Hunger for Wholeness: How We Build and Scale Cherished Communities with Fr. Greg Boyle (Part 2)
In part two of Ilia Delio’s conversation with Fr. Greg Boyle, she asks why Homeboy Industries has been so successful in building and scaling such impactful work, and how (or whether) it can be replicated elsewhere. Then, they discuss the pros and cons of contemporary scientific outlooks, how they can help and how they can hurt, and what’s needed to cultivate hope for future progress.
ABOUT FR. GREG BOYLE
“The strategy of Jesus is not centered in taking the right stand on issues, but rather in standing in the right place—with the outcast and those relegated to the margins.”
Fr. Greg Boyle is an American Jesuit priest and the founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, the largest gang-intervention, rehabilitation, and re-entry program in the world. He has received the California Peace Prize and been inducted into the California Hall of Fame. In 2014, the White House named Boyle a Champion of Change. He received the University of Notre Dame’s 2017 Laetare Medal, the oldest honor given to American Catholics. He is the acclaimed author of Tattoos on the Heart and Barking to the Choir.
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Robert: Welcome to Hunger for Wholeness. I'm your host, Robert Nicastro. Today, Ilia dives deeper into the wisdom of Father Greg Boyle's ministerial work at Homeboy Industries. In part two of their conversation, Ilia asks Father Greg about the challenges of building and scaling this work, and later what needs to be done for future progress.
Ilia: Two things. One, first going back to your insights on love reminds me of Bonaventure who once said, "You truly exist where you love, not merely where you live." I think that's where we're really at home, we really find our true aliveness where love is alive. Therefore, I think if Homeboy Industries is really about bringing into reality the energies of love in human persons coming from all sorts of broken places, that love is there and it's rekindling what's there. And then to say that we can go out into the world and then anywhere in the world, and anywhere we are, then becomes home. So the notion of home is where we love. I think that's really an important thing because again, I see among the economic classes—For example, here in Villanova, I'm in Villanova, which is mainline Philadelphia, where probably the average home here is 1 to 2 million; huge homes with maybe sometimes two to three people living in them.
So you have 10,000, 12,000, 15,000 square feet homes with two, three people. And you go, "What is that about? Is that a home or is that just a giant house with a lot of electric bills?" Compared to a simple apartment or a simple dwelling, home really has nothing to do with structure. It's about the structures of relationships I think what you're seeing here. So, again, if we could—I think Pope Francis, quite honestly. I'm sure you've talked with him and met him, and he has his eye on Homeboy Industries, because you're kind of a wonderful model for Laudato Si’, for what the world could be like if we actually could animate the energies of love and fold them into our lives. The other question I have for you is a practical one. So you're in Los Angeles. Did you ever think about reproducing Homeboy Industry on the East Coast or any other part of the US or worldwide, or using it as a model to build centers? What's your thoughts there?
Fr. Greg: Yeah. Although at the moment I'm in New York City to give a talk tomorrow in Connecticut. I have two homies on the loose in New York City. So I'm hoping they return. They're seeing the Statue of Liberty and such.
Ilia: That's wonderful.
Fr. Greg: You were my excuse not to go to the Statue of Liberty for the 10,000th time. But many years ago, actually, 2008 is when we got our first delegation. A group from Wichita came and stakeholders and mayor and that kind of chief of police. And they said, "Please airlift Homeboy Industries into Wichita." So I remember we had a meeting and we said, "Do we want to do that? Do we want to become the McDonald's of...?" And then we decided not to do that. So we said, "Look, we'll help you with as much technical assistance, if you will, to start something of your own because if we just airlifted Homeboy to Wichita, gang members in Wichita would say, 'Well, who are these people? What do they know?' And they'd be right." So then that started the Center café in Wichita, and people always kind of look at our Homegirl café or Homeboy bakery, and so they always think we'll start a food thing, which I don't recommend because restaurants are hard, bakeries are hard.
So they start with a social enterprise and then they add on like therapy or case management or whatever. So now we have a thing called the Global Homeboy Network. And so we gather every August for three days. We have 300 programs in the United States modeled on our methodology of a community of tenderness, and 50 programs outside the country. So originally, it was people dealing with the gang issue, and then it became kind of a model for all the social dilemmas; so mental health just affected youth in Sydney, Australia, returning citizens in Glasgow. And homeless, there was a delegation from Detroit. I presume they were there because they were dealing with gang issues. But they wanted to kind of incorporate this model into their own approach in dealing with the unhoused.
