Father Greg Boyle on Compassion, Kinship, and Real Ways to Help Others

Alan: 00:00 Boy, you are a hell of a communicator. I feel free to say the word hell because since you’re a priest you’re probably are very familiar with that word.
Greg: 00:10 Feel free to use any damn word you want to.
Alan: 00:15 Well, you must hear a lot of all kinds of language including coarse language in your work.
Greg: 00:21 Yeah, well, I have a lot of Latinos and so English is not their first language so sometimes they don’t really know as a native speaker how powerful and potent some four-letter-words might be. So they use it kind of casually. I’m quite used to it.
Alan: 00:42 The work is so amazing, Homeboy Industries. What is that?
Greg: 00:49 Well, we’ve been around for 30 years and we’ve sort of backed our way now into becoming the largest gang intervention, rehab and re-entry program on our planet. So we’re in LA County, we serve the whole county. There are 120,000 gang members in LA County so about 15,000 folks a year walk through our doors. Gang members who want to redirect their lives or who just got out of prison and want to start all over again so we help them heal so that they never go back to prison. It’s a gainful employment and we have nine social enterprises and restaurants and bakery and all sorts of things where they train.
Alan: 01:31 So, Homeboys Industries, what is it, Homeboy, am I saying it wrong? Homeboy Industries, owns these businesses and hires …
Greg: 01:40 That’s right. So we silkscreen, recycling, e-waste recycling. We have a restaurant at the airport, at LAX and the city hall. We have a grocery division where we sell chips and salsas and guacamole. Anyway, all these are opportunities. Once they come into our 18-month training program, they go to classes, there’s therapy, free tattoo removal.
Alan: 02:10 You remove a lot of tattoos, I’ve heard.
Greg: 02:12 Yeah. More than just about anybody on earth.
Alan: 02:16 That’s a painful process. They want them removed or do you have to talk them out of it? Do you suggest they remove it or what?
Greg: 02:24 No, we never force anybody to do it. It’s kind of it takes what it takes, when they’re ready to do it they do it. Especially if their facial … The facial once will be provocative forever unless they take them off and …
Alan: 02:38 That story about Frank. I’ll never forget that. That his picture-
Greg: 02:42 Not sure I can tell that on the radio.
Alan: 02:44 Yeah. You can. It’s a podcast.
Greg: 02:46 Yeah. Well, he came, I didn’t know who he was, his name was Frank. Two days out of Corcoran State Prison he’s sitting in front of my desk and tattooed on his forehead like a big old billboard filling the entire space that said, “Fuck the world.” He looked at me and he says, “You know, I’m having a hard time finding a job.” I said, “Well, Frank, let’s put our heads together on this one. But the truth of that guy is that he’s now a security guard at a movie studio and there’s no trace left of the angriest dumbest thing he’d ever done. It took a long time to remove them and he worked for us the whole time.
Alan: 03:36 The idea that you get these people who have been, not just members of gangs, but my impression is indoctrinated into the culture of gang membership or any anybody else and a rival gang is an enemy for life. Then as I understand it, you get these people to work together at the bakery or whatever story, whatever enterprise you put them in. Isn’t that difficult to get them to work together?
Greg: 04:07 Well, there’s probably a common interest that you know, propels any of them into our office where they want a reason to get up in the morning and a reason not to gang bang the night before and they want their moms to be proud and their kids not to be ashamed. So, they all walk in for the same reason, wanting the same thing. Then they’re making croissants standing next to a guy they used to shoot at. It’s pretty silent probably initially, but the truth of the place is you can’t demonize people you know so you can’t sustain that moment of keeping the hostility between another that you know that have hurt …
Alan: 04:47 You know, that theme keeps coming up over and over. You can’t demonize people you know really, really well.
Greg: 04:47 That’s right.
Alan: 04:55 When you start to see them as a fellow person and not as the iconic, the cartoon of the enemy that you saw in them as before. It’s very difficult to summon the same kind of anger and vengeful spirit. We heard that from George Mitchell when he brought peace to Northern Ireland. He deliberately brought them together. Another friend of mine, Letty Pogrebin, brings together Palestinians and Israelis to two events where they really get to know one another.
Greg: 05:30 That’s right. Humans can’t sustain the distance once they’re in the vicinity with each other. I’ve never seen that not happen. I’ve never seen hostilities continue. People will not stay enemies if you put them together.
Alan: 05:46 Do they fall back? I mean, my guess is that you’d have a certain percentage of recidivism, what you could call recidivism?
Greg: 05:56 Well, because part of the thing is healing, so you have to do the work and we want people to excavate their wounds, if you will. They have to go back and become friends with their wounds. They’re all broken.
