I had a wonderful time in Los Angeles at the Global Homeboy Network Gathering on August 11-14. It’s an experience I will cherish for the rest of my life, and an event I’d definitely like to go to again. There’s so much I could say that anything I write about the Gathering will be woefully inadequate. But I can at least touch on the highlights. Here goes…
Radical kinship on the way
It seemed that in a sense the Gathering began before I even got to Los Angeles, for there were some touching experiences of radical kinship on the way. I traveled to Los Angeles via Ciudad Juárez and El Paso. The bus I rode across the border to El Paso was one that takes Mexicans to the Cielo Vista Mall, where the mass shooting took place. I crossed the weekend after the shooting, and the bus was packed with Mexicans who weren’t going to give in to fear, riding along with me, the gringo. #ElPasoStrong signs were everywhere. It was heartening to see.
Later, on the LA bus to my hotel, I encountered an Italian couple who couldn’t speak English trying to communicate with the bus driver. It turned out that the couple spoke some Spanish, so I translated their Spanish into English and the bus driver’s English into Spanish. Later that day, I helped a Mexican woman find her bus, and after a conversation about our lives in Mexico, she told me her name was Patricia—the same as my partner’s. Still later, I encountered a Walgreen’s clerk named Jo who raved about the impact Homeboy has had on the community; she even has a friend named Janelle who works at the Homegirl Café. I was already getting a good dose of the Homeboy vibe!
Meeting Father Greg, aka “G-Dog,” aka “G”
The preliminary evening, Sunday, was a meet-and-greet reception at the Homeboy Industries headquarters.
There was a DJ spinning rap music, a large crowd talking and sometimes dancing, and lots of great food. And only a few minutes after getting there, I saw the man himself: Homeboy founder Father Greg Boyle, “G-Dog” or just “G,” conversing with a group of Gathering participants. Of course I had to meet him right away!
So, I walked up to Father Greg and introduced myself (as his “tocayo,” a Spanish word referring to someone who shares your first name). I found him to be every bit as kind, welcoming, and funny as I’ve seen in every book and video of his. After a hug, I said that I’d like to take the inevitable selfie with him. He joked, “Well, I’m not so sure it’s inevitable…,” but of course he happily obliged. When we were done, he spoke to me with that combination of down-to-earth practicality and love that seems to characterize everything at Homeboy: “Go get your name tag and packet. We’re so glad you’re here.” I could tell he really meant it.
The packet: What Homeboy offers
The packet contained everything we needed for the Gathering, including a detailed schedule of events that was followed to the letter. In addition, it contained materials that provide a good summary of all that Homeboy Industries has to offer. They are the largest gang rehabilitation and re-entry program in the world, helping thousands of men and women every year with free programs and services. To give you some idea of what they do, I’ll quote from the mission page of their website:
Homeboy Industries provides hope, training, and support to formerly gang-involved and previously incarcerated men and women allowing them to redirect their lives and become contributing members of our community.
Each year over 10,000 former gang members from across Los Angeles come through Homeboy Industries’ doors in an effort to make a positive change. They are welcomed into a community of mutual kinship, love, and a wide variety of services ranging from tattoo removal to anger management and parenting classes.
Currently employment is offered for more than 180 men and women through a thoughtful, strategic 18-month program that focuses on healing just as much as it focuses on developing work readiness skills. Our overarching goal is to see individuals heal from trauma, allowing them to contribute fully to their family and community. The five key outcomes we strive for as an organization are: 1) Reduce recidivism, 2) Reduce substance abuse, 3) Improve social connectedness, 4) Improve housing safety and stability, and 5) Reunify families.
The packet contained specific information on the Global Homeboy Network (our group, dedicated to bringing the Homeboy model to other locations throughout the world), as well as material on case management and peer navigation, educational services, legal services, mental health services, substance abuse programs, tattoo removal services, and workforce development. To give you an idea of what all that looks like day to day, here’s a picture of their August schedule of classes:
All of this in the service of what drives everything at Homeboy: people joining in compassion and love with other people, walking the path to healing together.
