Beginning in 1984, Father Gregory Boyle works as associate pastor for Dolores Mission Church in Los Angeles. In 1986, he becomes the youngest pastor in the history of the church. Dolores Mission is located in Boyle Heights, and it’s by far the poorest parish in the city. There are many gangs in the surrounding public housing projects.
Father Boyle is the author, narrator, and protagonist of the memoir. He’s an important authority in the Dolores Mission community, historically one of the most violent, dangerous parts of Los Angeles.
Over his years at Dolores, Boyle witnesses the deaths of many “young people.” In 1988, he buries a victim of gang violence, an eighteen-year-old named Danny. Since 1988, Boyle has buried 167 more people.
As a result of the Mission’s long history of violence, many people die—some of them exceptionally young. Boyle, as the most important religious authority in the community, has the unenviable job of organizing funerals for these youths.
Boyle notices that many middle schoolers who get involved with gang violence are kicked out of school. But this makes the problem worse, since these youths spend their time around the public housing projects, participating in more crimes. So Boyle decides to open a school for children involved in gang violence, the Dolores Mission Alternative. Working at the school can be a nightmare: there are fights every day, and many teachers quit. But Boyle knows how important his school is: by welcoming gang members, Boyle is challenging the idea of the church as a place that keeps the “bad folks out.”
Boyle is idealistic, but he can also be very practical. His proposal to start a school in the Dolores Mission church arose from a concrete problem: young people were getting kicked out of school and joining gangs as a result. By welcoming young gang members into the classroom, Boyle provides a calming influence in their lives, hopefully preventing them from continuing a life of crime.
Over time, more and more gang members attend Boyle’s church, as well as his school. Boyle reasons that if they spend time in his church, at least they won’t be committing crimes. Boyle’s openness to gang members causes some parishioners to disagree with him. But Boyle insists that the church has a Christian duty to welcome anyone.
Boyle’s decision to admit gang members to church is controversial, but it’s grounded in Christianity’s long history of extending welcome to social outcasts.
Also in 1988, Boyle realizes that gang members need jobs more than anything else. He organizes programs to give gang members jobs cleaning up neighborhoods, removing graffiti, and other simple tasks. The programs put significant financial strain on the parish, but Boyle manages to keep things running.
Again, Boyle recognizes some of the causes of gang violence and takes steps to address them by giving gang members stable employment. Notice that the jobs Boyle mentions encourage gang members to contribute to their communities, possibly making them less likely to commit crimes in the community in the future.
During the late ‘80s and ‘90s, Boyle organizes some important peace treaties between gangs. In retrospect, he sees that doing so gave the gangs “oxygen”—in other words, he legitimized them by agreeing to sit down and talk with them.
Boyle emboldens the Los Angeles gangs by sitting down to talk to them. This is similar to an argument that’s often made for why the American government shouldn’t negotiate with terrorists: doing so will only encourage them to commit violent crimes in the future. On the other hand, one could argue that Boyle accomplishes a lot of good in the short and the long term by negotiating a peace treaty.
Boyle is shocked by the Los Angeles riots of 1992. There are fires and angry mobs throughout the city, and after a few days, the National Guard enters the city in a vain attempt to restore order. But oddly, Boyle’s neighborhood is one of the safest in the city for the duration of the riots. Boyle gives an interview in which he suggests that his neighborhood has been relatively untouched by the riots because the city’s gangs have an incentive to keep the peace.
The Los Angeles riots were sparked by the acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King, a black man whom the officers pulled over on the highway. Boyle’s comments about the Los Angeles riots were highly controversial at the time, in part because the suggested that gangs were better at preserving order than the LAPD. There’s a lot of truth in Boyle’s statement; during riots and blackouts, organized crime often plays an important stabilizing role. (For example, during the New York blackouts of 1977, the Mafia played a big role in preventing theft and rioting.)
