By Jeannine M. Pitas
“Go to the margins, stand with the people there, and watch those margins disappear. Imagine a circle of compassion, and then imagine that no one exists outside it,” said Father Gregory Boyle, SJ, founder of Los Angeles-based gang intervention program Homeboy Industries and author of “Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion.”
Invited to speak at the University of Dubuque as part of its Wendt Character Initiative, Father Boyle urged us to strive for kinship above all else. “How do we obliterate the illusion that we are separate, that there is an ‘us’ and a ‘them’? If kinship were our goal, we would not be promoting justice. We would be celebrating it.” A native of Los Angeles, Father Boyle entered the Jesuit order at the age of 18 and was ordained a priest 12 years later. After an extensive education – he has three master’s degrees – he spent a year working with Christian Base Communities in Cochabamba, Bolivia, an experience that taught him the importance of standing in solidarity with the poor.
Upon returning to Los Angeles in 1986, he was assigned to Dolores Mission, a parish situated between two housing projects that was home to eight warring gangs. He soon discovered that, rather than negotiating with the gang leadership, it was better to focus on bringing hope to the members. When local employers were reluctant to hire them, Boyle encouraged them to create their own work, initiating a landscaping crew, a graffiti removal team, a bakery, a café, a diner, a solar panel installation crew, lunch trucks, farmers’ markets and more.
“Sometimes people ask me ‘how do you reach them?’ That is the wrong question. Some high school students who come to volunteer with us ask, ‘What are we going to do here?’ That is also the wrong question,” he said. “We are not here to reach them, but to be reached by them. We are not here to do something, but to witness something happening. Service is the hallway that leads to the ballroom of connection.”
Among the audience members was Dubuque resident Sr. Mary Agnes O’Connor, BVM, who taught Father Boyle in fifth grade.
“It was my third year of teaching, and it wasn’t easy – in fact, a classmate of Greg’s recalls a time when that whole class made me cry!” she said. “Greg came from a good family, but admittedly, he was not an outstanding student. I did not yet know what, at the age of 10, he already had within him.”
The following morning, Fr. Boyle met with members of the UD faculty, staff and student body. UD seminary professor Bonnie Sue Lewis remarked, “I am grateful our sense of mission has changed from going and helping people to one of walking with them, being with them, participating in the work that Jesus is doing.”
She then asked Fr. Boyle about how he avoids burnout. After all, he has buried 216 people during the past decades.
“There are many fates worse than death. If you see death as the worst thing, you will be toppled by life. One of my mantras is ‘now, here, this,’” said Boyle, who cites his main spiritual influences as Ignatious of Loyala and Jean Vanier (founder of the L’Arche movement) but also turns to the Dalai Lama and other Buddhist sources for guidance.
“If you live in the past, you will always be depressed; if you live in the future, you will always be anxious. But if you remain in the present, you can delight in everything.”
Boyle’s ability to remain committed to this ministry for three decades stems from a very close relationship with God.
He related a time when, during a liturgy, one of his homies misread Scripture: instead of saying, “God is exalted,” the young man said, “God is exhausted.”
Boyle found this error funny but enlightening.
“I would rather spend time with a God who is exhausted, who is filled with the good tiredness that comes from extending yourself and cherishing the other. So often we create God in our own image, picturing a God who is small, who judges us. We forget that God loves us unconditionally. To know that God’s love for me is zero dependent on my love for God – that is radically liberating.”
Pitas is assistant professor of global literature at the University of Dubuque and a member of St. Raphael Cathedral.
PHOTO: Father Boyle (Catholic News Service Photo)