Father Greg Boyle: Moral outrage can feel good. But it does nothing to heal our divided world.
On the season premiere of America Media’s “Jesuitical” podcast, hosts Zac Davis and Ashley McKinless spoke with Greg Boyle, S.J., the founder of Homeboy Industries, the largest gang rehabilitation and re-entry program. In the following excerpt from that interview, they discuss how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected Father Boyle and the former gang members (or “homies”) who work for Homeboy, and how the lessons he has learned over 30 years of ministry could help our divided church and world.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
AM: Your books are chock-full of stories about your conversations with homies, and they often impart some amazing wisdom. I’m wondering if you have any stories from the past year [during the pandemic] of ways former gang members have helped you through the grieving process and rebuilding relationships in the new context?
GB: At the beginning, when we had masks and personal protection [equipment], the homies were constantly texting me. “We are your mask,” was what a guy had sent me from. He had been deported to Mexico. So we’re all our own, [but] you felt personally protected in the sense that people held you. They held you in mind and they held you in a consciousness, even though we were apart.
[Homeboy Industries was] shut down like most people initially, and then the mayor deemed us an essential organization. So we reopened, we staggered people, we checked temperature at the door and that kind of thing. But I remember I was sitting here in my mask and a homie came in with an apron dusted with flour, and his name is Carlos. We call him chamuco cause he has two devil’s horns on his forehead. He came in, and I had helped them during the pandemic to fix his teeth, which were pretty awful. And he stood in front of my desk, and he said, “Hey can I take my mask off and show you my grill?” because he wanted to thank me. And I said, “Sure.”
He looked at me and he said, “Not only did you pay for this smile, you are the reason I’m smiling.”
So he did and [had this] big smile—he really kind of exaggerated the smile—and then he looked at me and he said, “Not only did you pay for this smile, you are the reason I’m smiling.” And even before I could say anything, he said: “Hey, that’s good. Write it down.” For sure he just wanted to get in my next book and he did; he got in just under the wire.
But here at Homeboy, we always talk about laughing from the stomach. We laugh from the stomach, which means there is depth to it. It is not superficial. It really is a transformational kind of laughter. One homie, somewhere in the middle of the pandemic texted me. He said, “Can I finally take a shower, or do I have to just keep washing my hands?”
ZD: Now I imagine most of our listeners are very familiar with your work, but I’m wondering if for those that aren’t familiar, if you could define this idea of kinship that is so essential to your ministry and the work at Homeboy.
GB: The essential principle around here is that we belong to each other, and every single person is unshakeably good. So there is no need to sever belonging. There is no need to say: “You’re in and you’re out. One day you might be in, but you need to change your behavior.” No, everybody belongs. So you try to create a community of kinship, such that God might recognize it. And you try to announce this message that nobody is outside the circle of compassion.
The essential principle around here is that we belong to each other, and every single person is unshakeably good.
You’re trying to obliterate once and for all the illusion that we’re separate, that there is an us and them, which is kind of a key, I think, to solving life as we know it. How can we really get to a place where we draw our family circle wider?
ZD: What does resistance look like? It sounds really nice, but I imagine oftentimes when people are met with good, they want to run away from it. Especially if you’ve got rival gang members coming in together or just any old person, what does resistance look like to that message?
GB: Resistance is mainly outside of this community. That’s the nature of demonizing. So people will demonize gang members. That was so much more pronounced in our first 10 years than in our last 20, but still it’s all part of people saying there are types of people who don’t belong to us.
Now, in the polarizing times in which we live—I’ve never in my lifetime ever seen a more pronounced notion of us-and-them. So Homeboy wants to be the front porch of the house everybody wants to live in. We don’t want to just point stuff out. We would also like to point the way. Here are Black, brown, Asian, enemies, people who used to shoot at each other, and now they are making croissants together in the Homeboy Bakery. So that’s kind of the idea. How do we announce that message to the world? What if we stood against forgetting that we belong to each other?
AM: You mentioned the divisions, the us versus them. We even see that in the Catholic Church right now. Are there lessons you take from your work and relationship-building and reconciliation. that the church could take?
GB: I don’t think we identify things very correctly, and that’s part of the problem. “These folks are bad, and these folks are good. These folks are correct. And these folks are incorrect. These folks are faithful to the teaching of the church and these folks aren’t.”
The mark of an authentic disciple is joy and bravery. And so you can easily identify what lurks underneath most things by identifying fear and sadness. If the message is soaked with fear and laced with sadness, then you at least know that you’re doing it incorrectly, which is probably nice to know. But if it’s joyful and if it’s brave and if it takes seriously what Jesus took seriously—inclusion, nonviolence, unconditional loving-kindness and compassionate acceptance—if it does all that stuff, then it stays close to the marrow of the Gospel. It’s never afraid, and it’s filled with joy.
Homeboy wants to be the front porch of the house everybody wants to live in.
But I also think we get stuck in moral outrage, and we shouldn’t settle for that. We should hold out for moral compass, which is quite different. People get outraged all the time. And that’s really a statement about themselves. You’ve allowed it to become about you if it’s about being outraged. But once it’s about moral compass, then it’s about everyone belongs, everyone belongs. Once you start to say, “There are no exceptions to that,” then you start to understand and see, as God sees.
Why would some guy assault an aged Asian woman on the street of San Francisco? It’s because he’s not well. And he belongs to us. So none of us are well until all of us are well, and none of us are whole until all of us are whole. But if we get stuck in moral outrage, and we shake our fist and we just say, “Asian hate crime,” we won’t ever get closer to the kingdom of God. Unless we can lean into our grief.
So it loosens us up to get to moral compass, which says we belong to each other. Now how can we help people who are injured and in pain—because nobody healthy or well or whole has ever attacked an aged ancient Asian woman on the streets of San Francisco. That’s never happened in the history of the world ever. And once you know that, then you can say, “Well, how do we help people who are in pain who have unattended injury?” Gang members have taught me that in 37 years. And I’m eternally grateful.
ZD: I feel like we’re coming off a period of news where things can feel very overwhelming and distant. I feel like my two options are either to be morally outraged or like “I don’t know what to do. I can’t do anything about this,” and so I’m not going to think about it. What is a moral compass antidote to that sort of feeling toward despair?
God doesn’t share in our outrage. God only invites us to kinship and connection.
GB: Moral compass is more than forgiveness or reconciliation. Moral compass does what the homie’s always talking about here: How do we find the thorn underneath? People behave badly all the time. I can look out in my office, and I can identify several folks who can be difficult. And it’s because they’re in pain. It has nothing to do with morality. Morality has never kept us moral. It’s just kept us from each other.
That’s essential because obviously God doesn’t share in our outrage. God only invites us to kinship and connection. How do you find the thorn underneath? How do you help each other? Obviously people are in pain. It’s like Jesus: When he sees the guy having seizures and he, like the whole crowd, thinks the guy is possessed by a demon. But he’s not. He has epilepsy. And that’s kind of different.
It’s important to name things correctly. Otherwise you get stuck in moral outrage, which is just self-congratulatory; it feels good. It feels like it’s on the right path, but it isn’t. It’s a block to moral compass where we can get underneath. Around here, every gang member who works here as a senior staff knows that behavior is a language. And so they always want to know, well, what’s that language speaking? What does that behavior indicate? [This person] just fought right now. So what does that mean? And where is that coming from and what wound and injury needs our attention. Now that is how God sees.