you at Homeboy Industries, and you use this phrase, that you’re in the midst of the “gang capital of the world,” what would they see? What would they see? If I came out and I visited you, what would it be like?
GB: Well, you would visit our headquarters, which is where everybody starts. The centerpiece is this 18-month training program. The trainees are in our headquarters. Several of our businesses—the bakery, the merchandise store, the Homegirl Café—are located in our headquarters. Then we have Homeboy Recycling, which is off-site, and silk-screening, and a variety of restaurants that are off-site, and farmers markets, and things like that. But you would mainly see our headquarters and you would get the feel of what the place is about.
TS: Now you mentioned this culture of tenderness. At the same time, you’re employing people. I know, even for myself here at Sounds True, running a for-profit company, it’s hard to get people to perform well, get along with each other, cooperate, collaborate, and have a culture of tenderness without introducing all kinds of disciplinary measures, things like that. Here you are, working with gang members, employing gang members. How do you do it, Father Greg?
GB: I had a homie the other day say that “the Homeboy way is the opposite of things.” It is because we try not to get tripped up so much by behavior, because we already know that behavior is a language. Gang violence is a language. You want to know: What language is it speaking? What is it indicating? We don’t want to be tripped up by it. Because we know it’s a hard process for folks to take the step in our direction. They have to freely walk through our door. We don’t exist for people who need help, only for those who want it. It’s like a rehab in that sense.
Then we know that the work is hard. Because everyone comes in with a huge burden of chronic, toxic stress, where they need to find some relief. Every single person that walks through our door comes with having had unspeakable things done to them. We’re a trauma-informed community in that sense. We do constant drug testing, because we don’t want folks to numb their pain, or to self-medicate. Our principle is: if you don’t transform your pain, you’re just going to keep transmitting it. Our program is for folks who don’t want to inflict this anymore and want the freedom that comes from healing.
It is hard because we run businesses. We’re a $19 million annual operation, and nine million comes from revenue generated from our nine social enterprises. The rest we have to raise, which is a heavy lift. But yes, we don’t get tripped up by the stuff that a lot of people do, because we know that it’s all part of the process for people to discover their true selves.
TS: Now you said something interesting: behavior is a language. I want to understand that better. When you see certain behavior, how do you decipher the language that it’s communicating?
GB: Well, even if you take a larger aerial view with gang violence itself, which is what our program seeks to address, ultimately. It’s the language of a lethal absence of hope. You don’t want to embrace a bad diagnosis, because it sends you down a rabbit hole. Nobody’s ever found a healthy treatment plan that was born of a bad diagnosis. If you look at gang violence and you think, “Bad people are doing bad things.” That’s an unsophisticated and bad diagnosis. But if you know it’s a story of people who cannot imagine a future for themselves, so they’re stuck in a despair that’s quite dark, or if you know it’s a story about trauma and damage, then you know you have to transform that pain.
Or if you know it’s a story about mental health issues and real illness, well then you know you need to deliver mental health services in a timely and culturally appropriate way. You don’t want to get fixated on the symptom. You want to ask, “Well, what’s underneath all of this? What is it pointing to?” Then you infuse hope to kids for whom hope is foreign. You help heal the damage, and you address the mental health issues. That’s the larger view.
But when you’re in the weeds, when you’ve got every gang member who works there is working side by side with multiple, multiple enemies, rivals, guys they used to shoot at. Now they have to make croissants side by side with them. It’s a challenge, but I think they get to a point where you can’t demonize people you know. Once they’re in the vicinity of each other, something quite magical happens. Then kinship is born. Some connection is finally a reality.
TS: Father Greg, you offered some pretty startling statistics when you were sharing about Homeboy Industries and the number of people who are involved in gangs in the surrounding area. Then the number of people that Homeboy Industries serves. Some percentage—some small percentage of that. Has the number of people in your area, in Los Angeles, that are involved in gangs been growing over the past years that you’ve been involved, despite the efforts of Homeboy? How do you not lose hope in the face of that?
GB: Well, the numbers—we’re reliant on the sheriff’s department, who’s the keeper of the numbers. They say there are 1,100 gangs. They say there are 120,000 gang members. Because they’re the keeper of the numbers, you can’t really use another number. Do I think the number is right? I think it’s probably overblown. I think they have an odd way of determining that number.