After giving the interview, Boyle is contacted by a famous Hollywood agent named Ray Stark. Stark tells Boyle that he is looking for a way to make an impact on gang violence. Boyle suggests that Stark buy a nearby building and convert it into a meeting place for rival gang members. This building becomes the Homeboy Bakery. In the coming years, Boyle and Stark work together to found Homeboy Industries, a nonprofit that builds on Boyle’s earlier efforts to employ gang members.
Stark’s philanthropy helped Boyle realize some of his projects. He was able to expand on his initial plan to provide employment for gang members and found a full-fledged nonprofit for doing so. Stark’s influence in the Los Angeles community also helped spark widespread interest in Boyle’s anti-gang work.
In the ‘90s, Homeboy Industries grows and begins to offer more opportunities for gang members, including tattoo removal surgeries. By 2000, the nonprofit employs more than a thousand people, and moves to a bigger office. It also offers legal services, career counseling, and psychiatric care. To date, Homeboy Industries runs five businesses, including a bakery and café.
Homeboy Industries grew throughout the 1990s, partly because of the work of philanthropists like Ray Stark, partly because of the overall growth in California’s economy during the decade, and partly because of its own success as an employer of ex-gang members eager to do work.
Boyle is proud of what he’s accomplished with Homeboy Industries, but he’s realistic enough to realize that it’s just a drop in the bucket. There are tens of thousands of gang members in his city, only a tiny fraction of whom his nonprofit can help. Boyle thinks of his nonprofit as a tool that can help former gang members “crawl before they walk” and then “walk before they can run.”
As we’ve already seen, Boyle is both an idealistic and a realist. He’s exceptionally patient, meaning that he doesn’t expect to change his employees’ lives overnight. Rather, he subscribes to the belief that any improvement in the Dolores Mission community is better than no improvement at all.
In 1999, seven years after Homeboy Bakery opens its doors, it burns to the ground. Boyle’s first reaction is to assume that gangs have destroyed the building. But the fire inspectors determine that the causes of the fire are natural. Many of the bakery employees weep when they see that the bakery has been destroyed. Ten years later, however, many of these former gang members are back and working at Homeboy Industries’ new bakery.
Boyle’s nonprofit experiences many setbacks, some of them due to unexpected natural causes like the fire. Initially, Boyle assumes that the gangs did it, which shows that—despite his compassion—he still doesn’t trust the gangs. But notice that Boyle stresses that gang members didn’t burn down the bakery. Boyle is a respected figure in his community, even among gangs.
At the original Homeboy Bakery, Boyle employs a man named Luis, a savvy former drug dealer. Luis renounces his gang allegiances after the birth of his daughter, and becomes a foreman for Homeboy Industries. Boyle quickly befriends Luis, and they develop a relationship in which Luis playfully teases Boyle for using the word “great” too much—something which he claims all white people do. As the months go on, Luis earns more money and supports his daughter.
This is one of the first passages in the book in which Boyle gives a sense for the way he interacts with former gang members. Notice that Boyle doesn’t talk down to Luis: instead, Boyle and Luis playfully “rib” each other, and don’t try to pretend that they have everything in common. This suggests one of Boyle’s most important points: it’s possible to feel unconditional love for another person, even if that person is different from you in almost every way.
Boyle remembers Luis when he speaks at Luis’s funeral. Luis is murdered on an ordinary Wednesday afternoon while he’s walking to his car—two gang members shoot him for no clear reason. At the funeral, Boyle delivers a sermon in which he argues that Luis was right to use his life to do good, even if his life came to a sudden, horrific end. He remembers the great English mystic Julian of Norwich, who argued that the purpose of life is to discover “God’s goodness.” By any measure, Luis discovered God’s goodness before he died.
Boyle has a rough job: he makes wonderful friendships with the people at his nonprofit, only to watch in horror as those friendships are cut short by gang violence. Boyle finds strength, however, in his Christianity. He celebrates the lives of Luis and his other deceased friends, recognizing that Luis has honored God during his brief time on the earth.