Alan: 06:08 How do you that? How do you you get them healed? That sounds like a really difficult process. You’re talking about emotional healing that’s … The whole field of psychiatry is devoted to that and I don’t think they can make the same claims that you can about success.
Greg: 06:22 Well, I think we get trapped sometimes with the message that it’s all about content but it’s really about context. It’s a community of tenderness where they can feel relief and some rest from their own chronic toxic stress. So, then they feel safe and then they become the sanctuary that they sought in you. Then they go home and they provide that sanctuary to their kids and suddenly, you’ve broken a cycle.
But the healing really is all about relational wholeness. Once they enter to a … If they surrender to it, it will work. But people will leave, it’s like relapse. They’ll leave after a month, this is too hard, they stop coming. But at this point in our 30 years we can say they will always come back, back to the gang members who run the place now, every single one is somebody who came back. Once you have a dose of affection and care and tenderness that’s so compelling even if you’re not ready for it right now.
Alan: 07:28 You know, I can see tenderness flowing from you. I can understand that. But you have a big operation and you have a lot of people who have been, in a way, I would imagine the chain of command of majors, corporals, you know, captains. How does that tenderness, if you dealt with every single one of the people who come for help to you for health, if you personally dealt with every single one of them I can see the tenderness coming from you, how do you get it to come from all the other people?
Greg: 08:00 Well, it’s now part of the air we breathe there. I mean it’s part of the culture. I’m not there now and but I, you know, from every person who’s a navigator to a senior staff to a case manager or therapist, they’re all connected, you know. At Homeboy we say, you know, love is the answer but community is the context but tenderness is really the methodology so everybody has bought into that, that tenderness is really kind of the highest form of spiritual maturity and it’s the way that love can become connective tissue.
Otherwise, love will stay somewhere else, it’ll stay in the head or in the air or even your heart. But unless it becomes tender that’s the finishing touch on love. So, that’s part of the culture of the place, you feel it. The minute you walk in the door, people will say, wow, what is this? That’s what it is, it’s really a palpable sense of tenderness.
Alan: 09:04 Okay. Suppose, I want to explore this again here how you accomplish this, if possible. Let’s say you’re expanding many more people are coming in the door saying, “I want to be healed,” you have to bring in even more people to accomplish the therapy, the job instructions, and that kind of thing, how to get a job out, how to keep out trouble, you do work like that, right?
Greg: 09:30 Yeah.
Alan: 09:30 Now, you’ve got some new people let’s say and somebody among them has a tendency to get stressed and lash out or say something curt or not be tender. What do you do?
Greg: 09:49 I was here yesterday in New York but I just got a text from a kid who said, “I want to apologize. I take full responsibility.” I had already heard that he had gotten in a fight with somebody, a fistfight, which usually those things begin with words and you see, there are enough people around to calm things down. But, you know, you can focus on the behavior, which is a kind of a nonstarter. Or you can get underneath the behavior, what language is this behavior speaking? So I was able to via text just say, “Hey, I’m proud of you, you know. You took responsibility, you went out of your way to …” a word they would use is squash, which is to bring this hostility to an end. It’s over. We don’t need to pursue this anymore, much less bring other gang members into it.
So, you kind of want to accent whatever was accentuate anyway, whatever was positive in that moment. That mattered to him. But the fact that he wrote me and said, “I know you’re going to hear about this. I feel bad. I don’t know why I did it. He got me mad. I didn’t know how to … ” he’s a young kid, he’s like 16. So anyway, that stuff happens but we don’t want to banish people, we want somebody to learn. Especially since they’re enemies, we want them to move beyond the mind they have.
Alan: 11:18 Do they have a problem leaving the gang and coming to you? Does the gang get mad at them? Do they have repercussions?
Greg: 11:26 You know, there’s a prevailing myth that would say that that that happens, but again, I’ve been doing this for over 30 years I’ve never seen it happen. You know, 95% of all gang members want what these guys have.
Alan: 11:41 Which is?
Greg: 11:41 Which is a reason to get up in the morning and make everybody proud of you.
Alan: 11:46 What about the myth that we all … I’m assuming this is going to turn out to be a myth, too. It seems, I’ve heard this story so many times on the front pages of newspapers that you can’t say to somebody who’s making a thousand dollars a day or whatever he’s making selling drugs, you can’t convince him that you can get him a job rolling donuts for a couple of dollars an hour.
Greg: 12:12 Yeah. Except that people feeling good about themselves is kind of a high value. If you read something like Freakonomics, they’ll talk about how much kids make selling drugs especially the low-level ones.
Alan: 12:28 They don’t make that much?
Greg: 12:29 No. You still would make 10 times more money working at McDonald’s than you would be selling drugs on a street corner. Especially in the early days when you had in there in the crack epidemic, you had kids, gang members running up to cars selling crack cocaine that they made something like $3 an hour or way less.