But, having said that, we had 1,000 gang related homicides in 1992. Well, that number’s been cut in half and then cut in half again since then. Every chief of police since the beginning of our program attributes, in great measure, the singular impact that Homeboy has had on that number. Because prior to that, there was no exit ramp. There was no way for a gang member to get off this crazy freeway. This violent, deadly freeway. Then Homeboy, even if gang members didn’t walk through our doors, it sort of galvanized their imaginations. They said, “Wow. You mean there is a way to step away?”
That really wasn’t true 30 years ago. What that did, not having an exit ramp, just compounded the despair of gang members. It consequently increased the violence. Surely we’ve seen a decrease in the violence since the beginning. I don’t really do disappointment. I don’t do discouragement. I don’t do success or failure. None of that stuff really matters to me. You want to be anchored in love and in the present moment. You want to be faithful to an approach that has integrity and is the good, and right, and true thing to do. So results, outcomes, are not my concern. Consequently, I’m not troubled by setbacks, or disappointments, or somebody not measuring up. In the end, a lot of times we focus on things that work, but not everything that works helps.
TS: OK. Explain what you mean by that. I didn’t follow that.
GB: Yes. Because I think at some point, people will say, “Well here are the outcomes. Here’s our program. On Wednesday night, we had fewer bullets flying in our city than we did on Monday night, so our program works.” My answer to that is, “Not everything that works helps.” Because sometimes you’re just dealing with the symptoms, the nagging cough of the lung cancer patient. Well, that would work. You could probably alleviate that cough. But I’m not sure it would help in terms of curing the cancer. Not everything that works helps. But everything that helps works. Homeboy Industries helps. Genuinely, concretely helps. All that stuff, in the end, is effective.
TS: Now, Father Greg, to be honest with you, there’s so much that I want to talk to you about. I’m trying to prioritize what really matters most to me in my heart. But I notice as you said, “I don’t do disappointment. I don’t do success.” I thought, “That is very profound.” It’s obviously not something you can just paint on top of your experience. There must be some way that you’re so deeply rooted inside that you don’t feel disappointment.
One of the things I read in preparing for this conversation is that you have been present at more than 200 deaths of Homeboy friends of yours that have worked at Homeboy—people that you’ve known. In some instances, even the shooters that were involved in the deaths were people that you also knew who were also members of Homeboy. Then I hear you say something like, “I don’t do disappointment.” I think, “How does Father Greg live that way?”
GB: Well, I think I’m in a different position, just because I’ve been exposed to so much death and have presided at so many funerals. You get to a point where death cannot be the worst thing that can happen to you. If it is, then you’ll be toppled by life itself. You’re always compiling the two essential lists: The fates that are worse than death, and there are lots of them. Then there are the things that are more powerful than death, and there are lots of those. Unless you know those lists—this is what I always tell the homies, especially after we’ve experienced the death of somebody close to us. Death couldn’t possibly be the worst thing that could happen to you, given the fact that it will happen to everybody.
That’s part of the task of life is to prepare yourself for that eventuality. I think that’s important. You just find your true self in loving. That’s all you do. Loving, and work, and service can’t be about results. Because then you’ll be toppled when you get bad ones.
It’s about loving that doesn’t seek for return. Otherwise, you don’t live in the abundance of it. You’re always waiting for somehow there to be a return on your investment in love. These are all tricks in a sense. Staying absolutely anchored in what I would call the “living room,” which is the present moment. That’s where the joy is; that’s where tenderness happens. Otherwise, you’re fretting anxiously about the future, which is like the kitchen. Or you’re lamenting what happened yesterday, which is like the bathroom. But the living room is where you live. That’s where life happens. You’re only saved in the present moment. That’s where you need to stay anchored. There’s nothing hugely profound in that. But it’s a way to stay freed from results and outcomes. Mother Teresa says, “We’re not called to be successful, we’re called to be faithful.” I agree with that.
TS: In reading your book Tattoos on the Heart, in the very, very beginning of the book, in describing your own background and coming to the work of Homeboy. You talk about how you went to Bolivia as a Jesuit priest, as a young man, and that you were “evangelized” by the poor. I wanted to understand that more. What happened to you in Bolivia? You write that “I knew that the poor had some privileged delivery system for giving me access to the gospel.”