Day 1 presentations
The Gathering proper lasted for two days. After a delicious breakfast, we started with a morning meeting modeled on the morning meeting they have each day at Homeboy Industries. The meeting, run mainly by the homies themselves, included a thought of the day, a reading of the day’s schedule, announcements, celebration of birthdays (“We’re glad you were born!”), and a prayer to get the day off to a good start.
Then we went to breakout presentations that lasted an hour and fifteen minutes each, with a midday break for lunch. Most of them were put on by Homeboy, but some were presented by other organizations. There were five presentations going on at a time, so you had to pick the one that appealed to you most. Here’s a brief summary of the presentations I attended on the first day:
“The Beloved Healthy Community: A How-to Guide.” This was a presentation given by the Nonviolence Institute, based in Rhode Island. They shared an inspiring model of nonviolent community building based on Martin Luther King Jr.’s six principles of nonviolence.
“Homeboy 2.5: Bridging the Gap.” This was an overview of part of Homeboy’s 18-month program: a stage in which a trainee is no longer a beginner but also not quite ready to seek regular employment with Homeboy or an outside employer. It’s a preparation stage for the moment in which the trainee will leave the nest and fly with his or her own wings. As with so many of these presentations, the best part was the homies sharing their personal stories.
“Case Management and Navigation.” This was a “technical assistance” Q & A session in which people asked questions about case management. In the Homeboy system, each trainee has a case manager who helps create a personalized program of healing and work training, and a navigator, usually a peer who has been through the 18-month program, who serves as a helpful guide. In this session, case managers, navigators, and trainees shared inspiring stories about their experiences and answered questions about how all of this works.
“First Things First, Connecting People to People.” This was another session on case management and navigation. As the title indicates, the thing that always comes first for Homeboy is connecting people to people, strengthening the human relationships between case managers, navigators, and trainees. Everything else, including the various resources and programs, is secondary to that.
Of course, while attending these various sessions, I made some nice connections with people myself. For instance, I was delighted to meet two Mexican women named Manuela and Mariana (picture below) who run “Reinserta,” a program for reinserting people exiting prison into the community. I’m hopeful that we can help each other down the line.
My autism question
This may sound like a strange aside, but I think my reason for discussing it at length will become clear.
I am on the autism spectrum—an “Aspie” in the nomenclature of those of us with Asperger’s syndrome. And in my experience, although most people have heard of autism, there is still little to no understanding of it in work, school, and therapeutic environments—and most everywhere else. This lack of awareness makes life difficult for those of us on the spectrum, because so much of what works for others—including therapeutic approaches—doesn’t work well with us. This was therefore something I wanted to bring up during the case management sessions. Autistic people are in every population, including the gang population. Especially since I admire Homeboy so much, I wanted to see if autism was on their radar.
So, I tried to ask during the first case management session whether autism was on the list of things they kept an eye out for during their intakes. As it turned out, there were so many people asking questions that I never got called upon, so I decided to ask the leader of the session privately afterwards. Unfortunately, though he was kind and attentive, it was clear that he really knew nothing about it. After he gave me some generic answers about “looking for patterns” and “taking people where they’re at,” I reiterated that I was asking whether they look specifically for autism. He finally acknowledged that no, they don’t, and nobody there (not even the psychotherapists) is knowledgeable about it.
During the “First Things First” session that followed, I hadn’t planned to say anything about autism. But one of the leaders mentioned that Homeboy often consults outside professionals when someone comes with a problem that Homeboy doesn’t have the resources to help with. I found this reassuring, and it felt like an opening. So, I raised my hand, and this time I was called upon. I said that I was happy to hear her say that they reach out when they lack resources to deal with something. I told her and the group of my experience as someone on the autism spectrum and the difficulty we have finding knowledgeable help. Afterward, a man named Brendan with an autistic daughter (and whom I suspect is on the spectrum himself) thanked me for bringing this topic up. It made a real difference to him, and it was nice to make the connection. He’s a guy I hung out with a lot during the rest of the Gathering. (Brendan is on the right in the picture below; the fellow with the beard is our friend Ryan.)
