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Priest Fights Gangs With 'Boundless Compassion'

For 20 years, the Rev. Gregory Boyle has run Homeboy Industries, an anti-gang program that employs and is run by ex-gang members in Los Angeles. Boyle recently had to lay off most of his staff because of financial problems. He recounts the decades he's helped ex-gang members turn their lives around in a new memoir, Tattoos on the Heart.


Other segments from the episode on May 20, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 20, 2010: Interview with Gregory Boyle; Review of Anat Cohen's album "Clarinetwork."


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Priest Fights Gangs With 'Boundless Compassion'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

As a Jesuit priest working with gang and ex-gang members in L.A., my guest,
Father Greg Boyle, has buried a lot of people, baptized a lot of babies and
said Mass in a lot of detention facilities.

He started working with gangs in the mid-1980s. In 1992, he founded Homeboy
Industries, for young people ready to leave the gang life. In addition to
offering counseling and helping ex-gang members find jobs, Homebody Industry
has several businesses, including a bakery, a silk-screen shop and a café
staffed by former gang members. The idea is to teach them job skills, bring
former rivals together and function as both a work site and a therapeutic

Father Greg received the California Peace Prize for his work, but times are
hard, and Homeboy Industries is now unable to make payroll. The businesses are
self-sustaining, but the counseling and administration staffs were laid off on
Friday. About 330 of Homeboy's 427 employees were let go, but most are
continuing to work without pay, hoping that Homeboy Industries will soon raise
enough money to keep the entire operation going.

Father Greg has joined us several times on FRESH AIR. I recorded a new
interview with him yesterday. He has a new memoir called "Tattoos on the

Father Greg, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's always such a pleasure to talk
with you. The last time we spoke, when you were in remission from leukemia, and
we were talking about, you know, facing serious illness, you said death is not
on my top 10 list of things to dread. I more often than not dread meeting

So this time, the thing that you really, really dread has happened. You weren't
able to meet payroll. So can you talk about what that's been like for you to
handle personally?

The Reverend GREG BOYLE (Founder, Homeboy Industries): Yeah, you know, I'm
pretty sleep-deprived at the moment. So that's what keeps me awake. And a lot
of folks are kind of depending on me, and Homeboy Industries, as the largest
gang intervention program in the country, really is this beacon of hope, and
there is no Plan B, C or D for these folks when they get out of jail.

Now, we've had lots of white-knuckle rides, and we've just made it a couple
times since November. We've been in trouble since November. We sort of publicly
announced that, and we got from November to here.

What we really needed was sort of that $5 million cushion when we moved to our
new headquarters three years ago, to really factor that in. We built a
building, and we kind of vaguely forgot that we were going to put a program in
it, and suddenly, we didn't double our – the people we served - we quadrupled
the people we served.

And so it was just intense. The place was packed, and the recession only added
to the need and the fact that we're the only game in town. There is no other
place people go to. So it was hard, and we sort of needed an angel, and we
didn't get it.

GROSS: So, was it your job to tell 300 people they were being laid off?

The Rev. BOYLE: What I did was we have my council, which is nine of us who run
the place, and half of them are homies. And I said, I will speak to this
tomorrow at our morning meeting, which happens at 10 minutes to nine every

But all of us, let's spend the day putting our arms around people and saying
it's over for now. We're calling it a pause, but let's start to, even me, apply
for unemployment, all of us, and - so we can keep the businesses open.

And so when I came back from lunch later on, it was this phalanx of gang
members, you know, as I walked from my car to the office, and they were sobbing
and hugging me, and we'll get through this, and how could I ever repay you. And
I was a basket case by the time I got to the office, because it was so
overwhelming and so heartfelt.

GROSS: You know, it's interesting because I was wondering if – and apparently,
this isn't what happened, but I was wondering, since part of what you preach is
hope, that there's hope for people, that there's hope in this world, I was
thinking that some of the people who you laid off might kind of be rebuking
you, saying yeah, well, you said that there's hope, but obviously, there's not
because this is folding, too. Even this opportunity is being taken away from me

The Rev. BOYLE: Yeah, you know, I guess there were all sorts of things I
expected to happen. And, you know, I was quoted in the L.A. Times as saying,
you know, hope has sort of left the building a little bit. And I even regret
saying that because the homies, you know, they've sort of taken this battle

In fact, we decided we weren't going to let the press know, right now. Well,
you know, let homies be homies. They ended up, you know, calling all the press.
You know, suddenly, L.A. Times photographers, ABC News, they're all in our

And the ABC News person said we talked to your nice press person, Melissa(ph).
Well, she's a homegirl who works in the tattoo clinic, the tattoo removal
clinic, you know, and - our press girl Melissa.