GB: Well, I think I can see now—and this is sort of scriptural, religious language. But the original covenant in the Old Testament, between God and God’s people, it says, “As I have loved you, so must you have a special preferential care and love for the widow, orphan, and the stranger.” That’s a big theme in the scriptures. God sort of identifies the widow, orphan, and stranger because God thinks these are the folks who know what it’s like to have been cut off. Because they suffered in this particular way, God thinks they are trustworthy guides to lead the rest of us to the kinship of God. To the connection with each other. That all may be one, which is God’s dream come true.
I had a palpable experience of that in Bolivia, where I found myself being led. That these were, in fact, trustworthy guides. Because they had suffered so deeply, I allowed myself to be reached by them. Then you discover that you don’t go to the margins to save, or rescue, or even to make a difference. You go to the margins, so that the folks at the margins make you different. Then suddenly everything is turned on its head. It’s not about saving the day, or Jesus complex, or the great white hope, or any of those things. You don’t go to the margins to rescue anybody. But—go figure—if we all go there, we all find rescue. That first experience happened in a profound way to me in Bolivia. Which was, at the time, the poorest country in the hemisphere.
TS: Can you share with me a story of what happened that actually made you feel different?
GB: Oh gosh, I worked with so many different communities. I worked with Quechua Indians up on this hilltop in a place called Tirani. Then I worked with youth in this parish—we sort of became a parish—in a place called Temporal. Then I worked with all these kids in an orphanage who were part of this newspaper-selling syndicate. It was like something out of Oliver Twist or Dickens. It was quite extraordinary. It’s literally the widow, orphan, and the stranger leading me to a sense of tenderness. How profoundly the poor have access to the joy that’s being held out to all of us. Just sharing their lot.
I’ve had many experiences like that over my lifetime. Working in a prison island in Mexico, living with the prisoners for six months. Then certainly my 30 years of working on the east side. Then you’re led, always, to this place of nobility, and a grace, and a gift to stand in awe at what these folks have to carry, rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it. Time and time again, I’ve had the scales fall from my eyes, where I could see what they endured. It always led me back to the good news, if you will, to the gospel. Then to the joy of it. Because in the end, it’s about joy.
TS: Now, this quote that you just said. Very powerful: “Standing in awe at what people have to carry, rather than in judgment about how they carry it.” I want to talk about those times when people—when I—I do feel judgmental. Maybe I feel judgmental about someone who’s committed a certain kind of crime, or someone who’s staying addicted, or something like that. Can you help me and others move to what you’re describing? This place of awe at what people have to carry, rather than the judgments that I hear in my head.
GB: Yes. That’s always the dynamic tension between awe and judgment. Judgment keeps us from being the truth of who we are. Awe ushers in the very truth of who we are. As the Dalai Lama would say, “Everybody has Buddha nature.” There are no exceptions to that. Which is also to say there is no us and them; there’s just us.
How do you obliterate, once and for all, the illusion that we are separate? But we’re forever demonizing and other-izing. It’s like in the Santa Fe, Texas shooting. The most recent mass shooting. A 17-year-old kid did it. Senator Ted Cruz says, “Today, the face of evil was revealed to the people of Texas.” Then they cut to—I saw this on television. Then they cut to a 16-year-old classmate who was there who survived, and she says, “Anyone who does this has a world of hurt inside.” Well, you carry those two things in your hands and you weigh them. You say, “Well, the 16-year-old girl is on to something.”
She also knows that the answer to every question is compassion. But she’s onto a very sophisticated, compassionate view. I would say she’s seeing the situation as nearly as God does. Who can get underneath it and not be tempted to demonize or to call something evil, when clearly what you’re talking about is a hugely broken, damaged, mentally ill person who did this. Clearly. Then the reason why that’s so unacceptable in our society is because you can only feel one thing towards somebody who is damaged, and broken, and mentally ill. That is compassion.
But that’s unacceptable because we want to be able to hate this person. We want to be able to say, “This person doesn’t belong to us.” We want to be able to say, “This person is other and outside.” Yet we’re all being invited, at every moment, to imagine the circle of compassion. Then imagine that no one’s standing outside that circle. That’s how we want to be faithful—faithful to that. But every moment and every day, it’s a choice to judge or to stand in awe. Which is, obviously, the more compassionate, loving, kind, and tender stance.
