Homeboy Industries

Celebrating LA’s Father Greg Boyle Day

Photo of Father Greg Boyle, speaking at "Lo Maximo," the annual HomeBoy Industries fundraiser, courtesy of Celeste Fremon
Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

Today, Sunday, is Father Greg Boyle’s Birthday.

Yet, in the city of Los Angeles, May 19, is now, and forever after, Father Greg Boyle Day.

When the LA City Council voted on Friday, May 17, to name one day of the year after the founder of Los Angeles-based Homeboy Industries, council member Eunisses Hernandez said they did so as “a reminder of the importance of championing” Greg’s work “for generations to come.” 

As noted above, May 17, is also Greg Boyle’s birthday.  He turned 70, although according to texts I exchanged with him this morning, he is in New Zealand, and claims that this location means he didn’t get a year older.

The creation of Father Greg Boyle Day is not the only significant (and much-deserved) honor bestowed this month on the Jesuit priest who is the founder of Los Angeles-based Homeboy Industries, which is reportedly the largest gang intervention, rehabilitation and re-entry program in the world.

Earlier this month, on May 3, President Joe Biden presented Boyle and 18 other recipients, the 2024 “Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is our nation’s highest civilian honor.

The full list of this year’s Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients, which you can find here, also included former House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, Academy Award winner Michelle Yeoh, and civil rights leader Medgar Evers, who was given the award posthumously, as was Jim Thorpe, the first Native American to win an Olympic gold medal, who later became a hall-of-fame football and baseball player.

Of Boyle, Biden said, “Your service as a Jesuit priest over four decades reminds us of the power of redemption, rehabilitation, and our obligation to those who have been condemned or counted out. Thank you, Father Greg, for your amazing grace….”

After the initial naming of the 19 recipients, the presentation of each medal was staged by the White House as a singular moment.

Yet, in both instances as he honored Boyle, the president seemed to become the chattiest version of himself with the bearded Jesuit.

“My staff hates me doing ad libbing,” Biden said, chuckling happily after he added a humorous off-script remark when he announced Boyle as a recipient.

A few minutes later, as he prepared to fasten the blue ribbon that held the gold Medal of Freedom around Boyle’s neck, Catholic POTUS once more went off script, telling the priest a joke involving the Jesuit order of which Boyle is a member.

The remark was followed by President Biden cracking up one more time.  Yet, when watching the exchange online, the element of humor felt appropriate when honoring this particular recipient who has been known for his use of humor as a humanizing balm—in his books, and in the early decades of his work with gang members, during which time he buried so very many young people.

Homeboy’s provenance

Boyle began the work that would define much of his life in 1986, at age 32, when he was assigned to the poorest parish in the Los Angeles archdiocese.  It was there that, in the early 1990’s, Homeboy Industries was birthed as a small, loosely-organized jobs program run out of Dolores Mission Church, which bordered what was then the twinned housing projects of Pico Gardens and Aliso Village.

At the time, the approximately one-mile square area located in the Boyle Heights area of East Los Angeles, contained the largest public housing projects located west of the Mississippi.  Pico-Aliso also contained the territory of four-active gangs, a situation that produced the highest level of gang activity in Los Angeles, according to LAPD statistics of the early 1990s.

In his first years at Dolores Mission, Boyle began noticing that the kids who got into the most trouble were those who were not in school, and the reason that they weren’t in school was almost always gang-related.  They were kicked out because they had been fighting with “enemy” gang members. Or they didn’t go at all because the school was in the territory of a rival gang of the kid’s older brother, and thus the kid didn’t feel safe walking to school.

To address the issue, Boyle started an alternative high school.  This was followed by the jobs program, in which G-Dog—as the kids called him—began by paying young gangsters whatever he could afford for doing odd jobs around the church.

Now, nearly three and a half decades later, Homeboy Industries welcomes thousands per year into their various intervention, rehabilitation and re-entry programs, a model that is now copied world wide.

I met Greg, or “G,” as he is still called by most of those who have been involved at Homeboy, in the fall of 1990.  I’d heard about this priest who was having good luck in working with teenage gangsters, and persuaded the LA Times to let me do a story on the guy and the kids. The story turned into a book, which led to two updated versions, and various follow-up stories.

The art of writers avoidance

I’ve always believed that Greg gave me the green light to write my book, because he was still dragging his feet on writing the book he knew that that he was meant to write.

Eventually, however, the priest ran out of excuses and, on March 9, 2010, Free Press—a division of Simon & Schuster—published the first of Greg Boyle’s trilogy of gorgeously written, and stupendously affecting best-selling books.

The first of the three is titled  Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, in which Greg urges readers to remember “that we belong to one another.” He illustrates this and a zillion other principles that revivify and redefine the meaning of compassion, using a series of deeply-reported stories that reduce most readers to laughing and sobbing. Often simultaneously.

Greg followed Tattoos on the Heart with Barking to the Choir: the Power of Radical, Kinship,  published in 2017.  

Then in 2021, he  published the final book of the trilogy, The Whole Language: The Power of Extravagant Tenderness, which, like the first two, contains its own literary magic.

After the publication of The Whole Language, internationally celebrated novelist and memoirist Ann Patchett described the 2021 book as follows. “You want to talk about something that exists to balance out the news? . . . Things are so terrible, people are so polarized, what do we do? Read The Whole Language, and then you’ll know what to do. Which is just try to be a better person where you can. Try to stand with the people who need you to stand with them.”

In September, 2022, Greg collaborated with former gangster turned internationally celebrated artist, Fabian Debora, to write one more book. (WLA wrote about Fabian D’s remarkable story here.) Book number four is titled, Forgive Everyone Everything. And it has won a string of awards.

In his page one explanation of the reasoning behind the book, my friend Greg Boyle writes the following:

“There’s no denying how difficult things can be.  But the way out to the place of resilience, the place of restoration, the place of not allowing your heart to be hardened by resentment, relies on one thing:  forgive everyone everything.”

So there you have it.

Happy Father Greg Boyle Day, 2024

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