Beginning in the 1980s, Father Gregory Boyle began to preach from the Dolores Mission church, located in one of the poorest parts of the city of Los Angeles. Boyle, a Jesuit by training, witnessed the extent of the gang violence in his new community. Teenagers and even little children were killed every week, and there was an overall mood of hopelessness. Boyle decided that he would use his religious training to address these terrifying problems. He reformed the rules of the church and made a point of welcoming all people, gang members or not, to Mass. He also founded a school program for gang members who’d been kicked out of their ordinary schools. Finally, with the help of the powerful philanthropist Ray Stark, he founded a nonprofit called Homeboy Industries. This company was designed to provide employment, tattoo removal, psychiatric counseling, and other services for ex-gang members looking to change their lives.
Boyle’s memoir is structured around the dozens of young people with whom he’s interacted over the years. Each chapter discusses different gang members and ex-gang members Boyle meets, and the moral lessons Boyle learns from them.
One of the hardest parts of Boyle’s job is to bury the dead. He’s buried well over one hundred people, many of them kids, since beginning his tenure at the Dolores Mission Church. At funerals, Boyle witnesses a strong, overarching sense of shame and self-hatred among the attendees. Many of the people who live in the area hate themselves—they don’t believe they’re worthy of love. This is the very reason that so many people join gangs, Boyle believes; they don’t believe they’re entitled to anything better. And yet Boyle remembers some young people he’s worked with, who develop a sense of self-respect, and manage to get away from the gang life and build families and careers for themselves.
Boyle is still amazed by how quickly tough gang members break down when he shows them kindness and decency. Many of these gang members have never had parents or friends to show them support—and that’s partly why they join gangs. Boyle is inspired by the example of Jesus Christ. Christ spent his time with social outcasts—“sinners” who’d been abandoned by the rest of their community. Boyle emulates Christ by extending a welcome to everyone, no matter how intimidating-looking or disrespectful.
Another important theme of Boyle’s time in Los Angeles is kinship—the sense of deep connection, love, and compassion for all other people. Many of the people who live in Los Angeles refuse to extend their love to people other than their friends and family. One reason that people do this is that they become too focused on material success and forget their obligations to their fellow human beings. But Boyle argues that people should feel kinship with all other people, no matter how different. Boyle has thought about the concept of kinship a lot in recent years, especially since he was diagnosed with leukemia in the early 2000s. When he recognizes kinship and treats the gang members in Homeboy Industries with respect and love, the gang members become proud, responsible, and kind.
Boyle concludes by encouraging his readers to listen to “the voices from the margins.”