TS: Just to break this down even more, I wonder if you have any wisdom for someone when they notice that they’re going to judgment. Right in that moment. Whether it’s because they’re watching the news, or they’re hearing about someone’s political opinions that are wildly different, or whatever it might be. Is there an inner move that can be made in those moments?
GB: Yes, I think these are—it’s in the category of constant choosing. There’s no once and for all here. In every moment, you’re choosing to close your heart or to open it. That’s part of being awake and being aware that you somehow want to truly know and be aware of what afflicts you. Otherwise you will be ruled by your affliction. You have to notice this because it’s constant. The judgment is constant. But the more you can open your heart to tenderness, because tenderness is—at Homeboy, we always say, “Love is the answer.”
Community is the context, but tenderness is the methodology. Otherwise, love stays in the air, or in your head, or even in your heart. But unless it becomes tender, there’s no connective tissue. But tenderness is this decision. It’s the choosing in every moment. I’m about to enter this room, and I’m going to be tender. It’s the thing that keeps judgment at bay. It’s the choice that keeps your heart opened to what people are really going through, to the brokenness and the damage, rather than dismissing them.
I can remember once there was a homie—we were in a council meeting, which is all homies, a group of like 10. We’re discussing the trainees, so that’s what they do every morning for an hour. You talk about trainees who are coloring outside the lines, or who may be being attitudinal. We were discussing this one kid—I say kids, but they’re all 18, 20, 25. One guy said—again, a former gang member, a guy who was in prison for 25 years—he said, “You know what this guy’s problem is? He thinks his shit don’t stink.” Then another homie in the room said, “No, all he smells is stink.” It was the same kid with two diagnoses. One was open-hearted and one was not. But the difference came in the guy who could be open to this kid. He had made friends with his own wound.
If you don’t make friends with your own wound, then you will be tempted to despise the wounded. That’s exactly what happened in that case. There was this guy [who] found this kid despicable. Like he was pulling a fast one. “The rest of you are naive, but I really see this.” But the truth was he didn’t, because he was such a stranger to himself.
So anyway, that’s a long way of answering this. But I think that’s the key thing. Everybody needs to maintain this friendship with their own wound. Thich Nhat Hanh has a poem where he says, “Keep your loneliness warm.” Well, it’s a poem about anger, but it’s also [about] keeping your loneliness warm is keep your wound close at hand, because you’re going to need it to be compassionate in the world. Because if you become a stranger to your own brokenness, you’re likely to be judgmental of the damage that people are expressing or experiencing.
TS: Father Greg, you talked about how Homeboy is a trauma-informed community. When you’re talking now about making friends with our own wound, how do you help the Homeboys in this process of making friends with these very, very, very difficult wounds? Terrible wounds of early childhood abuse and neglect.
GB: You can’t really address it at some intellectual place. You can’t enter the head with it. That’s why it’s so important to create a safe community of tenderness where people feel welcome. Then they’ll do the work. That’s the only context. It’s a similar kind of population with homeless and with gang members because they are so laden with chronic, toxic stress that’s so burdensome. Unless they can find rest and relief from that, they won’t ever be able to even identify or excavate their own wounds. The key piece in all of this, it seems to me, is the place, is the vicinity, is the community of tenderness. Once you have that, then they’ll be able to look at this stuff. It requires great courage and bravery on their part.
But it can only happen, I think, in that place where they feel safe enough to explore and discover what happened to them. How it altered everything. Then they leave us after 18 months. Though you and I both know that healing ends in the graveyard. What we suggest by our 18-month time period is that if you surrender to this, then this will be foundational. It will be essential. Then you’ll be able to have—you will have re-identified who you are. You will have gained some essential resilience. Now you’re going to leave us after 18 months, and we hope to locate you a job to make the transition seamless. But now you’ll leave us, and of course the world is going to throw at you what it will, but this time you won’t be toppled by it.
That’s the essential thing. At Homeboy, we make this guarantee. We’ll say, “An employed gang member may or may not re-offend. And an educated one may or may not re-offend. But we make this absolute guarantee: an essentially healed gang member won’t ever go back to prison. Ever.” That’s born out, in my experience. Once they’ve given themselves over to this healing experience, then it just is inconceivable that they would ever return to prison and re-offend.