(Soundbite of laughter)

The Rev. BOYLE: So, but they decided to do it. And I watched them, and I
thought oh, my God, you know, as one of the homies say: if we lose hope, then
we will be unable to give hope. This was one of my senior staff who was a gang

And I thought that's right. So I've had to slap myself a couple times when I've
gotten pretty discouraged. And the homies are all, you know, it's a Frank Capra
movie. They're all, you know, we'll put on a show and charge admission. They're
– they go down to Alvera Street and ask for donations, and then they have a
Polaroid camera. They say take a picture with a real, live cholo, one of the
guys says, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

The Rev. BOYLE: You know, as a fundraiser. You know, I thought, and who doesn't
want one of those pictures, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

The Rev. BOYLE: So I watched them. Apparently last night, a whole group of them
stood at the entrance to Dodger Stadium as the cars back up to get into the
parking lot with big, huge cans that say Homeboy and big signs that say Save

They went out and sold my book in front of White Memorial Hospital. They came
back with $1,000. So, you know, I'm just letting them do what they need to do,
and because this program stopped being my program a long time ago, and it's
certainly theirs now.

GROSS: So you're not rewriting your life now. You're still dedicated to making
this work?

The Rev. BOYLE: Well, our businesses are open, you know, and the odd thing is,
and kind of ironic, I guess, is that our businesses couldn't be more fruitful.
You know, the bakery, we've just got all these huge accounts and a brand new
French baker.

Homegirl Café about to have all their salsas, which is a whole line of them,
sold in every store at Ralphs supermarkets on the West Coast. We're being
considered, and it looks like we're going to get it, to have a Homegirl Café at
the new LAX airport extension.

Just huge, you know. The café makes double what it made three months ago. Now
we are who we choose to be, and it's the best program we've ever had in two
decades, the best configuration of it, really.

And then, you know, this happens. You know, the bottom falls out. So my hope is
this will be a moment to – for people in Los Angeles, especially, to put first
things recognizably first and prioritize. You know, people raised $12 million
to save the Hollywood sign, and there was this stray alligator named Reggie who
they found somewhere, and they rescued him and put him in a pen, and it cost
the city of Los Angeles $7.9 million. Well, that's like our annual budget.

And they rescued the Museum of Contemporary Art to the tune of $60 million. We
both announced that we were in trouble at the same time, and people came to
their rescue and endowed it for $60 million.

So a Warhol, and a Hollywood sign, and an alligator seem to be of more value,
frankly, than the 12,000 gang members who walk through our doors every year. So
maybe this is a moment for people to go, yeah, that's not right, actually, and
maybe we could adjust our giving and our thinking.

GROSS: Let's talk about how – what it was like when you started doing this
work, when you started working with gang members. What was the gang scene like
in L.A., and how would you compare that to what it is now - just in terms of

The Rev. BOYLE: Well, you know, numbers are hard to – you know, the sheriff
will tell you it's 86,000 gang members in L.A. County, and others will say it's
closer to 100,000. And the truth is, people probably don't know.

Anecdotally, it feels like fewer people are getting engaged in gangs than when
I first began in the mid-'80s. But I always talk about the decade of death,
which is '88 to '98, and that was intense, reaching the highest moment in '92
when the county saw 1,000 gang-related homicides.

And just again, anecdotally, you know, I buried eight kids in a three week
period - once. And that would be inconceivable now, because, you know, things
have calmed down considerably since the horror of that decade of death.

But it was so common in those days: helicopters every night, shootings morning,
noon and night and mothers putting their babies in the bathtubs at night in the
housing projects, anticipating what everybody knew would happen, which is
shooting all night long. So it's hard to even recall that, you know, because
it's feeling not ancient history but a long time ago, really. And so obviously,
you know, gang-related homicides have been cut in half, and in half again,
since 1992. So it's quite different.

GROSS: Why do you think that's happened?

The Rev. BOYLE: Well, again, even law enforcement will acknowledge that Homeboy
Industries is part of that, and for sure that's true. Policing got smarter. And
since '92, which you recall was the, you know, unrest of '92, things were born
at that point where people didn't wait for cities or police to solve this

So Homeboy Industries was born. But so was A Place Called Home and after-school
programs and communities and schools, and all sorts of things were born to
address every aspect of this, from mentoring to loving, caring adults who paid

People stepped up and saw themselves as stakeholders. So, all that occurred,
really, in response to that moment. And so I don't think it's a surprise that
frankly, those numbers have gone south. And even with the recession, people,
you know, make a connection between the economy going badly and a rise in
crime, and that hasn't happened.