I’ve spent some time with this not to rag on Homeboy for lacking autism awareness (they’re hardly alone in that), but because this experience turned out to be one of the most important moments of the Gathering for me. As someone who has wrestled with this his whole life (though I didn’t have a name for it until my late forties), it has become clear to me that there is a desperate need for greater awareness of autism in our world. If even an organization as extraordinary as Homeboy doesn’t have it on their radar, then Houston, we have a problem. Therefore, I’m thinking that it may be a part of my calling to be an autism advocate, a herald of neurodiversity, if you will. This is something I’ll be exploring as I move forward.
Day 2 presentations
After the morning meeting the next day, another round of breakout presentations began. The first presentation listed here was actually a session for the whole group, presented by a panel:
“Breaking Down Barriers: Reentry and Employment.” The topic of this panel was the challenges incarcerated people face when they get out and try to find employment. All three panelists were ex-cons and drug addicts who now have flourishing careers, thanks in part to Homeboy. Such amazing stories of love, grit, and courage—very inspiring!
“What Does an Innovative, Progressive, Holistic Service Approach Look Like in Juvenile Detention Centers and Beyond, to Reentry?” The title kind of says it all. This presentation was put on by a team of lawyers, case workers, and current and former residents of juvenile detention centers. (First picture below: There were two fellows currently incarcerated and one who had been released three weeks ago.) They spoke powerfully of the wonderful things that happen when juvenile offenders are given love and help instead of contempt and punishment.
“Breaking Bread: Working Together in the Enterprises.” This presentation was by one of the leaders of Homeboy’s social enterprise businesses and a panel of workers at the Homeboy Bakery (second picture below). They touched on the paradox of these businesses: On the one hand, “People are [our] product,” but on the other hand, these businesses have to succeed as actual businesses or there won’t be an environment in which to produce these transformed people. As if to demonstrate this message, the entire contingent of bakery workers had to leave midway through the session to attend to a “food emergency” at the bakery. Duty calls!
“Advocacy and Governmental Relations.” This was another “technical assistance” Q & A session. Though Homeboy isn’t primarily political, they do have a group devoted to working on policy issues that touch on the population they work with—especially things like criminal justice reform. In this session, the presenters talked mainly about their current efforts to prevent the building of yet another jail in LA County. Instead of spending millions on a jail, why not spend far less on organizations like Homeboy that have a proven record of keeping people out of jail?
Father Greg’s closing talk
The Gathering proper ended with a marvelous talk by the inimitable Father Greg. (I had the opportunity to say thank you and goodbye to him personally beforehand.) He started by sharing the title of his next book: The Whole Language: The Power of Extravagant Tenderness. Now, he says, all he has to do is write it.
The essence of the talk that followed was that we are all called to be mystics: people who offer a new vision of the world, a vision in which the illusion of separation is erased, a vision that shines away our unfortunate tendency to sink into us-and-them, “othering,” and demonizing. (A great example of unconscious demonizing: a woman who innocently asked Father Greg on another occasion, “Why do you choose to help gang members when you could choose to help needy people?”) We are here on this earth to bring extravagant tenderness and affirm our radical kinship with everyone. And we are meant to express our love, tenderness, and kinship in tangible, practical ways in all of our encounters with others.
Well, that’s my brief summary, though I really didn’t do the talk justice. Father Greg is a master of the pithy aphorism, so let me share a few that I wrote down as he spoke:
“Live in the infinite moment where everything happens.”
Opening the heart is “a constant decision to be tender in the moment.”
“Our essential dignity is never in question—only our access to it.”
“The enemy is someone whose story you do not know.”
“None of us are well until all of us are well.”
“If damaged people will damage people, cherished people will cherish people.”
“Real justice restores by loving people into their wholeness.”
“We are made for loving. We wither away otherwise. It is true that the measure of love is to love without measure.”
The Homeboy tour and breakfast at the Homegirl Café
The next day, we went to Homeboy headquarters to attend the daily morning meeting and take a tour. Our tour guide was a very nice young lady whose name I have unfortunately forgotten (first picture below). She is a homegirl herself (a former gang member), and she was giving her very first tour. Her voice was a bit too soft to hear well and her pace a bit too fast for the older people in our group, but she made up for it in enthusiasm and a thorough inside knowledge of everything Homeboy has to offer. She’s lived the journey she described, and we learned a lot from her.