Alan: 12:52 So in a way that what the major thing they were getting out of that is perhaps the acceptance by the gang as a member of a family?
Greg: 13:00 Perhaps. Except that no hopeful kid ever joins a gang and so kids are stuck in a lethal absence of hope. So, it’s really not about belonging. No kid is seeking anything when he joins a gang, he’s always fleeing something. So Homeboy wants to address the thing they were fleeing, that got him sent to prison in the first place.
Alan: 13:25 I get the impression when I hear you talk about this that when I see these innocent kids facing an early life of abuse and neglect that is an engine of their despair, to some extent, a little bit leading them to this hopelessness you’re talking about and you seem to be able to get them back to that innocent state.
Greg: 13:57 Well, I think you and I and every gang member that has ever walked through Homeboy, we were all born wanting the same things and then something happened. So I won, you know, all these lotteries. You know, parent lottery, geography lottery, zip code lottery, educated by the Jesuits lottery. I won all these lotteries, but the folks I’ve been privileged to work side by side with in the company for the last 30 years, every single one, I stand in awe at what they’ve had to carry and what they’ve endured rather than in judgment of how they’ve navigated their lives.
So, my life never ever has handed me the things that they had to endure and navigate and from abuse to torture to violence to neglect and abandonment. Everyone who’s walked through our doors, unspeakable things were done to them and that’s why they join gangs. It’s not because of belonging or excitement or any of those things. They’re imagining their funerals, they’re not planning their futures.
Alan: 15:15 So I don’t quite get it. If the abuse somehow leads to their joining the gang, what is it that draws them in?
Greg: 15:27 I don’t think they’re being drawn, I don’t think they’re being lured, I don’t think they’re being attracted. There is no pull factor, there’s only push. So gangs are the places kids go when they’ve encountered their life as a misery. And misery loves company. So I had a kid, the kid he’s early 30s. He has three young daughters, he was in my office the other day. He works at Homeboy six months in. He was telling me about when he was nine he and his twin brother were sent to live with their grandmother, who he called “the meanest human being I’ve ever known”. She forced them to strip down to their underwear, sit in the hallway every day after school, and she would duct tape their mouths. Because she said, “I can’t stand the sound of your voices.”
He starts to well up with tears. Then he says, “This is why I never shush my three daughters because I love the sound of their voices.” That’s why he joined a gang. Now you can draw a straight line between his own despair and the torture that got him sent to live with his grandmother, which was indeed worse. Then he and his twin brother ran away from home after being one year enduring this woman, who I’m going to presume is mentally ill. Then we’re off to the races. Then he ends up … It’s the urban poor’s version of teenage suicide. It’s how kids in the community die.
Alan: 17:04 Oh, that’s an interesting way to put it.
Greg: 17:06 Yeah. Where they live out their own self-destructive urges and it’s all about … If you can imagine a future then your present isn’t compelling. If your present doesn’t hold you there, then you will not care whether you inflict harm and you won’t care whether you duck to get out of harm’s way. That’s the calculation here, that they’re not seeking anything positive when they joined a gang. They’re fleeing.
Alan: 17:37 I’m really getting it now. It’s almost a form of living suicide.
Greg: 17:43 Absolutely.
Alan: 17:45 Many of them expect to die in gunfire.
Greg: 17:49 So I’ve been a priest for, you know, 35 five years. If you go to a comparable priest, maybe parish priests and more middle class, upper class parishes, they will talk to you about burying kids who killed themselves. But I haven’t. That’s a very rare thing and yet I’ve buried 222 kids killed because of gang violence.
Alan: 18:20 These are kids you developed a really close relationship.
Greg: 18:23 Yeah. I mean, many of them I was extremely close to. But these were kids-
Alan: 18:29 I think my right … Pardon me for interrupting. I think I heard you say in an interview that some of the kids that you had become close to who had been killed had been killed by other people who you also loved. You loved the killed and the killer.
Greg: 18:48 Yeah. Well, you know, when I was working in the projects, when I was pastor there, so you had eight gangs and I knew every single member of every single gang.
Alan: 19:00 So these were not necessarily people who had come to be healed? Who didn’t kill …
Greg: 19:03 No, this was in the days when I was on my bike in the housing projects at night and I just knew every player. Consequently, you know, they were killing each other. Those were the bad days, ‘88 to ‘98 was quite terrible. So, you know, I knew everybody. That’s not to say I know everybody who’s ever killed anybody who I’ve had to bury, but a great many … In the early years, because I knew everybody, and you don’t always know who killed whom, but the grapevine is pretty reliable.
Alan: 19:40 How do you cope with that? Doesn’t that tear you apart?
Greg: 19:44 Well, I think you make a kind of an arrangement with yourself, you know. First of all death cannot be the worst thing that ever happens to us because it’s going to happen to all of us. So it just can’t be the worst thing.