In many ways, we need to brace ourselves because it probably will to some
extent. But I think it's because we have so many things in place that can hold
people and help people, and not just Homeboy but lots of programs, frankly.

GROSS: Now, you say policing got smarter since the '80s. In what ways has
policing gotten smarter?

The Rev. BOYLE: Well, the narrative has changed. You know, when I began, it was
Daryl Gates, who just died, who was the chief of police, and Operation Hammer,
which was kind of a take-no-prisoners kind of approach. And CRASH, which was
the gang task force, basically, whose acronym means Community Response Against
Street Hoodlums.

Well, it originally was TRASH, Total Response Against Street Hoodlums. But even
the LAPD thought that might be a PR disaster if they continued with that name.
But that just tells you that was the narrative: gang members demonized, get
them, wipe them out.

And frankly, I think Homeboy Industries has helped change the narrative. You
know, what if we invested in people rather than incarcerate our way out of this
mess? And cops embraced that, as well.

So it was at that point you endlessly heard every chief of police say we can't
arrest our way out of this problem.

Well, 25 years ago, that was an enlightened thing to say, and now, you won't
find anybody who doesn't say it. And they say you have to do prevention,
intervention and enforcement, and nobody said that 20 years ago.

GROSS: My guest is Father Greg Boyle, who works with gang and ex-gang members
in L.A. He founded Homeboy Industries. His new memoir is called "Tattoos on the
Heart." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Father Greg Boyle, who has worked with gang members in L.A.
since the mid-'80s. He founded Homeboy Industries, which provides counseling
and also runs several businesses that are staffed by former gang members.
Father Greg had to lay off more than 300 people last week.

Now, at Homebody Industries, you focus on people who want the leave the gang
life, and you help them get out of it, but you write in your book that when you
started working with gang members, you tried to create truces between rival

You eventually gave that up. Why did you give that approach up?

The Rev. BOYLE: Well, I always say the same thing, that I don't regret that I
did it, and I'd never do it again. And part of the issue there is things are
different now.

Gangs used – they were indigenous when I did that. Every gang member lived in
the neighborhood they claimed as their turf. And now, just about nobody does,
or, you know, they live in – they're a commuter institution at the moment. They
commute from Montebello to the housing projects.

And that's partly due to the Bill Clinton one strike and you're out. So most of
them got evicted because of criminal activity. So they don't live there, but
they still come down and say this is my barrio, this is my turf, and I claim

So that's different. But the main thing is I think if you work with gangs, then
you give oxygen to gangs, and it's one of the reasons why gangs are still
around. So people who work with gangs...

GROSS: What do you mean by that, you give oxygen to gangs if you work with

The Rev. BOYLE: Well, for example, at Homeboy Industries, we always say we
don't work with gangs, we work with gang members. So if you work with a gang,
and it comes from a bad diagnosis, you end up thinking well, this is Middle
East. Maybe this is Northern Ireland. Maybe we sit the two sides down and try
to resolve this conflict.

Well, peacemaking requires conflict, and in gang violence, there is no
conflict. There's violence for sure, but it's not about anything. So there's no
– you can't sit down and one side say if only we had our homeland back, or the
other said if only we could practice our religion openly.

There are no issues to discuss. It's the language of the despondent. It's the
lethal absence of hope that leads a kid, and suicidal tendencies, really, into
his enemies' territory. He's not hoping to kill; he's really hoping to die.

Well, that's a whole other language that you don't want to sit it down on a
table. You want to get underneath it and address it in a particular way. And
besides, people who do this kind of work, working with gangs and truces and
peace treaties, they always begin every paragraph with: Gangs will always be
with us. So we might as well seek a peace treaty or a truce of some kind.

And the truth is, for 25 years, I've lived in one of the hot zones, they call
them, and I've never heard anybody say that their deepest longing is that they
want the day to come when gangs get along. They long for the day when gangs
aren't part of the landscape and not part of the multiple choice for their
kids, you know: A, go to college; B, learn a trade; C, join a gang. Even gang
members imagine a future that doesn't include gangs. So...

GROSS: When you were trying to create truces among gangs, was there a certain
theater that went along with that?

