Father Greg Boyle, author of Tattoos On The Heart, is the founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles. He has worked with gang kids for thirty years. Many of the teens don’t have a family or a safe place to live, so they join a gang. This story from Greg says it all:
I always bring a couple of homeys with me to talk, and they get up and they tell their story. We were taking a long flight and I took a couple of homeys from different gangs. I like to mix them up. One of them worked at the bakery and the other worked in the store where they sell Homeboy stuff. They had never flown. They were terrified. We’re looking out the window and two of the flight attendants were going up the steps with cups of Starbucks coffee and I said “Well, pretty soon it must be time to take off because they’re trying to sober up the pilot.” I know that wasn’t fair to say to these guys but anyway they get on the plane. You gotta mess with them sometime.
We get there. It’s a thousand people (psychologists and social workers) in this major city. “I want you to tell your stories first, and then I’ll talk about how I work.” And so they get there, Mario and Bobby. They were both nervous. Their accounts moved people very deeply because their stories were filled with violence, abandonment, abuse, torture, homelessness of every kind. Honest to God, if their stories had been flames, you’d have to keep your distance. Otherwise you’d get scorched.
They spoke before me, and before I presented (because I wanted to include them ) I asked if anyone there had any questions for these guys. A woman raised her hand. She had a question for Mario, and he started to quake, like how do I do this? “You’re a father … you’ve been at Homeboys for nine years. Your son and daughter are starting to reach their teenage years. What wisdom do you impart to them? What advice do you give them?”
Mario was silent, and trembled and closed his eyes, and blurted out “I just …” And he couldn’t say anything more for a long time. Finally he looked at her as if pleading and said “I just don’t want my kids to turn out to be like me.” His words felt squeezed out, and his sobbing was now more pronounced.
The woman was silent. No one said anything. She stood up again. Now it was her turn to cry. She pointed to him, and her voice, quite certain through her tears, said “Mario, why wouldn’t you want your kids to turn out to be like you? You are gentle. You are kind. [He was known as being a gentleman at Homeboys] You are loving. You are wise.” She planted herself firmly: “I hope your kids turn out like you.” And there wasn’t much of a pause before all one thousand attendees stood up and began to clap. The ovation seemed to have no end. All Mario could do was hold his face in his hands, overwhelmed with emotion.