TS: One of the things you wrote about in Tattoos on the Heart is how “for Homeboys, the father wound is every Homeboy’s homework.” That’s a quote. You write, “In the soul of nearly every homie I know is a hole that’s the shape of his dad.” Here you are, I’m calling you Father Greg, and the homeboys call you Father G. I imagine that the healing of this wound would involve you, at least as a figure for homies. Here’s Father G, can he help me heal the Father wound? How do you work with that?
GB: Well, hardly any homie calls me Father G now. All the homies who work there call me “Pops.” I don’t even know where that came from, but it’s a constant now.
GB: Yes, Pops. There is a sense to that. That you assume this role, I suppose. Either they had no father or the presence of the father was quite problematic. I suppose that’s what’s happening, and they get a sense of that. That’s all part of the attachment repair, because every gang member comes in through our doors with a disorganized attachment. Mom was either frightened or frightening. You can’t really calm yourself down if you’ve never been soothed. I think they experience stuff as quite soothing at Homeboy.
Certainly in as much as I’m a stand-in for the father they never knew, then you want it to be affectionate and soothing. You want it to be consoling. You want it to be unconditional, because you want it to represent a “no matter what”-ness. No matter what you do, I’m always going to be here. You can turn your back on me and Homeboy Industries, but I’ll never turn my back on you. You want that to be just in cement. That has a power for folks who only know abandonment and rejection from their parents.
TS: As you’re talking, what’s occurring to me is I’m wondering: Have you ever been challenged to have this “no matter what” attitude or to bring tenderness to a situation? How did you deal with that? I could just imagine situations, I don’t know, where someone took advantage of Homeboy’s generosity and goodness. That you would feel a sense of anger, not tenderness, not, “No matter what, I’m here for you.”
GB: Yes, but you don’t want to be tempted by that either. All those things have happened. I’ve had guns pulled out on me—
GB: I’ve had folks say they’re going to kill me, none of them mentally well. But still, they bring guns in, and you talk them off the cliff, and you walk them out the door. It’s not stuff that you take personally, because it’s never about you. It’s a good dictum to say, “Don’t take anything personally.” I don’t.
Nobody can take my advantage if I’m giving my advantage. Whatever loving I’m able to eek out in my life does not look for a return. It wants to stay free. It doesn’t want to put people in debt. I just think these are common, simple things by which to guide your own life. A lot of it for me—well, most of it, mainly—is trying to reflect the kind of God you believe in. People settle for a puny, partial God. They settle for the “one false move” God. You want to be anchored in the “no matter what”-ness of God. If you know that God is compassionate, lovingkindness, well then it’s the only thing you want to do.
Recently I just buried my mom. She was 92 years old and a sweetheart. Never afraid of death. Once she said to me, “I’ve never done this before.” Like it was skydiving. She was just exhilarated by it. But every time—I have eight brothers and sisters. Whenever one, or two, or eight of us were standing around her bed and she’d come back into consciousness, she’d see one of us, and she’d say, with breathless delight, “You’re here. You’re here.” After I buried her, I thought, “Well, that’s the only thing God has on God’s mind.” Which is to say with breathless delight, “You’re here. You’re here.”
So you receive the tender glance of God. Then you choose to be the tender glance of God in the world. That’s the only thing that makes any damn sense to me at the moment. Because that’s where the joy is. There are people who lead you to that. The widow, and the orphan, and the stranger, they lead you to how to more and more be receptive to the tender glance, and to be generous with that glance with others. Anyway, that’s what I’ve come to see more surely lately.
TS: It’s very beautiful, Father Greg, listening to you share that. What I’m reminded of is a recent conversation I had with a Sounds True author, Caroline Myss, where she talked about how many of us in the world at our time are in a faith crisis. We don’t have this solid conviction and investment in the Abrahamic religions, for many of us, the way we used to. And we’re not in a new world, where we have a sense of faith in something like organic divinity. We’re in between and we’re confused. When you say something like “our task is to imitate the kind of God we believe in,” what occurs to me is how for many people, that’s confusing.
What kind of God do I believe in? I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t believe in this old, sort of superstitious God. I like the kind of love and tenderness that Father Greg’s talking about. But I don’t know how to be in the world the way God is.
GB: Again, all the homies who are in recovery will talk about the higher power. But faithfulness, we get tripped up. We think it’s about adherence to a belief, or to a set of beliefs, or a belief system. When it’s really about your fundamental goodness, your Buddha nature. It’s really about a belief in the world that people are essentially, wonderfully good. That if people are engaged in things that are difficult to handle, it’s not because they’re evil. They’re essentially good, but something’s keeping them from seeing their essential goodness.
