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Three T-Shirts & Boundless Compassion: Jesuit Rev. Greg Boyle Returns to Gonzaga

Father Greg Boyle, S.J., speaks with students and faculty and signs copies of his award-winning book during his campus visit and presentation earlier this month. Photo by Rajah Bose

All incoming freshmen are encouraged to read "Tattoos on the Heart," winner of a PEN Center USA 2011 Literary Award in the category of creative nonfiction.

By Peter Tormey
SPOKANE, Wash. – Rev. Greg Boyle, S.J. (’77), founder of the nonprofit Homeboy Industries, the nation’s largest gang intervention program, returned to alma mater Gonzaga University this month to discuss his new book, “Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion.”

The book, assigned to incoming Gonzaga freshmen last summer, recounts his 25 years working with Los Angeles County “homies” – at-risk, gang-involved youth, helping them heal wounds of all kinds to live productive lives. Gonzaga’s Comprehensive Leadership Program, directed by Josh Armstrong, sponsored the event.

@GONZAGA caught up with Fr. Boyle on campus to discuss his ministry of boundless compassion, love and respect for the intrinsic dignity of each person. This compassion was evident in a story Fr. Boyle relayed in response to the question: “Who Inspires You?”

Open the video below to view Fr. Boyle’s response to this and other questions.

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In the video, Fr. Boyle shares a powerful story of a young, former gang member he works with at Homeboy who was so severely abused as a child he wore three T-shirts to prevent the blood from soaking through. The abuse represented the root of the young man’s problems. As Fr. Boyle tells the story, the former gang member had to address his own pain before he could help others.

“If you don’t transform your pain you are going to continue to transmit it. And to watch somebody really make that decision to use that awful past to help people was extraordinary,” Fr. Boyle said of the young man, now a senior counselor at Homeboy. Fr. Boyle heard the story of three T-shirts when the man spoke in public recently.

“It was an image for me of stuff I’ve never had to carry in my life and yet was somehow transforming,” he said.

In response to the Los Angeles riots, Fr. Boyle launched Homeboy Bakery, the first of many Homeboy businesses, in 1992 to provide training, work experience, and the opportunity for rival gang members to work side-by-side to help overcome their bitter divide. Its success led to Homeboy Industries, which today represents a multimillion-dollar economic development enterprise that includes Homeboy Bakery, Homeboy Silkscreen, Homeboy/Homegirl Merchandise, and Homegirl Café.

Homeboy Industries employees are formerly gang-involved people who have turned their lives around thanks to the work of Gonzaga alumnus Fr. Greg Boyle, S.J. Photo courtesy Homeboy Industries.

Fr. Boyle said he loved his time at Gonzaga, and spoke fondly of many Jesuits and faculty. He recalled how he and other Jesuits, faculty and students kept a downtown soup kitchen open seven days a week. Before then, it was closed on weekends. Not a major accomplishment compared to his work today, but Fr. Boyle said it mattered.

“It was an eye-opening experience that was really kind of an important thing for me actually,” he said. “It was really an expansive experience for me.” He also helped organize Gonzaga’s annual Pilgrimage retreat; students completed the 42nd last month.

Fr. Boyle’s remarkable ministry has brought much national notoriety and a bucketful of awards ranging from the California Peace Prize, to the 2007 “Humanitarian of the Year” Award from Bon Appétit magazine, to a Civic Medal of Honor from the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, and an honorary doctorate from Gonzaga. Still, he remains humble, dedicated to a life of compassion for those whom society loves least.

“It’s been a lifetime of just, you know, watching people deal with such hard things and huge burdens to carry and then watch how they deal with it,” he said. “Enormous bravery.”

For the multitude of women and men he has helped guide toward the light, the feeling is mutual.

To see Fr. Boyle’s lecture to students in the Comprehensive Leadership Program in its entirity, watch the video below.

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