The Rev. BOYLE: Yeah, I mean, I learned a lot on that, because once they did
it, and they brought all these people to the peace treaties, and then, you
know, then you discover that everybody's armed. You know, and I thought what am
I doing this for? You know, and then I started to do – elect three delegates
from each side, and as much as they'd say to you, hey, thanks for doing this,
we really need to have peace, but the minute they got to the meeting, it was
all posturing in overdrive. And I thought oh my God, is this the same guy who
wanted to give peace a change, you know, an hour ago?

And so that was hard to deal with. So then I ended up doing these signed things
where nobody met with anybody, and they'd be these, you know, pyrrhic
victories, you know, like we promise not to shoot into houses, or we won't
shoot for the month of August, you know.

So I had those, and then each side would sign it, and it worked. But it didn't
get at the stuff you need to get at, which is address and infuse the sense of
hopelessness, really.

GROSS: When you were working, years ago, when you were pretty new to this, you
said you tried to meet gang members on the street, but that didn't work out
very well. It was better to meet them when they were locked up or wounded in
the hospital. What was the difference?

The Rev. BOYLE: Well, you know, usually when I started to walk in the projects,
you know, they didn't know who I was, and there was no immediate cache. Being a
priest was meaningless, even to Latino Catholics, and I was a white guy. So
they thought I was a narc, you know.

And so there was always the performance part, you know, where kids had to
perform in front of each other, and it was so artificial. But I knew that I
needed to visit them once they got locked up or shot, and in the old days,
there were more wounded than now, because the caliber of weaponry has changed
so much.

So I would go visit them while they were locked or in a hospital, and they were
quite vulnerable and teary and deeply grateful that you visited them.

Then they got out. Then they told their homies, hey, that guy visited me. And
suddenly you had entre, you know. Suddenly, they were coming to you, and
suddenly you had juice or influence, or suddenly you could say stuff and
they'd, you know, halfway listen.

GROSS: So you've said that you don't see it as your job to convince people to
leave the gang life. You work with people who are ready to and want to leave
the gang life. Why is that your approach as opposed to trying to convince

The Rev. BOYLE: Well, because it doesn't really operate on a rational plane.
You know it's - and the model really that's more helpful is recovery or rehab.
So, you know, if you ran a heroin rehabilitation center, you know, you wouldn't
be going out to the alleys and say, you know, put that syringe down.

GROSS: Right.

The Rev. BOYLE: Because it takes what it – and recovery, 12-step programs, they
always say it takes what it takes. And it can take whatever it takes, you know,
a recent death of a homeboy or the birth of your son, or a long stretch, you
just got out of prison. That sometimes does it. Or who knows? You wake up one
day, and you say wow, I am tired of being tired.

Then they walk in the door. Because, you know, in my book, I say a lot of
stories of what Teilhard de Chardin used to call the slow work of God, where
you have to wait. And you can get to a point where you're going to kind of
accelerate this, but no amount of me wanting that guy to have a life is really
the same as that guy wanting to have one.

So, you know, ours is a God who waits, and who am I not to? So - but you have
to wait. Otherwise, it won't work ever.

GROSS: My guest, Father Greg Boyle, will be back in the second half of the
show. His new memoir is called "Tattoos on the Heart." I'm Terry Gross, and
this is FRESH AIR. Here's music from Homeboy Industries MySpace page.

(Soundbite of music)

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Father Greg Boyle. He's a Jesuit
priest who has worked with L.A. gang members since the mid '80s and in 1992
founded Homeboy Industries. In addition to providing counseling and job
placement, it runs several businesses, including a bakery, cafe and silk screen
shop that are staffed by former gang members. Last week, Father Greg had to lay
off 330 of Homeboy's 427 employees. Although, for now, most are continuing to
work without pay, hoping that they will soon raise enough money to keep all
operations running. Father Greg has a new memoir called "Tattoos on the Heart."

Homeboy Industries has a motto and that motto is on T-shirts and I think
probably coffee mugs, because you sell a lot of stuff as part of the Homeboy
Industries business.

Father BOYLE: That's right.

GROSS: And so the motto is: Nothing stops a bullet like a job. But you've
buried a lot of young people over the years that you've known and worked with.
And the tally while you were writing the book was 168. Have you kept count?
Like what's the tally now? You say the numbers of deaths have really decreased.
The number of shootings has decreased.

Father BOYLE: Yeah. It's still 168 and that was three months ago.

GROSS: So that's good.