That’s why I love when an English reporter is interviewing the Dalai Lama and is asking him about self-hatred. He doesn’t know what the guy’s talking about, so he stops speaking in English and turns to his translator to say, “What is this guy talking about?” Then the guy translates and still the Dalai Lama doesn’t get it. He says, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” With great frustration, he says, “Everybody has the Buddha nature. Everybody has goodness. Everybody.”
If they’re not able to access it, it’s usually [that] there are things that have concretely gotten in the way, like trauma or real-life mental illness. Frankly, in our current political climate, and our heightened, polarizing tribalism—which is alarming—but even Donald Trump belongs to us. That’s a hard one for people. It’s a hard one for me.
But we belong to each other. The problem in the world is that we’ve forgotten. So kinship is the goal. How do you create this community of kinship such that God, in fact, might recognize it? You try to be in the world who God is. You don’t settle for the partial, prehistoric, third-grade God that we were all saddled with. You end up finding the God who doesn’t want anything from you. Who only wants for you. Who’s somehow—and I don’t know how—just behold the one beholding you and smiling, and saying, with breathless delight, “You’re here. You’re here.” Once you feel that, once you experience that, then you only want to be that in the world.
That’s what it looks like when it’s from the inside out, rather than imposed from the outside in. Like the Ten Commandments, or all the things that we were all as kids forced to memorize. That’s baby food. But the solid food is having this palpable experience of a God who only wants for you. That my joy may be yours and your joy complete. That’s it. It’s not about grim duty. It’s not about the sacrifice, and exhausting giving and not counting the cost. It’s about joy. This is the thing that we want to help each other get to it.
TS: [Yes.] In terms of your own faithfulness, your own confidence in this God who loves you in the way that you’re attuning us to in this conversation. How did that happen for you, Father Greg?
GB: Well, again, I think that it’s in many ways—everybody either wins the lottery or they don’t, in terms of their own growing up. I was absolutely devoid of trauma as a kid. It doesn’t mean you don’t have issues, but damage really wasn’t done to me. That wasn’t one of my things. It doesn’t make me morally superior, it just means I won some parent lottery and sibling lottery. But I think especially for half of my life, I’ve been privileged to walk with the poor. They’ve altered my heart and reshaped my thinking.
My experience is that they’ve been trustworthy guides. Endless things daily, if you’re attentive to it. Or as a homie said to me the other day, he goes, “God keeps dropping me hints.” I like that, because I think that’s the truth. That if you’re attentive, God keeps dropping you hints every day, things that rhyme with God. Because it’s always an approximation. Saint Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the Jesuits, always talks about the God who’s always greater. Just when you think you’ve landed on some conception of who God is, then you find that God is even greater than that.
We want to move beyond the God that we endlessly create in our own image. My friend Anne Lamott always says, “You know you’ve created God in your own image when God hates the same people you do.” That’s the problem. Because you get to that place where that’s exactly what you’re doing. “The God I believe in never would have voted for Trump.” You get to this narrow place. But you want to get to the more spacious, the more expansive view of who God actually is. Because there is the God we actually have, and there is the God we’ve settled for. The more realistic God. The narrow, petty, tiny, puny God. It’s a lifetime challenge to somehow get yourself away from that tiny God.
TS: Now, Father Greg, if there’s someone who’s listening to this, and let’s say they’re extremely inspired. Let’s just say they happen to be a billionaire, and they write you a check for a whole ton of money. Hundreds of millions of dollars, let’s just say.
TS: How would you spend that money?
GB: Again, it’s hand to fist around this place. It’s really hard. Every year, we have to raise $10 million. That is a heavy lift, and so it would be nice to not have to worry about it. It’s the only thing that keeps me awake is trying to fund this place. I never set out to set up this place. We just backed our way, we just evolved our way into it. Part of the thing with it is it’s a place for gang members to come. They’re comfortable at our place.
It’s funny, I go to a lot of cities. The main question, if somebody runs a comparable program to Homeboy Industries, they always ask me this question: “How do you get gang members to go there?” Well, in 30 years, that’s never been our issue. They come. Our problem is not being able to bring them all in immediately because we’re constrained by money. If any of your listeners wanted to remedy the one thing that keeps me awake at night, I’d be eternally grateful to them.
