On September 18, members of the Project HOME community attended a special event at St. Joe’s Prep School, where Fr. Greg Boyle received the second annual Sister Mary Scullion Award. Father Greg is a Jesuit priest who is famous for his work with young gang members in Los Angeles. He founded Homeboy Industries, which provides employment to many of the young people seeking a way out of the violence of gang life – with the slogan “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.”
Fr. Greg, accompanied by two of his “homies” from Los Angeles, shared stories and reflections from their amazing transformational work. We certainly feel a deep kinship of spirit with Fr. Greg’s work – and perhaps more, because we intend to explore their successful Homeboy Industries model and how it can impact our own work in employments for persons overcoming poverty and homelessness.
Below is an an excerpt from Father Greg’s remarkable 2010 book Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion.
One day I receive a phone call in my office around three in the afternoon. It’s from a twenty-five-year-old homie named Cesar. I have known him for most of his life. I can remember first meeting him when he was a little kid in Pico Gardens during the earthquake of 1987 when the projects had become a tent city. People lived outside in carpas well past the time of any danger. Cesar was one of the many kids seeking reassurance from me.
“Are we gonna be okay? Is this the end of the world?”
I spent every evening of those two weeks walking the tents, and I always associate Cesar with that period.
He’s calling me today because he has just finished a four-year stint in prison. Turned out, earthquakes were the least of Cesar’s troubles. He had joined the local gang, since there wasn’t anyone around to “chase his ass” and rein him in. At this point in his life, Cesar had been locked up more often than not. Cesar and I chitchat on the phone, dispatching the niceties in short order—“It’s good to be out—I’d love to see ya”—then Cesar says, “Let me just cut to the cheese.”
This was not a spin I had heard on this expression before.
“You know, I just got outta the pinta and don’t really have a place to stay. Right now, I’m staying with a friend in his apartment—here in El Monte—away from the projects and the hood and the homies. Y sabes qué, I don’t got no clothes. My lady she left me, and she burned all my clothes, you know, in some anger toward me, I guess.”
I’m waiting for him to cut to the cheese.
“So I don’t got no clothes,” he says. “Can you help me?”
“Sure, son,” I say, “Look, it’s three now. I’ll pick you up after work, at six o’clock.”
I drive to the apartment at the appointed hour, and I’m surprised to see Cesar standing on the sidewalk waiting for me—I’m used to searching for homies when asked to retrieve them. I guess you might say that Cesar is a scary-looking guy. It’s not just the fact that he’s large and especially, fresh out of prison, newly “swole” from lifting weights. He exudes menace. So there he is, standing and waiting for me. When he sees it’s me, this huge ex-con does this bouncing up and down, yippy-skippy, happy-to-see-ya, hand-clapping gleeful jig.
He flies into my car and throws his arms around me. “When I saw you right now, G, I got aaaallllll happy!”
There was some essence to him that hadn’t changed from that child wanting to know that the world was safe from earthquakes.
We go to JCPenney, and I tell him he can buy two hundred dollars’ worth of clothes. In no time, his arms are filled with the essentials, and we both are standing in a considerable line to pay for it all. All the other customers are staring at Cesar. Not only is he menacing, but he seems to have lost his volume knob. People can’t help but turn and look, though they all take great pains to pretend they’re not listening.
“Hey,” he says, in what you might call a loud-ass voice, “See dat couple over there?”
I am not the only one turning and looking. The entire checkout line shifts. Cesar points to a young couple with a tiny son.
“Well, I walk up to that guy and I look at him and I say, ‘Hey, don’t I know you?’ And his ruca grabs the morrito and holds him and shakes her head and says, ‘NO, WE DON’T KNOW YOU!’ all panickeada así. Then the vato looks at me like he’s gonna have a damn paro cardiaco, and he shakes his head, ‘NO, I DON’T KNOW YOU.’ Then I look at him more closer, and I say, ‘Oh, my bad, I thought you were somebody else.’ And they get aaaaallllll relaxed when I say that.” He takes a breath. “I mean, damn, G … do I look that scary?”
I shake my head no and say, “Yeah, pretty much, dog.”
The customers can’t help themselves, and we all laugh.
I drop Cesar off at his friend’s apartment. He becomes quiet and vulnerable, as frightened as a child displaced by shifting ground.
“I just don’t want to go back. La neta, I’m scared.”
“Look, son,” I say to him, “Who’s got a better heart than you? And God is at the center of that great, big ol’ heart. Hang on to that, dog—cuz you have what the world wants. So, what can go wrong?”
We say our good-byes, and as I watch him walk away alone, I find his gentleness and disarming sweet soul a kind of elixir, soothing my own doubts and calling me to fearlessness.
At three o’clock in the morning, the phone rings. It’s Cesar. He says what every homie says when they call in the middle of the night, “Did I wake you?”
I always think Why no, I was just waiting and hoping that you’d call.
Cesar is sober, and it’s urgent that he talk to me.
“I gotta ask you a question. You know how I’ve always seen you as my father—ever since I was a little kid? Well, I hafta ask you a question.”
Now Cesar pauses, and the gravity of it all makes his voice waver and crumble, “Have I … been … your son?”
“Oh, hell, yeah,” I say.
“Whew,” Cesar exhales, “I thought so.”
Now his voice becomes enmeshed in a cadence of gentle sobbing. “Then … I will be … your son. And you … will be my father. And nothing will separate us, right?”
In this early morning call Cesar did not discover that he has a father. He discovered that he is a son worth having. The voice broke through the clouds of his terror and the crippling mess of his own history, and he felt himself beloved. God, wonderfully pleased in him, is where God wanted Cesar to reside.