Alan: 20:02 It’s funny how we forget that.
Greg: 20:05 We always think an exception will be made in my case.
Alan: 20:08 Yeah. I have a friend who says, “I realized we all have to die but not in my lifetime.”
Speaking of death and communication, how do you communicate with God? It’s not the way a lot of other people communicate with God, asking for stuff.
Greg: 20:35 No, I don’t do that for sure. You know, God maybe never changing but our consciousness is always changing every day. So our third grade conception of who God was, God help us, I hope we move beyond that.
Alan: 20:52 What was your third-grade perception?
Greg: 20:54 Well, again was the same, you know, “Please, God. Help me pass this math test. I know I didn’t study at all,” you know.
Alan: 21:03 If miracles are possible, there you go.
Greg: 21:05 Yeah, crazy. Then you end up believing, I believe that God protects me from nothing and sustains me and everything.
Alan: 21:15 Okay. Go into that a little bit.
Greg: 21:17 Well, you know, otherwise, it’s magical thinking. You know, people will say, “Oh, my god. I give God all the credit that I didn’t die in this car accident.” Yeah. If you had, you know, right now what do you-
Alan: 21:31 Yeah, right. Then who gets the credit?
Greg: 21:31 You force yourself into a kind of an unfortunate corner. Stuff happens, death happens, your granddaughter gets cancer, and your kid doesn’t get into school or whatever it is, you know, it’s just …
Alan: 21:48 So what’s that mindset before God sustains you in everything …
Greg: 21:51 I would say that God protects me from nothing and sustains me in everything. So it feels more mature to me, you know.
Alan: 22:01 What do you mean by sustain and that kind of support?
Greg: 22:04 Sustain is just to be kind of tethered to a God who loves you without measure and without regret. I’m a Jesuit, so Ignatius always talks about that God is always greater. I just read the other day, Meister Eckhart, who’s a theologian and mystic who died in 1328, and he said, “It is a lie any talk of God that doesn’t comfort you.” Well, we’ve lost sight of that. We think that God has lots of other things on God’s agenda but I think it’s about tenderness, you know.
Alan: 22:41 So does that mean that when we talk about hell, which doesn’t comfort many people, I think, that we’re lying?
Greg: 22:51 Well, you know, I think those were the things that … It was all faith that was from the outside in, even the Ten Commandments and the fear of hell, that’s all from the outside in. But once it becomes from the inside out, that’s why every mystic, Catholic mystic, at the end of their lives they kind of go, “GOsh, I don’t really believe in hell.” Only because they had a sense of who God was at that point in their life where they went, “Wow. Even Teresa of Avila used to say, ‘Okay, there’s a hell, but I think it’s empty.'” That’s kind of, that’s the point that kind of gets people to where they go. You know, once you have this knowledge, you can’t shake that that notion, that well, the hell thing is kind of …
Alan: 23:41 I think it’s great that mystics can be good comics.

We’re getting to the heart of things. You’re such a good monologist, comic monologist. You know how to tell a story. I got to tell anybody listening to go to their computer, or you’re probably at your computer right now, come to think of it, and watch you on your TED talk that the heart of it is so compelling and interspersed with those emotional moments. You have such great comic timing in the stories you tell. That story about Manuel and what was his name? Manuel in Snoopy. Remember there were the …
Greg: 24:29 Oh, the cellphone.
Alan: 24:30 Yeah. Yeah.
Greg: 24:32 You want me to tell that one?
Alan: 24:33 Yeah. Yeah.
Greg: 24:33 Yeah, so we’re in a car and so, you know, with these two guys Manuel and Boncho and they’re going to help me give a talk at a high school.Suddenly, Manuel gets an incoming text and he reads it to himself and he chuckles. I said, “Well, what is it?” He goes, “Oh, it’s dumb. It’s from Snoopy back at the office.” Well, I just seen Snoopy. Snoopy was there, gave me a big hug as the day began. Snoopy and Manuel worked together in the clock-in room where they clock in hundreds and hundreds of our workers, which is a really tough job.
So, I said, “Well, what’s he have to say?” He goes, “Oh, it’s dumb. Let me find it here.” So he scrolls down and, “Oh, here it is.” He says, “Hey, doug. It’s me Snoops. Yeah, they got my ass locked up at county jail. They’re charging me with being the ugliest vato in America. You have to come down right now and show them they got the wrong guy.” Well, the three of us we died laughing. Then I realized that Manuel and Snoopy are enemies. They’re from exactly opposing gangs.
Alan: 25:43 Oh, yeah. I forgot that. Isn’t that great? They’re kidding each other-
Greg: 25:45 And that they used to shoot at each other because boy I have the gray hairs to prove that I was there when that happened. Now they don’t shoot at each other, they shoot text messages to each other.
