I always suspected that there was something of goodness in me, but I just couldn’t find it. Until one day—one day I discovered it here, in my heart. I found it…goodness. And ever since that day, I have always known who I was. And now, nothing can touch me. ~Miguel
How does a gang member in Los Angeles find his goodness? Racial tension is ugly. Gang violence is ugly. Drugs are ugly. Los Angeles County is home to over 1100 active gangs comprising over 86,000 people. According to the LAPD, in the last three years over 16,400 violent crimes were attributed to gangs in the City of Angels. How can someone possibly find his or her worth in the midst of this?
Miguel found his beauty thanks to Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest in Los Angeles who didn’t look at the drugs, or the crimes, or the violence, he didn’t look at the different ethnicities, or the rap sheets of his parishioners, but he looked at them as humans—as humans who were struggling to find and believe in their true value. Boyle saw a way to help gang members like Miguel find the true beauty not only in themselves, but in each other. He knew if the teens could start fresh, get a high school diploma, get a job, they could break cycles of poverty, be less reliant on the drug trade; begin to understand that they had skills and gifts. When Fr. Greg, or as his friends call him, “G”, talked to these teens, they wanted to go to school. But the schools wouldn’t take them, not with their records, their backgrounds. So, Boyle created a school for them.
And when they graduated who would hire them? As Boyle explained when I saw him speak in Cincinnati, “Surprisingly there wasn’t much of a job market for ex convicts.” Insert laughter of the crowd here. But again, the barriers of society didn’t stop G. He put on his entrepreneur hat and started his own company, Homeboy Bakery. Its purpose is “to create an environment that provides training, work experience and above all, the opportunity for rival gang members to work side by side.” Side by side? As in teaching people who have been raised to hate one another to appreciate each another, to respect one another. Boyle challenged listeners during his talk, “We belong to each other. How do we bridge the gap?” He continued to explain his motivation to bring these gang members together and to give them purpose, “What Jesus took seriously was inclusion and acceptance.” Good point.
Did it work? You bet. Not only did Homeboy Bakery take off, but it was the catalyst for Homeboy Industries, which now includes multiple businesses. It is recognized as the largest gang intervention and re-entry program in the world. The jobs, the opportunities, the new life Homeboy Industries has given the poor, marginalized, desperate gang population in L.A. blows me away. But what blows me away even more is story after story about how people who hated each other now love each other. Fr. Greg told one story about “homies” who just a few months ago were shooting bullets at each other, and now they’re shooting texts at one another”. He told more tales of individuals who had always despised each other who are now not only working side by side, but calling each other “brother” and “friend”. A miracle? Not really. Because this is how Jesus always envisioned things. Treating each other as we would like to be treated. But is it easy? Are we doing a good job at keeping the Golden Rule?
How did Fr. Greg do it? He saw these individuals for the beautiful creations they were made to be. He recognized their true beauty. He proclaims, “It is our job to hold the mirror up, tell people they are exactly what God had in mind when He made them, and watch people grow into that truth.”
What if we took a lesson from Father Greg, sought beauty in all humans, realized we all have potential, we all have talents, we all deserve to be loved? How can I hold up a mirror for someone else today? How can you? Show someone who they truly are, that they are exactly what God intended when He made them? We can start with ourselves. Go find a mirror, gaze into it, and say out loud, “You are exactly what God had in mind when He made you.” And we can watch ourselves grow into our own true beautiful reflections. Then we can point others towards the mirror, and let beautiful ripple effects take over.
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Laura L. Smith