So our last gathering, which was in August—It's always in August for three days. We have 300 people there. And the ones who can come from all over the world; South Africa, it's kind of magical and everybody's sort of on the same page of wanting to have this energy in the world that is loving and anchored in kinship. But all these kinds of issues are really complex social dilemmas. I don't think there's anything that hasn't been brought to this methodology and way of proceeding in terms of anything; crime, mass incarceration. The huge mental health crisis, the fentanyl crisis, people are using a kind of picking and choosing which we like. Tattoo removal doesn't make any sense in Glasgow, but it makes a lot of sense in Guatemala City. So there are different kinds of things. Well, let's say they come—Again, we have like eight tour groups a day from all over the world. People kind of hang out for a few days and then they go, "Okay, well that would work over here. Maybe that one wouldn't so much." But it's kind of a way of proceeding that connects, as you said earlier, passion. It really kind of galvanizes a passion to kind of be in the world who God is; kind and compassionate,
Ilia: First of all, thank you. I did not realize, but it makes sense. I'm glad to hear that there's sort of a global Homeboy network and that makes sense that you would be not necessarily building McDonald's of Homeboy Industries, but in a sense, sharing the insights of what creates a sustainable wholeness within these communities. So two things. One is, I hear you. I do think this is harnessing the—And to use a Teilhardian phrase. I think you're harnessing the energies of love from people who have been left outside or unloved or fractured in love and all that as people have endured the hardships of life. That itself is a huge leap in human energy. So Teilhard was very keen that human energy harnessed together could change our world. And that's what I hear in your description of Homeboy Industries. It's not just doing good. There's something even more here than just doing good. Doing good is the beginning of it. But it's actually bringing forth energies from human persons that can collaborate in relationship in becoming something more, in and through those relationships.
So the second thing I wonder is how could what you're doing—because sometimes I find myself in the academic world where on some—Academics tend to be on a cloud of some sort. Maybe one or two steps removed from the human reality. We write all about it, but we never step foot into it. How do we bring these worlds into a greater alignment? One question I would have for you is, "Where do you see the future of things going?" From where I sit, I see the future being on this exponential evolution with technology that we're leaving actually, the homo sapien species. We're becoming techno sapiens. We will be completely downloadable. We will be marrying robots. It's a future that is pretty eerie in some ways, yet it's upon us. I mean, Homeboy Industries in LA, Elon Musk in Silicon Valley. So California has quite a range of things going on. But where do you see the efforts, the vision of Homeboy Industries going into the future? Can it grow, can it evolve? And what might that look like?
Fr. Greg: Yeah. We were given an opportunity to kind of spread this all over the country, and we didn't want to spread it in a way that diminished the importance of things being born from below in a specific community. So you have Rise Up Industries in San Diego, and that was born from below. And I'm happy that Homeboy was able to animate and harness their own kind of good intentions, and they can learn from our mistakes of which we've made many. Then Braveheart Industries in Glasgow, Scotland. We're so connected to them, yet they are their own thing born from below.
It is interesting because you've used the word fractured, which is a very helpful word because it kind of identifies where people are stuck in self-absorption. David Brooks asks all the time, "Why are people so sad and mean?" And I go, "Well, sadness and meanness isn't really a thing. It points to a thing." This is where science is so as you well know. It really helps us because then you can start to talk about rewiring the brain and the plasticity of things. But I think you can draw a straight line. Why is it that we have a hard time making progress on all these things like racism and antisemitism? It was interesting,they captured that guy after 12 days. The sheriff got up and he said, "Our nightmare is finally over." Then he said, "And the good guys have won."
As soon as I heard that line I said, "That's why we don't make progress." Because you can draw a perfectly straight line between that statement, all the things and our lack of progress in all the areas that we find quite vexing, from fentanyl overdoses, to outrageous mass shootings, and racist and anti-Semitic outbursts. But if you think there's such a thing as good people and bad people, don't be surprised that we aren't going to make progress. But once you know that everybody's unshakably good, and we need to help each other walk each other home to that realization. The prophet Micah—the translation is love mercy and walk humbly. Well, there's another translation that says, "Love Goodness," which I like better because that's about seeing as God sees. God who can get underneath the most horrific things that we do to each other. God loves goodness.