Alan: 25:59 And kid each other and can take it, can take the kidding.
Greg: 26:02 Yeah. I mean, that’s the level of kinship and connection that you hope for, but it’s also, I would ask myself, you know, are there any exceptions to that happening? Honestly, can’t think of a time, which again, what we were talking about earlier about being in the vicinity with each other and discovering that that we’re really quite same rather than different.
Alan: 26:30 We were talking about praying and we were talking about what these Homeboys get to achieve in terms of their depth, their thinking, their emotional availability. I seem to remember that you used mantras in your in own private life. Is it right that one of these kids gave you a mantra that you find valuable?
Greg: 27:02 Oh, I have different mantras and I think it might be the one this kid Robert used to always say, “If you’re humble, you’ll never stumble.” So that’s one thing.
Alan: 27:12 That’s pretty good. I remember I wrote this down, you were talking … I don’t know who you were talking to, maybe to somebody on the radio and you said you listen, you know, because of the [inaudible 00:27:27] his humility. That’s to tie listening in with humility is I think really smart. We should talk about what you mean by humility because it’s …
Greg: 27:39 Well, I’ll give you an example.
Alan: 27:40 … often misunderstood actually.
Greg: 27:41 I’ll give you an example. So I was giving a talk in Houston and I met this guy who is what we would call a hard core gang intervention worker. So he’s a former gang member, now he’s working in the streets of Houston trying to calm things down. A very good guy. He came up to me and he says, pleading with me, “How do you reach them?” I found myself saying to him, “For starters, stop trying to reach them. Can you be reached by them?” Suddenly, it turns this whole thing on its head. I don’t think we go to the margins to make a difference. But if you go to the margins, you’re supposed to allow the folks at the margins to make you different.
What happens there is that you’re not fixing anybody, you’re not rescuing anybody, and it is not about you, which is the definition of humility. How does it state about the other, rather than I’m going to make a difference? Because I don’t know how you do that. How do you go to the margins to make a difference and not have it be about you? So instead, you go and will I allow my heart to be altered by these folks? Which is, by definition, you have to listen you have to receive people.
Alan: 29:03 This is a really interesting to me and people who have heard this before for me may be sick of hearing it, but I discovered a few years ago that for me, I wasn’t really listening unless I was willing to be changed by the other person. I think that’s pretty much what you’re saying word for word.
Greg: 29:25 Well, but it’s also how you stay alive in delighting in the present moment because then you’re not lamenting what happened yesterday and you’re not anxious about tomorrow, you’re right here with the person. That’s exactly right. I’ve never heard it that way where as long as you’re open this person is about to change me. That’s exciting and requires a kind of an attention that we don’t normally bring to bear.
Alan: 29:53 I think that’s true and it’s interesting, I learned that not by thinking intellectually about it. I learned it from the experience of acting on the stage, where if you’re the other actor I have to listen to what you have to say to me in such a way that I’m willing to let you have an effect on me that changes the way I say my next line.
I don’t say the next line because it’s written in the script and I’ve memorized it, I say it because you’ve made me say it and made me say it in a special way because I’m reacting to the tiniest shifts in your tone and your body language.It’s different from the way it was last night. It’s a whole new thing it’s presently in the moment as you just mentioned. If I am willing to let myself be changed by you, then we have an interaction that’s authentic and it doesn’t look like acting and we’re not in the future, we’re not in the past.
Greg: 30:49 And you’re not waiting to say the next thing that you want to say.
Alan: 30:52 Right. Exactly, which everybody knows is poor listening, where you just wait for your cue. This guy has stopped talking, now it’s my turn. What you have there are dueling monologues instead of a dialogue.
Greg: 31:03 Which is hard in these days in which we live because everyone wants to win the argument.
Alan: 31:08 It doesn’t need to be an argument very often.
Greg: 31:12 Yeah, and you don’t need to win anything.
Alan: 31:14 And you don’t win anything. What do you win?
Greg: 31:17 Except to gain your own heart being changed like what the-
Alan: 31:22 That you can if you let them in you have something to gain.
Greg: 31:22 That’s right.
Alan: 31:25 But if you win the the discussion you’ve put a little seed of unhappiness in the other person, and you haven’t really gained anything.


Well, this is a nice talk. I’m having a good time with you.
Greg: 31:40 I’m having a great time.
Alan: 31:44 I have almost as much a good time with you as if we disagreed. So what about your mantras? How do you mean mantras? It’s something you-
Greg: 31:57 Well, so like for example-
Alan: 31:58 Mantras are usually things you say when you’re meditating.