TS: I get that, that it would relieve this hand-to-fist constraint. But how would you expand your program? If you were just given a moment here, a visionary moment?
GB: We’ve started this thing called the Global Homeboy Network. When people wanted us to airlift Homeboy to Wichita, and franchise and become the McDonald’s of gang intervention programs, we decided not to do that. So we give technical assistance. We help people start their own programs in their own locale. We gather every August. 300 to 400 people from all over the world. We have 146 programs in the United States and 16 programs outside of the country. If people wanted to fund this effort—it’s more of a movement.
It insists that gang members are human beings and that we belong to each other. If you can create enough communities of tenderness that are engaged in healing, it really solves a lot of the social dilemmas that plague us. It’s a good investment.
TS: One thing I felt in familiarizing myself with your work and how much you’ve learned from being with the poor, and with gang members, and how you spend your time, and the work of Homeboy, was I noticed that I felt painfully aware of my own privilege as a person. Also a sense of separation. I thought, “Here’s Father Greg, he’s teaching so much about kinship, connection, being in association with people that might be seen as other.”
I noticed I felt privileged and separate in a way that was painful. It’s one thing, yes, to write a check, and I think that’s a powerful, important act for people who have resources to do that act. But how can we restore a sense of kinship with others if we feel in that privileged and separated place? What would you recommend?
GB: Well, I think that’s part of the problem. That’s a good question, because I think part of the problem is we disqualify ourselves. Any city I go to and I sit down with stakeholders: the mayor, and chief of police, or whoever, community activists. If their response is rarefied, and narrow, and specialized, and has even a taint of, “Step aside, let us handle this.” Then I know that it’s a response that’s quite unhealthy. But the more the response is: “All hands on deck. If you are the proud owner of a pulse, if you can listen, if you can allow yourself to be reached by gang members, then you can be a beneficial presence.”
But the problem comes when we think that only a former gang member can somehow be beneficially present to a current gang member. It’s nonsense. It’s a human thing. A lot of times we think it’s about telling, or talking, or a gang member saying, “You know, Father Greg, I think this gang member’s going to listen to me more than he’s going to listen to you.” That may well be true if the task is talking to them. But since the task is receiving them, who can’t receive them? It’s a human thing.
At Homeboy, we have 300 volunteers. They’re all privileged people. But they come there, and they’re not there to convey a message. They’re there to allow themselves to be reached by these gang members. They’re not there to make a difference in their lives. They’re there to be made different. What you get as a result is this exquisite mutuality, where everyone is inhabiting their own dignity and truth. Everyone is. The feeling’s mutual. That’s what you want.
But those are the signs of un-health, when it’s a specialized shop troop that goes in to help. And the rest of us, say, who are privileged, absent themselves from entering into this community. I think that’s how you combat it. By standing against the notion that you could ever be disqualified from a human venture.
TS: I am the proud owner of a pulse.
GB: There you go.
TS: Father Greg, one thing, we’re just getting to know each other. This is our very first conversation. But one Sounds True author who’s also a Father, Father Richard Rohr. I asked him at one point if he would end our conversation with a blessing. I told him that I could never get enough blessings, and that, at a certain point, I started thinking I was a blessing whore.
He started calling me “The Blessing Whore” every time he saw me. So it’s true. I think that maybe it’s because of this time in our culture, outside of traditional religious structures, where blessings—I value them so much. I have a sense that many of our listeners do too. I was reading that at Homeboy, sometimes people will ask you to give them a blessing. I wonder if we could end our conversation on that note, with you offering our listeners a blessing?
GB: OK. Well, may God bless you all and fill you with a sense that you’re exactly what God had in mind when God made you. May you imagine a circle of compassion and go to the margins. And stand in the right place, with the demonized, so that the demonizing will stop. And with the disposable, so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away. May you always continue to be a remarkable sign of the God who loves us without measure and without regret. Amen.
TS: Amen. Father Greg, talking to you has been a supreme great delight. Thank you so much.
GB: Thank you.
TS: And to all of our listeners, check out homeboyindustries.org. We all have a pulse. Thank you so much, Father Greg. Thank you.
GB: Thank you, Tami.
TS: SoundsTrue.com: waking up the world. Thanks for listening.