Photo by Rami Efal

The other day I quoted Hafiz: Beauty keeps laying its sharp knife against me. Those words continue to echo in my mind, and nowhere did they echo louder than at Homeboy and Homegirl Industries in Los Angeles yesterday.

We were here for the annual White Plum gathering of Zen teachers and to honor the 50th anniversary of the Zen Center of Los Angeles. For years, since reading Tattoos of the Heart, I’d wanted to visit Homeboy Industries, which serves gang members in Los Angeles. Not only did we make that visit, but we also met with the Founder, Fr. Greg Boyle.

How to describe this? You go into a corner space in the middle of Los Angeles’s neighborhood for gangs and drugs, and there is a bakery and café. You go through the doors, past the gift shop selling, among many things, T-shirts saying: Nothing stops a bullet like a job, and find yourself in a large waiting room. Most of the men are big with large tattoos all over their bodies, which is a little ironic since at the other end there is a long line outside a room bearing the sign: Tattoo Removal. Young women sit there, too, and when we ask them what they’re waiting for they say: To talk to someone.

About what?

How to get into a program.

What program?

Lots of things: counseling, substance abuse, domestic violence, workforce development, cooking, serving in the food industry, installation of solar panels, legal help. Or maybe get a job.

What job?

In food service, catering, clothing, recyclables. (We subsequently enjoy a terrific lunch at their Mexican food restaurant, waited on and cooked for by people learning how to work in food service).

Other people stop me and offer to help. Are you here for a tour?

We have a meeting with Fr. Greg, I say.

Oh well, then you don’t need nothing else, is the usual rejoinder.

Finally we meet with him. He hugs Bernie in his wheelchair. Bernie has been in Homeboy to visit with Fr. Greg and Fr. Greg has visited Greyston too. We sit to talk, and instantly I hear, not just words, but a language that is precious to me beyond words, aspirations that sent me roiling back in 1985 when I first came to Greyston.

This is a community of tenderness, he tells us. The people coming here are wounded. I’ve gone to many conferences about gangs, and when you ask why people join gangs you hear: “To belong, to be part of a community, for excitement.” They’ll tell you that, too, if you ask them. You know why? Because it’s easier to give that answer than to say that my mother extinguished her cigarettes on my skin, or else that my father pushed my head into the toilet and flushed. Nobody wants to talk about those things. But here they can, and that’s why nobody here will tell you that they joined a gang in order to belong. They joined because of their wounds, because they were broken.

What about tough love? I ask him. Lots of people working with gang members and addicts believe in that.

Don’t get me wrong. We have an 18-month program and at certain times we ask people to leave. But even then there’s tenderness, not just in what you do but how you do it. Let me tell you a story. We had trouble with someone in the program so I convened my council to get their advice, half of whom are homies. One man, who’s been in prison for 25 years and then with us for a long time, said about the person we were discussing: “He can’t smell the stink of his own shit, he’s gotta go.” And then another homie spoke up, and said: “All he smells is shit.” So we kept him on.

Basically, we all have our wounds. We’re ashamed of them and try to hide them. We try to escape the shit of our lives in so many ways, but not until we’re ready to stop doing that do things start changing. Many of the people coming here, all they’ve smelled is shit their entire lives. Here is where it begins to change, because we’re a community of tenderness. Here is where they can get close to their own brokenness.

A community of tenderness, I think, remembering the big men outside with tattoos covering almost every inch of their bodies.

We are relational, we are not transactional, he says. And even as he says that I see people stopping outside the glass door of his office waving and blowing kisses, and this Jesuit blows kisses back right away to men and women, waving gaily to infants held by their mothers even as he talks to us. Young children are instructed by their parents to clean his glass doors with Windex. I can only imagine how many fingerprints have been left on that glass over the 30 years that Homeboy Industries has been in existence.

We don’t give you a checklist of what you have to do, he adds. We don’t say: “You need substance abuse therapy, you need counseling, you need anger management, you need this and you need that,” like some McDonald’s hamburger with this and that on it. We’re relational here, that’s what it’s about.

There’s so much I want to hear from him. We can’t replicate or clone people like you or Bernie, I tell him, but I’m also not sure we could train folks to be quite like you. What can we learn?

There are 125,000 gang members in Los Angeles County, he replies. It’s important for 125,000 gang members out there to know that we’re here because that’s the only hope they got, and just knowing that, even if they don’t ever go through our doors, will make some difference in their lives because there’s nothing worse than living in hell without any hope at all. We’re here for the long run, says this Jesuit who started this work alone three decades ago, with leukemia that, at least for now, is in remission. You got to be here for the long run.