Greg: 32:00 I was walking here in the heat in New York to where we are right now and I have my little prayer beads. Because they help me to kind of say them. What it does is it just keeps you focused. So that my mantra today was keep me faithful. Never let me be parted from you. So, the faithful now thing is not about belief or, you know, an allegiance to a set of beliefs. It’s about staying positive, staying anchored in love, staying kind of true to your true self in loving. For me that’s what faithful is, you know, keep me faithful.
So as I’m walking the streets of New York and I have my little beads and the mantra helps to free yourself from what the Buddhists would call “monkey mind” where you’re racing and you’re thinking about all these. Then it does it, it calms me, it connects me to my own breathing. I’m as much a Buddhist as I am a Jesuit, but these are things that kind of help me. It’s like a walking meditation. I just walked and I love New York and I love the kind of the teeming masses.
Alan: 33:28 Yeah, I was thinking about the [inaudible 00:33:30] in the street.
Greg: 33:31 But still, it was a way to kind of keep you clear-headed and it helps you put first things recognizably first and that’s an important thing only all the time. It helps you choose tenderness when you’re tempted to despise the broken or to win the argument or to make points. You know, it helps you catch yourself.
Alan: 34:03 So do you find that that kind of, as you’re saying, walking meditation enables you to get things done that are due in the future without obsessing about them in the present? It doesn’t steal time for preparation?
Greg: 34:22 No. When I walk to my office and I’m going to be inundated with hundreds and hundreds of gang members, it keeps me choosing tenderness. Because once you do that, then that’s where the joy is, that’s where the delighting in the present moment is. That’s where you want to stay you know, because you could wander. You don’t want to wander.
Alan: 34:47 This conversation seems to me to be about empathy, tenderness, and letting the other person into your conscious fear, reacting to them. That seems to, if not be empathy, perhaps induce empathy because you’re paying attention to the other person. Do you think much about empathy as part of your work and your life?
Greg: 35:19 Yeah. The word I use is “awe” and so, in the Acts of the Apostles they talk about, “And awe came upon everyone.” So awe is way of keeping … Awe is the opposite of judgment. So awe keeps you tender and attentive, keeps you delighting in the person in front of you, keeps you aware of what the other has gone through. The opposite of that is, you know, what this guy’s problem is? That’s kind of again, the times in which we live. You know, it’s either you’re a … If you’re a stranger to yourself then you aren’t friends with your own wound. If you are not friends with your own brokenness, then you will be tempted to despise the wounded.
Alan: 36:12 Let me try to understand the idea of being friends with your own wound. It sounds like you’re saying if you’re not friends with your own wound, you’re ignoring it, you’re paying no attention to it, you’re despising that part of yourself that’s wounded.
Greg: 36:12 That’s right.
Alan: 36:29 Is that what you mean?
Greg: 36:29 I think you’re despising that part of you, which lends you to despise immigrants, gay folks, whoever it is, whoever the other is, whoever the people in the margins are. What would lead you to despising who these folks are? If it isn’t the fact that you are a stranger to yourself, that you haven’t welcomed your own wound and held it up there and said, “Oh, okay. Yeah, I know my wound, I know my brokenness.” We’re all a cry for help. Once you know that, then now I can listen to you. Now I can receive you without judgment. Because judgment is the opposite of what we’re going for here.
Awe, and I use the word awe more than empathy or compassion because I think sometimes people … Because I think it’s more than just understanding, you know, where this person is coming from. It’s, wow, the day will never come when I have more courage or I’m closer to God or what you’ve been asked to carry is really, you know, fills me with awe.
Alan: 37:52 Sometimes you come in contact with somebody for whom it’s not only hard to know what they’re feeling or know what they’re going through. It’s especially hard to think, wow, I’m in the presence of somebody. I couldn’t wait to be in the presence of him. I’m awed by it. Let’s say you’re next to somebody who confides in you in a way that he knows you’ll agree that black people are stupid. Well, how do you work up awe for this person?
Greg: 38:25 Well, because I think that mental illness is real. So I think if anybody has ever met an actual racist, you haven’t met a healthy human being. So, once we’re dealing with illness and people who aren’t well and who aren’t whole and who aren’t healed, then you can get to a place I think, you know, where you go, wow, that’s … That this racist issue of like evil, too. There was Senator Ted Cruz after the Santa Fe, Texas shooting and you had a teenager who killed 10 people. He said, “The people of Texas have seen the face of evil in this young man.”
Then you cut to a 16-year-old girl who’s a classmate, who was a student at the same school, who says, “ Anyone who does this has a world of hurt in here,” and touching her chest. Well, so I would ask you, you know, which is the healthier response? Which is the more sophisticated response? Which is the one I would use the language of? Which response is more aligned with God? I’m going to go with the 16-year-old girl because demonizing is always the opposite of the truth.