Father BOYLE: Yeah, that is good. Yeah, I mean again, it's not like it was.
Though, one of the kids I laid off name Omar(ph), he called me on Sunday. He
says I have to talk to you, and I laid him off a week before the big layoffs
because he was not showing up and we knew we had to lay some people off. So he
calls me really quite urgent. And I said well, come over to my office. I'll be
in my office. It was just the two of us. And he says, I had to talk to you
because I have to thank you for everything you've ever done for me. I kind of
went crazy when you laid me off. I was hanging in the neighborhood, in the

I even was going to tattoo my whole face up, but I didn't do it. And then I
woke up the other day and I said I have to thank G for all he's ever done for
me, but especially for having laid me off. And he looked at me and he says
because it woke my ass up proper. And he sort of decided. And so he enrolled at
Trade Tech and wants to study psychology so he can become a counselor. Well, he
was shot in the head last night.

GROSS: Oh, God.

Father BOYLE: Yeah. He was sitting in front of his home. And his gang is far
away from where he lives, so I don't even know how to piece it together, the
gang that's near there. Maybe they thought he was somebody else. But anyway,
he's in a coma and I'm actually going to go see him right after this. So,
because I haven't been able to, but heartbreaking, you know? And...

GROSS: I'm really sorry to hear that.

Father BOYLE: Yeah. He's such a terrific kid. Such a good kid. And I have it in
my mind, you know, this moment with him.

(Soundbite of clearing throat)

Father BOYLE: It was important to him to thank me. You know, he had sort of
anchored himself in this gratitude that somehow was very important for him. And
he actually didn't have to do that. You know, he just could've gone on with his
life, but he especially wanted to thank me for letting him off that somehow it
become this alarm clock. And then he got perilously close to the flames and he
pulled back and he went no. I've learned something. And he had been with us for
about six months. But he was a one foot in, one foot out, and then he decided
to put all feet where they needed to be and then this happens. So it's pretty

GROSS: In your book you write about your first burial in 1988. It was an 18-
year-old who had a twin brother. And you describe how the dead 18-year-old's
twin was dressed just like his brother in the coffin. What impression did that
leave with you?

Father BOYLE: And, you know, how there are identical twins and then there are
identical twins. I mean they were so identical that even their mom had a hard
time telling them apart. And so, and they happened to choose to wear the exact
same clothes and so Roberto(ph) was peering down at Raphael(ph) and it was like
you had slapped a mirror there. And he was looking at his mirror image. And so
for me, for it to be the first gang funeral I had done, you know, it felt like
kind of this image that stayed with me about kids killing their mirror image,
you know, and that whoever's in the coffin is identical to the folks who are
out there and perhaps, you know, the perpetrators of stuff like this. And
interesting, he was stabbed to death, which was again, this was so early in the
days when even guns weren't that around as they are now. But yeah, he was
stabbed in Hollenbeck Park.

GROSS: Have you baptized babies who've you've watched grow up and then fall
into the gang life? Like you've been so hopeful baptizing them and then you see
them enter a gang as time goes on?

Father BOYLE: You know, not so much. You know, I mean I think especially the
kids who have had contact with Homeboy Industries, you know, they decidedly
make a choice and then, you know, you ask them, would you ever want see your
son, you know, a part of your gang? And, you know, they always say the same
thing. You know, I will beat his ass. You know, or I would try to calm that
impulse down. But the point is, I won't let this happen, you know, and they
know enough that it's only been a source of, you know, tragedy and heartache
and they don't want that for their kids. So, you know, the truth is no. You
know, and I have endless stories of kids watching their kids go to college and
being so proud of that. And, you know, so I think the cycle gets broken,
especially if you can infuse hope in the right way at the right time.

GROSS: My guest is Father Greg Boyle, who works with gangs members and ex-gang
members in L.A. and founded Homeboy Industries in 1992. His new memoir is
called "Tattoos on the Heart." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Father Greg Boyle, who has worked with gangs members in L.A.
since the mid '80s. He founded Homeboy Industries, which provides counseling
and also runs several businesses that are staffed by former gang members. When
we left off, we were talking about gang members he's buried and babies he's

Now you also perform mass a lot in probation camps, which are detention

Father BOYLE: Mm-hmm. Yeah, they're two juvenile halls and youth authority
facilities, jails and 20 probation camps.

GROSS: So what are those masses like? What do you do during the masses? And do
you deliver sermons?

Father BOYLE: Well, yeah, I think like the book, you know, basically has all
the stories that I ever use. You know, I always tell three stories and they're
kind of parables that illustrate something. And I try to, you know, take the
Gospel and process it for them, and I use their language and I always, you
know, I have kind of my method, you know, which is: make them laugh, make them
cry, make them think. If each story can have one of those it's been a pretty
good day, you know? But I use their language and sometimes it's a little earthy
and sometimes it's taken right from their playbook, you know, and stuff they

GROSS: So when you use that earthy language, are...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...the people in the detention centers and probation camps surprised to
hear that language coming out of the mouth of a priest?