So how do we embrace that as a way of proceeding? I saw a t-shirt at Midway Airport and it said, "Love, not hate." I remember looking at it and I said, "That's why we don't make progress, because it's still us and them. It's still otherwise." It says, "I stand with the group that loves." And I really do stand against those of you who hate. But in the same airport, I saw an older woman and she had a sweatshirt on and it had one word. It said, "Unwell" on her sweatshirt. I looked at it and I said, "Finally, progress." I really do believe that. I think that's a hard one even in the church. Kind of like the sin horse, and boy did it work because it got my butt in church every Sunday.
But I don't think you could ever make a case that it ever helped. I think we need to abandon the things that work and embrace the things that help because the byproduct of embracing the things that help is that it also works. But it was all indictment and no invitation. Anyway, I still remain hopeful that we can get to this kind of renewed orthodoxy as Richard talks about; a place where we can just invite people to see as God sees. Then something falls away when that graciously happens; your sadness, your meanness, and your self-absorption. And then people get a taste of, "My joy, yours, your joy complete."
Robert: Science in the 20th century has provided new humanistic tools for healing, growth, and progress. Meanwhile, religious structures entrenched in unhelpful dualisms and certainties are largely stuck and oftentimes a hindrance to social progress. Next, Ilia unpacks what science can teach religion about wholeness and how Homeboy Industries is an evolutionary step forward.
Ilia: I want to say that we need to pay attention to what science is telling us today because it is a very new world that we're discovering ourselves in. The first thing about science, especially from the quantum level of things, it's a whole. From the beginning of this universe, it is a cosmic wholeness, and it's thoroughly interconnected. You can't take out one thing. So you're pointing to the fact that we have developed a binary way of thinking and it's unfortunate. But I do think the way that doctrine of original sin got articulated and then inscribed, certainly in the Christian mind created this up, down mentality; heaven, earth, good, bad, black, white, save, damned. It created such a narrow individualism, certainly of the fear of hell and disobeying God. Then you marry that to the Calvinist notion of progress. Like, "If I work harder and I gain more wealth, God will bless me and I'll go to heaven."
This was probably some of the most unhealthiest... Well, we passed through those stages historically, but we don't have to stay there because science is giving us a whole new understanding of the world. And what it's saying is, "We're always a whole. We're coming out of a whole. We are intended to be whole, and we are emerging into greater wholeness." That's the bottom line of, in a sense, siphoning it down to that. This is where I do think theology, the church needs to not just pay lip service to science. It really has to embrace evolution as the description of the way life unfolds into greater wholeness, complexity, consciousness, belonging; all these things that we're talking about. So I think the great work that you have been doing for so many decades now is on the trajectory of an evolution that we're trying to harness the energies of love for the forward movement of ever greater wholeness, a growing unity.
We belong to this together; rich, poor, black, white, gay, straight, you name it. They're all a bit of Homeboy Industries, and they're all part of the world. I think the human heart is crushed sometimes by fear, by neglect, by feeling lonely, by being an outsider. We have created structures to fracture the human heart. That's the problem I think today. We have an opportunity to reclaim vital men. I think Jesus was not the problem. Religion is not even the problem. But it's how we've structured religion, certainly Christianity, and formed it into this Imperial Court religion that has a lot of Greek metaphysics woven throughout it, and a lot of language that no one really understands anyway like consubstantiality. So it doesn't make sense. It's time to close that book and get back to—Jesus of Nazareth was a radical person; on the edge, a heart full of love, a compassionate embrace of mercy. It was about inclusivity.
So I do think what you're doing is certainly its gospel living at its best. Second, I think it's evolution at its best. You probably go back and say, "This sister was talking about evolution." You're at Homeboy Industries. That could be your new slogan. “We are part of evolution.” Well, you are. Really going back to the phrase to harness the energies of love is the forward movement of evolution. We cannot go forward, as you say. Our systems are stuck, they're stagnant precisely because those energies of love are not free to harness together. Do you see that there's a lot of work to do yet before us, or is that just me?
Fr. Greg: Yeah. But I also just feel like things are getting simpler, things are evolving. Homeboy is not the same ever, which is kind of good. So there's concrete help that we offer people, but it's also all about a way of seeing that somehow we can imagine a circle of compassion and then imagine nobody's standing outside of it, and you're always trying to do that. But there's so many spinning of our wheels because us and them language is really the opposite of how God sees. There was a mass shooting, and I remember there was a bishop who said, "As sacred scripture clearly tells us, God stands with the victims and not the victimizers." And I thought, "Well, maybe he could proof text that. I think that might even be easy." But all I know is as Muir Vice Star says, "Once you know the God of love, you fire all the other gods." And so you say, "No, the God of love doesn't agree with you." And I would go to my grave knowing that that's true. That God doesn't see victims or victimizers, God doesn't see us in them. God sees children. God sees my own. God sees we belong to each other.
