Boyle: Treat the disease of violence, not the symptoms

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Jesuit Father Greg Boyle, right, prays with a man in the offices of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles. (Photo provided)

Jesuit Father Greg Boyle wrote the book on helping former gang members turn their lives around. 

Literally. The author of “Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship” (2017) and “Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion” (2010) spoke at the First Friday Club in Chicago on Jan. 5. Boyle is the founder of Homeboy Industries, a not-for-profit that provides job training and a variety of social and education services to former gang members and people who have been incarcerated in Los Angeles.

Chicago, he said, comes up at most of the talks he does around the country.

“I do all these talks, and there’s time for questions and answers,” he said. “There are some stock questions I get at almost every talk, and one of them is what about Chicago?”

With 762 homicides in 2016 and 664 in 2017, Chicago has become known around the country for its gun violence. 

The answer, Boyle said, is to look at the disease and not just try to treat the symptoms.

“There is no healthy treatment plan that is born of a bad diagnosis,” Boyle said. “I think there’s a movement in Chicago to address the symptoms: How can we silence the bullets? But that’s like quieting a cough. If the patient has lung cancer, you can quiet the cough, but unless you treat the disease, the patient is still going to die. If you address the lethal lack of hope that underlies this, the bullets will be silenced.”

Cardinal Cupich identified that lack of hope as a cause of violence in an August 2016 conversation about the church’s efforts to foster peace.

“But I also see, when I go to these various neighborhoods that are troubled and plagued with violence, segregated neighborhoods where there seems to be very little opportunity. There is a sense of hopelessness where people seemed to be locked in because they don’t have the opportunities that others do,” he said in the discussion that was presented as part of Crain’s Chicago Business’ second annual Future of Chicago forum. 

Earlier that year, Cardinal Cupich announced he was making a $250,000 personal donation to start the Instruments of Peace Venture Philanthropy Fund. The fund will provide funds for both new and existing neighborhood-based anti-violence programs. The money comes from donations he’s received to aid his personal charitable efforts.

Boyle has worked with people embroiled in gang violence for more than 30 years. Homeboy Industries provides an 18-month job training program to about 250 former gang members and people who have been in prison in a given year, and thousands of other people benefit from education and social programs provided by the not-for-profit that was formally established as Homeboy Bakery in 1992. About 15,000 people walk through the door in a year.

The project grew out of Boyle’s 1986 assignment to Dolores Mission Parish in Los Angeles, which took in parts of eight gang territories. Two years later, the parish worked with local employers to start Jobs for a Future program, providing jobs for 70 people.

Homeboy Bakery was established in 1992. Now the organization includes nine social-enterprise businesses, which together bring in about a quarter of Homeboy Industries annual revenue.

In the beginning, Boyle said, the organization used the catchphrase, “Nothing stops a bullet like a job,” and it still sells T-shirts with that phrase. But he has learned that a job is not enough.

“You need a kind of undergirding sense of healing,” Boyle said. “We used to dispatch former gang members to felon-friendly employers, but the moment someone tossed a monkey wrench in there — maybe his lady left him — they went back to gangbanging. Folks who are violent need healing.”

Now Homeboy provides job training and anger management (“the whole menu,” Boyle said), but also focuses on helping the “homies” find healing in what he calls “a community of tenderness that’s therapeutic.”

“A healed human being won’t ever shoot again,” he said. “The healing is kind of essential. Anyone who is violent and is carrying a gun in Chicago is carrying an enormous burden of toxic, chronic stress.”

His advice for anyone who wants to reach out and help people on the margins is not to focus on fixing people or saving people.

“You go to the margins so the folks on the margins make a difference for you,” Boyle said. “You go there to receive people. It’s exquisitely mutual, and it’s salvific.”


  • nonviolence

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