Father BOYLE: Well, a lot of time the earthiness is in Spanish so, you know,
but depending on how much people really know Spanish - and I'm often just
telling stories as they happen or happened.

GROSS: Oh, so you're quoting people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Father BOYLE: I'm quoting people so I always keep my distance.

GROSS: You're not responsible.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Father BOYLE: I spoke at this mega Christian church where people were quite
horrified. You know, they gave me 45 minutes and I figured well, so I told
endless stories, you know, and people were a little bit shocked. And I thought,
oh my gosh. Come on. And then asked me questions like, you know, that's all
well and good, but I just want to know do you bring gang members to Jesus, you
know? And I said well, actually they bring me to Jesus. Which they didn't like
that answer either, you know. So, but again it's a big deal but it's sort of
how the story works, is to sometimes quote as they say it and then - but then
the kids can connect to it and so.

GROSS: Do you measure your success at all by the percentage of people who end
up attending church services or becoming, you know, more deeply Catholic?

Father BOYLE: No. You know, I mean I was at a kind of gave a talk and there
were some church people there and they said, we just can't get gang members to
come to our prayer meetings. I went my God. I said look, unless your church is
offering concrete help to those gang members, Jesus is not interested in the
prayer meeting. Trust me. It has to begin with, how can I help you navigate
your life and recognizing that you are carrying more burden than anybody is? It
has to be concrete and it has to begin there. If it ends up in the prayer
meeting, all the better, but it can't begin there because people aren't, you
know, dying for your message. They're just dying because they can't feed
themselves. And so begin there. Roll up your sleeves and do the concrete thing,
you know.

GROSS: As a Jesuit priest you took the vow of celibacy. No spouse. No children.
Would it be harder to do this work if you had a family? If part of your heart
was preoccupied with your family as opposed to the people who you were working

Father BOYLE: I suppose so. It's odd. Somebody asked me this last night. Yeah.
Yeah, I think it would be. Of course, you know, and there's the kind of a
dedication to the thing. Although, I am much smarter about this than I was when
you and I probably first talked, because in the old days, you know, I'd ride my
bike in the middle of the night and put that Uzi down. Are you sure you want to
shoot that guy? And so sleep was not a thing that happened very often and it
was crazy. And now I go to bed, you know. So I...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Father BOYLE: And I know that, you know, I can't save anybody anyway. I'm going
to do what I can do and then I'm going to knock out at night. So that's what I
think ought to happen. Because it was kind of crazy-making and it was -
certainly I was just this side of burnout. So and I haven't been close to that
for all the stress I go through in my life. I'm a different person than I was
long time ago.

GROSS: Tell me more about that difference and how you use your time differently
and how you redefine your sense of what you're capable of doing and what you're

Father BOYLE: Well, you know, again it's a discovery that, you know, I don't
save people. God saves people. I can point them in the right direction. I can
say there's that door. I think if you walked through it you'd be happier than
you are. But in the old days I'd say, here's the door. Watch me walk in it, you

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Father BOYLE: And I thought I could do that for people. And, of course, you
can't, you know.

But the other thing is you have a lighter grasp on life, which is what you want
to have, you know and you want to be able to delight in stuff. You know, the
other day, Diane Keaton came to Homegirl Cafe, and - the Oscar-winning actress
and movie star - and she came with a regular and she had never been there
before. And the place is packed at lunch, you know and it's really gourmet,
quite good food. And her waitress was a woman named Glenda. And Glenda's been
there, done that, been to prison, gang member, tattoos - she does not know who
Diane Keaton is. So she's taking her order and Diane Keaton says well, what do
you recommend? And so Glenda says this, this and this, and she rattles off her
favorites. And Diane Keaton says well, I'll have that. Then something dawns on
Glenda. She looks at Diane Keaton and she says, wait a minute. Where do I know
you from? You look so familiar to me. I feel like we've met before. And Diane
Keaton sort of deflects it and humbly says, oh gosh, I don't know, I suppose I
have one of those faces that people think they've seen before. And Glenda goes,
no now I know. We were locked up together.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Father BOYLE: Well, it just took my breath away. And I sat back when somebody
told me this and I thought, you know, I wouldn't trade my life for anybody's.
And part of having a light grasp is to sort of keep your eyes open and listen
more carefully, because in the end, you know, it's not just about going to the
hospital right now to see Omar. It's about people being comfortable in their
own home sweet home, in their own skin, you know? And people delighting in each
other and people discovering each other and the kinship of this – a felony-
ridden homegirl meeting this movie star, as improbable as this all seems.

