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Festival of Books: Father Gregory Boyle sheds light on compassion

May 1, 2011 |  3:48 pm

A roar of applause and cheers echoed through USC’s Bovard Auditorium as Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez and Father Gregory Boyle took the stage Sunday at the Festival of Books. The 1,235-seat venue was nearly full, the audience  eagerly waiting the compelling, compassionate and oftentimes hilarious stories of Father Boyle and his experiences assisting formerly gang-involved youth of Los Angeles.

“For some reason, it just doesn’t feel right calling you G-Dog,” Lopez joked as he introduced Father Boyle, who also goes by “G” or “G-Dog” by young members of his community. 

A former Jesuit priest of Dolores Mission Church, Boyle has spent the past 20 years running Homeboy Industries, an operation created to provide at-risk former gang members with counseling, education, tattoo removal, job training and placement in the hopes that they will become contributing members of the community. The idea is to offer a sense of hope and faith to these otherwise hopeless individuals. “If you give hope, the kid will stop planning his funeral and will start planning his future,” Boyle explained.

After visiting the site of Homeboy Industries earlier this week, Lopez shared that he was simply blown away by the multitude and magnitude of tasks Father Boyle was expected to tackle within an hour, let alone within a day. “I was amazed by how many things this man could do at once. He has done this for decades and does it with such love and energy. He’s like a rock star there!” said Lopez.

Boyle attributes this energy to the fact that he is anchored by the delights and genuine joys of his duties. “Everyday it’s a privilege. Hilarity and heartache and intractable heartache after intractable heartache—I find the whole thing energizing. Not something that I need to escape,” revealed Boyle.

Two decades of absolute hilarity and heavy heartache later, Father Boyle has taken his experiences and stories in the barrio and compiled them into what is now a bestselling memoir, “Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion.” While the stories’ subject matter is compelling in itself, what truly grips the reader with either tears or laughter is Boyle’s presentation and elegant and eloquent writing style.

One of the many stories Boyle shared with his enamored audience? Father Boyle always took it upon himself to pass his business card out to inmates completing their time in prison. He would strongly encourage them to get in touch with him as soon as they had completed their sentence, driving home the point that they should not wait or delay -- that he should be the first person they call. One day, Louie, a 17-year-old ex-gang member and former inmate, busted through the office doors of Father Boyle and proudly said, “Here I am! Father Boyle, you’re the first person I’ve come to see.” It is at this point in his story that Boyle looks out into the audience to say, “Never in my life had I seen more hickeys on someone’s neck and face. So, I said to him, ‘Louie, I believe I was your second stop.” Uncontrollable laughter swept across the audience.

The more somber moments that come with having a job like the one Father Boyle has were also discussed. Having buried his 175th kid just this past week, Boyle emphasized the importance in believing and teaching others that there are forces more powerful than death — that gaining insight into one’s own truth and value is far more powerful than death. Moreover, throughout the years he has learned to relinquish the belief that he can save every kid’s life; it's simply not possible.  

When asked if he would be writing a sequel to “Tattoos on the Heart,” he joked, “What would I call it? ‘More Tattoos on the Heart’?” He left his answer undetermined saying, “I don’t think I have it in me. I don’t know. Maybe.”

Lopez concluded the hour by asking Father Boyle the weighty question: How should people think and act if they want to make a difference? With utter clarity and optimism, Boyle responded by explaining, “We need to shift our whole way of thinking and become a society that believes in a sense of redemption — that we can be a community that can move beyond the past.” It was evident by the tears streaming down the faces of several audience members that we, as a community, were one step closer to achieving this. 

-- Jasmine Elist

Photo: Father Gregory Boyle at the L.A. Times Festival of Books. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times