SAALIK KHAN | Staff Photographer
Father Greg Boyle, former pastor of the Dolores Mission Church in Los Angeles, Jesuit priest, author and founder of Homeboy Industries, spoke at The Hall of Philosophy on Wednesday July 8th, 2015
When Father Greg Boyle stepped up to the podium in the Hall of Philosophy Wednesday to deliver his lecture, he was not alone — he was with his “homies.”
Boyle’s guests, Javier Chavez and Germaine Smith, are two of the men whose lives have been reformed by Homeboy Industries, a program that rehabilitates young men from gang life and helps them acclimate to mainstream society. Chavez and Smith accompanied Boyle on the podium as he gave his lecture, “Standing In Awe: Compassion, Redemption and Boys Reaching Manhood in the Barrio.”
“Yesterday, we were in Niagara Falls, and if that’s the seventh wonder of the world, then Germaine and Javier are the eighth and the ninth wonders,” Boyle said.
Both Chavez and Smith come from tumultuous upbringings in the greater Los Angeles area. Speaking first, Chavez told his story of growing up an only child in a house with two working parents. He described the loneliness he felt at home, detailing the physical and mental abuse he experienced while growing up and how it led him to join a gang when he was 9.
“The only reason why I did certain things was just to be accepted,” Chavez said. “Just to be a part of something. But once it became real and there was no turning back, I wasn’t going to be put to the side. I wanted to be accepted by anybody that was a part of my life.”
After 23 years of gang life riddled with drug and alcohol addiction, Chavez joined Homeboy Industries. Three years ago, he got sober and started working in a warehouse, where he later became manager.
Of similar upbringing, Smith joined a gang at 13. After his mother attempted to commit suicide and explicitly blamed him for it, Smith was placed in foster care, where he was frequently bullied and beaten.
“It was a lot easier for me to get upset and to lash out than it was to hurt and cry and feel victimized all the time,” Smith said. “Once I put that in my head, it became really easy for me to react with anger, and I got addicted to that.”
Eventually, Smith sought to turn his life around, and he got sober a year and a half ago. Taking Red’s advice from “The Shawshank Redemption,” Smith decided it was time to “either get busy living, or get busy dying.”
He chose the former.
While helping a younger friend with his sobriety, the friend urged him to get involved with Homeboy Industries, where he is working on earning his GED and raising his children.
For both of these men, Boyle said, rehabilitation from gang life into healthy, functioning society came when they were approached from a position of compassion as opposed to judgment.
“You don’t want to phrase things or position them as problem,” Boyle said. “Boys to men in the barrio is not so much a problem to be solved as something to consider and appreciate. How do we get a place of compassion where we can stand in awe of what the poor have to carry, as opposed to how they carry it?”
One after another, Boyle rattled of stories of troubled youth who came around to be people of unbelievable character and substance. He spoke of Bandit, a man who came from dealing drugs in the ghetto, to asking Boyle to give his daughter a blessing before she became the second person he knew — after Father Boyle — to ever go to college.
Mario’s story came next. After losing his parents to street violence when he was a toddler, he was raised by his aunt until she herself died to the same tragedy. Mario then began a life of crime before making it to Homeboy Industries. Despite all the pain Mario has been through, he is now a father and, as Boyle said, one of the most genuine, caring humans he has ever met.
By the time Boyle stopped speaking, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house — even for the lecturer himself. All he asked from the audience was to understand and empathize with the pains of growing up in poverty before judging the impoverished.
“We’re all in need of healing. We all cry for help,” Boyle said. “[If] each one of us can welcome our wound, then we’re less likely to despise the wounded.”