GROSS: So you were talking about how there was a time earlier in your life when
you'd go on your bicycle in the middle of the night and say, put down that Uzi,
and trying to save lives. Did you ever actually save somebody by riding around
in your bicycle in the middle of the night?

Father BOYLE: Oh gosh. You know what? Probably. You know, you've got people
inside or you know, in those days, you know, if I wasn't on my bike I'd say get
in the car. I'm taking you home. No, I just could be here a little bit more
long – no. Let's go. So I was always rounding up homies. You know, time to go
home. You don't need to be out here. And often enough, you know, the shooting
would begin shortly thereafter. And, you know, the kid was grateful that I had
snatched him up, you know.

GROSS: And were you considered off limits as a target?

Father BOYLE: Well, I mean, I've been in a lot of shootouts, you know. But I,
you know, never took it personally because...

GROSS: What do you mean you’ve been in a lot of shootouts? What does that mean?

Father BOYLE: Well, because, you know, I would be out on my bike and I'd be
standing with this group from this gang and in the darkness, in the housing
projects and we would just be talking and people would creep up, and open up
fire. And - or drive-by and shoot. And they always did the same thing. It was
like Secret Service. You know, they'd tackle me to the ground and envelop my
body with theirs, so make sure I didn’t catch a bullet, always. That never
didn’t happen.

And so, then the next day I'd go to the offending gang members, at least the
gang, I knew the gang and I'd say, wow, I was there last night when you shot,
when you guys shot. And once I went to a brother who was from an enemy gang and
I said, just to let you know, I was standing there right next to your brother
when you guys came over to shoot. And he was one of the shooters. I said, all I
could think of was, would you go to your brother’s funeral if you were in fact
responsible for his death?

GROSS: When we last spoke in 2004, you were in remission from leukemia. So
how’s your health?

Father BOYLE: I'm good. I'm good. I'm doing okay. You know, the prognosis was
like 10 years and I'm at eight. And whatever combo burger they used of the
chemo, you know, it was a combination that’s been very effective. So I'm doing

GROSS: How did all the work that you’ve been doing with gang members and ex-
gang members, how does that compare to the life you expected to be leading when
you first decided that you wanted to be a Jesuit priest?

Father BOYLE: Well, you know, now I've been working with gang members longer,
you know, more than half of my life practically, so I don’t know. I mean, I -
who knows what I thought this life would be when I began this adventure? And I
just sort of found myself backed into this reality and therefore, a vocation
within a vocation. I'm a Jesuit priest but I, you know, this is what do. I work
with gang members and I feel a kind of affinity and gift, even. But who
would've thunk it, you know? I mean, I didn’t anticipate it. And again, for as
stressed out as I am most of the time I still wouldn’t trade my life for
anybody’s because...

GROSS: But what made you feel called in the first place?

Father BOYLE: To be a Jesuit?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Father BOYLE: Well, I mean, I like Jesuits. They taught me. And this was at a
particular time when they were hilarious and joyful and nobody funnier on the
planet Earth than the Jesuits I knew. And they were getting arrested protesting
the Vietnam War. I loved both those things. So you put them together and I
thought, boy, that’s what I want to do for my life. I want to be prophetic and
take stands and stand with those on the margins. And I want to laugh as much as
I can.

That’s as deep as the thing was for me when I entered the Jesuits, you know.
And then - but within that I thought, well, I want to work with the poor. And
then, well, I want to learn Spanish. And that found me at Dolores Mission, the
poorest parish in the city, with the highest concentration of gang activity in
the world at the time. I didn’t know that when I went there and – by a long
shot. And then, you know, then I kind of found this other way of being as I,
you know, continued to be a Jesuit and a priest.

GROSS: So you wanted to take a stand and have a lot of laughs, too?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You’ve obviously taken a stand. What about the laughs?

Father BOYLE: Oh well, you know, I just think, you know, it’s just – it’s about
delighting, you know? Today is my birthday. So I...

GROSS: Happy Birthday.

Father BOYLE: Thank you very much. And I get endless texts from homies and
they're just the sweetest – they’ve just filled up my cell phone here with
texts. But funny, hilarious, sweet, filled with just the greatest expressions
of stuff, you know.

GROSS: Will you tell us one?

Father BOYLE: Oh, one of the texts?

GROSS: Yeah.