Alan: 39:58 This gets really to the heart of the problem I face once in a while when I am talking with somebody about what I think is the power of connection. What we mentioned before about when you see somebody as a human, it’s hard to hate. But if you take it to its logical extreme, there are people like Hitler, like Duterte in the Philippines, like Pol Pot, there are scores of people probably hundreds of people whose names we don’t even know, and when we discuss our response to these people, is it or is it not appropriate to think of them as the enemy who has to be put down, put aside in some way? Because they don’t seem accessible to our compassion or emotion and certainly not to our awe. That’s the question. That doesn’t mean I agree with everything I just said. I’m just trying to raise the question.
Greg: 41:05 Yeah. I believe that terrible things have happened in the course of human history and you just can’t deny it. But evil’s another thing. I feel like God is too sophisticated to believe in evil. Truly.
Alan: 41:23 It’s like the empty hell.
Greg: 41:25 Yeah because God gets underneath stuff. God kind of knows where people are coming from. God knows mental illness, and the fact that people don’t choose it, it chooses them. So, I just think that God does not have enemies. God doesn’t-
Alan: 41:46 So we can’t either?
Greg: 41:47 God has children.
Alan: 41:48 Seems like God doesn’t seem to mind that we have all these wars.
Greg: 41:52 No, I wouldn’t say mind. I mean I think God’s heart is broken by the same things that break our hearts. But that’s the challenge in the world. God doesn’t have enemies, God has children. The invitation is for us to have sisters and brothers. Is there anybody who doesn’t belong? No, and Mother Theresa used to say the problem in the world was that we’ve just forgotten that we belong to each other. Is there anybody, as you imagine the circle of compassion, then you imagine nobody standing outside that circle, is there anybody who ought to be outside it? I think God says, “Absolutely not. Find a way to broaden the circle so that everybody is included in it.”
Alan: 42:38 So God has the ability to last through these things, a lot of us don’t know. God lasted through the Holocaust. Millions of us did not and the rest of us bore scars from it. So the question is not how does God feel about it, it seems to me, the question is what should we do? Should we try to have the infinite mercy and compassion that God seems to have for everybody?
Greg: 43:13 Yes.
Alan: 43:15 Okay. So this guy, he’s standing in front of you from the SS and says, “Adolph told me to shoot you in the head right now,” and you say, “You poor guy. I know how you feel.” What do you do?
Greg: 43:28 Yeah. Again, to explain things is not to excuse things.
Alan: 43:35 Right, right.
Greg: 43:36 Once you can get to a place where we belong to each other and that’s one of those unshakable truths. You know, even the current president and even people who you demonize and as he demonizes members of MS 13 and the list goes on and on. We belong to each other and because I know people who have killed lots of people and that’s kind of what happens in the gang world. Have I met evil? No. I’ve been doing this a long time. Of that I’m absolutely certain. So I know kids, and I know what the torment, and I know the trauma and I know that mental illness is real, and that damaged people will damage people.
Alan: 44:35 But let me ask you-
Greg: 44:36 But you would think I would have bumped into somebody evil.
Alan: 44:40 Well, that’s what I was going to ask you.
Greg: 44:41 In 34 years and I never have.
Alan: 44:43 Exactly what I was going to ask you, because you brought this up in my head. I don’t mean to keep challenging you and to make you uncomfortable, but you keep coming up with good responses. The question that rises in my mind at this point is you’ve had continued success with the people who have come to you. But if there’s anybody unredeemable, it may be among those who have not come to you, who had the gangs who are hell bent to continue their behavior and are not interested in changing, are they the Hitlers and Dutertes of the world?
Greg: 45:20 No. You know, in my mind and I’ve done this way back in the recesses of my mind. I will have a kid who I’ll say to myself, “Yeah, I’m not sure this kid’s ever going to turn this ship around.” Those are always precisely the kids who do, who surprise you.
Alan: 45:37 But they’ve come to you for help?
Greg: 45:39 Yeah, but I don’t think I’ve ever found anybody who was beyond redemption.
Alan: 45:47 Even if they haven’t come to you?
Greg: 45:48 Yeah. I mean I just came from High Desert Prison, which is like the worst of the worst in the state of California up in Susanville. They invited me to speak. So, I gave several talks and walked the yard. There were guys there who I had known since they were young, guys who had done pretty serious horrible things. But, you know, you can watch how they’ve healed even in prison for all the difficulties. One guy I hadn’t seen since he was 13 and now he’s, you know, 30. He was just a little tiny kid. I had him frozen in my mind and when I saw him I couldn’t believe it.
He was a tough kid. A kid who had come from a torturous place and he inflicted torture. If you don’t transform your pain you’re going to transmit your pain and that’s what this kid did at 13. A juvenile tried as an adult at 13. And yet, I looked at him and I thought, “Yeah, you know, he’s doing it, he’s finding redemption.” I was surprised by it, you know because I thought again, you’re tempted sometimes to think that that’s not going to be possible, but I’ve always been proven wrong.
