For his second book, Father Gregory Boyle chose to follow 2011’s award-winning bestseller “Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion,” which recounted his experiences running Homeboy Industries’ gang intervention program in Boyle Heights, with “Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship.”
The California Hall of Famer and White House-named Champion of Change doesn’t stint on humor even as his “elongated homilies” describe people surviving harrowing violence, loss, and their own poor (albeit understandable) choices. Along the way the Jesuit priest references Buddha, Christian saints and scripture, and poets from Hafiz to Mary Oliver, but he continually circles back to wonder and gratitude witnessed in his beloved homies: “In all my years of living, I have never been given greater access to the tenderness of God than through the channel of the thousands of homies I’ve been privileged to know.”
“Joy comes with a ‘maintenance contract,’” he writes with a nod to Pema Chödrön. While he says he doesn’t really understand what it means to lose faith — “Things don’t shake your faith, they shape it” — he does seem to find ongoing renewal in the people to whom he’s dedicated his service, seeing Jesus “in his least recognizable form” in gang members, heroin addicts, mothers on welfare and others struggling in the community. Making the work about others and delighting in them is key, even — especially? — when an elegantly dressed woman at an awards ceremony hisses her loathing of him because her son was killed by a gang member. Stung yet understanding, Father Greg writes and repeats in conversation that judgment consumes room needed for empathy — the quality necessary to break the cycle of violence as well as the poverty that often triggers it by compelling people to live in continual acute crisis. His voice is a bit rough, punctuated with throat clearings and coughs as he talks during a tightly scheduled break between speaking engagements.
Pasadena Weekly: Early in “Barking to the Choir” you write, “only love gets fists to open.” How do you open people’s ears to that message in a climate of escalating hate and violence?
Father Boyle: A lot of times we want to address those things head on, when in fact they’re all symptoms of something else. Hate and violence is a language, so what language is it speaking? At Homeboy we go out of our way not to get tripped up by behavior, because we know behavior is a language. In the same way we can look at things happening in the country. Right away, we want to demonize — “That person is hateful” — rather than getting underneath and knowing everybody has goodness and they just don’t know it or haven’t been able to recognize it yet. So it’s never about winning the argument or convincing people; it’s just believing that love never fails. It doesn’t. Nothing can get people to disarm more quickly than tenderness and people being loving and kind. We don’t trust it because we don’t want to be duped.
It’s challenging to remember it’s not about winning the argument when divisions run so deep.
Yeah, especially nowadays. We want to draw the lines — that’s our human nature — when love wants to erase them. You can only love in the present moment anyway, so the more you can stay anchored in it, the better chance you have.
What you say is true to core Christian teachings. Yet those who make different points, such as Roy Moore and Franklin Graham, are commonly viewed as the face of Christianity. Do you feel a responsibility to correct misperceptions or misinterpretations?
You know, Jesus [says] you’re gonna be called to give testimony, and don’t worry about what you are to say. The idea is somehow we’ll be given the words. But the truth of the matter is it’s not about words after all. It’s about taking seriously what Jesus took seriously, which is four things: inclusion, nonviolence, unconditional compassionate lovingkindness — that’s one thing — and acceptance. So if you just take seriously what Jesus took seriously, it kind of dissolves all the argument. That’s what people are longing for. They get the difference between people being defensive and defending the faith, and attacking. … Real Christians hold out for more authentic living. That is what people connect to, whether they believe in God or not. That becomes compelling testimony, the very essence of it, somebody who embodies all that stuff. You don’t want an accumulation of words that tries to convince people or win the argument.
We’re living in a time of tremendous recrimination when forgiveness, like compromise, is regarded by many as weakness. You write that some homies you know feel unworthy of God’s love because of, as one puts it, “all the shit and bad I’ve done.” How do you reach those who feel no such remorse, who believe grievances justify violent actions?