Father BOYLE: Well, in deference to you, always I turn my – I power off my cell
phone, so – no, just sweet. I mean, it’s just filled with, you know, they bag
on my hairline and do all sorts of things. And the homies have taught me about
texting. This is the thing I love. You know, they lol and btw and omg. And
there’s a new one, ohn, which apparently stands for oh hell no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Father BOYLE: And I've been using that one quite a bit lately. But one of my
favorites was a homie who was – we were driving to go give a talk and he got a
text and I said, what is it? He’s chuckling. Oh, it’s from Snoopy back at the
office. And Snoopy and Manuel work together in the clock-in room where they
clock in all these people. It’s a big job.

And I said what’s it say? And he says - and we had just left Snoopy 15 minutes
before, so we knew he was in the office - and he says, hey, dawg, it’s me
Snoops. Yeah, they got my ass locked up at county jail. They're charging me
with being the ugliest vato in America. You have to come down right now. Show
them they got the wrong guy.

So we died laughing. And then I realized that Manuel and Snoopy are enemies,
that they used to shoot bullets at each other and now they shoot text messages.
And, you know, the word for that I suppose is kinship, you know. And...

GROSS: That’s one of your goals, to get former rival gang members working

Father BOYLE: Exactly. If I can get them texting.

GROSS: ...on the job at Homeboy. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yeah, get them texting. Yeah. So may I ask how old you are today?

Father BOYLE: I am 56 years old today.

GROSS: Well, Happy Birthday.

Father BOYLE: Thank you.

GROSS: I hope it’s a good year for you and I wish you really good luck with
getting on track with Homeboy Industries and being able to meet payroll again.

Father BOYLE: Great. Thank you, Terry. I appreciate that.

GROSS: Father Greg Boyle is the founder of Homeboy Industries in L.A. and
author of the new memoir “Tattoos on the Heart.” We spoke yesterday. You can
read the first chapter from his memoir on our website,, where
you'll also find a link to the Homeboy Industries’ website.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Anat Cohen: 'Clarinetwork' At The Vanguard


Jazz musician Anat Cohen was born in Tel Aviv, attended Berkeley College in
Boston, and now lives in New York. She’s been playing saxophone since her
teens. But these days she focuses on clarinet, an instrument she’s been playing
even longer. Her new album salutes swing clarinetist Benny Goodman.

Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has a review.

(Soundbite of song, “St. Louis Blues”)

KEVIN WHITEHEAD: W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” played by Anat Cohen’s
quartet. She’s one of numerous younger Israelis active on the New York jazz
scene, including her brother, trumpeter Avishai Cohen, the unrelated bass
player Avishai Cohen, and pianist Anat Fort. One measure of Anat Cohen's
success is that she regularly plays the Village Vanguard, the Apple’s most
prestigious basement.

(Soundbite of applause)

WHITEHEAD: For her 2009 week, she paid tribute to her early clarinet hero Benny Goodman
with Goodman, or at least that he recorded once while backing Billie Holiday.

Here’s Cohen on “What a Little Moonlight Can Do.”

(Soundbite of song, “What a Little Moonlight Can Do”)

WHITEHEARD: For a moment there, Anat Cohen quotes a classic New Orleans solo on
"High Society" that every clarinetist used to know. She likes it enough to work
it in again later. This music’s from Cohen’s “Clarinetwork: Live at the Village
Vanguard,” on her Anzic label. I like her clarinet sound: dry and woody, a
little rough but not too much. Kind of like Benny Goodman's, as far as that

(Soundbite of song, "St. James Infirmary”)

WHITEHEAD: "St. James Infirmary” - not a Benny Goodman favorite, but all right.
At this point in jazz history, honoring past masters like him seems all too
easy, almost a default position. But Cohen and company treat 1920s and '30s
material with a relatively free hand. When the rhythm section gets rolling on
"Sweet Georgia Brown," they echo the thunder of John Coltrane's quartet.

(Soundbite of song, "Sweet Georgia Brown")

WHITEHEAD: Benny Green on piano, bassist Peter Washington, and drummer Lewis
Nash with Anat Cohen on clarinet. Flexible as that rhythm trio is, they can
sound a little hemmed in by the old-school material. True, they all play lots
of modern music elsewhere, Cohen included. But even with many good clarinetists
around nowadays, the instrument hasn't made that much headway into contemporary
jazz, and retro programs like this probably won't help the cause. That grumble
aside, Anat Cohen sounds like she's just hitting her stride on clarinet. That
makes her one to watch.

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is a jazz columnist for He reviewed
“Clarinetwork: Live at the Village Vanguard” by Anat Cohen on the Anzic label.
You can hear two tracks on our website

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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