Afterward, I had some delicious pancakes at the Homegirl Café, brought to my table by Mario, my very kind and abundantly tattooed waiter (wish I’d gotten a picture!).
Homeboy in a nutshell: tender firmness in the service of radical kinship
My heading here sums up my own personal impression of what I saw at Homeboy Industries. First, there is tenderness. I think you can tell just from the title of Father Greg’s unwritten book that “tenderness” is a key word for him. The entire culture of Homeboy is soaked in tenderness. This is a community devoted to unconditional love, never giving up on anyone, welcoming people back again and again whenever they slip up (as many do), and doing all of this with a gentle and infinitely patient spirit. Hugs, laughter, and healing tears are the currency here. There is no “tough love” in the usual sense, no “scared straight.” Homeboy is about creating a home for these boys—and girls—about creating a kindly and welcoming family.
Yet there is another side: the firmness side. This side that isn’t overtly talked about very much—I haven’t found it at all in their promotional materials—but I could see it, and it strikes me as essential to Homeboy’s success. No, there is no tough love, no scared straight, no boot-camp style yelling, but there are clear standards for how to do things in a kind and healthy way. The love is unconditional, but the boundaries, commitments, clarity, and accountability necessary for growth are in place. Precisely because they love, Homeboy a no-nonsense zone; as the homies say, they “keep it real.”
Homeboy runs a tight ship, in small and large ways. You could see that in something as simple as the Gathering itself. The schedules were clearly written, and everything started and ended on time. Everything was well organized. A clear plan was in place, and though it was flexible when needed, the plan was followed.
And for trainees, as much emphasis as there is on tenderness, Homeboy is not “anything goes.” Take employment in the social enterprise businesses, for example. Trainees are drug-tested when they apply for the 18-month training program and aren’t allowed into that program unless they’re clean. (Though of course if they’re not clean, they are directed to substance abuse resources that can help them.) Random drug tests are administered throughout their training. The rules of the program are explained to them and they make commitments to following those rules. They get written up when they violate rules without a reasonable explanation, and even get fired when they make a habit of violating rules. (As you can see in the picture below, Father Greg, like Big Brother, is always watching you—yes, I’m joking.)
Yet—back to the unconditional love and tenderness—when rules are violated, every effort is made to work with people, understand more deeply what is happening, and come up with loving solutions to problems. And even when people get fired, they remain part of the family. They are still loved. They are still welcome. They still have access to all the help they need. They can try again for the 18-month program when they are ready, and the number of chances they have is limitless. (Indeed, I met many people who finally stuck with the program after multiple attempts.) The tenderness and firmness go hand in hand. Homeboy is about a love firmly grounded in real-world needs, responsibilities, and commitments. It’s about expressing love in practical ways that lead to happy and successful human lives.
And above all, it’s about kinship. That’s the watchword at Homeboy. That’s the overarching principle that this tender firmness serves. As Father Greg puts it in his book Tattoos on the Heart, this is what life is all about:
Only kinship. Inching ourselves closer to creating a community of kinship such that God might recognize it. Soon we imagine, with God, this circle of compassion. Then we imagine no one standing outside of that circle, moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased. We stand there with those whose dignity has been denied. We locate ourselves with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless. At the edges, we join the easily despised and the readily left out. We stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. We situate ourselves right next to the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away.
Without nominating anyone for sainthood—these folks are all fallible human beings like the rest of us, and the road to healing can be very bumpy for them—I have to say that for me, the people at Homeboy offered a powerful demonstration of radical kinship. And if a bunch of former gang members, many of whom used to be mortal enemies, can create a community like this, so can all of us. Homeboy is a beacon of hope for the world.
As a sweatshirt I bought at Homeboy says, kinship is “the only strength there is.” Thank you to everyone at Homeboy Industries for giving me such a powerful demonstration of that marvelous truth.