Yet, I go, "Boy, that demonizing language is always the opposite of how God sees. God doesn't agree with it." You feel so certain of these things, but you want to live from that place where, "Kids I loved killed kids I love." And you just have to say, "I won't ever stop loving them." That's not so hard because parents do this all the time, yet they don't think their God does that. I just think we have to undo a lot of things, and that's okay. But we have to really be anchored in the sure and certain knowledge that love is the only thing that has ever made any sense, and that we're called to just be in the world who God is.
Ilia: Yeah. And just for our listeners, it's not to vindicate the act of violence. But it is to say that the perpetrator is still a child of God and loved by God. We don't know what's in the human heart. We make such judgments sometimes about people. We become gods. This is the problem. We become the little gods who meet out the judgments. So I think you're absolutely right.
Fr. Greg: That's kind of a dilemma at the moment especially in our country that is so divided and polarized. But if there is a “them,” then we have to know that God doesn't see it that way. And even when it's hard, even when you want to demonize everybody, you just know. But what keeps you from demonizing is the knowledge that everybody is unshakably good and we belong to each other now. People don't always see their own goodness. The goodness is always there. How do we hold up the mirror and say, "Oh, noble born, remember who you really are." And as you go back to victimizers, you know that nobody well has ever shot up a school and killed a bunch of people. Nobody healthy has ever invaded Ukraine. Nobody whole has ever slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars. It goes on and on where you say, "None of us are well until all of us are well." And it's not about morality. It's about how do we help people? I would give a talk and somebody came up to me and he says, "Do you have to be religious to do good?" And I said, "No, you have to be healthy to do good." So the more we can see that whole is holy, and nobody has ever met a healthy person who really wasn't holy. They're kind of interchangeable for me; healthy, holy,
Ilia: That's salvation in my view. That's what salvation is all about.
Fr. Greg: Absolutely. And like Ram Dass says, "We're just walking each other home," which I agree with. We're walking each other home in relational wholeness, in being other centered and loving, driven, and harnessing the energies. Love with people who are stuck. We all get stuck. It's not a once and for all.
Ilia: Absolutely. Yeah.
Fr. Greg: When somebody gets stuck, you try to lavish them with a kind of attention that will really free them from being stuck. Then you're freed in the loving and it's exquisitely mutual.
Ilia: Love is always pointing. It's bringing two, and there's a third emerging out of those two. So love is never binary. It's always three. That's why Trinity is a great model here because it's the openness of bringing two together and the openness of those two together into a new future. You become something new. Even being brought out in something about yourself, it becomes new. So we're always in a sense with love, we're always on the cusp of the future. And that's why it's life giving, it's spirit filled, it's life filled. I think all that you're saying here reminds me of what the essence of love is about. It's about future. It's about the future of life. "I have come that you might have life and have it to the full." Sometimes I wonder, "What do we think about that?" But I think this is it, and it says keep going.
So Father Greg, we are out of time, but you remind me a little bit—The other thing I was thinking about is while we have technology, what you're doing is a technology as well. It's harnessing those energies of love for the forward movement of humankind into ever greater wholeness. So if you think of yourself as a technologist, but I could think of Homeboy Industries as a new technology, and you might just kind of write a little note to Silicon Valley, to Elon and tell him, "Hey, we're onto something completely new here." Because you remind me a little bit of Steve Jobs, who said, "Here's to the crazy ones, the misfits, the round pegs, and square holes. The ones who people say they're outrageous." He says, "Those who are crazy enough to think they can change the world actually do so." I think Jesus was like that. You have to really live out of that. That passion of love is crazy. You do crazy things and that crazy stuff is really what the whole thing's about. It has been great speaking with you.
Fr. Greg: I really appreciate your voice in the world. Thank you.
Ilia: Thank you, Father Greg.
Robert: Thank you to all those who attended our recent conference on Alfred North Whitehead and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. In the upcoming weeks, we'll enjoy some more special guest interviews from our colleagues at the recent conference, digging deeper into the subjects of process and evolution. This concludes our conversation with Father Greg Boyle. A special thanks to our partners at the Fetzer Institute, and our team at the Center for Christogenesis. As always, I'm Robert Nicastro. Thanks for listening.