Alan: 47:13 Where did you find this? Where did you find the ability to have this tenderness and to express it so effectively? Was there were a turning point in your life?
Greg: 47:24 I don’t know. You know, I don’t think I was prepared for anything that I ended up doing in life. Except, I think, if you can stay anchored with the person in front of you and if you let this person change you as you said then, then you find yourself alive, you know. Then my job is not to save anybody. I think saving lives is for the coast guard, you know what I mean? I don’t really do it. But that has changed my life to be able to say I’m not, you know, you don’t go to the margins to rescue anybody. But my experience is, if you go to the margins we’re all going to find rescue.
Alan: 48:13 But it sounds like you got this right away. You became a priest and then about five years later you were doing this Homeboy Industries, is that right?
Greg: 48:26 Well, more or less, you know.
Alan: 48:27 So where did you get, make this turning point? How did you come to learn that?
Greg: 48:32 I don’t know. I just it was a whole, it was a completely different world to me. I didn’t know anything about gangs and yet I had a responsibility. I was the pastor of the poorest parish in the city.
Alan: 48:46 Did you go in hoping to change them and then learn a lesson?
Greg: 48:50 No, I mean I never, I didn’t go in thinking anything. Then I had lived in Latin America so I was in Bolivia. So you learn something from the poor. The poor radicalized you, the poor evangelize you, you know. So I found myself, I kind of turned inside out and upside down. So, when I got to this parish and very new young priest, I already knew what it was like to let people be your trustworthy guides to somehow lead you, the widow, orphan, and the strangers, what the Old Testament calls it. God sort of picks these three because God thinks these are the folks who know what it’s like to have been cut off. Because they’ve suffered in that particular way, I believe that God thinks they’re the trustworthy guide. So they’re leading me to something. I’m not leading them to some place.
Alan: 49:53 You’ve been a trustworthy guide to me during this conversation. I really have enjoyed it. We have to go. But before we go, we’d like to do seven quick questions and ask for seven quick answers. Are you game for that?
Greg: 50:06 Sure.
Alan: 50:07 Okay. Number one. What do you wish you really understood?
Greg: 50:15 I wish I really understood mental illness.
Alan: 50:20 What do you wish other people understood about you?
Greg: 50:24 I would hope that they would understand inclusion.
Alan: 50:33 About you?
Greg: 50:34 About me that kind of including people is kind of a value.
Alan: 50:41 What’s the strangest question someone’s ever asked you?
Greg: 50:48 I was in an interview at this event and they said what was my favorite song and I couldn’t come up with a favorite song. I felt embarrassed.
Alan: 51:00 Now, not even one of those numbers from the benediction?
Greg: 51:04 No, I don’t. I mean I don’t really [crosstalk 00:51:06] Now you’re dating yourself.
Alan: 51:12 Okay. These are all about communication roughly. How do you stop a compulsive talker?
Greg: 51:19 Ask them … I don’t know. I don’t really stop them, I let them go until ..
Alan: 51:25 It sounds like you …
Greg: 51:26 … a homie interrupts me.
Alan: 51:30 Is there anyone you just can’t feel empathy for?
Greg: 51:35 No.
Alan: 51:36 Yeah. I think we covered that pretty well. Six, how do you like to deliver bad news? In person, on the phone, or by carrier pigeon?
Greg: 51:47 Email.
Alan: 51:48 Email? That’s your favorite one?
Greg: 51:51 That’s my favorite.
Alan: 51:52 Okay. Last question. What if anything would make you end a friendship?
Greg: 51:57 Nothing.
Alan: 51:59 Well, that’s good to know because I feel like I’m friends with you.
Greg: 52:02 Yeah, likewise.
Alan: 52:03 Great. Thanks so much.
Greg: 52:04 Thank you, Alan.

This has been Clear + Vivid, at least I hope so.

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As a Jesuit priest, from 1986 to 1992 Father Boyle served as pastor of Dolores Mission Church, then the poorest Catholic parish in Los Angeles that also had the highest concentration of gang activity in the city.

This experience led him to found Homeboy Industries. Homeboy Industries is now the largest gang intervention, rehabilitation, and re-entry program in the world. You can learn more at: www.homeboyindustries.com

Father Boyle is the author of the 2010 New York Times-bestseller Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion.

And his 2017 book is the Los Angeles Times-bestseller Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship.

This episode was produced by Graham Chedd with help from our associate producer, Sarah Chase. Our sound engineer is Dan Dzula, our Tech Guru is Allison Coston, our publicist is Sarah Hill.

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