By Elise Gower
In a world still reeling from Covid-19, as the deep societal structures of racism and inequity are highlighted and amidst violence and impending war, where does one find hope? In Los Angeles, California, Homeboy Industries — the largest gang intervention, rehab and re-entry program in the world — is a sacred place of hope.
“Hope stems from having a support system,” says Molly Hunt, a former Jesuit Volunteer. “Homeboy creates a community of support that allows people to hope.” Hunt, who worked in Homeboy’s development department after her year there with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, describes Homeboy’s mission in action as groundbreaking work. She highlights the profoundly radical approach of offering compassion and financial support as individuals build back their lives. “Trainees are paid to go to therapy, to do anger management, to search for housing, to figure out childcare.”
“Homeboy creates a community of support that allows people to hope.”
Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ, founder of Homeboy Industries, shares, “At Homeboy, we deliver the same menu of services as many programs do … but all of this is secondary to the culture that cherishes and holds people. Homeboy is a sanctuary for gang members.”
Hope extends beyond the organization’s doors. It is cherishing another person that permeates hopefulness. Hunt depicts community tours during which trainees are able to share and own their stories. It’s a relational bridge between education and empowerment as people from the outside community “learn [that] hope and redemption are part of these hard stories.” The owner of each story becomes the beacon of hope.
Fr. Boyle describes a “community of beloved belonging.” He affirms, “If it’s true (and it is) that the traumatized will likely cause trauma, it is equally true that the cherished will find their way to the joy there is in cherishing themselves and others. Systems change when people do. People change when they are cherished.”
Caitlin Mollahan, a University of Scranton alumna, learned hope at Homeboy can be understood as “reflecting kinship in decisions that affect others, making kinship reach the systemic level.”
Homeboy hope extends far beyond the geographic boundaries of Los Angeles. In Yap, Micronesia, seniors at Yap Catholic High School (YCHS) read Fr. Boyle’s book Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion. Michael Wiencek, YCHS principal, brings his own student experience at Homeboy to the classroom. For his students, a hope-filled future is “having relationships within your community and recognizing that you give chances to everyone. Every day, we all have the mentality that we wake up and try to be a little bit better than we were the day before and we want to help others be the best that they can be.”
In January 2012, while studying at the University of Scranton, Wiencek participated in an immersion program at Homeboy Industries, and learned of a post-graduate volunteer opportunity to support the opening of YCHS. His discernment began on Skid Row, a physical boundary centralizing poverty in LA. As he surveyed new construction being built along the perimeters, he remembers looking up and thinking, “There’s somebody up on the 40th story of that building thinking, ‘I can’t believe I have to look at this.’” It’s a distinct contrast from what people see at Homeboy — the inherent dignity of every person. This lesson led Michael to Yap. Today, he extends the same loving message of hope to his students: “We believe in you.”
Young people cocreate a hope-filled future that penetrates relationships and systems. Hunt now studies public policy at UCLA. Her peer is a UCLA undergraduate student and former Homeboy trainee. “Nonprofits help get around the barriers when we can.” She feels called to deconstruct systems “so one day, Homeboy won’t have to exist.”
Mollahan, an occupational therapist, is reminded of the distinction a trainee made between her life and the visiting students’. “Your norm is growing up, going to college, and getting a career. We don’t expect to go to college, we expect to go to jail.” Through Homeboy, new doors are opening every day for trainees. Mollahan uses her education to open doors for her patients. She does this by listening to each person’s unique experience — a skill she learned in LA. Listening is the building block of hope.
“Your norm is growing up, going to college, and getting a career. We don’t expect to go to college, we expect to go to jail.” Through Homeboy, new doors are opening every day for trainees.
“Ignatius, in his spiritual journal, mentions for the first time on Feb. 27, 1544, the word acatamiento. It means to look at something with attention. It gets translated as ‘affectionate awe.’ Ignatius intended this to be a stance in the world,” says Fr. Boyle. “Homeboy Industries stands with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. It stands with the disposable, so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away. It stands in ‘affectionate awe’ at what the poor have to carry rather than in judgment at how they carry it. It is a uniquely Ignatian stance … that finds God in everyone and everything.” Hope.
“Homeboy Industries stands with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop.”