I always think something is about something else. We go, “This person doesn’t feel remorse.” … How else can we strike the high moral distance between us and them except by demonizing? That’s our comfort zone. But that’s not the God we actually have; that’s the God we’ve settled for, that’s the partial God that wants to draw the line. But the God we actually have wants to erase the line. So when Dylann Roof killed all those people in Emmanuel Church, a week later family members stood in front of him and said, “We forgive you.” Do you remember that?
Yes, it was profound testimony.
It was stunning. Everybody knew that in that moment we had wandered into the vicinity of the God we actually have. But cut to nine months later, when they sentenced him to die, and they called his execution, and I quote, “God’s justice.” Now you know we’ve wandered into the vicinity of the partial God we’ve settled for. There’s the difference. There you can feel it on a visceral, palpable level that one is the God we actually have, and the other is this partial, lesser God that we’ve settled for. I would maintain that everybody knows the difference, but not everybody knows we’ve settled for a lesser, partial God. And it’s worth catching ourselves.
Humor and hope pulse through your stories. Is that hope being shaken by political developments?
Certainly in early November last year, people were kind of catastrophized. I remember a homie texted me, “Do you think Trump will shut Homeboy Industries down?” Everybody is stunned and numb, and on a bad day inured to all the horrific things that happen actually every day in this current climate. But these times remind us of exactly what we care about. I find us living in the most clarifying of times, in that you can actually feel what authenticity actually is, perhaps by contrast to what’s happening at the national level. It’s interesting times in which we live, but it’s also clarifying.
Some folks point to climate disasters and political crises and claim we’re living in end times. Personally, I think that attitude’s a copout, but how would you as a priest respond?
Any old fool can take the Bible literally, can read it literally. But it takes character and resolve and commitment to take the gospel seriously. There’s a huge gulf between those two things. You don’t want to settle for literalism when you’re being asked to take the gospel seriously. That’s part of the human journey, to find these things that are way better. It’s way better to not be enslaved by biblical literalism. It’s way better to find the richness and the beauty of the gospel invitation. That’s where the joy is. But there is no joy in taking the Bible literally. None. You can’t find any joy in it. People think they will, and try to, but it’s never happened before. Or it’s like the battling tweets between Roy Moore and Jimmy Kimmel: Roy tweeted Jimmy, “You should come to Alabama and we’ll expose you to Christian values,” and Jimmy said, “I’ll be there as soon as you find the Christian values.”
Good comeback. Gentrification’s changed local territories and, as you write in the book, homies you work with already have challenges waiting for buses and driving unreliable cars through those neighborhoods. Has your work with them been affected by those circumstances?
Kind of. When I started, I was responding to eight gangs who were indigenous, who lived in a community. That was a different reality, you know? They all lived there. Then things changed because you had the Bill Clinton “one strike and you’re out” in public housing. As soon as anybody did anything, got on probation or was caught with marijuana, the whole family got evicted. So pretty soon you didn’t have gang members living in the projects anymore, because the families had been evicted. But they came back and claimed the turf as their own even though they didn’t live there, so that was a huge change — from an indigenous gang population to a commuter population.
If you decide to move on, does Homeboy Industries have a framework in place for how the organization would proceed?
I don’t really run the place now, which is nice. It’s a $19 million annual operation. Nine million comes from our businesses, and $10 million is what we have to raise. It’s difficult, to be sure, but I have a CEO in place. The main thing is that the homies run the place and I don’t have to. That’s very heartening. They’ve incorporated the whole spirit of the place, which is magnificent.
Father Gregory Boyle discusses and signs “Barking to the Choir” at a Vroman’s-sponsored event at All Saints Church, 132 N. Euclid Ave., Pasadena, at 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 11; $28 (includes event ticket and book). Info: (626) 449-5320. Father Greg will also appear at Felicitas & Gonzalo Mendez High School in Boyle Heights on Dec. 8. homeboyindustries.org/fatherg, vromansbookstore.com, allsaints-pas.org