photo of Larry Snyder, President of Catholic Charities USA

Nothing Stops a Bullet Like a Job

It began as a jobs program that provided an alternative to gang affiliation for young people.   In 1992, a bakery was opened in a run-down warehouse. A tortilla stand in the downtown market was next.  Before long Homeboy Industries was born.

Fr. Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest, has spent more than two decades advocating for at-risk and gang-related youth, which he experienced first-hand as pastor of a parish in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Los Angeles.

While there is no definitive reason why kids want to join gangs, the National Center for Victims of Crime cites poverty, lack of economic opportunity, a sense of belonging, and fast money among the contributors.  More than one-third of California’s poor live in Los Angeles County, which also has high levels of high school dropout rates.

Untitled-1The FBI estimates “there are approximately 1.4 million active street, prison, and OMG [motorcycle] gang members comprising more than 33,000 gangs in the United States.” Gang membership has increased by a 40 percent since 2009. According to its 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment, gangs are migrating from traditional urban bases to the suburbs and rural communities; gang members who return to the community from prison have an adverse and lasting impact on these neighborhoods.  Homeboy Industries was established to create an environment that provided training, work experience, and, importantly, the opportunity for rival gang members to work side by side baking bread, learning to silkscreen, developing retail skills, or running a restaurant and catering business.  Training has expanded to include employable skills like solar panel installation.

The success of Homeboy Bakery created the groundwork for additional businesses. Today, Homeboy Industries’ nonprofit enterprises include Homeboy Bakery, Homeboy Silkscreen, Homeboy/Homegirl Merchandise, and Homegirl Café.

Homeboy Industries helps about 12,000 and employs 300 former gang members each year.  As its mission statement reads, “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.”

Homeboy Industries is a striking example of the Great Commandment: Love Your Neighbor. And love might be the most significant tool in Homeboy’s toolbox.

In an NPR interview, a former juvenile offender said:

I remember the first time [Fr. Greg] ever told me he loved me…To me, it was, like, uncomfortable because I’m here looking at him like, ‘Man, how’s this white man gonna tell me he loves me when not even my own mom tells me that.’ But he just started showing me how to love, how to be loved.

Homeboys has inspired at least 15 other communities to form similar initiatives.  Former gang members who have been through the Homeboys program are working with at-risk youth in Pritchard, Alabama. This video shows how even those from East L.A. are shocked by the poverty and despair there.

From one person’s determination to see these kids as human beings and to offer love, compassion, and kinship, the cycle of gang violence in urban and rural communities is slowly being broken.  As Fr. Greg says:

It’s all about kinship, it’s all about connection, it’s all about linking ourselves to each other and staying committed to the truth that we belong to each other.  And then you discover that’s really powerful in the world. That no bullet can pierce it.

The Homeboy program not only offers an alternative to the streets and wraparound services, it has created businesses and jobs that are transforming the landscapes of some pretty tough neighborhoods. That’s what I call thinking and acting anew.

We were pleased to have Fr. Greg conduct a workshop at Catholic Charities’ Centennial Gathering in 2010. The program, “Being a Gospel People Today,” which he led with Diocesan Director Laura Cassell of Rockville Centre, addressed one of the greatest challenges we face today—remaining faithful to the Gospel in our work and in our lives.